- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XXXVI. AN ALLIANCE.
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THE next day Uncle Nat was quite interested in seeing the room he had been at such pains to choose arranged for his comfort and convenience. He overlooked in person the bringing up of his various belongings; and was quite surprised, as well as pleased, when Brenda, coming upon the scene just as he was trying to decide where "the big long case with the tubes and rubber attachments" was to he put, settled the question by suggesting, quite as a happy thought, that Mrs. Merton open the adjoining room and put Uncle Holly's bath, as well as his heavier luggage, there.
"It was so thoughtful in his niece," he said to Mrs. Merton when Brenda, having accomplished her object, passed on. "It was very thoughtful indeed," but then, Brenda, as he "very well remembered," was always thoughtful, "even as a little child."
It was not long after luncheon that Mr. Baird called. He was presented to Uncle Nat, of whom, so he declared, he had more than once heard, and he went in person to assure himself that Brook, who had | | 230 complained that morning of languor and weakness, and had excused himself from luncheon, was not seriously worse.
But Brook assured him to the contrary. "It was only," he declared, "that he felt disinclined for exertion, and," with a slow, half smile, "for conversation;" then with another half smiling glance toward Bruce, who sat near an open window with the book, which he had been reading when the banker tapped at the half-closed door, open in his hand, "You have met our Uncle Holly, of course; and perhaps you may have discovered already that he is fond of conversation, and quite too polite to resort to monologue."
The banker smiled. He knew, of old, Brook's kindly sarcastic bent, and was used to Bruce's sharper witticisms, and both were accustomed to be their freest and frankest selves before him.
"So you find your guest communicative?" he said, looking from one to the other. "Well, I am not sure that you would not be benefited by the presence of a genial, social spirit among you just now, and elderly bachelors are not always that."
"This one is that," declared Brook. "That and more. Oh!" catching the deprecating look upon the banker's face, "I am not going to disparage the old gentleman. In truth, he seems a good-hearted, well-meaning body enough; a little loquacious to be sure, not so deep as a well, and also a trifle old fogy; but harmless, perfectly harmless!"
"I'm glad of that, at any rate," declared Mr. Baird. with perfect truth this time, and no under meaning or reservation. "Bruce, is this your opinion also?"
"I have hardly formed an opinion," said Bruce, gravely. "When Mr. Holly made his former visit we did not meet. One thing that I have observed, however, is sufficient to make him welcome to me."
"I can see that his coming, somehow, is a relief to Mrs. Deering, and I can readily see why she should feel it so."
"Yes," replied the banker, "she is unhappily placed, and was peculiarly alone. By the way, Redding called this morning to tell me that the detective is in town, or was yesterday; he has had a long talk with him, and thinks that he understands the case. He says that we may all rest in the assurance that all will be done that skill can compass."
Both young men were very attentive now; Bruce Deering's face was suddenly set and stern; Brook flushed and his eyes shone with excitement.
"Ah!" he cried, "that is what I have wished to hear. Are we to know of his methods? Will—will he come here?"
"In good time, I suppose," replied the banker. "The man, I believe, has some theories of his own, something that he hopes to develop unaided. Redding tells me that he is not likely to come here for several days yet. But he intends to see the inmates of Beechwood, one and all, he says, and just how soon will depend upon circumstances."
"Ah! h-h!"Brook got up and began to pace the room excitedly, his eyes were unnaturally bright, and his voice quivered with nervous | | 231 eagerness. "This is the news I need to make me well again!" he declared. "Waiting is such wearing, weary work. I was never equal to it! Oh, if I could only help!"
"You won't help anybody by overdoing, Brook," said Bruce, also rising. "I don't want to preach, but you can put as much courage into patient waiting as into useless action. Besides," bitterly, "you and I just now, and until the atmosphere about us in some way becomes less hazy, can hardly do else than wait! You have said it yourself; to be under this roof now, is to be an object of doubt, if not of suspicion!"
Brook stopped in his nervous walk, and faced his cousin. "Do you mean"—he caught his breath hard. "Do you mean me? His son, I, under suspicion! An object of doubt! And he—my father!"
"This won't do!"
The door, but partially closed, for they were in the inner room, had opened silently, while Brook uttered the last words, and it was Doctor Ware who laid a hand upon the young man's shoulder.
"Sit down, Deering," he now added, sternly. "If you value your health, bodily and mental, you must avoid these outbreaks. I am going to give you a draught that will quiet those nerves, and you must lie down and be perfectly quiet."
Brook sighed heavily and let his head drop wearily back among his cushions, but he did not open his lips, and in obedience to a gesture from Doctor Ware, both the banker and Bruce arose silent also.
"You would better go down, too, Mr. Deering," the doctor said to the latter. "You confine yourself too closely here. William is the man we want here now; you may send him up if you will."
