- CHAPTER XXV. THE LAST STROKE.
|<< chapter 24||< chapter 1|
THE LAST STROKE.
AS the solicitor turned toward the newcomer, the man and woman exchanged glances, and while he was still confident, not to say defiant, he looked to the unobservant solicitor with a nervous, apprehensive glance, and leaning toward her would have whispered a word of his anxiety; but she shook her head, and the next moment the solicitor was naming them to each other and, as Mr. Myers paused before the lady, continued with the utmost directness--
"Mr. Myers, this lady denies the existence of any and all American heirs. She fears you may have been deceived. Do you know this man Brierly to be living at present?"
"I believe him to be living."
"Mr. Myers," said the lady, sweetly, "I am very sorry to think or say it, but you have certainly been grossly | | 302 tricked! If you have seen a would-be claimant, you have seen a fraudulent one. How long, may I ask, since you left America?"
"I have been in England for some time, and I will admit, madam, that I do not quite understand this case in all its details. Still, may it not be possible that you have been misled? There seem to have been complications." He checked himself, and appeared to be considering his next words, then he resumed--"I think I can help to clear up this misunderstanding. I brought with me here a young man lately from the United States. He claims to have seen a Mr. Brierly very recently. With your permission I will ask him to join us."
The Lathams again exchanged swift glances, and the man gave his head a quick negative shape [sic] . But the solicitor went promptly to the door. They did not hear the brief order he gave the boy, and he did not come back at once.
"Who is this young American who has seen the invisible? And how came he here to-day?" asked the man, who was now frowning heavily and moving restlessly in his seat. "What is his name?"
Mr. Myers had picked up a book off the desk, and was turning its pages slowly. He seemed hardly to hear the fellow's words.| | 303
"He's a very bright young fellow," he said, musingly. "I don't think he would be easily deceived. He's quite a clever detective, in his way." He was studying the pair from under bent brows. Just then Mr. Latham's hat fell from his hands to the floor, and before he had recaptured it, the solicitor had entered, followed by a serious-faced young man, whom he carelessly named to the two strangers.
The lady's hand went suddenly to her heart, and her face was ashen beneath the dotted veil.
"Are you ill, madam?"
"A twinge," she faltered.
"It's neuralgia," declared the man, drawing his chair toward her. "She's subject to these sharp attacks. Better, Bessie?"
She nodded, and fixed her eyes upon "Mr. Grant," to whom Mr. Myers was saying:
"This lady, Grant, is positive that the Brierlys, of whom you have talked to me, are not now living. There has been tricking somewhere, and deception. Will you help us to understand one another?" The lawyer's face had grown very grave.
Francis Ferrars seated himself directly before the woman, whose eyes never left his face now, and were growing visibly apprehensive.| | 304
"There has been more than tricking, worse than deceit here, and if I am to make it clear to you, madam, I must begin at the beginning. So far, at least, as I know it."
The woman bent her head slightly. "Go on," said the man. He had never seen Ferrars either in propria persona, or as Ferriss Grant.
The detective began with a brief sketch of the Brierly brothers, and then described, vividly, the discovery of Charles Brierly's dead body beside the lake at Glenville. He paused here, and his voice grew stern as he resumed--
"I had never seen Charles Brierly in life, but, standing beside his dead body, looking down into that face so lately inspired by a manly, strong soul, I knew that here was murder. There was no possibility of accident, and such men, I know, do not cheat death by meeting him half way. It was a murder, and yet he had no enemies, they said.
"The case interested me from the first, and when I had seen the sorrow of the fair girl he loved, and who loved him, I gave myself eagerly to the work of seeking the author of this most cowardly blow.
"That night I walked the streets of Glenville alone, and, passing a certain fashionable boarding house, I saw, in a room lighted only by the late moonbeams, | | 305 the shadow of a woman, who paced the floor with her bare arms tossing aloft in a pantomime of agony, or shame."
