- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER LII. AT BAY.
|<< chapter 51||< chapter 34||chapter 53 >||chapter 63 >>|
AT nine o'clock, there were lights in the drawing-room at Beechwood, but its only occupants were Brenda Deering and "Uncle Holly." She, pale and preoccupied, although unaware of the mine about to be sprung so near her; he looking as comfortable and unconcerned | | 332 as if he had no thought beyond the present quiet hour, and his comfortable pillow in the hour to come.
Valentine had been informed that there would be no occasion for her vigilance; but, while she did not know the nature of the event about to happen, she knew that something was in the air, and she was too restless—and—yes—too nervous, to remain in the drawing-room, or, indeed, anywhere, for many moments together.
At ten o'clock, the lights were out in the drawing-room. Uncle Holly had discovered, before that time, how very weary Brenda seemed, and there was no prospect of an addition to their number. Bruce, who had passed the previous night in his cousin's room, having retired to his own shortly after dinner, and the doctor being "upon duty" near the invalid for the evening.
"It may be for the night as well," Ware had said, upon leaving the others shortly after dinner. "I want to watch the symptoms very closely just now, and if he is restless, I shall remain awake," and he did, wide awake and observant, until the first streak of day dawn.
And now it is eleven o'clock, and the house is still. Here and there, through some window of the upper floor, the beams of a lamp, burning low and softly shaded, gleam dimly through half-closed shutters or flowing curtains, for the women of this sorrow-haunted house are not in love with darkness.
The house is still; the doors are fast locked; and nothing stirs unless, it may be, in Brook Deering's apartment, where, in the dressing-room and chamber beyond, lamps are burning, softly shaded like the others, but not so dimly. The windows are open to admit the faint night breezes, and the rooms are still, for upon a couch in the dressing-room is Tom Wells fast asleep; and another form lies upon the bed, breathing slowly, regularly.
As midnight approached, the solitary watcher over these two sleepers begins to move about the room as if restless, his shadow now and then dimly outlined against one of the windows; once or twice he goes to the south window facing the garden, and, half hidden by the flowing curtains, stands peering out.
There is no moon, and some fleecy clouds glide across the sky to westward; there is a faint stirring among the tree tops, and as midnight draws near, and the watcher goes again to the window, the low, soft call of some night bird breaks the summer stillness. As he turns away, a moment later, the sound is repeated close at hand.
The watcher turns to look at the sleeper on the bed. Then he glances at Tom Wells, and smiles as he moves away. Five minutes later the lamps in both rooms are burning low, the curtains are drawn close, and no more shadows appear at either window.
Hardly ten minutes have passed since the lights grew dim at Brook Deering's windows, and the shadows vanished; and now from the darkness of the balcony above the library entrance a form emerges, and moves, slowly but with assured steps, straight toward the clump of bushes, near which Murtagh had hurled his boots at the cats, and beyond them, stopping near a tall oak tree midway between the house and the park palings. The figure is draped from head to foot in a cloak, which quite conceals the sex of its wearer, who stands an instant | | 333 peering into the darkness beneath the tree and then utters a sound, so slight as to be inaudible a few feet away, a sound like the soft chirp of some small and sleepy bird.
Instantly almost, a second shadowy form comes toward the first from beneath the oak—comes quickly and close; and there is the faintest whisper.
There is a quick catching of the breath, and the waiting figure moves closer, and puts out two hands, which brush aside the loose cloak and clutch at the sleeve of a masculine coat.
"BROOK!" catching at the unseen hand. "How—why!—Thank God, you are yourself once more!—tell me—"
"Hush," whispers the other, "we cannot talk here; it is not safe. Did you come by the creek? Did you drive?"
"Then go back; I will follow you; we must have a long talk."
"To your ph#x00E6;ton; it's the only way; and not so risky as this. Hark!" he listens a moment, and then whispering "go on," pushes her gently before him down a path which both seem to know.
Arrived at the park fence, they go through a little gate, and then, he following as before, they cross a corner of the park; here there is an improvised stile, over which she goes easily and without hesitation, and he, after exploring with his hands, for the shade is dense here, follows her. They hurry on down a path which must be familiar, for it is scarcely discernible except by the opening in the foliage above their heads. They cross the little footbridge, where Jonas Wiggins and Tom Wells began their duel of wits, which was not yet ended; and a moment later she halts where the trees stand thick, and where, a little out of the seldom-travelled wagon track, a road wagon and stout horse is tethered.
