- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XXXVIII. CRUMBS.
|<< chapter 37||< chapter 34||chapter 39 >||chapter 63 >>|
THE two men entered the library by the side door, and Doctor Ware smiled, and "Uncle Holly" gave utterance to a suppressed chuckle when he saw Mrs. Deering sitting at the big library table, writing busily.
244 A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
She glanced up as they entered, and then went on with her work, while the doctor busied himself before one of the bookcases, and Uncle Holly, after a careless glance about him, sauntered toward the big table.
"May I write just a few words here, Niece Brenda?" he queried cheerfully, and Brenda nodded, said "Certainly," and went on with her writing.
The doctor had found himself a book, and Uncle Holly, seated at the end of the table farthest from the lady, wrote with painstaking slowness one or two short sentences, which he handed across to the doctor.
"Those two firms, doctor," he said amiably, "are both to be relied upon, if you choose to give them a trial."
As the card passed from hand to hand the two exchanged significant glances, and, in another instant, the door opened and the house-maid appeared.
"Miss Wardell," she said to her mistress, "is in the reception-room."
The lady looked up quickly; clearly she had neither heard nor seen the village cart.
"I will come at once," she said, then added a few swiftly written words to the letter under her hand.
A moment later, as she crossed the library in the direction of the reception-room, just beyond, the hand of "Uncle Holly" made a sudden movement, becoming as suddenly inactive again; and Doctor Ware, the next instant, uttered a quick exclamation, sprang forward, and, catching something from the floor just behind the lady, said:
"Pardon, did you let this fall?" at the same time putting a slip of paper in her hand.
She started, but took the paper, and, glancing at it, turned her eyes for just a second toward Uncle Holly, who was watching her with mild inquiry.
"Thanks!" she murmured, as she crumpled the note in her hand. "*Tis only a scrap—of no consequence," but as she passed out she thrust the "scrap" into her pocket, as the doctor closed the door behind her.
The bit of paper so deftly tossed down by the detective, as he crossed the room, contained these words:
"I want to know Miss Wardell's errand."
The reception-room opened directly from the vestibule, and did not connect with any other room; the only door, beside the outer one, connecting it with the wide hall. Between this room and the library, was the pleasant home-like place called the breakfast or morning-room, and there was, between the two, a door, usually locked on the library side, and screened on the other by a heavy curtain.
A moment after Brenda had passed from the library, this door was lightly shaken, and Doctor Ware, sitting near, sprang toward it, and, slipping back the bolt, opened it wide. Brenda Deering stood beneath the half-parted curtains, and her face was very grave. She cast a quick glance behind her and then swept up the table where the detective still sat.
"There is no one near," she said in low, clear tones, "and I must, this once, disregard your rules! Tell me, is this thing important?"
"It is!" The detective's tones were incisive, and his face was as grave as her own.
"Then," she said, "I shall leave this door," with a glance toward it, "open and the portière closed. And I shall receive the lady in the next room. I will not allow my scruples, as a hostess, to interfere with things necessary."
"Madam," the detective was on his feet, and close beside her, "consider that you are a wife first,—a hostess afterward!"
She lifted her head with a sudden stately motion, and her eyes, as they met his, were full of a stern resolve.
"Thank you!"she murmured. "You shall not need to recall me to my first duty—again!"
She set the door wide open, pushed an easy-chair against it, and swept aside the curtain, revealing to them, for one instant, the little room with a dainty carved and cushioned seat, so arranged that its back was towards the curtained doorway; and as the drapery swung to, they saw her move towards this. Instantly Murtagh placed himself in the easy-chair against the door; and before he could utter the whisper that was upon his lips, they heard a door open, and a clear, low-pitched voice said:
"Mrs. Deering, I really beg you to pardon this almost intrusion at this hour! I have consented to come on behalf of my housekeeper, Mrs. Fram; but, as I am here, will you not permit me to say how much I have felt for you in your sorrow and loss. You know—" here there was a momentary break in the low voice, "I have known what it is to sit alone in a house of mourning! And you—I am glad to know that you are not quite alone!"
The answer, brief but courteous, was almost inaudible; then the low clear voice went on.
"My errand is really very petty, but it seems I am to blame for the loss of one of Mrs. Fram's choicest recipes; a confection which she concocts only upon lofty occasions, and for which she paid some renowned male cook a 'sound sum,' as she says."
"Ah?" came softly from Mrs. Deering, with an inquiring inflection.
