- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XXI. A STRANGE LETTER.
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A STRANGE LETTER.
DETECTIVE MURTAGH was absent four days, during which time Mr. Baird and his friends were anxious and watchful to no purpose.
On the evening of the day of his visit to Bruce Deering—the second day of the detective's absence—Tom Wells presented himself before Mr. Baird. This ranger of the woods had called, he said, to inform Mr. Baird that he need feel no more anxiety concerning Jonas Wiggins.
"There ain't any danger of his troubling Mr. Deering for some days or so," he said with a significant grin. "He don't want to see much of anybody, Wiggins don't, not right now. I wish't I could tell ye more, Mr. Baird; but mum's the word as was passed to me." He broke into a short laugh. "This is a sort of queer case all round, and it 'pears to me jest now that I've got my full share of bosses!"
The banker smiled. He had full confidence in Wells, and felt quite content to get his own ideas, sifted and arranged, through Murtagh.
"You must not count me as one of the 'bosses,' Wells," he replied. "Your instructions, such as they were, came through me only, and from the officer who has charge of this case. I believe he intends soon to hold a personal interview with you, and that will mean that we count you one of us, and a true friend to Bruce Deering."
"I'm a friend to Bruce Deering, fast enough," said Wells, gravely, "and I tell ye, Mr. Baird, that feller's goin' to need all his friends before he gits through! Things are cuttin' pretty closte; but—there! I don't deny but what I might have somethin' to say to your detective, when he sees fit to give me the chance. I ain't goin' to say anything more, though, till that time." He paused here, but mentally finished his sentence thus, "I don't engage to tell him all I know, neither."
On the morning of the fifth day of his absence, Murtagh reappeared, and his story of the past four days was even more incomplete than was the report of Tom Wells.
"I thought I'd struck a sort of trail," he explained, "and I don't think my time was quite thrown away; but, I've come back a good deal—mystified, in spite of the little point I've made out. And, just for the present, that's about all I can say. You see, Mr. Baird, if we miners into mystery were to tell everything, as it first comes to us, before it's been looked into, sifted, and sort of assayed, we'd do a good deal more harm than good ofttimes, and make free and needless use of names best let alone."
"I understand," Mr. Baird broke in; and, as in the case of Tom Wells, he assured Murtagh of his confidence and his entire willingness to wait, adding, "but I would like to ask one thing."
"What is it?"| | 127
"Have your discoveries added anything to the case against Bruce Deering?"
"Not a feather's weight!" declared Murtagh. "Nothing either for or against!"
"Humph! And yet you say you have made some strange discoveries?"
"We won't put it in the plural yet. You don't want to forget, that, granting that Deering is innocent, there must be someone else guilty. There!" putting out his hand as if to interrupt the question almost visible on the other's lip, "I've done."
Beechwood was a very quiet house during the few days following upon Jonas Wiggin's hostile demonstration. Brenda was the same dainty, tender, thoughtful wife that she had ever been to Lysander Deering; a shade less cheery than of old, but this same shade brooded over all Beechwood. Valentine was fitful, capricious, cold, the servants thought and said, and they missed her cheery words and kindly, thoughtful ways. As for the master and mistress, her beloved guardian and dearest friend, it soon became manifest to them both that Valentine shunned them whenever she could. When they were together, all three, in drawing-room or library, in the carriage or on the lawn, she was always a willing and prompt third; but she avoided society à deux, and always found a way to evade a tête-à- tête.
As for Lysander Deering, while always kindly and thoughtful for others, he was not the smiling and social master and friend of days before. He was given to long grave lapses into thought, and he spent much time alone in his library, sometimes writing, sometimes overlooking letters, papers, and books of memoranda. At such times his door was closed, and Brenda was the only one who ventured to open it; and even to her he did not make known the nature of, or reason for, his search—for this it seemed to be—among old documents and letters. This was why he had been so utterly oblivious to the two visits of the Wigginses man and wife. This, too, was why, when one day, in response to a light tap at his door, he looked up and said "Come in," he had uttered a sharp exclamation of surprise, when, instead of his wife's fair face, he encountered the doubtful gaze of Sarita, who hesitated, yet came forward, and laid upon the table beside him a couple of small, folded, and somewhat crumpled documents. They looked like letters rather pocket worn, and without their envelopes.
