- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XXXIX. A VOLUNTEER.
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WHEN Doctor Ware appeared at breakfast next morning, a close observer might have noted that his face was a shade graver and more thoughtful than usual, and that he seemed pre-occupied. He did not tarry in the breakfast-room, but went at once to make his morning call upon the invalid, who had not appeared below stairs, and who was reported as still weak, and "somewhat nervous," by the attentive William. Having paid this visit, Doctor Felix asked for a saddle horse, and, without soliciting a companion, rode off to the north, where he paced for an hour, along the country lanes and between wide fields of wind-blown grain, dewy and graceful, yet challenging his usually observant eye in vain.
For once in his controlled and self-contained, existence, Doctor Felix felt the need of solitude; having gathered since the previous night much food for reflection.
But if he set out with a countenance full of gravity, not unmixed with anxiety, he returned looking like his usual calm self; his face full of strength and settled purpose. And, after luncheon, he excused himself to his hostess, pleading "an accumulation of writing," and remained closeted in his room until dinner-time. He spent his entire evening in the drawing-room, however, as did all the others of the household, except "Uncle Nat," who "felt twinges of rheumatism," shortly after dinner, predicted a storm before morning, and withdrew.
The following day a tall, saturnine man appeared, and was announced as a census-taker making a special canvass for some purpose, connected—so nearly as could be gathered from Mrs. Merton, who took him in charge and escorted him about, above stairs and below—with some "medical examination or enterprise;" certainly the dark visaged, sharp-eyed census-taker asked an unusual number of questions, and threw the people below stairs into quite a flutter. And | | 253 when he had been seen, from Brook's corner window, to drive away in his road wagon through the south, or Pomfret, gate, Brook turned to his cousin, lounging with his newspaper at another window, and said:
"That's number one, I suppose? And now, under one pretext or another, they will give us no rest, I dare say. I wonder," he added, turning away with a feeble half laugh, "what our good Merton would say if told that she has just had a detective in tow?"
There was no reply from behind the paper at the other window, and, after a moment, he spoke again.
"I wonder, now, who will have the first sight of the reports from these fellows, and if they will be made known to all of us? The family, I mean, of course?"
"Can't say," replied Bruce; and then, after a moment, and without lowering the newspaper, "Have never made inquiry."
"Nor been informed?"
"Nor been informed."
Two days later it was a pedlar who held the servants charmed in the housekeeper's room, and who seemed to value his time but lightly; and it was William who reported his visit to his young master, who received the news with a careless comment, and a meaning side glance at his cousin, who was again present, and occupied, this time, with a newly-cut magazine.
"Do you want to wager that William's smooth-spoken pedlar was not another member of the police?" queried Brook when the servant had gone; but Bruce shook his head.
"I should only lose, I dare say, if I did," he replied.
The next day Brook came down to breakfast, and spent much of the morning in the library with Uncle Nat, his cousin, and Doctor Felix, resting in the afternoon, and appearing again at dinner. The following day he once more tested his strength by a drive, this time with William in attendance; and, from that time, he seemed slowly to gain strength and spirits, giving more of his time to the guests, and appearing, much in his old-time boyish way, in Brenda's boudoir—where Valentine sat so often now—or wherever the two ladies of the house might chance to be; for, by a sort of unspoken, but mutual, consent, Valentine and Brenda were now together nearly all day, each seeming to shun solitude and her own society more and more as the days went on.
During his cousin's retirement Bruce Deering had shared his seclusion, for the most part, and with every appearance of willingness; but now—as Brook began to resume his old habits of sociability, which sociability included even the snug room where Mrs. Merton reigned, and where Sarita was often found, busied with the household stitching, which had become, in part, her care—Bruce began to pass long hours in the spacious library, which Brook openly shunned, declaring that he missed his father doubly in that room containing so many mementos, and which had been so exclusively his. This room was also a favourite haunt with Doctor Felix, and, as the days passed, he and Bruce found much to say to each other, and many thoughts in common.| | 254
And so the time crept on, and Uncle Holly's first week and then his second had passed, and, save for the visits of the two "detectives," and the more or less frequent calls of Doctor Liscom, John Redding, or Mr. Baird, little seemed to have transpired at Beechwood to help on the cause in which all there were, in some way, interested; and the lives of all seemed to flow on in decorous quiet and retirement. They were seldom seen abroad, save when driving, usually upon some quiet, country road when the ladies were out, except when, upon one or two occasions, Brenda had called for her pony carriage, and had taken Uncle Holly to repay a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Baird or Doctor Liscom; or, when Doctor Ware and Bruce, and once or twice of late, Brook, had ridden through Main Street upon the handsome saddle horses that had been their dead master's pride.
