- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER LIII. ORA'S CONFESSION.
|<< chapter 52||< chapter 34||chapter 54 >||chapter 63 >>|
"I AM under a solemn promise," Ora began, when, after some moments of agitated pacing up and down, she at last calmed herself, with an effort, and resumed her place opposite the detective, "not to | | 339 reveal what I am now about to tell you. But I cannot sit here silent, while the man, who has sacrificed so much to screen an ingrate, is calumniated; accused of the most unnatural of crimes, and is no longer able to defend himself, if he would; knowing what I now know, it is no longer strange—to me—that Brook Peering has lost his reason! How could he retain it and live?"
She turned toward him suddenly. "Tell me!" she demanded, "have I known all the truth? I have been told that Brook Deering was 'temporarily insane,' made so by the troubles that have overwhelmed him since the first hour of his return to his home; and I was led to think that his recovery was almost accomplished, that I might even see him to-night—you saw that?"
"Yes," assented Murtagh, "I understood."
"What did you understand? Is Brook Deering still afflicted? Is he not his own master?"
"Miss Wardell—if Brook Deering were able to be interviewed, or to speak for himself, be assured I should have applied to him rather than to you! Believe me, if you are a friend to Brook Deering, or his cousin—"
"His cousin!"her eyes flashed fire.
"His cousin; yes. If you are a friend to either you cannot serve them better now, than by telling me the truth about past events. Understand me, I am not bent upon dragging all the facts into court, and it is only when you have refused me your help, and so driven me to extreme measures, that I shall turn to the law, and place my knowledge before a judge and jury! And if that happens, Miss Wardell, you will not be overlooked a second time. Bruce Deering has strong friends, who will move heaven and earth to clear him of this charge; but they do not court publicity, if it can be avoided—"
"Bruce Deering!—his warm friends! Man, what do you mean?"
"Simply, that there are those who believe in him—who mean to see him freed from the accusation of murder."
"Ah!" her voice was almost a hiss; her eyes were burning, her brow bent and wrathful, "and—you are employed by these—friends?"
"Yes. I told you, remember, that I was prepared to play an open game. I am employed by Bruce Deering's friends."
"And these are—Brenda Deering?''
"Ah—of course! Valentine Rodney too?"
"Yes—I believe she is also his friend."
"Indeed!-and whom, then, do they accuse?—these friends who 'believe' in Bruce Deering?" her lips curled as the question fell from them. Her face was a mirror of contending emotions.
"Can you ask? When they know who it was that lay concealed in St. Mark's and at Beechwood until—the night of the railway disaster at the east embankment."
"What! Do they—those women—do they think it was Brook Deering who struck that blow in Pomfret Bank? Do you?"
"Was it not he?"| | 340
She clenched her slim hands, and fairly writhed with the intensity of the strong emotions that swayed her.
"My God!" she cried. "And this awful wrong might have been perpetrated, and I left in ignorance! Oh! you thought to find it easy, with Brook Deering broken with a grief and shame not his own, to remove the guilt from the shoulders which shall bear it from this moment, and cast it upon a defenceless man! You would save Bruce Deering by accusing Brook! BROOK who has sacrificed himself to screen a proud family from disgrace, and to serve and save a false friend!"
She checked her fiery speech, and, for some moments, remained sitting erect before him, struggling mightily to regain her self-control; and, after a time, in a measure, it seemed accomplished. She drew a long sighing breath, unclasped the clenched and too expressive hands, and drew back in her chair, letting her head rest against the soft cushions.
"Listen," she said, in a low intense tone, evidently held down and controlled by a powerful will, mightily exerted, "Brook Deering is guilty of nothing save too great loyalty to his childhood's friend. Bruce Deering is the murderer!"
He moved slightly, and bent his head to conceal the smile hovering about his lips. He was inwardly triumphant, for he had led this haughty woman on—playing upon her feelings, affections, hopes, jealousies, and fears, like a skilful harpist upon his strings—and now he had only to restrain himself and listen, and this unsafe, dangerous throw was won.
