- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XL. "MY PRETTY COUSIN VAL."
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"MY PRETTY COUSIN VAL."
VALENTINE RODNEY came down the steps, which led from the rear door of the big central hall of Beechwood, and, glancing about her, took her way across the lawn to seat herself, after another swift glance, upon one of the rustic benches under the trees, where the hammocks were swung, and where the family had gathered the day previous.
It was a favourite place for all, though it was seldom visited so early in the day. But Valentine wanted to be alone, and to think; and the book which she carried, somewhat ostentatiously, a large and serious looking volume, was brought as a barrier between herself and any chance morning promenader. She sat, for a long half-hour, with the volume open in her hand, and never turned a page, until the sound of a step upon the gravel, very near her, and a rustling of the low-bending branches that shut in and made of the spot a peaceful bower, startled her, and she turned two pages with hasty fingers, and unseeingly.
It was Bruce Deering who stood before her, looking down upon her with a grave half smile, and, for a moment, in utter silence; then—
"Am I disturbing you very much?" he asked, and the young woman who had fairly braved the detection so shortly before, cast down her eyes and murmured a faint and low-spoken "N—no."
"Because," he went on, "if I am not, I would be glad to sit here, and to talk with you for—a few moments."
With the last words he sank down in the hammock nearest her, where he could look her full in the face, with scarce a yard of nature's green carpet between them; and as she was still silent, lie went on easily:
"My cousin is in consultation with Doctor Ware this morning, and, if not actually de trop, I was not needed. It seems a rare chance to find you here—and alone!"
There had been a time when these two were the frankest and friendliest of comrades for a long period; and then, a briefer time, when, upon her part, a shade of shyness and maidenly reserve had made her even more charming; a time when there were no more meetings halfway, no more eagerness for the rides, the archery, boating and tennis, that had been their almost daily summer sports; but | | 262 when sought she was as charming as ever, if not so openly cordial; and he had not seriously objected, at first, to this change. Then had come the blight upon him, the death of Joe Matchin, with its attendant calamities.
Perhaps he was thinking some such thoughts of their past and present as he sat looking into her downcast face, for she had hardly raised her eyes from her book, and after his last words, silence again fell between them, until, with a momentary compression of her curved red lips, she gathered her courage up, and, closing the book, asked, with that air of making conversation which most of us know very well:
"How is my Cousin Brook this morning?"
"Stronger, I think; but unaccountably nervous. He has taken a most singular fancy."
"Indeed! May I hear it?"
"I think I may confide it to you. Brook says that he has been kept awake during the night by footsteps directly overhead."
"In the mansard!" she exclaimed in genuine surprise. "He was dreaming—of course!"
"Very likely," he answered, "but it has taken hold of him strongly, this fancy. I never imagined Brook was so superstitious."
Bruce bit his lip.
"Well, he seems to insist that there was really someone up there, you know, and, of course, that is impossible."
"Of course!" she assented, and then added, "He must be very nervous."
"He is. Really, it seems to me that is his worst ailment now. Still he is growing stronger, losing that unusual pallor, and the strange staring look of the eyes. He's not strong, of course, anyone can see that."
"Oh, yes," she assented; "Brook was never strong—like you."
He looked up quickly, the half smile upon his face fading to deepest gravity.
"Ah," he sighed, "I am not strong now. I, too, have been shorn of my strength—in a different way."
She met his eyes now, quite in the old way; and said, with a little touch of impatience in her voice
"By whom?—and how?"
"Ah, I think you know! To stand blindfolded in the presence of an enemy—an enemy that threatens honour and perhaps life, and to know no way of discovering this enemy, have no weapon with which to fight him—is it not enough to weaken one? to make him a coward almost?"
She leaned toward him now, her eyes challenging his.
"Has it made you a coward?" she asked slowly.
"Ah!" he said wearily, "you ask a hard question; and if you keep on I shall lose the courage I had when I came to you. I came—to ask you a question—Valentine!"| | 263
She stirred uneasily, but was silent.
"May I ask it?"
"Yes." Her eyes had fallen again.
"When this calamity first fell upon me," he began, "and when I first saw you afterwards, you met me with hand outstretched, and you let me see, without speaking a word, that you still had faith in me; that the hideous accusation against me had not shaken that faith; at least that is how I interpreted you; was I wrong?"
"No," came the low answer.
"I was glad then—more glad than I can tell you; and it helped me to hold up my head and face my accusers calmly. But, later—before long, there came a change. You did not meet me with faith in your eyes; you shunned me, or, when we did meet, you avoided my glance, and—you have not put out your hand to me since." He paused, and sighed heavily. Her face had grown pale; her hands were tightly gripped about the book in her lap, and she did not lift her eyes nor speak.
"Once," he resumed, "I would have asked the reason for this change, as my right. Now, I beg you to tell it me!"
Suddenly the small head became erect, and the dark eyes flashed in his face.
"Why should you beg now what you had a right to demand once? Tell me that, Bruce Deering; then I can answer you!"