"You must not remove your cloak," she whispers. "I will drive," and quickly and easily she unties the high-headed animal, and has him out in the road, the wheels working noiselessly, the horse's feet muffled in soft felt hoof bags.
As they take their places, she stands erect in the wagon and lets the concealing cloak slip from her shoulders, revealing herself dressed in masculine attire down, or up to the soft felt hat, which she takes from beneath the seat, and fits it upon her head. If he could see her face he would know that she was flushing hotly, and as she resumed her seat, and took the reins from his hand, he was aware that she was trembling violently.
"You see," she whispered, as they began to move slowly through the dark strip of woods, "it has come to this; after that night when that terrible man threw the shoes, I resolved to protect myself in any and all possible ways! If I must be caught, I decided it would make matters no worse to be caught en masquerade; in fact," and again he felt her shudder, "nothing would matter—if we were caught!"
"Softly!" he whispered; "we must not say too much—here."| | 334
"No. But can't you tell me something more about your illness? I know so little! only what Sarita said—"
"And—what did she say?—tell me."
"Not much, of course; the chances were so few."
"Did she tell you that I meant to try this?"
"To go home with me? No; only that you were not so ill as rumour made you—and that you would make a great effort to evade them all—soon. Tell me, how did you manage? and—am I to take you back?"
"You know it, Brook! But you?—she said someone slept in your room all night."
"True enough; someone does sleep there. It's surprising how quickly a good round bribe will put a watcher to sleep, and how long he will remain asleep!"
"Oh—and was it William?"
"No, William serves by day. It is Tom Wells to-night."
"Oh!" she checked the sharp little exclamation. "Brook, I don't like that man! Every time I meet him he seems to look at me so—so strangely!—not staring-only a glance, but such a glance! I am half afraid of him! You know—I told you about—that meeting?"
"And—Sarita? suppose someone should see her downstairs, or about the halls?"
"They will not; Sarita is very clever."
"Oh!—but I must stop talking, we are out of the woods. Now I shall drive swiftly until we reach the corner."
"One moment—this horse? What will you do with him?"
"Mrs. Fram—Brook, I never could have managed without that woman! she will do anything for me—and money! I couldn't risk taking one of my own horses again, so Mrs. Fram sent to a stable for this animal—for her own use, this evening. The stable people suppose she will be driven by one of our servants; our people fancy that the stable supplies driver as well as horse. When we reach the corner—it's only two blocks from the church, you know—we will get out, tie the horse at the front, and ring the stable bell. The night officer, luckily, is upstairs, and we can be around the corner and a block away before the door is opened." She had checked her horse at the end of the wood road, while she made this explanation, and she now started it on again with a shake of the reins, then pausing again, "But you—I quite forgot, I must keep the horse! I will drive it beneath my carriage shed."
"Very well," he assents; "let us hasten, time is precious, and I have much to say."
"And I—" she checks herself and urges on the silent stepping horse.
They arrive in safety. The swinging gate opens for them like an enchanted postern of old, and the horse goes quietly into the empty carriage shed.
He follows her cautiously up the smooth path to a side door, which opens silently, and down a dimly-lighted hall; as they pass a half-open | | 335 door, it suddenly swings inward, an old woman confronts them for a half second, and, at a wave of the hand, disappears again, closing the door tightly.
"Brook," murmurs Ora, "I am going to take you up to my den," she says, still preceding him. "It's too warm for the library, with closed windows; and the den, you know, is a nook by itself; all the servants sleep in the other wing, and Mrs. Fram is downstairs."
At the door of the den she pauses, having thrown it open; this tipper hall, like the other, is but dimly lighted. He still wears his shrouding cloak; she had removed hers, upon stepping from the wagon.
"Go in," she says, pushing the door open, "and, will you pardon the darkness, until I come back? It will be very soon."
As he enters, she flits away, and while he gropes for a seat, he smiles, knowing well that her haste, and the darkness, are because of the masculine disguise, which she evidently wears with disrelish.
She is back sooner than he had thought it possible; and he hears the swish of soft trailing skirts as she crosses the room, having closed the door, regardless of the darkness.