"What is this, Sarita?" he asked carelessly.
"I hardly know, sir. I found them upon the floor of the room Mr. Bruce Deering occupied a few nights ago; I was helping Mrs. Merton overlook the sleeping-rooms and—"
"The 'room he occupied!' Did not Mr. Bruce 'occupy' his old room—next that of Brook?"
"Then why not say in Mr. Bruce's room? It is his room as much as ever, and if these were found there, why not have left them upon his table until he comes again?"
His tone was almost impatient. He was sensitive for Bruce Deering | | 128 and fancied that the woman's tone in speaking his nephew's name was not precisely what it would have been a month earlier.
She hesitated a moment, then came a step nearer, speaking low:
"Because, sir—I hope it was not wrong—I saw that there had been some letters burned in the grate, and these had fallen just inside. I—I fancied it might be something to be returned to Mr. Bruce,—at least not to be left—as you said."
"Umph! Very well, Sarita, since you have removed them from the room, I suppose they may as well remain here until Mr. Bruce comes again." And he turned again to the papers at his side.
Several times he glanced at the two folded papers lying close beside the others as Sarita had left them, and, after a time, he pushed his work aside and took one of them in his hand. What the woman had said about the burnt paper had annoyed him; not because of the burning, but because it had been noted by one of the servants, just at this particular time, when every slightest act of Bruce Deering's would be noted and—probably—fitted to a meaning. He had no thought of reading the paper he held in his hand, only to assure himself that it was of value, not merely waste paper cast aside; but as he shook open the thin sheet, a single glance was enough to cause him to start and almost drop the paper: he had recognised the handwriting, read a name—the name of Joe Matchin!
He laid the letter down quickly, as if it had burned him, and taking up the other sheet, which was the same in size and kind, placed it with the first. His face was pale, his hand unsteady; and yet he had seen so little; just some familiar writing and a name. For a long half-hour he sat with his face bent upon his hand, then he lifted his head and looked about him.
"I must know more now," he said to himself. "It is my right; I will know all that I can!" He got up and went slowly to the door, which he locked. "She must not see me," he thought, "until I am calmer than this." And he went back to his place and took up the paper which, as yet, he had not opened. It was the last half of a letter, the writing the same as that of the other, and he threw it down with a sigh.
"It's nothing," he breathed, "nothing for or against."
He took up the other, and as he read, his face paled again. "Great heavens!" he groaned, "in any hands but mine this would be damning!" Again he sat and thought, while the minutes rolled away; then he turned to his desk with sudden nervous energy. "I must know the worst!" he assured himself. "I can never rest until I do! And I—yes, I shall take his word!"
Then, with rapid pen, he wrote a note to Bruce Deering, rang the bell and gave an imperative order. "Tell Hall to take the trap," he said, "and go at once to Mr. Bruce Deering's with this note. If Mr. Deering is disengaged he is to bring him back in the trap. Tell him to drive the Morgan and to lose no time."
When the door had closed behind the servant he caught up the pen again. "I may as well write it now," he muttered, "even if it is not sent. I can't sit idle and wait." And this is what he wrote to Mr.Baird:—| | 129
If your detective is within reach, will you prevail upon him to give me a Short interview, here if it is possible, and the sooner the better. I want to hear his views upon the situation. Answer.—Yours, DEERING."
"Pshaw!" he ejaculated as he folded and enclosed this. "I may as well send them both by Jerry;" and again he rang the bell.
It was early in the day for fashionable callers, but as Jerry Hall drove out from the Beechwood gates scarce ten minutes later, he passed Miss Wardell's pony carriage, just turning in.