That night, the third night of "Uncle Holly's" stay under Beech-wood's roof, Doctor Felix Ware sat in his own room, at a late hour, with his elbows upon his knees and his strong chin supported between two capable white hands; the attitude, and the expression accompanying it, were both indicative of intense thought, and some mental perturbation, and this attitude and look had not changed for a long hour.
The three days of Uncle Holly's stay at Beechwood had given Doctor Felix Ware a problem upon which to whet his keen wits. It had begun he hardly knew how, but every day and hour had increased its weight, until, to-night, he was saying to himself that he could not longer be the keeper of what he felt to be another's secret.
Arrived at this point, he could see two courses open to him, and it was a decision that he had been labouring over for the last hour.
"I'll do it!" he said finally, and started to find he had spoken aloud. "I'll do it!—but how?"
The night was cool, but not cold, and a late moon was gleaming through his curtains as they were stirred by the breeze coming in through the partly opened window.
"How, indeed?" he repeated, and went to the window, pushed the sash higher, and looked out.
It was very still down there in the rose garden, very dim and shadowy; and as his gaze fell upon a rustic seat just below him, and | | 232 in the shade of some tall cinnamon rose-bushes, he almost started at the shape it took at first glance. He had extinguished his light before opening the window, and drawing back the curtain, he now leaned farther out, and looked long and keenly; could it be possible? It looked as if a shape, a woman's shape, was seated upon the rustic bench beside the rose-bush.
It was a south window, and the place was not far from the spot where, not long before, Brenda had seen two dim figures meet and vanish as one; but this time the figure, if such it was, would have been invisible to Brenda, her room being in the newer portion of the dwelling, and her windows, though looking southward, were shut off from this view, as before stated, by that jutting wing in which the rooms of the doctor, the two cousins, and Uncle Holly were located.
Looking now with all his eyes, he fancied that he saw a movement where the figure seemed to be, and, a moment later, that midnight horror, the voice of a howling cat, broke the stillness, and for a little time the air was filled with the unearthly sounds, then all was still where the shadow yet rested. Only for a moment, however, then the sounds began again, seeming to be yet nearer, and a voice, close beside him, startled him with a loud cry. "Scat!" something flew past his head, whizzing as it cleft the air, and striking the ground with an audible thud.
Doctor Felix turned his head quickly, and there in a window just beyond, was another head white night-capped, in spite of the thick, white hair, and with the arm which had just hurled the missel still outstretched.
And now, there was an unmistakable movement near the rose thicket, and a figure glided away from the rustic bench, darted around the tall bush, and was out of sight.
"Good-evening," said the serene voice of Uncle Holly, "do you think I hit that cat?" He was leaning far out from his casement, and the hand which rested half-on-half over the window ledge, held drooping from between the fingers the companion to the stout shoe he had carefully aimed so that it might fall in the pathway critically near the figure upon the bench.
The darkness hid the smile upon the doctor's face, a smile called forth by the exceeding readiness—which he admired,—of the man who, even as he, must have fancied himself sole witness to the mid-night flitting. His answer came with equal readiness:
"You must, at least, have startled the—cat. It was well aimed—to miss."
Both had spoken in tones so low as to be barely audible across the intervening space, which contained a few feet of wall belonging to their respective chambers, and the end of the lower half of the L, holding in its ten feet of width a window like their own.
"I hate cats!" came next from Uncle Holly's window;" and I won't be annoyed by them, if I can silence them in any way." He was speaking now in a somewhat louder tone, and with evident disregard of listeners. "I have been annoyed by cats—oh, I dare say more than any man alive." He leaned far out, and seemed trying to pierce the darkness in search of a lingering feline. But the man at | | 233 the other window was no more the man to be baffled, or to relinquish a desired opportunity once it came in his way, than was the quondam Uncle Holly himself. He saw that the outward movement was but a preparation for a quick withdrawal, and, while he was listening to the diatribe on cats, he was saying to himself, "Now is my time," and, leaning out like his neighbour, only with his body inclined toward him, instead of straight outward, he began quickly, the moment the other had uttered his last word:
"Mr.—I will say Holly, will you give me a few words? Now, to-night? Believe me it will be best, I verily believe for all under this roof, if you and I understand each other better. Will you not open your door and let me come to you? or—my room is open to you!"
There was not a moment of waiting. "Uncle Holly" was prompt with his answer.
"And—suppose I refuse such a singular request?"
"Then," replied Felix Ware with that straightforward dignity which had made itself felt and understood through thicker skins and skulls than Uncle Holly's, "if you refuse, then you will find that I am too much a friend to Beechwood and its mistress to do aught but regret that my help, if it should chance to be needed, was not accepted by one who, I am sure, is here in her service, even as I am."
