- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER LV. ORA'S LAST MOVE.
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ORA'S LAST MOVE.
ORA WARDELL possessed a strong personality loyal to the death to whom she loved, and implacable in her hate. But strong as was her will, it was not stronger than her pride.
At the moment of her parting with the detective, the strongest feeling of her heart was hatred towards Bruce Deering, the man who was, in her eyes, the first cause of her humiliation of the hours just past and who had put in jeopardy the safety, perhaps the honour, of the man she loved her affianced. But she wasted no moments in useless repining, or railings at destiny. Instead, she rang for her maid at an early morning hour, and, after careful instructions, sent her out upon a very delicate mission.
She was to go to Beechwood and ask to see Miss Rodney in person. Should she fail in this, there was a note, carefully sealed, to be sent up to that young lady. She was also entrusted with a second note upon the chance of her encountering in the grounds, or about the halls, either Sarita or Bruce Deering. This second note was addressed to Bruce, and the maid was charged to return it to the sender rather than deliver it into any other hand.
The note to Valentine read as follows—
In certain crises a magnanimous woman will lay aside all prejudice and personal feeling, and will aid even an enemy, if by so doing, great danger, or suffering, or shame may be averted from friends that are dear. Such a crisis has come for you and for me. Together we may lessen, or even avert a terrible blow to the inmates of Beechwood. If you love Brenda Deering or any other of that household, come to me at once, without a moment's delay. If I were free to come to you in this emergency, I should not hesitate one instant." | | 353 but this would defeat my purpose. Under no circumstances let any one know your destination, but in the name of our mutual womanhood I for your own sake for mine in Heaven's name, COME.ORA WARDELL."
This was the summons which was put into Val Rodney's hand as she came downstairs to a solitary breakfast, after an almost sleepless night and she answered it with as much promptness as Ora could have desired.
"Tell your mistress," she said in an undertone, to the waiting messenger, "that I will be with her in half an hour. How did you come?" kindly.
"In Miss Wardell's phaeton, miss. It is waiting at the lower gate." The maid was shrewd and quick of eye, but she left Beechwood without a glimpse of either Sarita or Bruce Deering, and the second note was returned to her mistress.
Breakfast was a brief function for Valentine that morning her toilet even briefer and in just thirty-five minutes after the reading of Ora's imperative summons, she appeared at Wardell Place, and was promptly conducted to the den.
Ora rose to receive her with a sigh of relief, and Valentine knew, after a glance at her pale face, compressed lips, and sombre eyes, that conventionalities would be as naught between them, and that the Ora Wardell now before her was the natural woman.
"Thank Heaven" ejaculated Ora as she came to meet her. "And thank you for being so prompt."
"I could do no less," replied Valentine gravely and then she stood awaiting the next word.
Ora turned the key in her door and drew forward a seat for her visitor, which, after a moment's hesitation, Valentine accepted.
For a moment Ora stood looking down upon the bonnie face, full, now, of serious inquiry and then, with a spasm of pain crossing her own fair features, she dropped into a chair opposite Valentine and covered her face with her hands to conceal a sudden quivering of the lips. It was but a momentary weakness, and, when she lifted her face, it was set and stern.
"I have sent for you, Miss Rodney," she began, "to ask your aid, not for myself, but for another in whom we both have an interest. And I will say at once that it has to do with that wretched murder, the 'Matchin murder,' as it is called by all Pomfret, and with the poisoning of Mr. Deering—"
"Which," went on the other, "was unknown to me up to last night, or, this morning, to be exact. It concerns Brenda Deering, whom you love Brook Deering, who is, at least, your friend, and Bruce Deering, who is not worthy of that name"
Again Valentine started and this time an ominous light flashed from her eyes, but she held back the words that sprang to her lips, and Ora went on.
"To begin, I will say that, last night, very late, I received a visit from a detective, who, he tells me, has been an inmate of Beechwood for some time and who is certainly a keen and energetic man. He came to me because he thought, or believed, that I possessed know- | | 354 ledge concerning the Matchin case, which would be very useful to him—"
"Yes, I. And so it proved. Shall I tell you of what he accused me?"