"You see," went on the visitor, "some time ago,—during your absence, in fact,—Mrs. Fram—that woman really does impose upon me shamefully, but you know how reliable she is, and how long she has been at her post—"
"Yes—a long time indeed."
"Ah, yes! Ever since poor mamma's death, and she almost rules me! One day she chanced to hear me speak of driving out upon the north road, and, forthwith, she remembered that Mrs. Merton had asked for a recipe for some sort of meat jelly which, they both agreed, would be the very thing for your dear invalid, and she asked, or commanded, me to `just drop it at your gate.' I did so; you were, as I have said, in New York; and Mrs. Merton was also from home. Madam Sarita came to the door, being, I believe, in charge, and I left the precious formula in her hands and forgot all about it. Now
246 A DEAD MAN'S STEP.poor Mrs. Fram misses her valuable formula, which, it appears, too complicated to be trusted, like most of her recipes, to her memory. In looking for it she finds the copy of the meat jelly intended, long ago, for Mrs. Merton, and jumps to the conclusion that she has sent the wrong document, by some blunder; so, to ease her troubled mind, I volunteered to drive this way and see if Mrs. Merton has still the precious recipe."
"Then you will wish to see Mrs. Merton?"
The listeners heard the quietly spoken words, and a movement which, they knew, meant that Mrs. Deering had promptly touched the bell to summon the housekeeper. Then a moment passed in which Miss Wardell murmured some regrets that she had been "almost constrained" to come upon "such an errand at such a time;" and added a second half-laughing comment upon the anxiety and "too great exigence" of the housekeeper; and Mrs. Deering answered by a polite word or two; while, on the other side of the curtain, the detective sat with a face of eager gravity, and a gleam of excitement in his eyes, which caused the doctor to wonder and to smile a little. The interview seemed sufficiently tame to him.
The dialogue ran on, Miss Wardell talking in a sympathetically subdued voice, inquiring after Miss Rodney, but declining to have her called, and asking if it were true that Mr. Brook Deering was quite ill, as had been rumoured; and Mrs. Deering replying, as briefly as possible, and allowing her guest to lead the talk whither she would. And then Mrs. Merton, in a snowy apron and fresh cap, came in.
Before Miss Wardell could open her lips, Mrs. Deering had put the question to her housekeeper, and received a prompt reply.
Mrs. Merton remembered perfectly having asked Mrs. Fram for the recipe for the mutton jelly; but she was sure she had never yet received it; and then she turned to Ora Wardell, adding:
"Perhaps, Miss Wardell, you remember when it was. I had called in to see Mrs. Fram, who was ailing somewhat, and you came in to ask after her, and to learn when she would be ready to come back." For Mrs. Fram, when not fit for duty, or when making a holiday, retired always to her sister's house in South Pomfret—where Mrs. Merton was also well known and very welcome.
It was at this point in the interview that the doctor was amazed to see Murtagh's face relax into an approving smile, and his hands enact pantomimic applause.
Miss Wardell's answer, too, seemed to please him, though she only said, in a somewhat indifferent tone, "Very likely; although I hardly recall it." Then, turning to Mrs. Deering, "Do you think we might ask Madam Sarita? She may have overlooked it."
"Mrs Merton," said Mrs. Deering, "please send Sarita to us, or, better, bring her, but say nothing about the lost paper."
And now came Sarita, who entered wondering, listened with growing comprehension, and for a moment seemed struggling with a treacherous memory; then she broke forth volubly.
247 CRUMBS.give it at once to Mrs Merton; at the first moment, etc., etc.; and then she racked her brains, and sounded her memory anew, with the result, after a time, of recalling the facts that on that especial day she had been unusually annoyed and tired, she had been almost alone that day, and she had much to do, being in consequence wearied, "and when so weary! madam knows," she affirmed, "I am oh so foolishly forgetful!" She had hurt her hand that day, and had been annoyed by an old man who came with a sad story of want and a plea for a place for his nephew, or himself, thereby harrowing her already much tired soul anew. "Ah!" she concluded, "I recall it! I did not lose it, I am sure! I said, 'I will put it carefully where it may not be lost, until Mrs. Merton comes once more,' and—yes, I am almost sure! I must have laid it away among my boxes, somewhere; and then all the strange things coming so soon after—the sickness, the trouble—!" she looked appealingly from one to the other.