Contrary to her usual custom, she did not ask for Mrs. Deering or "for the ladies," but sent her name to Miss Rodney, and added, as the servant was about to leave the room, "Please say to Miss Rodney that I hope she can see me for a few moments, at least." She had been told by the girl that Valentine had kept her room "with a headache" since breakfast.
When Valentine received this message, a little frown gathered between her brows, and she hesitated for just a moment, then glanced at herself in the mirror, and opened her door to go below. As she stepped out into the wide hall, she heard a door close farther down, and paused a moment; Brenda was just coming away from the housekeeper's room, near the foot of the hall.
They met almost at the head of the stairway, and Valentine put our her hand.
"Come down with me, Brenda," she said, so anxiously that the other knew at once that she was asking for a personal favour; "Miss Wardell is in the morning-room."
Brenda looked down at the little hand upon her arm. "Has she asked for me?" she questioned.
"No matter! She sent no card, only a verbal announcement. Brenda, I really wish it!" Their eyes met for just a moment, then Brenda tucked the dainty hand beneath her arm, and together they went down to the morning-room.
There was just the faintest shade upon the face of Ora Wardell as she arose to meet them, and the smile upon her face was not so brilliant as usual, but she greeted them very prettily, and assured them that she felt herself to be "exceedingly fortunate" in being able to see them both at such an unconventionally early hour for callers, and at a time when they themselves had so lately arrived; and she inquired with much interest about their sojourn in New York and Mr. Deering's health, ending with a housewifely inquiry regarding the condition of things of the household.
"Do you know," she declared, "I can never go away, even for a short time, and come home to find all things just as they should be; and I have wondered if you have been compelled to rearrange and pull to pieces because of the carelessness or indifference of servants, especially as I chanced to hear from Sarita, whom I met upon the road one day, that your housekeeper had been taking a holiday as well as yourselves. Do you know," here she addressed herself to Brenda, "I was obliged to go away quite hurriedly. Of course Miss Rodney has told you how heartlessly I turned her out? It was a telegram, you see, from Cousin Mary Dunne; really, you know she is mamma's second cousin, but she is old, and almost without relatives, | | 130 and I could not refuse to go. I was gone just four days and a half, and I wish you could have seen my house, just because they did not expect me so soon. But, oh dear! you are a perfect house mistress, Mrs. Deering, and I—" she pressed her gloved hands together in a dramatic gesture, "and I am just the reverse!" She turned with a bright smile toward Valentine and stopped short, as if suddenly reminded of something serious.
"Miss Rodney! I was very near forgetting my errand to you." She glanced from one to the other and drew from a little chatelaine a letter in a torn envelope. "Somehow," she began again, "things have been going wrong with me of late, both little and great. There was my sudden call to second Cousin Mary, first, by which, second—Second with a big S—Miss Rodney, I was compelled to lose your company, which, really, is very hard to get. Then, coming home, I find my favourite Limoges vase in atoms, the chimes of my little Swiss clock gone wrong, and, sadder still than that, something gone wrong with the big new organ of St. Mark's; a leak in the bellows, it seems to be. You know I have been playing upon it often, almost daily, in fact, for some time; and now I must give that up until a man can be got from the city, and no one knows how soon that will be. But there!—I have wandered from my subject again. Miss Rodney, here is something else gone wrong; but this mischief is none of my making; indeed, how do I know that we are not fellow-sufferers?" She glanced down at the letter in her hand, then shot across to Valentine a look of arch significance. "Miss Rodney, have you anything in your possession which belongs or should belong to me?"
Valentine's brows were lifted, her face was gravely inquiring.
"I am not aware of any such possession," she said, a touch of coldness in her voice. "I think you will have to explain, if I am to have more light."
"I daresay that is best; I suppose you have no secrets from Mrs. Deering, so that I may go on, without fear of betraying your correspondents?" smiling from one to the other until the white teeth gleamed between the parted red lips.
"You are safe to go on," returned Valentine. Then, as Mrs. Deering made a gesture as if to rise," No, Brenda, we have no secrets here. Miss Wardell, pray go on."