He glanced about him. The two lawyers were standing side by side near the door, erect and stern. The man in the chair opposite was affecting an incredulous indifference. The room was intensely still when the voice ceased and no one stirred or spoke.
"Next morning, early, I viewed the scene of the crime, and I saw how easily the destroyer might have crept upon an unsuspecting victim, owing to the formation of the shore, the shelter of the trees and shrubs, and the protection of the curving Indian Mound. There had been showers two days before, and in certain spots, where the sun did not penetrate, the earth was still moist. Under a huge tree, just where the slayer might have stood, I found the print of a dainty shoe, or rather, the pointed toe of it. In two other sheltered places I found parts of other footprints, and, a little off the road, in a clump of underbrush, I found two well-formed footprints, all alike, small, and pointed at the toe. But I found something more in that hazel thicket. I found my first convincing, convicting clue. It was just a shred, a thread of a black mourning veil, such as widows wear. Later I found a poor simpleton who had been in the wood on the morning of the murder, | | 306 and who had been horribly terrified. For a time he would only cry out that he had seen a ghost, but by and by he grew more communicative, and from what he then said--for he described the 'ghost' at last as a thing all white with a black face--I knew how to account for a white fragment which I found not far from the black one. A hired carriage had passed over that lakeside road on that fatal morning, and I learned that the lap cover with it was 'large and white.' Large enough to cover a woman of small stature, who, with a black veil drawn close across her features, and rising suddenly from among that clump of hazel, could easily terrify a simpleton into leaving the place where his presence was a menace."
He paused a moment, but he might as well have been looking upon carven statues. No one stirred, no one spoke, and he resumed his fateful story.
"Then came the inquest. I believed, even then, that I knew the hand that took Charles Brierly's life. But I did not know the motive, and, until I did, my case was a weak one. Besides, a woman sometimes strikes and still deserves our pity and protection. 'I must know the motive,' I said, and waited. Then, at the inquest, as Robert Brierly, the brother of the dead man, whose presence in the town was known to only a few, came forward to testify, a woman, who did not know | | 307 him, and whom he did not know, fainted at sight of him, and was taken out of court. Then I knew the motive."
"Ah-h-h!" A queer sighing sound escaped the lips of the woman still sitting stonily erect before him; but he hurried on.
"But knowledge is not always proof--in a court of law--and I must have proof. That night a woman, dressed as a boy, by courage and cunning combined, forced her way into the rooms so lately occupied by Charles Brierly. Fear of detection had begun its work upon her mind, and she went, most of all, to try and throw justice off the track. In Brierly's desk she left a letter, very conspicuously placed, an anonymous letter, so framed as to throw suspicion upon the dead man's betrothed. This again showed the woman's hand. She also carried away a watch, a pistol, and some foreign jewellery and dainty bric-a-brac, to make the work seem that of a thief; and last, she found, upon a letter file, a newspaper clipping, which she also carried away. If she had left that I might have overlooked its value. As it was, I found the paper from which it had been cut, secured a second copy, and discovered my clue to the tangle. It was an advertisement for the heirs of one Hugo Paisley, and I soon found that the Brierly brothers were the sought-for heirs Then I knew that | | 308 Robert Brierly's life was also menaced, and I warned him, and tried to set a guard about him.
"In the meantime a boat had been found, not far from the scene of the shooting; it had been seen on the lake that morning, and its occupant was a spy, keeping watch up and down the road, and the hillsides, while his confederate carried out their programme of death. I had already fixed upon the woman, and now we began to look for the man."
Just here the man calling himself Latham got up, stiffly, and moved toward the window near the clerk's desk, where he leaned against the casement, as if looking down upon the street. No one seemed to notice him, and the narrator went on:
"And now I had to find my final convincing proofs of the motive and the deed. The brothers Brierly were, all unknown to themselves, the heirs to the Paisley estates, and of Hugo Paisley, by descent. Through some error the murderers of Charles Brierly had been led to think him the sole living member of the family, and when Robert Brierly stood forth at the inquest, the woman who had shot down his brother with hand and heart of steel, fell fainting at the sight of him, and, perhaps, at the thought of her wasted crime.
