- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XX. FRIEND AND FOE.
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FRIEND AND FOE.
BRUCE DEERING had not been in his room five minutes on the day after his return from Beechwood before he received two visitors—the one coming close upon the heels of the other.
Each of these men had rapped at his door at an early hour, and each had lain in wait for his return, but shrewdness had overmatched vigil- | | 120 ance, and Jonas Wiggins, who had been loitering on the opposite side of the street, was quite unconscious that Tom Wells, after making his first call, had quietly established himself in the long stair hall, which ran straight through the building from front to rear, pacing its length with the silence of an Indian when not observed, and seeming, when a door opened, or someone crossed the hall, to be in the act of knocking here or there for admission, or of going or arriving, according as his face was turned to front or rear; and Jonas was filled with amazement and chagrin unbounded when, after waiting a decent five minutes to allow his quarry to house himself comfortably and inhale one breath of solitude, he sauntered easily across the street, and, stepping jauntily, began the ascent of the long straight flight of stairs, only to hear a resounding knock, to look up, and to see at the very door which he knows to be Bruce Deering's, the tall figure of Tom Wells, to meet his quizzical, mocking glance, and see him turn, catch off his hat as the door swings open, and then disappear within.
The quizzical look vanished from the eyes of Tom Wells as he stood face to face with Bruce Deering, and he went straight to the heart of his business the moment they had exchanged greetings.
"Mr. Deering," he began briskly, "I've come to give ye a bit of information, meanin' it kindly, as I hope ye'll take it; but, afore I begin, jest let's step to your winder and see if Jonas Wiggins has been able to git himself out of your hallway since he saw me, one ahead of him, knocking at your door."
They crossed to the window side by side, and stood there looking down through the half-opened blinds.
"He ain't got out yet," went on Wells. "Can't make up his mind to give it up, or come in second best, all to once." Then, in answer to a look of inquiry upon Deering's face, "The fact is, I kind of suspected he'd be a comin' to see ye soon as possible. I've been sort of keepin' an eye on him for a while, an' I thought I'd jest come in ahead, in case he meant to try any of his meanness. Ah, ha! there he goes! Now, Mr. Deering, there ain't no danger of my bein' heard, is there?"
"Only by myself," with polite reserve.
"Mr. Deering, may I ask you jest one question?" His honest eyes met the eyes of the other squarely. Bruce felt his reserve melting.
"Ask it," he said.
"I happen to know that Wiggins went out to Beechwood yesterday, and he says he went to take a message; was that the truth?"
Deering shook his head. "Don't ask me a question that can be answered better at Beechwood," he said, with a patient half smile. He knew that Tom Wells was his friend, and a man to be trusted. "Put it some other way if you can, Wells. You are puzzling me."
Well, I don't mean to puzzle you long, Mr. Deering, so here goes. Yesterday I was asked to look a little after Jonas Wiggins, and I set out to do it. I found that he paid a visit out to Beechwood, an' then took acrost lots an' went over the creek, by the bridge, jest below the Hitchlock medder. He took to the woods from there, an', after some little shufflin' around, as if he didn't want to be looked at none too close, he dug up the ground an' a stone slab, alongside a big tree | | 121 that he seemed quite well acquainted with, an' he took somethin' out of his pocket an' buried it there in the hole—"
"Buried!" The word came involuntarily from Deering.
"Yes, sir, buried, and it seemed sech a derned queer thing for Jonas to do, that when he had got good an' away—I jest went and—and dug it up."
"You did!" Deering's face was very grave. "What was it, Wells? Can you tell me—or—"
"Oh, I can tell. I've come for jest that."
"Then—have you brought it with you?"
"It was a sleeve button," said Wells, as if he had not heard the last question, "small an' han'sum', with a little shiny stone set in it, est the exact colour of a vilet in the sunshine, an' it had sort of writ in the vilet stone two 'nitials. Now, Mr. Deering, I knew that Jone Wiggins don't mean ye no good, an' that he'd do ye a bad turn, more 'an likely, if he got half a chance, an' I kind of put several things together. For instance, some time ago, Jone Wiggins begun tryin' ter hurt ye, with his tongue, I mean; an' he done it all in a sort of sly way; but of late, he's got more bold, and don't seem to care who hears his talk, an', ses I, what's the reason his gittin' so peart? I knew he'd got somethin' in his head; an' I ain't the only one o' your friends, for I be yer friend, Mr. Deering, that thinks so!"