Ora Wardell had not repeated her visit; but two or three times her carriage had been seen to dash past toward the north road, which, in pleasant weather, was one of Pomfret's favourite and much affected drives.
And so two weeks of "Uncle Holly's" stay at Beechwood passed into the third, and under the seeming calm of the household, a brooding, growing impatience was hovering, making the atmosphere almost electric, when, as the family, all save Brenda, were seated about the luncheon-table in the cool morning-room, where the sash was opened wide and the shades adjusted to shut out the growing heat of the summer sun, that lady entered with her hands full of letters and newspapers.
"Hall has just arrived," she said, approaching them; "and so I bring your letters to add a possible flavour to your luncheon. I trust—" with sudden sweet gravity and a moment of hesitation—"that the flavour may be agreeable." She turned toward a side table and put down upon it the handful of papers. "These," she said, "can very well wait," and with the disengaged hand, she began to distribute the letters.
There were several for Doctor Ware, two or three for Brook, a business-like looking document for Bruce, a single creamy-white letter for Valentine, two for Brenda herself, and, for Uncle Holly, not one.
Brook glanced at his envelopes and then across at his father's wife, who was just taking her place behind the tea equipage.
"Mamma Brenda," he asked, "is luncheon sans cérémonie? may we read and be pardoned for the act?"
"You heard me," she replied lightly. "I brought them to be read."
Amid the murmured thanks and the general opening of envelopes, no one seemed to notice that Valentine eyed the address upon her envelope in a puzzled, wondering fashion, opened her lips only to close them again; glanced quickly round the table, and—seeing the others engaged, all save Brenda and Uncle Nat, who were conversing quietly just opposite her, cut open the envelope with a long, silver pin, which she drew from among the lace upon her corsage. But the exclamation she uttered as she drew out the thick sheet, glanced at the fine, cramped writing, and took in, with the same look, the name written at the bottom of the page, was audible to all, and brought from Brenda the quick question:| | 255
"Val—no bad news, is it?"
Valentine's face was flushing rosily, but she held up the lace pin to the general gaze, and murmured, with her eyes fixed upon the page, which she held quite near her face as she leaned back in her chair, "My—finger!" and seemed engrossed in her reading; the red still dyeing her face, to fade away into pallor as she read the last word, let the letter drop upon her lap, and then, recovering herself by a strong effort of will, glanced at it again, and with swift, nervous fingers, thrust both letter and envelope into her girdle, so that only a blank corner was visible above the soft, silken folds.
She was silent when the letters were put aside, and the meal began; and for some time she continued grave and distraite. But before they left the table she had recovered her usual manner, and did her full share in keeping the conversational ball moving.
When they arose from the table, however, and Brenda proposed that they all withdraw, for coolness, to the shady east lawn, Valentine did not accompany them; going to her room instead, and remaining there for more than an hour.
When she reappeared they were all upon the lawn; Brook was in a hammock, and the others were grouped about him, sitting, standing, or moving to and fro under the trees; and before she had been among them long, she had managed to engage "Uncle Nat's" company for a drive, immediately after tea.
"The truth is," she declared, standing before "Uncle Nat's" rustic chair, with her back against a tree, speaking with unusual animation, and with glowing cheeks and a strange gleam in her eves, "the truth is, I have felt that Brenda, here, has been monopolising you, Mr. Holly; and I have not, usually, been left quite out of the running, here, at Beechwood. Is that not true, Cousin—Brook?" casting a momentary side glance toward the hammock.
Brook lifted himself, and a look of keen delight overspread his face as he fixed his eager eyes upon hers.
"If you appeal to me, fair Cousin Val," he said, in his softest tones, "I should say that you have generally been ahead of the field, and likely to keep so!" And he paused, as if eager for her next words. But she only uttered a short, half-mocking laugh, and, without so much as a glance in his direction, turned away.