"And now it was a drawn game, in which both sides | | 309 were forced to move with caution, and, for a time, I could only watch the woman, on the one hand, and the safety of Robert Brierly on the other, for he now stood between the plotters and their goal.
"But despite my watchfulness, the second blow fell, and the first time Robert Brierly ventured upon the city street alone, after dark, he was struck down, almost at his own door. It was a dangerous injury, and, lest the assassins should find a way to complete their work, we took him away; as soon as he could be moved."
The woman was sitting very erect now, her eyes smouldering behind the gleaming glasses, her hands tightly clinched upon her knee.
"I knew that we must force the issue, then," Ferrars went on. "And Mr. Myers came over here to substantiate his client's claim to the Paisley estates, and to look up the pedigree, the past and present history, of the other claimants. How well he succeeded need not here be told. He did succeed."
Mrs. Latham had risen to her feet, and, for a moment, seemed struggling for composure, and the power to speak clearly.
"All this," she said then, "which is very strange, does not explain why you dispute my claim in favour of a dead man. As for this murder--if you have proved what you charge----"| | 310
"One moment," Ferrars broke in. "Let me add, in that connection, that one night one of my agents, in the character of a burglar, entered this woman's room at her hotel in Glenville. She found in a trunk, the veil from which the black fragment, found on the bush, was torn; and also a suit of boy's clothes. The veil she brought away, the clothes were given away to a poor woman only this morning, and she sold them to my agent. As for the man, he has been traced by the stolen watch and jewelled ornaments. He tried to sell, and did pawn, them in Chicago, in New York, and here in London. In fact the chain of evidence is complete; nothing more is needed to convict these two."
The woman's face was white and set. "After all," she said in a hollow voice, "you have not proved that the Paisley estate is not mine by right Mr. Brierly, the elder, being dead!"
"Even so, the second wife of Gaston Latham cannot inherit, and her brother, even in the character of brother-in-law, cannot share the inheritance. One moment," for the woman seemed about to speak. "Let me end this. Last night, in room number eight at a certain café, I heard the plotters in conference, and I know that the daughter of Mrs. Cramer, who would have inherited after the Brierlys, is dead. The game is up, Mr. Harry Levey. You and your sister have aimed two heavy | | 311 strokes at the happiness of two noble women, and the lives of two good men, but the final stroke is mine! And now, Mrs. Jamieson, if that is--" He did not finish the sentence. The man Levey had drawn closer and closer to the inner door, while Ferrars spoke, and now with a swift spring he hurled himself against it, plunged forward and would have fallen had not Ferrars, always alert, bounded after him, and caught him as he fell. For the inner door had opened suddenly, at his touch, and when Ferrars drew the now struggling man backward, and away from it, the others in the room saw, in the doorway, a man and woman side by side.
At sight of Robert Brierly's face the woman, who had faced the ordeal of denunciation and conviction almost without a quiver, threw up her hands, and uttering a shrill scream, a cry of mortal terror and anguish, fell forward upon her face.
Then came a moment of excited movement, which would have been confusion but for the quick wit of Ruth Glidden, and the coolness and energy of the detective.
While the entrapped villain was struggling like a fiend in the grasp of four strong men, Ruth knelt beside the fallen woman and lifted her head.
The next moment two or three officers came hastening in, and Ferrars and Brierly, seeing their captive in | | 312 safe hands, came together to her aid. She looked up at them with a questioning face.
"Did you know?" she asked, her face full of horror. "Did you know her?"
Ferrars nodded, and as the officers led their captive, cursing and blustering, out at one door, he lifted the senseless woman, and carried her to the couch in the inner room.
"Bring water!" Ruth commanded, "and leave her to me."