"That there may be no more 'mistakes,' no room for doubt," she resumed, "I will go back to the beginning of the matter, and you will see that I can match frankness with frankness! Brook Deering and I have been friends since childhood. I have known Bruce Deering just as long, but there was never any sympathy, any comrade ship between us. As a lad, he was stiff, awkward, and serious, where Brook was bright, gay, and companionable. In their student days it was the same; only as he grew older, became a man, in fact, Bruce seemed to care not at all for the society of his own class, and was taciturn and self-absorbed to a degree. About this time there began to be occasional whispers concerning Bruce which were not all to his credit, and once I ventured, when Brook was praising his cousin, in whom he had the greatest confidence, to hint at a certain rumour which coupled Bruce's name with that of a certain young, girl, quite below him in station, but accounted one of the beauties of the village—"
"One moment," interrupted Murtagh, quietly, "was this girl called Rose Matchin?"
"I see you have heard something of that! I am glad, for it will help you to understand, and believe what is to come. As I have said. I had alluded, as best I could, to this rumour, when Brook at once took up the cudgel in his cousin's defence, and would hear no word against him. It was always so; Brook was a more than generous friend. Well—the time passed, and the two young men went from home, first to college, and then to the law school; and not long after | | 341 this last departure, Rose Matchin vanished one day, and has never been seen in Pomfret since. Of course, there was much talk, and once I ventured—Brook and I were correspondents—to hint once more at the talk about the girl. His reply was evasive. He would not speak against his cousin, and, I suppose, he could not honestly say much for him. He begged me not to allude to the subject again, and it was not long before I was convinced, although he continued to speak now and then of his cousin, and always with kindness, that there was a breach in their friendship. Accidentally it came out that they were not living together, as they had always done before, and before long, Brook left the city, came home for a time, and finally went abroad; Bruce, in the meantime, finishing his course in the city and returning home to enter into partnership, as junior partner, of course, with Messrs. Redding and Morse."
She stopped and was silent for a few moments.
"I must not prolong my story," she resumed. "Brook and I had continued to be friends, and were looked upon by many as lovers. But we were not betrothed at the time of his departure for Europe, and, in fact, a sort of coldness had sprung up between us, due mostly to my high temper, and a little to his genial thoughtlessness first-and to his proud sensitiveness later. After my father's death I went abroad with some friends. I had travelled upon the Continent with my father, who was even then an invalid, and was eager to see it again, and more extensively. In Paris we met—Brook and I, and renewed our friendship. He followed our party to Italy, and we saw much of each other. In fact, we became betrothed." A wave of rich colour swept across her cheeks. She uttered these last words in a softened reminiscent tone. "Gradually he let me into his confidence. He was still in communication with his cousin, Bruce, and was much distressed by his liaison. He feared that his father would learn the truth concerning Bruce, and also feared that the girl's uncle might make the secret known, as Bruce believed—although she denied the fact—that the girl had let her uncle into the secret, in part, at least. While Brook was thus troubled for his worthless cousin, to whom he still clung, he learned of his father's illness—and then as he was upon the point of setting out for home in haste, came a letter from his cousin, telling him that his father was quite well again."
"That must have been Mr. Deering's first illness."
"It was, as I learned afterwards, for I came home very soon after our parting upon the Riviera. And now," she said, with a quick catch of the breath, "I come to that terrible time, and I cannot dwell upon it."
"As you will," he murmured.