Valentine's face was horror-stricken,—but she closed her lips firmly and for a moment seemed to consider. Then she replied "As you will."
A faint smile flitted across Ora Wardell's face, and she leaned a little nearer her guest. "He accused me of having concealed the slayer of Joe Matchin, on the night of the murder, and after."
"My GOD" Valentine involuntarily drew back, and her lips, stiff with horror, framed the words, "Is it—true?"
"No! The man who slew Joe Matchin has never been in concealment. He has been free and surrounded by friends It was the loyal friend—who, to save the guilty, and divert suspicion, willingly sacrificed himself—that I sheltered, fed, and aided as best I could, while for weeks he lay in concealment. It was the only witness to the crime; who, if his presence in Pomfret had been known, would have been dragged forward and forced to testify against the murderer He came to me and begged me to aid him, in the only possible way, to save the man who, assassin though he was, had still been his friend, his almost brother, for a lifetime"
"Stop!" Valentine's face was set, and her eyes were blazing.
"Not another word until you have told me the names of these two men"
"Miss Rodney, do not, I beg of you, misunderstand me—My motive justifies—"
"As you will. The names are those of the nephew and the son of your late guardian."
"And—which—?" her voice died in a whisper.
"Miss Rodney, it was Bruce Deering who killed, first, Joe Matchin, and then—later—his uncle. And it was Brook Deering who, reaching home that night, and, meaning to lodge with his cousin, went out to meet him at a late hour and from this house and who, witnessing the murder, came back to implore me to save him from the horrible task of denouncing his cousin—his playmate and companion—whom he had loved as a brother; and it was to ask you to aid me, to help me to warn them both, so that they may not be taken unawares, that I have sent for you. I—"
"Stop." Valentine had risen slowly, and now Ora arose also, and the two confronted each other, both pale and quite forgetful of self. "One moment," said Valentine firmly. "What do you ask me to do"
"I cannot go to Beechwood I could not approach either of the two if I went. What I ask is simple, only that you carry back two notes, both of them unsealed."
"To Brook and—Bruce"
"Miss Wardell, it will be useless. Wait—I will be as frank as your- | | 355 self. If you have seen the detective you must know that he is not a man to make mistakes. If he dealt with you so plainly, and left you to use his information as you would, be assured that it was because he has no fear of anything you might do, or attempt. Nor is this all. I have been for some time, in a measure, in the confidence of this detective; and have lent him my aid in his work. I am sorry for you, Miss Wardell a woman does not do what you have done for a mere friend, and, I must tell you that you are all wrong; no matter what the detective, for his own purpose, may have told you, or allowed you to believe, Bruce Deering is not the guilty man! You have been shamefully tricked and deceived"
"Never!" Ora's dark eyes were blazing, but she controlled herself by a strong effort. "Miss Rodney, having said so much, I have, I claim, the right to ask you to hear me out I can prove my words; you—who are so sure of your ground, dare you sit down now and hear me out? Hear the story, word for word, if you will, as I told it not long ago to your detective"
Val's head went up, haughtily erect, and she turned, with a look of cold scorn that sat strangely upon her pale face, and seated herself again.
"Let us waste no time," she said; "I am listening, and I shall not interrupt."
For an instant Ora's face wore a look of wonder and perplexity; then she, too, sat down, and again told her story, as she had told it before to Ferriss Murtagh.
Valentine, as she had promised, heard her without interruption, but with frequent starts and changes of countenance; her face settling, at the last, into pitiful gravity.
At the end both were silent for a moment, and then Valentine spoke.
"Miss Wardell, I thank you for telling me this; all of it It puts what you have done in its true light, in my eyes; and in your place—with your faith and belief, I hope—I think I might have been as brave—as stanch, as loyal, as you You have taken great risks for—the man you loved and believed in, and now—you have been so frank, may I ask one question—and will you answer it frankly"
"Why did you and Brook—keep your engagement from—his father?—from all of us"
"Is it possible—do you—not know?"