"That is so nice! Now then, you may remember that I spoke of meeting Mr. Brook Deering, while abroad, and perhaps I mentioned our occasional correspondence. It was only occasional, and I have not heard from Mr. Deering this time since I came home from Europe. So, when I found a letter upon my desk last evening, upon my return, and saw upon the envelope Mr. Deering's writing, I opened it in expectation of hearing some news from abroad. Imagine my surprise when I saw myself, as I supposed, addressed 'as 'Cousin,' and my embarrassment, when I found, before I had read half-a-dozen lines, that the letter was not mine but yours. Yes, I assure you, it was addressed to me, in due form, outside, but the contents were, and are yours." She tore away the already mutilated envelope, and rising, held out the letter to Valentine, and then, seeing that the latter hesitated, dropped it, with a playful obeisance, upon her lap.| | 131
"It's yours," Miss Wardell insisted; "yours entirely. And of course my natural inference was that, in the haste of departure, he had written two letters, one to you and one to myself, and had mixed them, so that yours came to me, and, as I had imagined, mine came to you. It was posted at Havre—"
"Ah!" ejaculated Brenda, "at Havre!" and she turned toward Valentine a significant look.
"I begin to understand," said Valentine calmly, and answering Brenda's look with a shadowy smile, while she took the letter up and began to smooth out its pages. "Sarita brought me a letter, or the fragments of one, which came several days ago; Cappie, my dog, had got it, in some way, and had torn it in bits. I could see that it was written by Cousin Brook, and that was all; except for some few words which may have meant some allusion to his return home."
"Yes. No doubt. He is coming home, I—I read your letter so far as that. But not farther, I assure you; the next sentence showed me that I was transgressing, for it began with your name."
If Valentine had at first thought of opening the sheet, or reading the letter, she changed her intention, and let the document fall again into her lap, while she languidly explained that the mutilated letter, being absolutely of no more value than so much waste paper, had been consigned first to the wastebasket, and then to the flames. "It was posted from Havre, and the words 'coming,' and 'home,' were the only words that could by any stretch of imagination be thought to have any connection. I wondered a little at the letter," Valentine concluded, "for Brook and I have not corresponded of late."
Miss Wardell did not prolong her call, nor did she press Valentine for a renewal of her interrupted visit, and, when she had driven from the door, Brenda turned back from the window, where she had witnessed the departure, and nodded an adieu, saying,
"Miss Wardell is not looking her best; a little weariness or pallor shows so cruelly upon those rich brunettes. I could almost fancy she has something to worry about."
"Well! has she not?" replied Val; "there is her Limoges vase, her Swiss clock, and the leak in the organ." She had already unfolded the letter, and now began its perusal, seeing which Brenda turned to go.
"Wait, please," Valentine said, still reading; and, a moment later, "I want you to read this; it's brief, and contains no secrets."
Brook Deering's letter ran as follows:—
I know you will wonder why, after so long a silence, I have ventured to address you; since we mutually decided not to correspond. But you were ever ready to do an unlucky wight any kindness in your power, and within reason, and this is to tax your kindness a little. For the past three months I have had some vague thoughts of coming home, sometime sooner or later; but had never made a definite resolve until, some two weeks ago, I met in Paris a certain Mr. Markham, whom you may remember as the New York cousin of John Redding. He, Markham, tells me that he spent a few days in Pomfret just before sailing—he had only just arrived—and judge of my surprise and alarm, when he told me that the dear padre was so ill that he had been ordered to New York by his home physician, Doctor Liscom, of course, to get the benefit of New York medical skill. Cousin Valentine, why have I not heard more of this? or heard it sooner? Perhaps it is my own fault; I have been running about so much; but I have heard from Bruce quite regularly, and from Mamma Brenda now and then. But to think of my father ill, so ill that he must go sway for medical aid, and I here pleasuring! The news has spoiled Europe for me. and I am | | 132 coming home; so now I write you just to ask if you will (ah, I know you will) let it be known to the dear old boy, and to Mamma B——in some careless, simple way, that I am tired of Europe and want to see you all, and that I am coming home—soon. This will pave the way for my speedy arrival and it will not surprise our dear invalid too much. Great Heavens! When I think that—but for this encounter with Markham, I might have loitered here, perhaps all the summer, while that best of fathers—father and mother in one—may be—God knows I hope not—slowly drifting away from his good-for-nought but loving boy. There, Coz., I had not meant to be so sentimental; give my love to father, to Mamma Brenda, and dear old Bruce, and accept for yourself as much as you will of the same, from your home coming cousin.—B.D."