"One day I received a letter from Brook. He had grown anxious once more on his father's account, and had crossed hurriedly to New York, in company with a friend, and so suddenly that he had been unable to notify his people. In New York he had chanced to meet, upon the street near one of the theatres, that girl, and he must have been in a state of agitation to have written me so frankly as he did.—The girl was growing anxious and impatient, and was talking angrily of returning to Pomfret. in pursuit of her lover, when Brook met her | | 342 He had been upon the point of wiring to his father's wife, that big home-coming might not be too great a surprise to his father—but this meeting changed his plans. Bruce was in danger of being exposed, and his friends, as well as himself, disgraced. The girl, he said, had grown to love money, and a city life, and it was by giving her all the money he had with him, a considerable sum, that he prevailed upon her to wait in the city and let him deal with Bruce, in her behalf. It was not the first time that Brook had shared his generous allowance with his profligate cousin. Well, this letter was an appeal to ME. He must see Bruce before he went home, must see him at once! He would come to Pomfret by a train which would land him some three miles from town, at early dusk; and he would walk across the fields, and so enter town after dark, and unseen. He would send, by the mail which brought my letter, a warning to Bruce, and he would come directly to me "—here again the warm red dyed her cheeks, and her dark eyes softened, "and when it was later he would go to see Bruce in his down-town rooms, and remain there until morning."
She paused again, and all the blood went out of her face.
"Shall I ever forget that night?" she moaned, closing her eyes, and shutting her palms tightly, while her breast heaved and her breath came and went quickly. "He came, and no one had seen him, he said. It was nearly nine o'clock when he reached here, for he had loitered, not wishing to arrive until after the dinner hour; and I told him, as I had heard, that there was a bachelors' supper at a certain house upon the hill, and that Bruce was, of course, one of the guests. I had the library well lighted, and the curtains partly drawn, but I brought Brook at once to this room. No one saw him come, for I was in the grounds when he entered them, and I brought him in myself. Two or three times during the evening, I went down to the library and moved about, passed the windows, or sat, for a moment or two, near the big chandelier in the middle of the room; for he did not want the servants to know he was with me—nor did I, of course.
"It must have been almost midnight when he left me, thinking he would try and meet Bruce on his return from the hill—''
Again she caught her breath and clenched her trembling hands.
"I don't know how long he had been gone. I had no thought of sleep, but lingered in the library, moving about restlessly, and thinking how much Brook had done, and was still doing, for his recreant cousin, until, finally, I went through the little morning-room adjoining the library and stepped out upon the balcony through the open window. The morning-room was unlighted; and, while the place where I stood was in complete darkness, not six feet away from me the light from the nearest library window streamed out and across the lawn.
"Standing there a few moments, I found myself growing chilly in the night air, and was about to go in, when I fancied I heard a slight sound in the direction of the bank, or the church. I stopped to listen, and became almost certain that someone was coming through the grounds. At that moment I saw, on the belt of light from the library window, a shadow. It looked like the shadow of a human head, appearing and disappearing instantly, as if someone had ventured | | 343 too near the light and suddenly drawn back. Before I could check myself I had uttered a faint 'Oh!' It was scarcely above my breath, but it was answered at once; just as faintly, but distinct enough.
'Ora!' that was all, but I knew at once that it was Brook, and in another instant, I had breathed, 'Come here—the balcony.' He was there in a moment, and quite noiselessly. 'For God's sake,' he whispered, ' let me in!—hide—me, Ora! A terrible thing has happened!' 'Come! I said, and, in one instant almost, I had stooped down and caught his hand, and by my aid he had climbed the balcony rails. A moment later we were in the dark morning-room, and he was whispering in my ear how he had reached the bank, after walking about a little, just in time to witness what he feared was a murder, and to grapple with the assassin in such a way, he feared, as to receive some marks of the affray. The man had escaped, and he must not be known as a witness; it might make him endless trouble. There—the worst is out! You know the rest. There was a big cabinet across a corner of the room, and I pulled it away and made him stand behind it, while I went out and reconnoitred, as Tom Wells testified.
"All that night, and all the next day, I kept that man concealed in this very room! You see it is a corner room, quite isolated, with no porches or balconies, and with but one door, of which I kept the key."
"My soul!" ejaculated the detective, "but your grit and courage were wonderful! And so, when you drove past the place of inquest—and out to deliver the note to Sarita—you left a prisoner in this room?"