"Why?" He drew himself erect, and his answer came slowly, with sorrowful dignity: "Why? Because I am a man accused—and with no defence."
"No defence?" Her eyes were kindling.
He shook his head: "So it seems."
"Not even 'Not Guilty?'"
"That I can say, thank God! But will saying it be enough, think you?"
"Yes! If you can honestly say no more!" And now they are both upon their feet: "Now, will you let me put a question?"
"Anything," he replied gently. Her last words had been almost fierce.
"When we first met after that accusation against you, and I held out my hand to you, you had no other thought than to fight this awful charge to the last! Is it not so?"
"Is it your intention still?"
He started, and a look of surprise overspread his face; then he said, still very gently:
"I shall declare myself not guilty, and I shall defend myself as best I can."
"Defend yourself? Yes! But how about the detective who was to seek for the real culprit? the true murderer? Why has he given up this case? Why are you left to defend yourself? I am not the only one who has changed."
He threw back his head. There was a new look in his eyes.
"And is that the reason why—"
"I s it not reason enough?" she broke in, almost fiercely. "What | | 264 am I to think of a man who voluntarily throws away his chances for vindication because he thinks that there is 'not proof enough' to convict him, and that, therefore, he will be acquitted? Why should your friends care for you who care so little for yourself? And the assassin? What right have you to let him escape?"
For a long time, or so it seemed, he stood before her with head bowed and a troubled look. Then he lifted his face, and it was very sorrowful, but gentle still.
"Valentine," he said sadly, "this is the hardest moment of any since that fateful night. I would give my right hand if I could vow to you, here and now, that I would go from your presence and fight for my complete vindication with all the energy, all the power, at my command!—but—I would give my very life to hear you say that, in spite of all, in the face of all, you believe in me still! The opinion of the world is of some value to me; my friends' opinion is very dear; but yours is above price—and—I see—I have lost—it!" He turned away his head, and his lips quivered under their shadowing moustache.
She drew a sharp breath, and said, in a quick suppressed voice:
"Then the detective is withdrawn by your wish?"
He turned sharply. "By my wish? No!"
"By your consent only?"
"What?" he demanded proudly.
"I see; I understand! My guardian told me a little! Bruce Deering, you have given up your chance of vindication with uncle's consent, and that means that you—both of you—wished, if possible, to screen another! It will not be possible!"
"Not! and why?"
"Because you have no authority to say to the wheels of justice, 'Pause!' The search for Joe Matchin's assassin is to be reopened with vigour! There, don't question me! I may have my secrets too, I suppose. Joe Matchin's slayer must be found! Hush!"
Someone came hurrying over the grass from the direction of the house; and, as she drew quickly back, and nearer the rustic bench, the branches were again thrust aside.
"Oh—ah! here you are!" said Brook Deering, coming to his cousin's side, and linking an arm within his. "Ware left me, and advised exercise, so I set out to find you. What say you to a drive? Hervey will bring up my roadster shortly, and you may drive him—for once."
Bruce stood silent for a moment and then drew back, relieving himself from his cousin's grasp; a shadow had fallen upon his face, and he let his eyes rest for a moment upon the girl, who was also moving back a little, and stooping to take up the book which had slipped from her hand to the rustic seat. When she had lifted her head, and stood again upright, the book clasped between her two hands, he said, with another straight look into her eyes:
"If I am to be your charioteer, Brook, I must prepare for my 'honourable' position, and so—" He bowed to Valentine, strode past | | 265 Brook, and took a step or two in the direction of the gravelled path leading to the terrace.
"Oh, we won't set out quite yet," said Brook, languidly. "And as I am quite ready, unless Ware should think fit to prescribe a topcoat, I'll even sit here and keep ennui away from our fair cousin," smiling across at Valentine, and letting himself slide down into the hammock in an indolent attitude.
At his first words Bruce had paused with one hand upraised and grasping an overhanging bough; and before he had released his grasp or withdrawn his gaze from the two, Valentine had stooped and, catching up the trailing draperies of her sombre tea-gown, turned toward another outlet.
"Your fair cousin has loitered long enough with a dull book, and thinks it her duty to look after the welfare of Brenda and her guests. If you feel equal to the exertion you might aid me in such a very laudable effort; otherwise, I must leave you to your hammock and solitude;" and, before Brook could reply or bestir himself to join her, she had swept aside a bending bough, and Bruce, glancing across his shoulder as he strode away, saw her sweeping across the grass toward the east door, with a brisk springing step, and head held very erect; and the shadow upon his face lifted somewhat. As she mounted the curving steps, and he turned up the terrace walk, their eyes met for one instant, and when they had turned, going there separate ways, there was a softer look, almost a smile, upon each face.
Meantime Brook Deering, sitting in the idly swinging hammock, was wrinkling his brows, and saying to himself, "I wonder what they were saying! I wonder—Jove! it looked as if they had been quarrelling!" And he set the hammock lazily a-swing, murmuring as he watched her go lightly up the steps, "My pretty cousin, Val! It is hard lines on a fellow—this waiting!"
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