As the two men closed the door between them and the two so strangely different women, Brierly laid a hand upon the detective's shoulder.
"Ferrars," he said, "what did Ruth mean? Who is that terrible woman? And how is she concerned in your story? It is time I should know the truth."
"Quite time. That woman is Mrs. Jamieson, or the person you knew under that name. She is cleverly disguised, but I expected some such trick. She went to 'the States' to rid herself of you and your brother; and she took that man, who is really her own brother, and who tried to kill you, as her fellow criminal."
"And did she----" Brierly stopped, shuddering.
"She shot your brother; there is not a doubt of it"
"My God! And I thought----" They were alone in | | 313 the office, and Brierly dropped weakly into the nearest chair and dropped his face upon his hands.
"You thought," finished Ferrars, "that I was interested in the woman. I was. I suspected her from the very first, and so did Hilda Grant."
In the inner room, Mrs. Jamieson opened her eyes and looked up to meet the gaze of the fair woman who was in all things what she was not.
Ruth bent over her, a glass of water in her hand.
"Drink this, Mrs. Jamieson," she said simply.
A shudder like a death throe shook the recumbent form. She lifted herself by one elbow, and caught at the glass, drinking greedily. Then, still holding the glass, she said slowly:
"Then you know me?"
"By your voice, a little, but mostly by what Mr. Ferrars said."
"Mr. Ferrars!" she gasped. "Do you mean him?"
"I mean the man you have called Grant. Did you never guess that he was a detective?"
"And he knew!" The woman arose to her full height and again, as on a night long since, and in another country, her arms were tossed above her head, as Ruth | | 314 nodded her answer, and for a moment her face was awful to look upon, so tortured, so despairing, so full of wrath and wretchedness and soul torture and heart agony, for women can love and suffer, though their souls be steeped in crime.
Ruth, who had taken the half emptied glass from her hand as she struggled to her feet, now put it down, and, startled by her look and manner, moved toward the door, but the woman, her face ghastly, cried "Stop!" with such agonised entreaty that the girl drew back.
"Don't!--I can't see him yet--Wait!--Let me--" She sank weakly back upon the couch, and Ruth noted, while turning away for a moment, how her hand toyed with her dainty watchguard, in seeming self forgetfulness, drawing forth the little watch, a moment later, and looking at it, as if the time was now of importance. Then she threw herself back against the cushions.
"My--vinaigrette--my bag!" she moaned between gasping breaths.
The little bag had been left in the outer office, where it had fallen from her lap, and Ruth opened the door of communication a little way and asked for it, saying, as Ferrars came toward her, "Not yet."
As Ruth turned back, she heard a sharp little click, like the quick shutting of a watch case, and when she | | 315 held out the vinaigrette, Mrs. Jamieson was swallowing the remainder of the water in the glass.
"Your salts, Mrs. Jamieson."
The woman looked up with a wild scared look in her eyes, and held out, for an instant, the little jewelled watch.
"For years," she said, in a slow, strange monotone, "I have faced and feared danger, and failure. For years I have been prepared! Because of my cowardice, and my conscience, I have always kept a way of escape." Her fingers fluttered aimlessly and the watch fell upon her lap. Her last words seemed to come through stiffening lips. Her face grew suddenly ghostly gray. Ruth sprang toward the door.
"Don't let him come yet." With these words the dying woman seemed to collapse, and sank limply back into the cushions; her head drooped, her chin dropped.
Ruth flung open the door with a cry of terror, and the four men--for the two lawyers had returned from their escort duty--gathered about the couch. They saw a shudder pass over the limp frame. The fingers fluttered again feebly, there was a spasmodic stiffening of the figure--and that was the end.
Four weeks later, a group of people were standing | | 316 upon the deck of a homeward bound steamer, about to set out upon her ocean voyage. They were five in number, and they were welcoming, each in turn, the man who had just joined them.