Deering put out his hand quickly. "I believe it Wells," he said. "Go on, please."
"Well, there ain't much more. When I put his call to Beechwood, and the burying this button, and the two 'nitials on the button, together, I says, that means dirt for Mr. Deering or Mrs. Deering; for your 'nitials an' hern's jest the same, ye know."
"Then—the initials were mine? B. D.?"
"B. D. Yes, sir."
Bruce Deering faced about and took two slow turns across the room, with his brows knit into a frown; then he came back.
"Wells," he asked, "what did you do with the button? Have you shown it to—anyone?"
"No, sir. And I don't know's I mean ter—not yet, anyhow!" "And—if it is not with you, may I ask—"
"I'll tell ye," broke in Wells. "I jest took a leaf out of Jonas's book an' went and buried the thing agin—in another place. It's safe enough."
"Wells," said the other, laying a hand on the hunter's brawny shoulder, and speaking with grave earnestness, "you have called yourself my friend—"
"And so I be!" Wells broke in.
"And," went on Deering, "I believe you are an honest man, a truthful man. Tell me,"the hand upon the shoulder pressed hard, "do you think that I killed Joe Matchin?"
"No! Never!—not for one minit!"
"Thank you again! Now, do you think that button was mine?"
"The man hesitated." If it was your'n," he declared at last, "it don't foller that 'tain't all right; you might a lost it, or Jonas might a stole it; I wouldn't put it past him. You see there ain't but one other in Pomfret that 'ud be likely to own sech a thing with them 'nitials."| | 122
"True. That button, if brought into court, would be very much against me. What was Wiggins coming to me for, do you know?"
"Wal, I surmise that he, thinkin' the button's where he can find it when he wants it, calcalates to do a little blackmailin' business, or else he wants ter sell it to you for a good round sum."
"About the same thing."
"And, Wells, will you tell me—what you mean to do with it?"
Wells drew himself erect, and threw up one hand, as if about to take an oath.
"That button's perfectly safe jest where it is. And I'm goin' to leave it there, Mr. Deering, until the man or woman that killed Joe Matchin is found; an' then, if that there little button'll help to land him or her on the gallows, it'll be dug and forthcomin'—let him or her be who they will. Amen!"
"Amen!" repeated Deering, solemnly, and turned away. Going to a desk near the further window he came back with something shut in his closed right hand.
"Wells," he said, "I am going to trust you fully.Look! Was the button like this?"
Wells started, and looked from the jewel to the face of Deering and back again.
"Yes," he said slowly, "it was like that."
"Very well. Now, Wells, you call yourself my friend; if the time should come when another name than mine should become identified with the button you have hidden away, will you, if I should ask it, testify that you have seen its mate in my possession? Stop, look again, is that other button fully as large as this, or is it smaller?"
The man looked, took the button and looked again, holding it and turning it over thoughtfully in his hand. Then he shook his head and handed it back.
"I don't know," he said slowly; "I can't be sure. It looks the same, but whether or no it's jest as big I can't say. I wish—I wish I hadn't seen this here. As to my testifyin' about it, Mr. Deering—if the time ever comes when I think you're the guilty man—an' it'll take a good deal to make me think it—I'll tell anything I know! But—if I think ye want me to help ye to screen somebody else, I jest can't do it! Look here, Mr. Deering," with sudden animation, "is this 'ere button your'n?"
For a moment Deering seemed to consider, then he answered, "Yes, Wells, this button is mine."
"Wal. I've about concluded that the other ain't. The more I think of it, the more I imagine the t'other button is littler than this one of yours." He was watching the other keenly, and he saw the quick clinching of the strong hand, and a sudden compression of the lip. "But here's what I started to say: I can't destroy the button I found in that hole; 'twouldn't be right, not yet; and I aim to do right, though I ain't no way conscience-smit about robbin' Jonas Wiggins' glory hole. But this 'ere button's your'n. Why don't you smash it and git it out of the way for good?"