"Do you mean," said Mrs. Merton judicially, "that you think you may be able to find it, yet?"
"Yes—yes! If I may be permitted to search! If the young lady will have patience—"
Sarita wheeled about in haste, but Mrs. Deering stopped her with a peremptory gesture.
"If you think you can find it, go at once and look, but don't take up too much of Miss Wardell's time." She motioned her away and looked at her watch. "Mrs. Merton, the dinner menu must be looked over, and I think we can excuse you here since the paper, if found, will not be your recipe, but must go back to Mrs. Fram."
When Mrs. Merton had withdrawn—reluctantly, because she had hoped, at least, to have had one peep at the wonderful formula for that complicated unknown dish—the talk became languid and desultory in the morning-room, and the listeners in the library began to feel a desire to rise and move about, and then they heard the door of the morning-room open quickly.
It was Sarita who came hurriedly in, and, without waiting to close the door, she went straight to Miss Wardell and dropped an envelope into her lap. It was a blank envelope, tightly sealed, and she began volubly to explain:
"I found it, Mais! as I thought! It was in among my own letters; how, I do not even guess! It has gone quite from my head, what I did with it that day. But there it was, and I put it at once into the wrapper and sealed it fast, that the good Madam Fram might see that I did not carelessly leave it open to all eyes!"
She stopped, out of breath; and Ora Wardell took up the envelope, looked at it for a moment, as if in doubt, and thrust it calmly into her pocket, saying, as she arose:
"Thank you, Sarita. You were over kind in enclosing the recipe; but, as you have done so, I will deliver it into Mrs. Fram's hand as I received it; the 'seal' unbroken; and," slightly smiling, "I think I will advise her, next time, to entrust Mrs. Merton's recipes to surer hands than yours and mine. Mrs. Deering, I want to come another day, and at a more suitable hour, when I hope I may see Miss Rodney, as well as yourself,"
248 A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
She was at the door, and Brenda Deering made no attempt to detain her, only following her out into the vestibule, and bidding her a courteous adieu.
And in the library, having first taken the precaution to close the convenient door behind the portière, the detective, in flat opposition to his own set rules, caught his companion by the hand, and, shaking it with fervour, whispered:
"It's a big piece of luck! If we go on like this we shall see my wild little theory develop, some day, into a big ASTOUNDING FACT!" And once more he wrung the doctor's hand. "Come," he added then, "let's get out of this!"
Doctor Ware found himself waiting that night, with unusual excitement, and an impatience quite new to him, for the hour to come when he might join the disguised detective, and learn the meaning of his strange hints and prophecies. He had passed the long evening in the drawing-room, where, after dinner, all the household, by common consent, drew together, with the mutual idea of helping each other to carry on, at least, the outward show of a quiet family circle,—exempt from attempts at actual gaiety, because of the late trouble and affliction,—but still bound to carry out their respective rôles of hostess, friends, and guests; drawn together by a common grief and loss; rather than be, or seem, divided by vague doubts, diversity of beliefs, and shadowy, half-formed suspicions, as was, indeed, true of them, each and all.
To each, for some one particular reason, this task was one of more or less difficulty; requiring an unusual effort, and making, of each moment, for most, a season of prolonged mental strain.
For Doctor Ware, now that his position was clearly defined in his own mind and in the eyes of his hostess, the strain was at the minimum and he was able to do his part in keeping up appearances with little effort.
To Murtagh the position was now actually agreeable, the very difficulty of his position and the intricacy of his plans, adding zest to his every moment.
As for Brook Deering, his oft-expressed anxiety lest the work of justice be retarded or bungled, and his weak and nervous condition together, made each moment irksome to him. And Bruce Deering, with the shadow of a fearful charge hanging over him, and sorrow and suspense his daily portion, went and came, grave,'tis true, but filling his place, whether it might be beside Brook in his worse moments, or helping Brenda-left as she was so suddenly, with the care and oversight of a great house, full stables, and many acres—in the numerous ways in which a man can help as agent, adviser, and friend, when he has both the will and the full understanding of the situation.
Whatever else might have been spoken of Bruce Deering in these days of seeming inaction and suspense, he could not have been said to shirk the duties of the day as they came.