And now there was a moment of silence, then—
"Doctor,"—the words just audible—"have you a medicine case with you?"
"Certainly," in the same guarded accents; and this time Doctor Felix felt a shade of surprise. "He's a cool one!" he mentally added.
"Because," in a doleful half whisper, "my rheumatism is always bad on a night like this. If I rap on your wall quite softly, will you come out, with your case, and come, quietly, not to arouse the sleepers, to my door? Don't knock, enter."
With the last word "Uncle Holly" drew back, quickly, and his window closed with a distinctly audible sound. In a moment the other window closed, also very softly, and the doctor drew his curtains and struck a light.
The tap upon the wall came soon, and soft, and softer yet was the doctor's step, as, case in hand, he entered the corner room.
Uncle Holly closed and secured the door when he had entered, and then turned to his importunate guest with a broad smile upon his disguised but amiable countenance,
"Well, doctor," he began, "what is it? We can't remain closeted here too long; so don't let's waste time; explain yourself."
The two men stood face to face, and the lamp, burning its brightest on the reading-table near them, threw its rays over each, as they eyed one another intently.
The doctor smiled, and set down his case.
"I'm glad to be given this opportunity," he answered frankly. "The facts are simply these. I am here under peculiar circumstances, as medical adviser, solicited, and secured, first, by the master of the house, now dead, and, later, asked by this master's widow to remain in attendance upon the young man of whom we both know. I was the first to discover the presence of poison m the system of the deceased, | | 234 Mr. Deering;—I have been trusted by his widow. I had grown to know him very well, and to feel strongly drawn to him, and when this horrible fact forced itself upon my knowledge, my whole soul cried out against the poisoner, and I was ready to place myself, my strength or knowledge, medical or other, at her command. I have watched every feature of this affair closely, with keenest interest, and much anxiety, in behalf of a woman who is, I fully believe, noble, pure, and true, and who is bravely bearing, almost alone, a fearful load of grief and responsibility. Perhaps I have watched her too keenly; God knows it has been an honest and most respectful espionage! But knowing much, and reasoning upon what I knew, it has not been difficult for me to guess at your identity. It was like the mistress of Beechwood to boldly introduce a detective into her household; I knew she would do it,—from the first."
"Very good!" Uncle Holly pulled a big lounging chair forward with a quick jerk, crossed the room and pulled another close beside it, and, placing himself before one, indicated the other with a wave of his hand.
"There's no need of wasting words between us, Doctor Felix Ware," he said, sinking into his seat, as the doctor placed himself in the other. "I know a good many people who don't know me, and, in your case, I sha'n't ask for a 'recommend.' Do you remember one Brash Weeks of city hospital fame?"
The doctor started—but before he could reply:
"Well," went on the other, "when Weeks went into the hospital I was on tenter hooks. I knew that our success now rested upon, or in, the hands of those who attended him; the fellow was bound to die, and so much depended upon what he might say! I never saw you before, and I've never seen you since, until now, but I don't forget a face, or a name. When I went to the boss, doctor, and told him how critical the issue was, and begged, yes, actually begged, to be allowed to assist in the ward where Weeks lay, he just smiled, and said, `Every honest man, my friend, hopes to hear that Brash Weeks has lived just long enough to tell the truth. I'm so anxious, myself, that I've put a young man in charge in that ward, solely for the purpose of drawing out Weeks. He's gentle and strong, keen and magnetic. I've known him for years, and I'd trust him with a delicate job like this in preference to half your old detectives. If Felix Ware can't handle your man, he will die and take his secret with him.' I don't need to tell you how it came out. `Ware won't see you,' says the doctor, when I asked to meet you. And when I asked why such a man was not one of us, putting his talent to good use, he laughed and said, `There are two good reasons why you can't make Ware into a detective. One is that he is already a doctor—a regularly licensed sawbones. The other—well—he's got money enough to live on, and some to spare.'" He leaned toward his vis-à-vis, and dropping his chin upon one hand, the elbow resting upon his knee, he added, "And now, doctor, let me have the object of your visit to-night."
"Being one at the meeting upon the occasion of, and following after the reading of the will, and hearing the consultation at that time, I, of course, knew that a detective would soon be among us, in someway, | | 235 known or unknown. As I have already said, I have been deeply interested—"
Quick as a flash came the two words, "Have been?"
The doctor's face never lost its steadfast earnestness, and his eyes met those other keen orbs full and unwavering.
"I stand corrected. I am interested, and more than interested, from the moment when I discovered, with such horror as I cannot picture to you, that Mr. Deering—whom I believed to be—and who was, twenty-four hours earlier—past all danger, and requiring only such tender, thoughtful care as I knew he was sure of—that he lay before me—dead—and by the hand of an enemy!"