"No!" came the answer with quiet promptness, "I shall keep | | 123 this button, Wells, at least as long as you continue to keep the other."
"Wal, maybe you're right; anyhow I guess you and me understand each other, and I don't know as I've got much more to say. Le's see if there's any sign of Wiggins yet."
While he looked from the window, peering down and around, as far as eye could reach, Deering stood with a troubled look where the other had left him, and for a moment he let his anxiety show in his face; evidently it had been a growing anxiety. Suddenly he clinched his fists, and threw back his head, like a man who has resolved to face and to know the worst, and came quickly behind Wells, as the latter still gazed down upon the street.
"Wells,—you spoke of a man or woman;—do you think—does anyone for a moment imagine that a woman did the deed?"
"Well—" Wells was especially fond of beginning his sentences with this word, and he uttered it now deliberately, and without turning his head. "Well—ye know how it is—folks will talk. Now I don't 'spoke no woman born ever hit them blows on poor old Matchin's crown, but I wouldn't say that—a woman might not a been mixed up in it. Ye see—" here he turned sharply about—" there's Matchin's gal, Rose"—there was a sudden lifting of the shadow on Deering's face, and Wells turned his eyes away—" there's queer talk goin' around; and I, for one, would be mighty glad to hunt some of it to its hole. But there 'tis I You can't run down a flyin' roomer, and anyone can set one goin'. I'll tell ye one little thing. Ye see, the sheriff and me didn't exactly hit it off jest at first; he 'peared to think I was kinder on his ground; making myself too numerous; but I've set that about straight. He ain't the first real smart man that took kindly to soft sawder. Well, sir, he came to me last evenin', an' he showed me a note somebody'd writ him—'nonymous, ye know—an' it run about like this: 'Mr. Sheriff—Don't you be lookin' so hard after the man that did that killin', that ye forgit there's WIMEN in the world, most allus THERE'S A WOMAN IN IT.' What d'ye think of that fer a 'nonymous one?"
"I am wondering "—Bruce Deering had completely mastered himself while the other was speaking, and there was nothing more to be read in his face or voice—" I am wondering how the sheriff happened so show you such a note as that."
Wells laughed, and his lip curled. "He had, somehow, got a notion that the letter come from me."
"Did it? No, sir I"
"And what did you answer him."
"Well," with a sly grin," I didn't deny it; not right up and down." He turned to the window again, and added, over his shoulder and with elaborate carelessness: "Thought I might as well wait till we see which way the cat jumped. Whoever writ that letter's got his mind on some woman; an' it's goin' to come out." He turned away from the window. "There's Jonas comin' around the corner! He's gittin' tired waitin'."
"You think he was coming here?"| | 124
"Know it! Been here same as I was, before ye come back from Beechwood."
"Wells, I want to ask one more question. Who set you to watch Wiggins?"
Wells took a moment to consider. "I don't see no harm in givin' ye a hint," he finally said; "you've got some good friends workin' for ye; you know that." Bruce nodded. "An' I daresay you know they've got a city detective somewhere around. Well, this detective give the word to some of your friends, to look a little after Jonas, him bein' busy som'ers else; see?"
"Thank you, Wells. May I ask one thing more?"
"You can try me."
"Have you any idea who sent that letter to the sheriff?"
"Look a here! This is the way it 'pears tome. Somehow, Wiggins gits that button—he sees his chance, an' goes, first, to Mrs. Deering—"
"How do you know that?"
"Guessed it, quick's I found that button. Well—he don't jest succeed there, so he goes and sends a letter to the sheriff so's to git even, see? Next, he's goin' to try you, an' as I've 'bout said my say, I'm goin' to give him a chance."
But few more words passed between them, and then Tom Wells went away, Deering walking beside him to the stairhead, as if with a departing friend or guest, and shaking his hand warmly there.
The visit of Jonas Wiggins was not so prolonged.
Having waited with burning impatience for the departure of Tom Wells, Jonas lost no time in climbing the stairs, and applying, in his turn, for an audience with "that young Deering," as he usually styled Bruce.