Then there is a snap and a flash, another, and another; and the room is filled with soft radiance from a swinging chandelier. He rises to his feet, taking in, at one swift glance, the lovely room, bower, rather than den, fitted with the gorgeous colouring fabrics so becoming and so suited to the splendid brunette beauty of its mistress.
And she, Ora Wardell! for a moment she stands before him, her eyes uplifted toward the glittering chandelier, and he notes her full graceful figure, the charming curves of her fine neck and throat, the perfect profile; and then she turns toward him, her dark eyes gleaming, the rich colour coming and going in cheek and lip; the white hand outstretched; the soft sheen of the vivid, rose-bud negligé gleaming as she sweeps toward him.
He has risen now, and he stands before her, still muffled in the concealing cloak, and with his hat pulled low upon his brows.
The cloak has fallen, the hat is removed with a gesture of perfect respect, and Ferriss Murtagh and Ora Wardell are face to face. She, with one white hand pressed against her breast, facing him there, mute, amazed, but without one visible shadow of fear.
"Do not be alarmed, Miss Wardell! I am not a burglar—I am a detective."
"A detective. Engaged in ferreting out two murders here in Pomfret. I have been here, in the town, since the murder of Joe Matchin, and I have found it necessary to learn and to see something of you. Will you allow me to sit down, and will you also sit, and hear what I have to say? I assure you I am not your enemy! In fact, I very much wish to be your friend; at any rate, I hope I am a man of honour. I may as well add that I know all about your connection with Joe Matchin's unfortunate slayer, from the moment when, for friendship's sake, you concealed that person, first, in your own grounds, and then in St. Mark's Church; and,—later, transferred him to Beechwood and the care of his former nurse, who, like yourself, proved his true friend. I | | 336 know of your meetings in the grounds of Beechwood—in fact, I know—everything!"
"Everything?" If her first thought had been to order him from her presence she no longer harbours it. The blaze of anger which had flashed up into her face at his first words has faded, leaving her pallid, and, while her voice is controlled, and slightly scornful, she is experiencing an actual panic of terror; not for herself, but for the man in whose cause she has jeopardised herself. Suddenly she turns and, seating herself upon a low, broad chair, motions him to another opposite; and while he draws it nearer, and seats himself, she determines upon her course of action as best she may.
"I will not waste my time, nor yours, in comments upon your manner of forcing yourself into my presence. A detective, it seems to me, might easily have introduced himself into my house in a simpler and less sensational manner. Since you are here, be so good as to tell me why you have chosen this time and way?"
"Thank you, Miss Wardell; your good sense and business-like methods will, I perceive, simplify matters much for both of us. I might have appeared in your drawing-room as an orthodox caller, but time, just now, is of value, and I felt sure that this was the quickest way of gaining your,—shall we say, confidence—?"
Her lip is curled contemptuously. "It sounds well," she comments—bitterly.
"Yes. Now, let us come to the point at once; you observe that I ask nothing of you in advance, in exchange for my confidence; I intend to lose no time in laying my cards upon the table open to your inspection."
"One moment. Suppose you fail to receive a return in kind?" He smiled.
"Or—I might betray your confidence—"
"To—the parties most interested."
"The parties most interested are Brook and Bruce Deering. To which would you—perhaps—betray me?"
She frowns. "To both, perhaps."
"Pardon me. I should prefer not to say unpleasant things. But—it rests with me whether, after to-night, you are permitted to see either Bruce or Brook Deering."
"What do you mean?" She half rises from her seat, and then sinks back again, holding herself with an iron grip.
"Simply this, Miss Wardell. While I have no mind to accuse you of anything, save a willingness to assist a friend in trouble, others might describe what you have done in harsher terms. And—it depends upon the result of this interview whether I go from your house your ally, or a man compelled by a stern sense of duty to arrest Brook Deering, order Bruce Deering into confinement, and take out a warrant for your arrest, as an accessory before the fact, in the murder of Joe Matchin."
"Allow me to explain myself. On the day after Joe Matchin's murder, I was called to Pomfret to investigate the case; I cannot now | | 337 go into details, but I have spent a lifetime in such work, and, after hearing all that could be told—all that was known—I began to look about. The sudden and complete disappearance of the murderer was very puzzling, to me, as well as to others,—and I very soon decided that he went into instant hiding,—he or they."