"I have asked."
"And I must answer. Did you never know then—that it was the dearest wish of your guardian's heart that Brook and you should become affianced? That he had made known these wishes to Brook That was why In his ill health Brook dreaded, yes, feared to cross him. He hoped—we both hoped, that time would work changes—"
"Miss Wardell There has been deceit, treachery, somewhere I know that my guardian had quite other plans for me. I certainly had no such thought for myself. And I must say to you again—you are all wrong! Bruce Deering is not the guilty man"
Ora sprang up. "And—do you mean, do you think—or accuse Brook of these horrors?"| | 356
"I accuse no one,"she was speaking calmly now, holding herself in check; and she arose slowly and turned toward the door. Then she paused. "All this is terrible! I wish—" she turned back suddenly. "Give me the two notes," she said; "I will deliver them if it is possible."
Ora hesitated. "You doubt the possibility?" she questioned.
"No.Only—I have not entered Brook's room since his illness, but—you can trust me, Miss Wardell."
"I must trust you!" Ora took two unsealed notes from her girdle, and then drew back. "Valentine Rodney, I wish I could understand you!" she ejaculated.
All the fire and haughtiness were gone from Valentine's face, her voice was gentle, even pitiful as she replied:
"Trust me, now,—and, after a time we shall both understand better; and then—I hope I may be your friend, Miss Wardell! This—" taking the letters from Ora's hand, "I am doing solely for yoursake.''
Valentine Rodney, when she entered her pony carriage, and took up the reins, was far from being the composed young woman she looked. What Doctor Ware had said was quite true; she was overdrawing her stock of strength, and her nerves were tense, to the point of danger almost, even before she had received that summons from Ora Wardell.
She had hurried away from Beechwood without seeing Brenda, and had left word that she meant to drive to Mrs. Baird's, where she came and went freely, like a daughter of the house. She was very glad of this chance to rest and compose herself before returning home, and she knew that Mrs. Baird, at that hour, would be at her usual morning task of planning the dinner menu, and laying out the day's work in general, in the little room off the kitchen, sacred to the china shelves, the linen drawers, and the housekeeper's desk. As for Mr. Baird, he was pretty sure to be in the garden at this hour, or at the stables.
"If I can only have a quiet quarter of an hour in the cool library!" she murmured as she left her ponies at the side entrance, where they were content to stand in the cool shade of the ports-cochère and the great trees beyond.
She was trembling from head to foot, and she realised that she was on the eve of a breakdown—now that she was alone, and the restraint she had put upon herself was relaxed. She met a housemaid at the entrance, and, bidding her say nothing to Mrs. Baird, until she had finished in the kitchen, and being told that the library was unoccupied, she entered through one of the long French windows which stood invitingly ajar, and gave a sigh of relief as she noted the dusky coolness and seclusion of the place.
The long library was, in fact, only lighted from the single window at which she had entered, all the others being darkened, and she crossed to a low couch, where she flung herself down with another sigh, louder and longer than the first.
For a moment, she sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her pulses throbbing, and her nerves quivering yet from the excitement of her late interview; and then, suddenly, she flung herself prone upon the | | 357 couch, and great sobs shook her frame, while from her lips came the low moan:
"Bruce Deering! Oh, Heavens! I cannot bear it! Bruce!"
What Doctor Ware had predicted had come to pass. Valentine had broken down utterly. And then—from out the shadows at the lower end of the room, arose a tall form, the form of Bruce Deering; and, as if in answer to a call, he advanced swiftly, with a strained, eager look on his face.
She did not hear him. The sobs were coming thick and fast, and the little hand that hung at her side was tightly clenched.
"Valentine! Miss Rodney!"
She sprang erect in an instant, the sobs choked back, and she almost shrieked when she saw him beside her, and then the words came tumbling over each other with hysterical eagerness, and she snatched from her pocket the two letters.