"P.S.—Coming on the Siren."
Brenda smiled as she laid this letter down.
"How like him that sounds. As impulsive and as boyish as ever, I am glad he is coming! His father will be so pleased! I must tell him at once. But—I wrote him, weeks ago, telling him that his father was not in his usual health, and that I was anxious upon his account."
"Brook has been travelling so much, he may have missed some letters."
"True," assented Brenda, with a hand upon the door." I am going to look at the papers to see when the Siren will be due, and then I shall tell his father."
Left alone, Valentine began to pace slowly across the room, at the side nearest the window facing the highway. Far down, almost out of sight, she could see Ora Wardell's phaeton rolling leisurely townwards, and, as she noted it, her lip curled in a scornful smile.
"Unless I am much mistaken—Miss Wardell," she meditated," there is no one here at Beechwood who will look forward to Brook Deering's return with such eagerness, such impatience, as will you, Miss Wardell! No one—no one!"
It seemed a long, long hour to the impatient man in the library, who sat, and stood, and walked, and lounged while waiting the reply to his message, and could confine his attention to nothing save the bit of road which could be seen through the shrubbery from the big south window of the room. In fact, it was little more than half-an-hour before Jerry Hall drove in at the south gate and set his passenger down at the side entrance, which led, by way of a porte cochère and a square hall, directly to one of the three doors which opened upon the library.
As Bruce Deering came into his uncle's presence—tall, erect, and grave of countenance—the elder man moved toward him, with hasty, almost unsteady, step, and with outstretched, trembling hand.
"Bruce," he began with feverish haste, and in a voice which could not be kept steady, "I am glad you came—came at once! I don't think I could have endured another such hour of suspense. I—I am an old man after all. And illness has taken away my will, my self-control—Bruce—you have been like an own son to me! My only brother's only son! Been as near to me, just as near, as—as my other—own boy!" He turned and dropped weakly into the chair nearest him. "Bruce, listen! I want you to promise to swear that you will reply to the questions I am going to put to you, truly!—as truly as you will have to answer at the judgment And—wait!—| | 133
—for the young man seemed about to interrupt him—"on my part I promise, just as sacredly, to keep secret, if necessary, the answers you may give until I, too, shall answer at that bar."
"Uncle Lys," began Bruce, "I see clearly that something of a grave nature has occurred. If it concerns me, waste no words upon it. Question me, if you will! My every answer shall be truthful—so help me God! In anything that concerns only myself, I acknowledge your right to question me as you will. All I ask is, that my answers be enough! That you will not doubt me!"
"I will not doubt you, boy." He opened a drawer in the desk at his side, and with nervous hand drew from it two papers; letters they seemed to be, and each was folded so that only half-a-dozen lines of the writing was visible. Laying these upon the desk before him, and placing a finger upon each, he said, "Look at these two letters and tell me if you recognise the writing of both." His voice was husky, and, as Bruce bent over the two documents, he turned away his face. There was silence in the room for a long moment, then Bruce drew back.
"I know the writing," he said, quietly.
The old man took up one of the letters, spread it open, and drew back, with a gesture toward it. "Read that," he directed.
