- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XIX. A TROUBLED HOUSEHOLD.
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A TROUBLED HOUSEHOLD.
VALENTINE RODNEY came home to Beechwood in the early dusk, and went at once to her own dainty apartments, for this big house was literally her home, and its best had been freely and lovingly placed at her disposal, Brenda herself having chosen the exquisite furnishings for the sunny and airy little suite, which had been Val's especial favourite.
There was the pretty bedroom, in which all was soft-tinted and cheerful; the tiny dressing-room beyond, with its great mirror and charming toilet appliances; and beyond these a cosy boudoir, with a glass enclosed and curtained alcove, in which stood Val's own dainty writing-desk, some vases of great white lilies growing and blooming in the sunlight, and a revolving case of her favourite books.
She had been admitted by one of the maids, and upon being told that Mr. Deering, after a long nap, was now in the library dictating some letters which Brenda was transcribing for him, she had bidden the girl not to disturb them, but to tell Sarita that she would dress at once and come down for dinner, which was always a candlelight function at Beechwood.
The warmth of the sun's rays was still in the evening air, and the doors stood wide open upstairs and down. Valentine found her own door ajar, and entered with a sigh of satisfaction. She loved every stick and stone of Beechwood, and felt, as she threw aside her hat and light mantle, and flung herself down in an easy-chair to look about her for a moment and take it all in, that she had indeed come back to her own.| | 114
Sitting thus she became aware of a soft patter-patter over the carpet and a smile rippled over the bright face.
"Cap!" she called. "Cappie, where are you?'
There was a quick yelp of delight, and the curtain opening upon the dressing-room was thrust aside at the bottom, as a shaggy white Spitz, with a funny black nose and bright brown eyes, with almost a human look of intelligence in them, rushed upon her, dancing, fawning, leaping his delight at the return of his young mistress, and barking a loud but sincere welcome.
Val Rodney loved all dumb animals; but most of all she loved a dog and a horse. Cap was her own especial pet, and, as such, enjoyed all the privileges of his mistress's domain when she was present, and it was easy enough to understand how, having found her door ajar, he had entered, taken possession, and fallen asleep in her dressing-room.
"Ah, Cap," cried his mistress, "you are really the first member of the family to welcome me home. And now you are teasing for a frolic. Well,"—she had left her door still ajar upon entering, and she now arose, saying,—" we must not wake the sleepers, Cappie. If I must give you a romp, we must close the door."
As she moved toward it, however, the dog sprang before her, and his bark became suddenly fierce and angry, while his ears and tail stood erect and bristling.
"Cap, come away, sir!" she cried, as a modest tap sounded outside the door.
The well-trained dog drew reluctantly back, uttering low growls as he moved, and in answer to his mistress's "come in," Sarita entered slowly, a deprecating half-smile upon her face.
"I hope you will pardon my intrusion so soon," began the woman when Valentine had given her a graciously friendly greeting; "and I need not ask if you are very well, Miss Valentine; I heard Cap's bark up here, and it made me remember that I must ask of you a pardon immediately, at once; and," turning to shake a slim brown finger at the now sulking dog, who replied to the gesture with a low growl, "and Monsieur Captain, he should sue for pardon too; indeed, but for him, there would have been no mischief."
"Indeed, Sarita," smiled Valentine. "Has Cappie been doing some new mischief? I hope he has not troubled you seriously?"
"Oh, mademoiselle!"—(Santa's English and French were sometimes interchangeable)—" that is just what we may never find out, perhaps; I can but hope l'offense is not too great; en vérité I meant it not to happen so! It was—yes, it was two days ago that some letters came for yourself, and I, knowing not where to send them, put them, as you said, in your dressing-room. The doors were open, and Célie had been making the room fresh, and letting in the air as usual. And, le chien, I had been too good to him, and had let him follow me upstairs; I had placed the letters—but come and see, mademoiselle, they are just as I found them." She moved toward the dressing-room, Valentine following, and pointed to a small inlaid table near the curtained entrance, with a gesture and a grimace more eloquent than any words.