An hour before sunset Miss Rodney's own pony phaeton, drawn by her swift-stepping black pony, Flash, swung out from the upper gate and went skimming forth upon the north road, with Uncle Nat leaning luxuriously back against the springy cushions, and Valentine sitting charmingly erect, holding her lively pony with a stiff rein, and giving him for the moment her full attention.
"Flash has not been out, except for what Brenda's groom calls a 'walk round,' for several days," she said, when they were fairly upon the highway; "and he's a stiff-necked little fellow when fresh; so, if you don't mind, I'll just give him a pretty stiff mile or so, and by that time he won't need all my attention."
"By all means," was the answer. "I shall not mind in the least, Miss Rodney;" and after a few moments of swift going, he added, in a tone of quiet approval, "I see you feel quite equal to him." And | | 256 Uncle Nat turned slightly so that he might watch her charming profile with a keen and speculative eye. He knew there was a meaning behind her seemingly off-hand proposal that he should drive with her "behind her pet pony," and he was willing to wait its development.
Little more was said until the willing pony, having carried them at a lively pace far beyond Beechwood and across a wide stretch of level country, slackened his speed of his own accord at the foot of a long gradual slope, which, knowing its length, and having already expended his first wind, Flash took at a steady deliberate pace.
Then Valentine turned toward him, and their glances met—hers serious and half inquiring, his mild and gently smiling.
"I have taken a liberty," she began slowly, but without hesitation, "in asking you to accompany me for a purpose which you may think impertinent, and which would be that, if my motive were not—what it is. May I beg you to hear me with patience until my motive is clear to you? and not to misjudge me, whether you agree with me or not?"
The disguised detective looked upon the honest earnest face, which was flushing now, and into the fine eyes, almost beseechingly fixed upon his own, and his smile deepened into actual benevolence.
"I can hardly fancy you saying anything which I would find very unpleasant, my dear Miss Rodney," he said, sitting more erect and assuming a more attentive air. "Do you mean—is it possible—that an old fellow like me can serve you in any way?"
"An old fellow?" Again her eyes scanned his face closely, inquiringly. "You shall hear;" she turned her gaze toward the pony and leaned back in her turn against the cushion, so that she might look at him now and then as she spoke, and began:
"You know, of course, my position in my cousin's home, and how much we have been together. I hope I need not say that Brenda is as dear to me as an own sister could be? She has been overwhelmed with trouble of late; and, while I have mourned with her, if not like her, I have been tormented with the thought that I am, after all, really of so little use or comfort; and I want to help them all so much! I mean—of course, the family; "she flushed, as the two words "them all," slipped from her tongue, and shot a quick, half-defiant glance at him. But his eyes were half closed; he was listening with polite interest, and he murmured as she paused a moment
"Of course, naturally."
"Day after day, as I have seen Brenda holding up so bravely against such fearful trouble, such awful suspense, I have grown almost wild to think that things cannot be made better—clearer! But, long as I might to do something, I have seen no way open to me; though, ever since you came among us, I have thought—"
He was looking at her quite keenly now, and she broke off abruptly, and flicked the slowly mounting pony to cover a momentary embarrassment and annoyance.
"You have thought—" he suggested.
"I have thought," she exclaimed, with a sudden force, "what I think now—that I must beg you to help me!"| | 257
Still his face was half smiling, and the voice was still the mellow, amiable voice of Uncle Holly.
"Can I help you, do you think? Pray, tell me how?"
She thrust her hand into the pocket of her light jacket and pulled out a letter. "If you will hear me when you have read this letter," she said, holding the document in her hand with the address concealed, "and remember, please, that it was not altogether a surprise to me—the contents I mean. I will tell you why—if I may!"
She held out the letter, but without taking it he put up his hand.
"One moment," he said, with no change of countenance. "That is the letter you received at the luncheon-table, is it not?"
"And it gave you a considerable shock?"
"Ah! you saw!"
"So great a shock that you could not feel quite yourself afterwards. You were impatient for this moment?"
"Oh! you see everything!"
"I saw that!" he smiled anew. "Now, does this letter concern yourself or me?"
"Then I will read it."
She watched him eagerly while he read with a perfectly serene face from the first word to the last, and as she looked her amazement grew.
For this is what he read.
June 3rd, 188— "My DEAR YOUNG LADY,—
Will you kindly give me information from Beechwood, and so oblige and relieve the anxiety of an old man.