She starts, and can barely suppress a sharp cry, but Murtagh goes calmly on: "The first person who struck me as worthy of suspicion, Miss Wardell, was—yourself; and that before I had so much as seen your face." And, while she sat staring, and listening, as one fascinated, he told the story of the inquest, and of her encounter with Torn Wells.
"After hearing the man's story," he went on, "you became an object of interest to me, and I never lost sight of you, for long."
"But why?" she breaks in. "What did I do to cause you to suspect me?"
"Ah, you never dreamed that we could suspect Miss Wardell, did you? But a detective soon learns not to be a respecter of—persons, and the fact that you were an aristocratic young lady, who might easily have sent a servant to inquire into the disturbance, and so late, too, was enough to set me thinking. Next, while the inquest was in progress, you drove out—an easy way to avoid a summons as witness, to tell what you could about the footsteps which, according to Wells, you had heard running past the house,and the horseman who rode away down the avenue a moment later. These were first clues, and not to be neglected by an experienced sleuth—"
"Sleuth indeed!" she mutters.
He smiles, and goes on as before. "Next came your call upon the coroner, and Sheriff Carton, after you had driven to Beechwood to leave a message with Madam Sarita!"
"And next, came your meeting with Madam Sarita, on the day before the Deerings came back from New York; you were mounted—she driving; and you once more slipped a note into her hand. Next, you visited New York, called away, according to Miss Rodney, by the illness of a friend. On that occasion I accompanied you, not far in the rear; you had business with a certain Frenchwoman there."
Ora is lying back in her chair now; her hands are clenched in her lap, and her teeth are clenched over her white lips.
"You see," he continued, "I was making fair progress, and you might have made my acquaintance much sooner but for a singular circumstance which puzzles me somewhat even vet. I was employed, you must know, by the friends of Bruce Deering, who, one and all, believed in him, and were bent upon proving him innocent. In spite of myself I began to feel an interest in the young fellow, and was upon the point of calling upon you—to get—if possible—your testimony, for or against him, when, suddenly, I was sent for by the uncle of the accused—Lysander Deering-and requested to drop the investigation."
"Does it surprise you? It did me! But Mr. Bruce Deering acquiesced in the matter, and even Mr. Baird and Lawyer Redding | | 338 seemed to agree that the case should be dropped. It was dropped accordingly, and I went back to the city."
"And—it was re-opened—later?" she is leaning forward now, evidently she is hearing something quite new to her, and, for some reason, most interesting.
"Not—in the way you evidently suppose. The next time I heard from Pomfret, there was another murder to investigate; I was called back by Mr. Baird to find out, if I could, who poisoned Lysander Deering of Beechwood."
"WHAT!" it is almost a scream; every vestige of her self-control seems gone. "You are—practising upon me!"
"Upon my word no! I am anything but a practical joker. The matter has been kept secret from everyone except the family; even the servants are ignorant of the truth. Lysander Deering died by poison, and, Miss Wardell, after serious thought and some hesitation, I have decided to appeal to you. Can you refuse to tell me the truth about Joe Matchin's death, when I tell you that, beyond a reasonable doubt, both crimes were committed by the sane hand?"
She is on her feet now, flinging out her arms, and wringing her hands like a creature tortured beyond endurance; she is terribly agitated. Murtagh also rises. It is the tug of war.
"Tell me," she gasps, and there is a smouldering fire in her dark eyes; "do you, does any one suspect—"
"Why, assuredly; we only ask for your confirmation; and I would be glad if it was your vindication too."
She comes closer, and grasps his arm with a strong, nervous hand. "Tell me," she demands, ignoring his reference to herself; "tell me, what shall you do if I refuse to speak?"
His answer came quick and stern.
"Make, at least, three arrests at once!"
"Brook! Do you mean—do you accuse him?"
"He was in your house on the night of the Matchin murder; he spent a week or more in the church. He was concealed in the attic by Sarita. Can you deny it?"
"And Bruce Deering?" she fairly clinches the arm she still grasps;" what is he in your eyes?"
"A victim, a scapegoat, or so it now appears to some of us."
She flings his arm from her, and her dark face fairly flames. "Sit down again," she cries; "I am going to tell you the truth."
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