Upon the table was a little silver letter-tray with three or four snowy | | 115 envelopes lying across one end, and upon the other, a handful of fragments, that told at a glance their own story.
"It was mine, the carelessness," went on the Frenchwoman, "for the window was open. I went out, outside, to speak to Célie, and, in a moment almost, thinking of the little dog, went to bring him away with me; we had always to make him go out from your rooms; not one can call him away; and when I come back, behold!" spreading out her ten fingers above the bits of paper, "the letter must have blown to the floor, and Cap had found it. I preserved it so much as I could; but all were in fragments. I fear you cannot read a line, mademoiselle."
Valentine had picked up a handful of the fragments, and began scanning them carelessly, and when Sarita ceased speaking, she laughed, and tossed them down again.
"Don't let it trouble you, Sarita; I think it can hardly be an important letter; at any rate I shall not try to read the riddle now. just lay the damage, if any has really been done, between the window and Cap. And now—tell me, is Mrs. Deering dressed for dinner?"
"Oui—yes, mademoiselle." There was a shade of dissatisfaction in Sarita's eyes, and she drew a step nearer the little table. "I am glad it's not important—but it did annoy me, for I knew, by the bit of the outside which I could see," and she put a finger upon a scrap, somewhat larger and less defaced than the rest—" I thought it was a foreign postmark."
"No doubt, Sarita; I can see, by the writing, that it was from Mr. Brook Deering, and not likely to contain any news of importance." Valentine turned away and began to finger the things upon her dressing table. "If Mrs. Deering's maid is at liberty, please ask her if she will come to my assistance; it will soon be time for the dinner-bell. I suppose Lettie will arrive to-morrow. No; you may leave Cap with me; and, really, I can't blame the dog. He has a fancy for tearing paper into tiny bits, and I have sometimes given him envelopes and stray notes to make mincemeat of. But I have never known him to destroy anything before, and he obeys me, you know, perfectly."
In the interval, between the going of Sarita and the coming of Mrs. Deering's maid, Miss Rodney came back to the little table, and began to examine the fragmentary letter more critically than at first.
"It's from Brook undoubtedly," she said to herself;" I wonder why, after all these months, he has written to me again? Pshaw!—there's not half a letter here! Cap, did you swallow it? and do foreign letters agree with you? It's postmarked Havre, but the date is unreadable. Havre! I wonder if, by any chance, Brook is really coming home?"
Mr. Deering was fastidious about many things, and the Beechwood dinner might always have been en evidence. There was no day, when the family dined at home, that one or more guests might not have taken seats at that always dainty table, without disturbing the equanimity of either hostess or cook.
But, scrupulous as he always was about his table and service, and fastidious in his own attire, the thing which gave him the greatest pleasure in the long dinner hour was not his fine wines nor faultless | | 116 entrées, but the fair faces and charming toilets, which added the final grace to his board.
As Valentine swept into the dining-room and seated herself at the round table midway between her guardian and his wife, she received a smile from both, and smiled in return; and the candles glowed softly, the cut glass and silver gleamed, great roses shed their fragrance, and a light ripple of talk ran on; and who could have fancied, seeing it all, that the heart of each was heavy; that one was filled with anxious doubt and dread; one ached beneath a horrible certainty; and one was heavy with tender pity, and a sorrow that bade farewell to hope.
When the dessert was at last before them, and the servants dismissed, Mr. Deering said, looking from one to the other, "I have not heard from Brook, by-the-bye, for a fortnight or more. The boy is growing careless, or, has he written to you, dear?" catching a glance which flashed between Brenda and her cousin." The scamp always prefers a lady correspondent, I know. I can't blame him there."
Valentine uttered a half laugh. "I see you know the story," she said to Brenda. "Sarita is disconsolate."
"Yes. Of course she could not wait for you to tell of the disaster. She really thinks that Cap made an especial effort to cover her with confusion; she did her duty, however, and even searched in the shrubbery, under your window, and succeeded in finding two or three fragments; one, the largest, bearing the word Havre upon a scrap of envelope."
"And so you guessed—"
"I guessed that Cappie must have tried to devour a letter from Brook."