"Yes. And the note was to enlighten Sarita—and call upon her for assistance. When Brook learned that his people were absent, and the house almost deserted, he thought he would try and get into the mansard. But the search was so close it was not safe for us to remove him, and then I chanced to think of the church, and the next night took him there and into the gallery closet."
"And the murder? how did he explain that?"
"How? Surely you know! Brook's letter must have disturbed Bruce so that he felt forced into some sort of prompt action; as nearly as Brook could comprehend; then his cousin must have arranged with Matchin to meet him after the supper. But unknown to him—Bruce—the old man must have received the letter from his niece, which enlightened him, and enraged him so that when they met there was a scene; of course no one will ever know just how it began. But when Brook, after going to his cousin's rooms, and finding them in darkness, turned toward the hill—in the hope of meeting him on his return, he was amazed to see that a light was burning in the bank. Wondering at this, he approached a window, and drew himself up by his hands. Through the merest crack in the curtains, he was able to see his cousin—and the old man,—engaged in a struggle,—and, dropping to the ground, he ran around to the door.—Ah! how hard it is to tell the awful truth!—Running to the entrance he came full against the murderer—fleeing—"
"I say fleeing,—but the man who could so sacrifice himself, could hardly be the man to so explain, or describe, such an encounter They | | 344 must have recognised each other, of course,—but grappled, perhaps, before that recognition; for the garments in which Brook came to me were smeared with blood!"
"Oh," quickly. "What became of those garments?"
"They were burned,—by my own hands."
"Miss Wardell, you are the 'one woman in a thousand!' I pray, if I ever find myself in trouble, that I may have a friend as brave and strong as you!"
She sighed wearily, not heeding the implied flattery.
"Have I told you enough?" she asked. "Surely the rest is plain to you."
"A few more questions, please. We must be very sure, very clear, in order to be just, and not to blunder, or make needless trouble. You fully believe, then—that it was Bruce Deering who killed Joe Matchin?"
"Fully! who else could have done it?"
"True. And the motive? Your friend must have explained that to you in full, or you would never have given him your aid and sympathy?"
"It was clear enough! Only too clear. Bruce Deering was threatened with exposure; Brook's letter had warned him of this, and the other letter brought about the climax. Bruce was, in a measure, dependant upon his uncle. He had squandered his small fortune, almost, and he was scheming to recoup by making a good marriage—a marriage in which he would need his uncle's aid and countenance. His secret must be kept from his uncle at all hazards."
"One moment—the marriage—who was the lady?"
"The lady was—and is—Miss Rodney."
"I see. Pray, go on. Do you believe, then, that Bruce Deering poisoned his uncle because he feared an exposure?"
"Is it not as clear as daylight? Think how much was at stake!—think of the risk he ran—of public exposure—of loss of fortune—and—of the woman he loved, for he was madly in love with Valentine Rodney, as well as with her fortune. And then—the chance of exposure would not be great. Mr. Deering was an invalid, a sudden death was one of the probabilities of his case. He feared his uncle's watchfulness, his keen intelligence."
"A strong case, surely. And now why did Brook Deering sacrifice himself and invite suspicion by concealing himself as he did?"
"Can you ask? That is because you do not know Brook Deering! First, then—there was a strong bond of affection—the two had been comrades for their lifetime. Next, there was family pride, a desire to save them all from an open disgrace. If his father had been in his usual health, Brook would have gone to him at once for counsel; and there, again, was another strong reason for his course of action. To expose Bruce, might be to give his father his death-blow. And, last, setting all else aside, he was the sole witness to the crime. How could he stand up before a court of justice and literally hand over his life-long friend and playmate to the executioner? He could not do this thing, and when he came to me, pleading for my help that he might be concealed and thought to be still abroad—how could I | | 345 refuse him? No! I retract such cowardly words t I never thought of refusing him! Not for the sake of Bruce Deering! I long to see him punished as he deserves! It was for his own sake that I concealed Brook Deering in St. Mark's, where he slept upon two carriage robes, all I could venture to carry into the place; and where, every day, I went and made the great organ wake the echoes, to relieve his monotony, and for a pretext, carrying food and wine concealed, as best I could. I got him safely to Beechwood, where, for the sake of a recreant cousin, he, who was the son of the house, lived like a rat in the garret. And I invented pretexts to enter that house in order to communicate—for him—with his old nurse, who is his stanch friend, as you doubtless know."