There had been a quiet wedding, a few days before, at a little English church, and Ruth Glidden had become Ruth Brierly as simply as if she were not an heiress, and her newly made husband not the owner of English lands, houses, stocks, and factories, that changed him into a millionaire.
"I could see no good reason for delay," Brierly was saying, as he grasped the hand of Ferrars, whose congratulations had been hearty and sincere. "Neither of us have need to consult aught save our own wishes; and besides our nearest friends are with us."
"Besides," interposed the smiling woman at his side, "we have been an encumbrance upon Mr. and Mrs. Myers for so long--and it was really the only conventional way to relieve them of so many charges. And then"--and here she lowered her tone, and glanced toward Hilda Grant, who, having already greeted Ferrars, was standing a little aloof--"we can now make a home for Hilda, and have a double claim on her."
"In all of which you have done well," smiled Ferrars.
"My only regret is that I must bring into this parting moment an unpleasant element, but you may as well | | 317 hear it from me." He beckoned the others to approach; and, when they were close about him, said, speaking low and gravely: "'Quarrelsome Harry' has escaped the punishment of the law."
"Escaped!" It was Mr. Myers who repeated the word. "Do you mean----?"
"I mean that he is dead. He was shot while trying to escape. He had feigned illness so well that they were taking him to the hospital department. He tried a rush and a surprise, but it ended fatally for him. He was shot while resisting re-arrest."
"It is better so," said Mr. Myers. "They have been their own executioners. What could the law have added to their punishment?"
"Only the law's delays," said Ferrars, and then he turned to Hilda Grant.
"This is not a long good-bye," he said gently. "At least I hope not. I shall be back in 'the States' soon. And, may I not still find a cousin there? Or must I stand again outside the barrier alone?"
"You will always find an affectionate cousin," said Hilda, putting out her hand.
And now it was time to leave the ship. All around them was the hurry of delayed farewells, the bustle of late comers, the shifting of baggage, smiles, tears, last words.| | 318
Ferrars would remain for a time in London, but he knew, as he answered to the call "all ashore," that when he returned to the United States he would find in one of her fair western cities, a warm welcome and a lasting friendship.
The plot, by which the beautiful tigress-hearted woman whom they had known as Mrs. Jamieson had hoped to achieve riches, was cleverly planned. The real claimant had died in a remote place, and there were no near friends to look after her interests, or those of her young children. And then Harry Levey's sister, beautiful, and an adventuress, from choice, like her brother, had beguiled Gaston Latham, and had, by frequent changes of abode, by cunning, and by fraud, merged her own personality into that of the former wife. Then had come the baffling discovery of heirs in America, the plotting and scheming to remove them from their path--and the shameful end.
"Ferrars is a strange fellow," said Robert Brierly to his wife, one moonlight night, as they sat together, and somewhat aloof from the others on deck. "Do you know he was the sole attendant, except for her servants, at that woman's burial. He went in a carriage alone. Was it from sentiment, or sympathy, think you?"
It was the first time the dead woman had been spoken of, by either, since that trying day of her exposure and | | 319 death, and Ruth was silent a moment, before she answered; the awful scene coming vividly before her. Then she put her hand within her husband's arm, and said, slowly, softly:
"It was because he is a good man; because she was a woman without a friend, and because she loved him."
There was a long silence, and it was Ruth who next spoke.
"Have you ever thought, or hoped, that the friendship and trust that has grown out of Hilda's relation to Mr. Ferrars might, sometime, end in something more?"
"No, dear, and this is why: Yesterday, Ferrars said to me 'There is a friend over in Glenville whom I hope you will not forget. Let him be your guest. And, if the day should come when your sweet sister that was to be should enter society and be sought by others, give the doctor his chance. He has loved her from the first.'"
"Hilda is too young to go through the world loveless and alone. Yes, and too sweet. And the doctor is a noble man. But all this we may safely leave to the future, and to their own hearts."THE END.
|<< chapter 24||< chapter 1|