"Ah!" broke in Mr. Deering, "so you do correspond with our young globe-trotter, missy! I thought—"
"Now, guardy, just wait, and I'll tell you all about it." And Valentine related the story of Cappie's raid upon the wind-blown letter. "And, truly, good people," she concluded, "it's my first letter from Brook since he left London, and I can't imagine a cause for his present writing. As for the letter, I don't think we could get enough sense out of the handful of fragments Sarita contrived to save, to give any sort of information. She can't have secured half of the letter, and I can't see where the remainder could have gone! Cap might have swallowed a few fragments, but—half a sheet! I'll bring it down if you like, guardy, and we'll try what we can make of it, all three."
But he shook his head. "No," he said, "you and Brenda may study over it, if you like, and give me the result, or as much as I have a right to. I think I'm tolerably sure of hearing from the lad soon. In his last letter he hinted gently at a fast lessening letter of credit, and I read him a lesson on extravagance in my reply. He is waiting, I daresay, until his bank is exhausted, or hoping that I may relent and send him a new remittance."
His young wife turned upon him a look of mild surprise.
"Why, dear," she said, with a half smile, "I never supposed Brook was extravagant. He is very generous—"| | 117
"Yes; I don't object to that. And I don't object to a little waste of money. One can be young but once. As you say, Brook is generous—with his money, at least; and he has bestowed, somewhere, upon someone, a very pretty sum. But never mind! We'll settle him at home by and by. Try your riddle, Valentine; we will see what you can sift from that."
When they were all seated in the softly-lighted drawing-room, a sudden gravity and stillness fell upon them, broken at last by Valentine, who came close beside her guardian, and dropped down upon an ottoman at his elbow.
"Guardy," she began with a pretty air of deprecation, "do you feel well enough to talk—just a little—upon a disagreeable subject? Would it tire you too much?"
"Not if you very much wish to talk with me, Dot."
"I do, and so does Brenda; there's so much that we don't fully understand. Only—Brenda is so anxious to save you annoyance—"
He took the little hand of the speaker in his own, and turned his face toward the fair woman who had crossed the room, while Valentine was proffering her request, and placed herself behind his chair, leaning upon its cushioned back, with a hand placed caressingly upon his shoulder.
"Well," he said, very gently, "why should we not talk over this trouble which comes so close to all of us? My princess, do not fear; your old lover is not quite out of the running—yet. Come," putting up his other hand and drawing her white arm about his neck, "sit down here beside me and let us get it over. Now, ask me what you will, Val, my dear."
After all, it was Brenda who put the first question, while Val sat silent, her face half averted.
"You have been talking with Mr. Baird and—the others. What do they think? What—do you think of Bruce's position? I don't understand!—he has not been arrested—he seems to be quite at liberty. And yet—"
"And yet he stands accused of murder! Is that what you would say?" he answered, cutting off her last word. "I will tell you; we three can afford to be plain with each other; we all believe, alike, that a Deering never yet shed human blood?"
It sounded like a question, but both his hearers sat silent. The face of one was averted—the face of Brenda Deering; but Valentine turned and looked him steadily in the eyes.
"Yes," he went on, "our sympathies are with him. We believe in him, and yet—it has taken all the finesse of a shrewd detective, speaking through Mr. Baird; all the influence of Pomfret's most popular clergyman—speaking here, there, everywhere; all the weight of Baird's influence, he speaking for himself and for me; and, behind us, our friends—the men who have made, and who sustain, Pomfret; and, back of all, money without stint. It has taken all this to keep Bruce Deering a free man, if you can call a man free who is bound by his word, and by his bond, and is constantly under the surveillance of the sheriff and his deputies."| | 118
"And—is it really true, dear, that the popular belief—the belief of the majority—is against him?"
"I don't know about the majority. There is an element—I may say a strong element—against him. And, so far as we can learn, it is composed, a large part of it at least, of the people who prophecy upon the street corners and in the saloons. Joe Matchin, heaven rest his soul, was a 'labouring man.' Bruce Deering is an 'aristocrat,'—reason enough why all the 'labouring men' who are left alive should turn against him. I think I may say that the better class, our own sort, and the thinking element, are either in open sympathy with Bruce, or discreetly silent. But there is a large body of the other element in Pomfret, and our sheriff is their prophet."