"I was in the mountains last week, and there met a tourist who has been, earlier in the season, a guest of your pastor (I believe he is your pastor), Rev. Mr. Arden of Pomfret; and he tells me that at the time of his departure my dear niece Brenda was in trouble; that her husband (who had lately returned from New York, where he had been on account of his health) was lying very ill, and that at his last hearing on the day of his departure, Mr. Deering's life was despaired of. I was also informed that you, fortunately, were with my poor niece, and as I am in doubt how to address her, I write to ask news from you. Kindly let me know the truth, so that I may write Mrs. D——fittingly without inflicting needless shock or jar upon her nerves; also tell me if, in your opinion, I could be of any use or comfort were I to come to Pomfret.—Yours most respectfully, "NATHAN HOLLY."
From beginning to end he had read the note slowly, and now as he refolded it and slid it carefully back into its envelope, Valentine fancied that she could detect the shadow of a quizzical smile about the corners of his mouth and lurking in his eyes. But it was gone in a moment, and he gave back the letter with grave politeness.
"It's quite exciting," he said without the faintest sign of excitement. "May I ask you, Miss Rodney, just what your sensations were, when you first read that letter? I am curious to know."
She was sure of the quizzical smile in the eyes, now, though the mouth was grave; and she met it with a little half-defiant smile in return.
"I had not been without my suspicion," she replied. "But it was a surprise, after all. I think, above all, I was glad!"| | 258
"Yes. Glad, because it gave me my chance! Up to that time could not approach anyone, in the way I wished."
"And now—Oh! I see it all now! And I hope I have done right in coming to you with this letter!"
"Oh, I see! And on account of this other Mr. Holly, I am to be ousted, I suppose? driven out of my snug nest, just as I am so comfortably settled? Or, am I to be blackmailed? Is that it, young lady?"
In spite of the gravity of the occasion her eyes were laughing now, and her retort came promptly.
"You are to be blackmailed," she declared.
"Then—will you name your terms?"
"I want you to take me, at least, a little way into your confidence, into partnership! I am so anxious, and there is so much to be done. Will not money, any sum, help, or hasten matters? Cannot—"
"Wait! Oh, we are going too fast! you have not told me yet who I am, if I am not, as you seem to think you have reason for believing, Mr. Holly?"
"I don't know who you are. But I think I know what you are."
"I think you are a detective!"
"Ah! And why, please? This is growing interesting."
"Because I happen to know that a detective was especially needed, and was witness to the interview wherein it was decided that a detective should be secured at once, and set to work upon this case. And, oh! there is so much need! Every moment since that decision, I have kept my eyes and ears open. I felt that a detective must come into the house, to do the work well. To succeed at all, in fact! And when I was told that the work was begun, but that the detective preferred to work in perfect secrecy, and would approach the house later, and in 'his own way,' his 'interest' being chiefly 'with the servants!'" She paused for a moment, but he made no comment, and she went on. "When I heard that, I said to myself, the first stranger who enters this house will be the detective, and when you came, I saw at once how easy it would be for a false 'Uncle Holly' to come among us! He was here for so short a time, and Bruce, Brook, and I were all absent. You played your part so well, however, that I could not quite believe you were not genuine! And then came the others, the census man, and the notion pedlar, and then I almost gave you up, and I began to fret anew, because everything seemed to drag so, and we are all shut off from mutual confidence by the awful thought that someone at Beechwood must have poisoned my dear guardian!" Her voice broke, and she turned away her face.
And now her companion put up his hand, and removed his disguising spectacles. Thrusting them into an inner pocket and drawing himself erect at her side, with an air of quiet authority, he took the reins from her half-unconscious hands; the pony had long since passed the brow of the hill and had been ambling along at his own will through a hedge-bordered lane.
"Now," he said, in a cheery and utterly changed tone, "you can | | 259 give your whole attention to our conversation, Miss Rodney, and we will talk seriously. It begins to look as if I were to be pretty well known at Beechwood, where I meant to be quite incog.; but I will say, at once, that I am not, by any means, sorry that this has happened! I know how much Mrs. Deering trusts you, and how high is her regard for you; and I should be but a poor judge of human nature if I could not read your character; I can see zeal, loyalty to friends, and ample courage, when courage is needed; and now, without betraying a trust, or revealing other people's secrets, how can I serve you?"