But hardest of all was the part allotted to proud Brenda Deering. Sincere by nature, she was forced to dissemble to act a part from morn till evening. But her strength grew with the emergency; the latent force within her, the spirit that has carried many a brave woman
249 CRUMBS.through dangers and woes unutterable, upheld her, kept her brow clear; her eye, and hand, and voice steady; and her mind alert and active. All this—outwardly. Alone, and in the darkness of midnight,—there were moments, yes, hours, when her soul rebelled; when despair shook her and she felt that her strength had forsaken her; but the morning found her calm again, strong as before, and at her post. Hostess, helper, friend, and mistress.
Brook Deering returned from his drive complaining of weariness; and as the evening advanced, and there were symptoms of renewed feverishness, Doctor Ware advised him to retire early from the drawing-room, and,—after some thought and a little hesitation,—gave him a draught to "soothe his nerves," he said, and he well knew,—without the precaution—which he took—of looking in upon the patient, a little later,—that sleep, long and sound, was sure to follow its administration.
Not long after Brook left the group in the drawing-room, "Uncle Holly" complained of fatigue, and "rheumatic twinges," and arose to leave the room.
"The fact is," he added, when he had made his excuses to the ladies, "I did not get my usual rest last night; I am not accustomed to sudden starts and wakenings, and last night I was suddenly aroused several times by sounds—sounds which at first I was unable to account for. Brenda, did you ever think that there might be rats in your walls?"
Brenda looked surprised, and Valentine, who had been unnaturally talkative all the day and evening, laughed a short laugh, which she checked suddenly.
"It would not be surprising," "Uncle Nat" went on. "That portion of your house, I think you said,is old?"
"Quite old," murmured Brenda.
"Well, we will see if they disturb me to-night. It's not so difficult to get rid of rats in a wall, as many think; and if one has a good trap—but we won't go into it to-night; I am really quite drowsy." And "Uncle Nat," with affable smiles, and a succession of amiable nods, went his way.
Doctor Ware and Bruce left the drawing-room last, the latter holding the door open to let the two ladies pass out before them. At Brook's door they both paused, and Bruce entered.
"He's sleeping quietly," he reported in a moment, "and William has followed his example. If he should continue to sleep like that, I fancy I can rest, without much effort, until late sunrise." He turned at his own door, and after a few more words they parted with a mutual good-night.
Mindful of Murtagh's instructions, Ware let a long hour pass, with provoking slowness it seemed to him, before he opened his door with the noiseless, accustomed touch acquired in many sick-rooms, glided through the darkness, feeling his way around the corner of the L, and found, as he had expected, the door of Murtagh's room ever so slightly ajar; then, as he pushed it gently open, he felt a light, guiding touch upon his arm, and knew in a moment that his host had closed the door and was moving across the room.
250 A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
The next instant his eyes were dazzled by the light of a dark lantern suddenly opened directly before them, and, at sight of what its rays revealed, he almost exclaimed aloud.
Standing before him, with the lantern uplifted in his hand, was a man of sinister aspect, with shaggy eyebrows, a mat of coarse black hair, a face unshaven, it would seem, for many days, and pock-marked, and scarred most unpleasantly. He was dressed in garments that might long ago have been worn by some Bowry boy, with a taste for loud checks and gaudy colours; a red bandanna was knotted about his throat, and a shabby tourist's cap was stuck upon the back of his head.
The man with the lantern stood before him for a moment silent, and darkly scowling; and in that moment Doctor Felix saw, with an actual start, that the window nearest him was open, and that a rope-ladder dangled from its ledge, and lay across the floor quite to the stranger's feet.
"One might fancy," spoke he of the lantern, "that you don't like one's evening dress!" The tones were sullen, and utterly strange to the doctor, but the next words were uttered in the unmistakable voice of "Uncle Nat." "My dear doctor, were you really—for a moment in doubt?"
Doctor Ware took the lantern from his hand, and, holding it aloft, surveyed hip critically.
"It's perfect!" he said as he put down the lantern. "And I am willing to own that, for a moment, I was all at sea." He glanced as he spoke toward the open window, and the detective sprang toward it and drew the almost closed curtains tightly together.
"No use of running an unnecessary risk," he said. "You see I was at work with this," picking up one end of the rope ladder, "when you pushed open the door." He turned the lantern's face toward the inner wall, and lowered the light until they were almost invisible to each other. "Take that chair beside you," he went on, speaking rapidly and just above his breath, "I must talk fast, and shall have to ask you to put your patience in leash, and begin in earnest, without more than a word of explanation. Of course, when you stop to think, you don't imagine that I got myself up in this rig just to surprise or play a joke upon you, I know! It takes too long to get up such a mug as this, I can tell you. The fact is, partner, I'm going to ask you to wait for my story, and for me, right here, until I come back from a little expedition that I find I must make to-night. I'm going down that ladder—that is if you'll stand by me, at this end of the rope, to draw it up when I'm down, and let it out when I come back."