The door opened promptly to his knock, and his reception caused him some misgiving.
"Mr. Wiggins!" spoke his host with mock politeness, "it pleases me to see you. Walk in, sir," for Jonas, somewhat discomposed, had halted on the threshold. He had meant to enter boldly, was even prepared to force his way into the presence of Bruce Deering, if need be; but this welcome,—and the peculiar tone in which it was uttered—it was very disconcerting.
Meantime, Bruce Deering, closing the door, had turned toward him, and was deliberately scanning him from head to foot.
"If your business with me is not too urgent, Mr. Wiggins," remarked Bruce, "I would like to ask you, before we go into anything else, one question. Where did you obtain a certain button which you attempted to dispose of yesterday to a lady friend of mine?"
Wiggins could bluster and browbeat, and he could argue in a manner—with Jane, but he dared not bluster here, neither could he browbeat; as for argument, he was by no means a fool, and he knew better than to attempt to parry or argue with this clever young lawyer; besides, already he had lost his temper. At first he was tempted to defiance, first that and then accusation and threats; but he was by no means devoid of a certain amount of coarse shrewdness, and this, after a moment—during which he ground his teeth in wrathful silence and Bruce stood before him simply waiting—helped him to a reply.| | 125
"I'll tell ye where I percured that button with your' nitials on to it, if you want to know! I found it layin' right closte by the body of Joe Matchin when we all come in an' found him a layin' dead."
Deering moved back a step; his face was set like a mask.
"And why," he asked, "did you take it to a lady, who could have no concern in it?"
"I'll tell ye that, too! Because I knew that it lay between you and her—which one lost the thing the night of the murder; and, it 'twas hers, why, I judged she'd want it back, and less said the better."
"That will do. Now, Jonas Wiggins, listen tome. I know you and your schemes. I know all that you are capable of; and I have just this to say: if you approach Mrs. Deering again, in any way—in person, by letter, or by messenger—if you take that lady's name upon your polluted tongue, write another anonymous letter, or try in any way to set in motion a word concerning her, I will take it upon myself to punish you so thoroughly, so effectually, and so publicly, that you will regret, all your days, having ever meddled with my affairs, or insulted my friends!" He stood above the other, taller by a head, an athlete, as opposed to the squat, stoop-shouldered creature before him; and he held out one muscular arm in suggestive menace. "For myself, I should disdain to touch you, tell your lies, and do your dirty work as you might, or dared; but remember this, by your very effort to blacken another you have invited suspicion to turn her gaze upon yourself, and now go; and remember that all you say, and all you do, will be known! There is an eye upon you that you cannot escape! Not a word. If you open your mouth again in my hearing I will throw you downstairs!"
He flung the door open and motioned his visitor toward it.
At the threshold Jonas turned toward him a face full of malignant menace and baffled hate, but the sudden forward stride and the gleam from a flashing eye was enough, even without the suggestive clinching of the strong hand, and Mr. Wiggins went hastily downstairs, trembling with rage.
Sometimes it happens that a greater trouble reconciles us to lesser evils; and when Jonas and Jane met, and told, each as was deemed best, the story of their mutually bootless afternoon's adventures, the old feud was swallowed up in the new disappointment.
When each tale was told, Jane arose in her might and demonstrated her ability as a leader, and her right to be, what she undoubtedly was for the most part, the head of the family.
"We ain't beat yet, Jone Wiggins, though you did make a awful blunder when you berried that button. Come now, let's have sometir'n ter eat, an' then we'll set down agin an' talk things over. I've got another idee."
They talked long and late, and when Jane had fully and fairly aired her "idee," Jonas began to lift up his head again. "Jiminy!" he exclaimed, "it's a pretty brash thing ter try on, but we'll do it. I'll beat that feller yit!"
Urged on by malice and disappointed cupidity, they had determined to come boldly out as "witnesses for the prosecution," and to apply to | | 126 Mr. Baird for a chance to lay important testimony in the hands of the detective, who, all Pomfret felt assured was somewhere invisibly over, looking, perhaps shaping, the fate of Bruce Deering.
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