She hesitated for a time, then—"May I ask some questions?" she queried.
"You may! I will try to answer you."
"May I know how many, beside Brenda, know what you are?"
"May I ask—" she hesitated again.
"Who that one is?"
"I will tell you who it is not. It is neither of the Deerings."
"Oh! then it is Doctor Ware! I am so glad!"
"Is that all?"
"No, indeed! I must not ask about my uncle's murder now, but I so much wish to know if it was you who were called upon when—when Joe Matchin was killed?"
"It was I."
"Oh!" Her face was all aglow with strong feeling. "Then, may I know if anything—is being done in that case? and why were you withdrawn from it? My guardian used to talk to me about it a little, at first, and then, one evening, when I had been asking him questions, he began to tell me how there were reasons why the detective, whom he considered very able, had been withdrawn from the case! There was no case, he said, no strong proof, against his nephew, and so it would not be pushed, unless it transpired, later, that Bruce—his nephew, was in actual danger, which he thought improbable. He was about to say more, but Doctor Liscom came in just then and the talk was never renewed. Can you tell me why they took this course? Were you withdrawn from the case?"
"I was withdrawn from the case;—yes. And no reason was given to me."
"But you knew it!-you guessed?"
"Perhaps! It was only a guess,—however."
"I see that I must not press that point. Did Mr. Deering—Bruce, consent to your withdrawal?" She flushed and her voice shook, but her look was persistent.
"And can he be vindicated then? as the case now stands?"
"Vindicated? Hardly, I think, unless his lawyers have been at work, unknown to me."
She turned half round, and put a hand upon his arm.
"Mr.—" she began, and stopped with an inquiry in her eyes.
"Call me—Ferriss," he said.| | 260
"Mr. Ferriss, will you take up that case again?"
"The Matchin case?"
"Yes. Will you begin where you left off, and prove Bruce Deering innocent—or guilty?"
"And the other? Your guardian's murder?—what of that?"
"Are the two incompatible?"
"Are they not?"
"I do not think so," eyeing him closely.
"Because I believe the two crimes are connected!"
He changed the reins from his right hand to his left, and turned to face her.
"Tell me!" he said, almost sternly, "all that you know, guess, or suspect concerning both these cases!"
"I know very little," she replied. "But I have known Bruce Deering for years, and I know he is not guilty! I cannot give reasons for all that I believe. Women, you know, are governed by instincts, intuitions often, and I have felt, from the first, that these two murders, coming so close together, are connected in some way; and—there is one person whom—I—suspect."
"Of a knowledge—of some sort—of bothaffairs."
"Will you name this person?"
"When I have your answer. Will you resume work upon the other case? I have money—all you can use; no tatter how much. Why not take me for a client, as well as my cousin Brenda?"
"I will; but upon other terms. If I 'resume,' will you aid me?"
"As you can with ease. I will not ask you to betray yourself to others; it must not be guessed that you know me, other than as 'Uncle Holly;' but you can help me now, at once!"
"Tell me how!"
"By sending away your maid, and taking one whom I shall recommend. Will you do it?"
Firm and unhesitatingly came the answer.
"Yes;" and then, "Is that all?"
They had reached a point where the lane broadened and turned eastward; the sun was setting, and the spires of a pair of village churches could be seen in the distance.
"Had we not better turn here?" he asked, and then, "What village is that to eastward?"
"Fairleigh. Yes, we had better turn; we are five miles from home." They turned about and slowly began their homeward drive.
"We must come to a better understanding," he said, after a brier silence. "Tell me, whom do you suspect—and why?"
"I have seen," she began, "that you have interested yourselves in the servants, and are quite popular with them. What do you think of Madam Sarita?"
He started. "Do you suspect her?" he exclaimed.
"Yes," dropping her voice.
"And upon what grounds? Come now," with sudden animation, | | 261 "let's be as frank as we can; and, on my part, can I tell you anything more?"
Yes, I am wondering so much how one man can keep this case, not to mention the other, in hand. Are you really working alone?"
"If I tell you, may I ask the next question?"
She laughed for the first time. "Yes," she said.
"Then I have here, in Pomfret, four besides myself; and in other places, four others. In a week there will be more."
"Oh," she ejaculated, "I begin, for the first time, to hope!"
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