"Doubtless. And now—one thing more. Was I wrong in saying that you conspired, with Madam Sarita, to keep the Deerings away from Beechwood?"
"No. You were right! Brook was almost ill, and we knew that he could not be so well cared for when the family came, in fact, it was our purpose to get him away from Beechwood before their return; but someone sent them an anonymous letter, which brought them too soon, when Brook was unfit to be removed; and, from that time, Sarita watched constantly for the chance, which only came with the wrecking of the evening express at the east embankment, near Beechwood. In the first excitement, she rushed to the mansard, having first scattered the maids and men—got him down the rear stairs—blew out the lights in the lower hall—and got him out of the house, almost in the face of that clever Doctor Ware, who has attached him, self to Beechwood."
"You are right in calling Ware clever," said Murtagh; "and now another question. Am I right in saying that your hasty journey to New York was to communicate with Rose Matchin, and to arrange for her quiet stay in that city?"
"I see you have informed yourself of everything. You are right—of course."
"And—you were generous enough to open your purse to supply the money which was to keep this rather costly favourite reconciled to New York, with only the society of her foreign companion or chaperon?"
She threw back her head with an angry gesture.
"You are wrong there; it was himself furnished the money, of which he had more than enough! And now, if you have finished, may I ask what use you intend to make of all this? How much courtesy am I to expect at your hands?"
"Every courtesy possible, Miss Wardell! I intend, if possible, to close this matter—for the sake of the innocent, who must suffer for the guilty, if not with them—as privately and secretly as possible. Just how we shall bring this about I cannot now tell; but, believe me, what you have told me here shall not be made known, except to those who must be enlightened; and, whatever steps are taken, I will, with your permission, consult with you or inform you in advance. Until you hear from me, therefore, rest in the assurance that nothing is changed. Above all, have no fear of being called upon as a witness | | 346 in any degree. If possible, the case of ' The People versus Deering, shall be taken out of court, and the guilty parties privately dealt with. And this, as you have said, for the sake of the family pride and honour, and to save the innocent from utter humiliation."
He arose and stood before her.
"Miss Wardell, allow me to express my thanks and my respectful admiration for the course you have pursued, your courage and candour. Be assured you will not regret it."
"Regret it!" she also arose. "I shall not regret it, or any act of mine in connection with this case, if it helps to put Brook Deering in his true position in the eyes of his friends! And be assured that nothing could have forced this information from me if you had not shown me plainly that my affianced husband—unable to speak for or defend himself—was in danger of being put in the place of the true criminal who would sacrifice his best friend to save himself! It was this, and the knowledge of how Lysander Deering met his death, which has caused me to turn Brook's generous self-sacrifice to naught by denouncing Bruce Deering. Merciful heavens! how can that man be punished enough? And it is the hideous knowledge that he has sacrificed himself for his father's slayer that has turned my poor boy's brain!"
She dropped back into the cushioned chair, and buried her face in its velvet softness.
"Go; pray go!" she breathed. "I cannot bear more!"
Murtagh caught up his hat and cloak. "Do not stir," he said, gently. "I can find my way out and back to my place. Good morning; and again thank you. You shall hear from me soon." At the door he turned back. "About that horse, Miss Wardell; with your consent I will return it to the stable as you suggested;" and then he was gone.
|<< chapter 52||< chapter 34||chapter 54 >||chapter 63 >>|