"Ah! it's you! So glad! I mean—so—I've just left Miss Wardell, your cousin's fiancée. She—she sent you this—no, THIS—" snatching back one white envelope to substitute another. "I—I promised her to give you this! It's—all quite safe—with me—I—I shall say nothing; take it," thrusting the letter into his hesitating hand. "And—you ought to read it—at once—at once—QUICK!" and she motioned him toward the window, and again buried her hot face in the pillows.
Mechanically he obeyed her, and, opening the note, read these words:—
"It is not to save the life of a coward and assassin that I send you this warning, Bruce Deering; but because—now when he lies helpless through loyalty to you, I cannot see his self-sacrifice come to naught. The detectives are close upon you, even this may be too late,—but, if you can, fly before Brook Deering learns that his father's blood is also upon your head! I have learned what as yet he does not know. May the punishment which you may, perhaps, escape here, overtake you elsewhere, double assassin that you are! O. W."
With this strange warning in his hand, Bruce Deering strode back to her, and the tone in which he now addressed her quieted the half-frantic girl as if by magic.
"Miss Rodney—do you know what this note contains?
"N—no," she gasped.
"It is not sealed!"
"Therefore—you sanction its sentiments—of course?"
"Therefore—you sanction its sentiments—of course?"
"I?" Her voice trembled her head drooped.
Suddenly, he flung back the nearest curtain, and threw open the blind.
"Read that note," he said, thrusting it into her unsteady hands; and, somehow, it never occurred to her not to obey him; she leaned toward the light, read the lines, and flung the paper from her.
"And I brought you that! Oh, Bruce—Bruce!"she stretched out her hands imploringly, and the tears stood in her eyes, but he drew back.
"Valentine—do you believe that charge? any word of it?"
"I!"She sprang up and stood before him, her eyes shining; she had forgotten her own dignity, everything—in the face of this awful | | 358 charge against him. She had held her own in the presence of that other woman, but now—"Do I believe it?" she cried. "Bruce Deering, would I sit at the same table, sleep under the same roof with you, if I did? Would I have watched and studied, and forced that detective to make himself known to me, that I might tell him that you were innocent—and that he must begin again?—would—"
"Valentine! Did you do that? Why did you do it?—why?" His face was aglow with intense feeling. He had caught her hand in his. Ignorant of what was going on n bout him, he had sought the banker's house that morning, weary and discouraged at what seemed, to him, a forlorn outlook; and, sitting with bowed head in the dark library, thinking of Val Rodney and his hopeless love for her, this had come to pass! He had told himself that, even if she cared for him, it would be cowardly and unmanly to seek comfort from her, and, from the day of Joe Matchin's death, he had held to a stern resolve; but, in spite of his resolve, and her pride, the barriers were down.
As her small hands fluttered in his grasp, he bent and looked into her eyes, which she could not altogether hide.
"Val, my love!—my little darling Tell me! Tell me! I must know now! Was it only pity? Did you care? Tell me Tell me!"He caught the two little fluttering hands in one larger, stronger one, and with the other turned the tear-stained, mignonne face up to meet his own.
"Look at me, Val! Tell me which was it. Which? Did you care?"
The tear-wet eyes met his for a moment, and then, with something between a laugh and a wail, for Val was fast growing hysterical, she sobbed out:
"You know!"and was caught fast in his arms.
A little later, when Val, quieter now, and happier, but with tear-wet cheeks and still sighing softly, turned her eyes towards the dropped note, she started suddenly.
"Bruce, you must destroy that at once!"
"I will—but, Valentine, am I not to know what that mad message means?"
She shook her head. "Bruce, you won't ask me now? Please do not. I'll tell you this much. I went to Miss Wardell's in answer to a note from her, urging me to come. And—Bruce, I believe that she believes just what she charges in that hateful note. I don't understand it. But—I—I have been taken a little bit into the confidence of the detective she speaks of,—and until I see him, until I understand, won't you trust me? I can't say more—only—he is your friend, Bruce, and you know I am!"
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