Something in the tone in which the single word was spoken startled the speaker—he stopped short, his eye keenly alert.
"Doctor, I have not heard the word spoken or hinted at, but is it possible that nobody thought of—suicide?"
"Sir! I will call you Holly everywhere but here. You do not believe that for one moment. And I—I was a stranger to this man two months ago, for I only met him a few days before he set out for his home; but I have seen into his very heart since then, I verily believe; and there was not in his nature, and never had been, or could be, one atom of that strange mixture of cowardice and reckless desperate daring which must exist in the composition of the suicide! I am a student of, and, in some degree, a believer in the science—for it is a science—of physiognomy, or, if you like, phrenology. Lysander Deering could not have thrown the gift of life back into the hand of the All Powerful Giver of lives! Such men as he come into the world with the divine mark upon them; with veneration, spirituality, and faith inborn. He might suffer, he might even cry out, as job did, but he could not doubt, and doubt and self-murder go hand in hand. Lysander Deering was a Christian!"
"And yet—he was, you say—murdered."
The word fell from Felix Ware's lips like the final word, with the dropping of the voice which indicates a subject closed. And Ferriss Murtagh through half-shut lids watched him with interest and secret self-congratulation, while he thought—"He won't even discuss the subject further, much less argue it. That's what his 'yes' means. And he's right too." Aloud he said, sitting erect in his chair and putting the tips of his fingers together in a fashion well known to his chief and his comrades as indicating inward gratification and growing interest,—"I believe you are right regarding the dead man," he said, "but before we go further into that, tell me what did I or anyone else do to lead you, the one utter stranger in this house, to doubt the `identity' of Mr. Nathan Holly?"
For the first time since the beginning of their interview, Doctor Felix smiled as he said—
"Then you admit the reasonableness of my doubt?"
"I admitted that when I opened my door to you. In fact, Doctor Ware," and here he held out his hand, "I welcome the doubter.| | 236
Such an assistant as you might be, if you chose, would aid me here immensely, and, I believe, shorten the work by half!"
Felix Ware came quickly to his feet, and the other involuntarily followed his example. As he grasped the still extended hand, Ware said, "Giving this case my closest thought and study from the first, you can hardly be surprised at my discovery. I knew a detective must come among us soon, and was on the alert to see what new face would appear, though, to be frank, I never anticipated anything quite so bold as this reality, nor so promising! I was prepared, you see, to view with suspicion any new face; but have no fear, there has been no flaw in your disguise, and even I must have remained in doubt and hesitation for some time yet, but for two circumstances—"
"What were they?" broke in Murtagh.
"The first, I must confess, strengthened my suspicion, and made me study you closely. It was a very slight oversight on your part, and I made sure that it should not arouse another to suspicion, I was taking my hat from the rack in the upper hall, when, in removing it, I carelessly displaced the linen duster which you carried upon your arm at the time of your arrival. In hanging it up again, properly, by the collar, my eye caught a city trade mark, but the tag, attached by most of our enterprising retail dealers, read, Messrs. W. & H., Chicago."
"Pests!" The detective struck his hand against his thigh. "Was I so stupid?"
"I assure you it was your only oversight; and I watched you closely. I also removed the tag, as you will observe, when you examine the garment."
"Thank you! You see how much I need an assistant! But the other item? that which must have convinced you?"
"I have already said that I am a pretty close student of the human face and—hand."
"Eh?" With a visible start, "Ah—go on."
"Yesterday, while sitting next you—after the ladies had left us at the table, you remember, perhaps—"
"That you left your place and came and sat beside me? to avoid the reflected sunlight, you said."
"Quite so. Well, I wanted to study your hand. I am a physician, remember, and a surgeon, and I soon decided that the hand which held that cup of coffee, and handled those excellent cigarettes, was younger than the head that drank the one and smoked the other. The flesh, muscles, tissues, were not sixty-seven years old, not even forty."
The detective's eyes were twinkling with amusement and admiration of the doctor's shrewdness.
"Doctor," he ejaculated, "the schools may have made you a doctor, but you were born a detective; shake again. I feel as if success was already knocking at the door! May I say, our door?"
"Gladly; and put all my trumps down before you." He glanced swiftly about the room, and getting up, went to the window. "Draw your chair farther from that door, my friend," he said, coming back and moving his own seat across the room, and quite near the outer | | 237 wall. "We can't go into details to-night, but will manage to get a chance to talk to-morrow in some way."
"How would a drive serve, tête-à-tête?"
"The very thing! That is—"
"Oh I drive when I like. I don't walk much in the village, you see, because it seems best to avoid meeting the townspeople; you know how easily they get to know you? I used to drive with Mr. Deering, and his horse has been put at my disposal."
"Excellent. We will reserve our plans then until to-morrow. Doctor, I'm blessing that—cat."
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