He had begun in low, measured, almost gentle tones; but the bitterness could not keep itself out of his voice; the scorn he felt for Bruce Deering's accusers would manifest itself through eye and lip.
They were silent a moment, then Valentine turned her face toward him.
"Do you think," she began, "can they—dare they, arrest him—now or—at any time—even yet?"
"That, my dear girl, will depend much upon circumstances. Already they have a fine array of that dangerous, and often false, sort of evidence called circumstantial: if they should chance upon more of this—and who knows, the sheriff might, probably would, deem it his duty to—take him into custody. Princess, what is it?"
Brenda Deering had started suddenly, withdrawn her hand from his, and turned a pallid face and startled eyes, first toward Valentine, and then away from them both.
"Nothing," she articulated, with a quiver in her voice. "Nothing—only—it's all so miserable! And the thought—this evidence—dear, tell us,—tell Val, she has not heard so much as I perhaps—what the evidence against him is."
"Why, Val, my dear, has no one told you the flying news? Miss Wardell—or Mrs. Baird?"
"Not all—I—I did not want to hear it—from them."
"And you do want to hear the wretched business from me? Very well, you shall hear all that I can tell you, both of you; and then we will have no more of this unhappy subject. First, then, Bruce was first upon the scene of the murder, therefore he may have been the assassin." Valentine shuddered. "He looked, they say, wild and dishevelled, there was blood upon his hands, upon his face, upon his linen. He is declared to have been an enemy to poor Joe Matchin. Matchin has been heard to threaten him, to denounce him as an enemy."Val caught her breath sharply." Since the first inquiry before the coroner, there has been evolved this theory: at midnight the bank of course was locked, Matchin, partially undressed, as was his custom, and probably asleep. The lock had not been picked, ergo must have been opened with a key. Matchin was found with his coat on, therefore must have arisen and dressed himself; consequently, the midnight visitor must have been known to Matchin; must have possessed a key. Matchin must have arisen and donned his coat to receive his visitor. Nothing had been taken from the bank, they say | | 119 therefore it must have been a case of revenge,—Bruce and Matchin, were ill friends, and—Bruce is said to have had a key to the outer door of the bank."
"Horrible!" cried Brenda, while Valentine shuddered and hid her face. After a brief silence she lifted it, but still held it turned away.
"When—" she whispered, "when will they—try—him."
"My dear, as yet he is not formally and legally indicted."
"Yes. I see you are not learned in criminal law. A suspected person may be arrested and put under bonds, as Bruce is now; this before a magistrate. Next, he must appear before the Grand jury, and if this august body decides him guilty, his bail is increased and he is left at liberty; or, bail is denied him, and he is sent to prison."
"The Grand jury was dismissed just two months before the killing of poor Matchin, consequently Bruce has about three and a half months of waiting and suspense before him. But during this time, it will go hard if we do not unravel this mystery, and set him right before his peers.—Now—is there anything more?"
"No," replied Brenda, "not now." But Valentine simply shook her head.
No more was said concerning Bruce Deering. And soon the master of the house took up the evening paper with a half-playful, altogether courtly apology to the ladies. Soon after, Valentine arose. "I will go upstairs, I think, and see if I can reconstruct Cousin Brook's letter," she said. They had grown up together as cousins, she and the two young Deerings, though no drop of kindred blood flowed in their veins. But while she often referred to Brook Deering as "Cousin Brook," Bruce Deering had been, first, plain Bruce, and later, Mr. Deering; but never, since the days of childhood, had she styled him "cousin."
Once in her dressing-room, she gathered up the fragments of Brook's letter, and made pretence of trying to fit together the jagged edges; but it was only pretence, enacted, it would seem, to convince herself that she could find interest in more than the one absorbing theme; and she threw them from her soon and sprang up, throwing out her hands in a gesture of passionate self-abandonment.
"I can't ENDURE it!" she cried aloud. "I cannot! What can I do! For I must do something, or I shall go mad I It is horrible! horrible! horrible!"
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