"I can't refuse," replied Ware, soberly; "I'm enlisted, remember. Of course, it's understood that your errand concerns—this business?"
"Great heavens, man! do you suppose I'd let you into anything else? The fact is, I must go into Pomfret to-night, and I'll take just breath to tell you that I'm not going alone, that my pal is waiting for me at this moment—where do you think?"
"Don't let me waste your time in guessing," admonished Doctor Felix.
251 CRUMBS.vicinity of the Pomfret Bank—of the Wardell house,—and—of ST. MARK'S CHURCH!"
In the silence following these words he examined his lantern, and began to draw out and adjust the limp lengths of rope ladder.
"If nothing happens to disturb our plans," he resumed, "I shall Teach the place, do my work, and be here again, that is, down there on the ground below this window, in an hour and a half at latest. If I am not here by then, you may fancy me checkmated somehow, and, in thatcase, I must just—ask you to wait here until the peep of day. But there's little to risk, and you'll see me, I dare say, prompt to the minute; and then, my partner, we shall still have an hour or two before dawn, and you shall be enlightened so far as is in my power, at least. Now for the ladder, and the first act of the revised Romeo and Juliet."
The first act was sufficiently short. Murtagh slung the dark lantern safely at his side, and, the hook and the rope having been already tested, slipped over the sill, and vanished noiselessly into the darkness below; and the doctor, when assured by a quick jerk of the ladder that the new Romeo was on terra firma, drew up the tell-tale rope, and, feeling his way to "Uncle Nat's" lounging-chair, seated himself therein, and settled himself to wait and wonder, and, in spite of himself, to doze.
The hour passed between drowsy nods and sudden starts, and Doctor Felix was warned of this by the silvery striking of Uncle Nat's alarm clock, which, like his shower-bath, went, he assured the family, "everywhere with its master;" and, when the quarter had also passed, he drew the curtain, and took his station by the window. He had not long to wait before the signal, a slight scraping sound upon the stone wall below, told him that the ladder might once more descend; and, before the last quarter hour was half spent, the quondam Uncle Nat was safely landed in his own apartment, the rope ladder removed from the window-ledge, and our detective, still in his uncouth disguise, was sitting opposite Doctor Felix, while on the table between them, under the extended hand of the newly-arrived, lay a parcel, smaller than the hand above it, and carefully tied up in the detective's handkerchief.
"My partner," began the late Romeo, "I hope you won't mind my rig! It would take half of the little time we have left to us if I stopped to get off this paint and pigment. You've a right to see my face—the real one—and you shall, but just now—"
"Just now," broke in the doctor, with a smile, "you want to talk and I want to hear you. I'll be glad to see the face—later on."
"Good. Then, first, I'll tell you the result of my trip to-night, and that, naturally, will lead to the whole story, partner!" He drew the handkerchief toward him and began deftly to untie the knots. "We are coming out, after all, upon safe, solid ground, I verily believe! My trip to-night was a success! I believe you're going to prove my Mascott! Look here!"
He had opened the handkerchief, and taken from within it a folded piece of newspaper, and opening this with jealous care, he displayed to the astounded gaze of his "partner," a tiny bone, clearly the "second
252 A DEAD MAN'S STEP.joint" of a chicken; a scrap of mouldy cheese, some dry and dusty bread crumbs, and a folded fragment of newspaper, not half so clean as that in which these strange treasures were wrapped.
"Do you see these?" asked Murtagh, eagerly, and then, "Of course!—but you don't know what they mean?—their value? Well, sir, I wouldn't take a full purse for these scraps! and I'll tell you why!" He leaned forward and tapped the doctor's knee impressively, measuring his words by the taps. "These crumbs I found in a closet of ST. MARK'S CHURCH."
He caught up the piece of soiled and folded newspaper.
"See this!" he held it up for an instant, then put it carefully down, unopened, as he said slowly, "That scrap of paper is a fragment of the New York World, and it is dated just thirty-six hours before Joe Matchin was murdered."
|<< chapter 37||< chapter 34||chapter 39 >||chapter 63 >>|