Bruce Deering took the letter, read the first few lines, and started, while the man in the chair before him sat leaning forward, and watching his face so intently, so eagerly, that his own breath seemed almost to be suspended; now the reader's eyes have travelled half way down the page, and the watcher sees the strong white hands clench themselves upon the paper; then the blood fades slowly out of the face, and the eyes are lifted from the sheet, first doubting, then dazed. Then they go back, and slowly, slowly, the whole face settles into hard, strong lines; the mouth is set; the eyes are fixed, and gleam out dangerously from the face, now colourless to the lips. Now he has read it to the end, and the looker-on breathes a long, quivering sigh, and seems about to speak; but Bruce Deering lifts a restraining hand, and, beginning again, reads the letter a second time, very—very slowly, as if weighing every word; then, with the movement of an automaton, he replaces it upon the table, just where it had been before.
"May I put just one question?" he asks, in a low monotone.
Lysander Deering's face had grown more calm, and the voice was almost firm in which he answered,
"Ask—if possible, I'll answer."
"How came you by that letter?"
"I'll tell you, willingly. It was found—by—by one of the servants, in your room."
"Found! How found?"
"Just within the grate, where, apparently, you—someone, had been burning papers."
"Someone! Has anyone occupied that room?"
Bruce Deering bent his head, and seemed to meditate. When he | | 134 at last looked up, his face was still white, but composed and almost expressionless.
"Will you put your questions?" he asked.
"Yes. Since we must, let us have this over! Did you mean to burn that letter?"
"Did you lose it?"
"Is the statement made in that letter true?"
"There is no statement. Something is taken for granted, and upon that something the rest is founded."
"And the thing that is taken for granted?"
Bruce took up the paper with a steady hand, and, in a firm voice, began to read.
"Long before I left I was convinced that Matchin suspected you, more than suspected you. And the GIRL is likely to reappear at any time; between them you are not safe for a moment. Your best—your only chance, it seems to me, would be to see Matchin and SILENCE HIM by appeal, bribery, or in any way you best can." He looked up. "This, you see," he said quietly, "presupposes all the rest."
"Presupposes what? just WHAT?"
"First, and directly—I am speaking as a lawyer, Uncle Deering—it presupposes--presuming it as written to me—it presupposes a guilty knowledge of the disappearance of Rose Matchin; and, by implication, if used as a piece of circumstantial evidence, guilty participation in that last scene of poor Matchin's life, whatever it may have been, at the bank, on the night of his death."
The old man arose. "Bruce, I have only two more questions. First, do you know how this half sheet of paper came in your room, and in the grate?"
"Ah-h! Then did you ever see it until to-day?"
No living face could ever be paler than the face of Bruce Deering. But he held himself proudly erect, and met the eyes of his questioner with a look in his own in which the other recognised a fixed purpose.
"Once and for all, uncle, I refuse to answer."
"You have answered," cried the other, and caught up the mysterious paper. "What shall be done with this?" he queried. "Shall it burn?"
"Will you give it to me?
"I would rather burn it."
"No, I beg of you!" He held out his hand, and his uncle thrust the paper into it, and sank back in his chair, thick drops of perspiration standing out upon his forehead. Both men were silent for a moment, then the elder uttered a long-drawn sigh.
"There is a mystery here," he said gravely, "and something tells me that it is not for me to burrow into it. I seem bidden to keep my hands off. Bruce, my boy, there is much more than as yet has even been guessed at; and—this may astonish you—but, tell me if it were possible, if in some manner this whole business could be dropped, could be made to fade by degrees into the long line of unfathomed mysteries, 'failures of justice,' would You be content to have it so?"| | 135
For a moment the younger Deering sat silent, and visibly wrestling with some strong emotion, then he said slowly,
"Content! No! Not that. But willing, yes—I—would be—willing."
"Then—so will I! And if money, or influence, or finesse can bring it about, this horrible search shall be dropped." He held out his hand. "Take it, my boy; remember that your word, for me, is enough. God!" flinging out the released hands in sudden passion, "that this thing must be! It has undone for me the work of long weeks. It has shortened my life! I feel it! There, boy. Let us be, as much as we can, as if it had never been. If possible, let us never speak of it again."
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