- CHAPTER XIV SHERIFF COOK
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"IT'S murder. I haven't a doubt of it!" so spoke Sheriff Cook, twenty-four hours after Felix Chetwynde's body is laid in the family vault, whither it has been borne after the simple funeral rites at his country house.
The sheriff has been summoned to a conference with Hope, and they sit alone, and face to face, for the proud girl will know the worst, and face it alone; even to her aunt she cannot bear to open her full heart, disclose her fears and doubts.
"I will not name my thoughts even to her," the girl has declared to herself. "No doubt of Felix Chetwynde shall cross my lips until doubt has become, for me, a certainty! But I must know! I must know!" And so she has summoned the sheriff, and his words have been direct and easy to understand.
"If you can direct this search for the truth concerning my brother's death," she has just said to him "privately, so that it need not be made the nine days' wonder of an idle village, and if you will do it, not with reference to what the law, the chief of police, or | | 162 the States attorney may think or desire, but simply as one who serves me, first and most, then I will ask you to go into this matter, and will aid you to the extent of my power. If my brother has been foully dealt with, I want his murderer found; but behind this deed there may be secrets--family skeletons, it may be, that should not be dragged to light for all the world to see. There must be no one between you and myself. What you learn, what you guess, what you think and believe, all must be made known to me first, and to no other without my consent. You understand me, do you not?"
The officer smiled. "You have made it quite plain," he said.
"And--do you agree?"
"Entirely! You are quite within your rights."
"Then let us begin. Even now you have theory."
"Say a belief. I believe that Felix Chetwynde was shot, not by his own hand and with his own weapon, but by another's hand."
"And--the discharged pistol?"
"Close search, if it were worth while, might discover that bullet lodged in some tree trunk. He was killed by a different weapon."
"Some different calibre, and not a pistol perhaps. Why, Miss Chetwynde, if he had placed that pistol of his close to his head and pulled the trigger, or, if he could have held it at arms' length, the hair upon his head would have been singed by the powder, if not quite burned. It is a strange affair!"
"Explain."| | 163
"To begin, how came your brother so close to that ravine, and on the further side, with the bridge down? If he left home in the afternoon, and he did, how came he there at sundown or soon after? The doctors say that he had been dead at least eighteen hours when the party from Lee reached him. Now, if this is true, he must have crossed that bridge. He could not have reached that point between early afternoon and evening in any other way."
"And no one thought of that?"
"That is as maybe. Jarvis has told you of the footmarks lower down the ravine, and I have found traces of more than one person near the place where he lay. But the tracks are indistinct. Next, there is the carriage and horse, which was tethered in the wood not very far from the bridge. But--there is more and worse to come."
"Tell it." Hope's face is stern.
"The bridge was intact at ten o'clock that morning."
"And the man who owns the mules drove them across it, very reluctantly, and one at a time, to graze upon the Heights."
"But why one at a time?"
"He feared the bridge might go down with too much weight."
"Stop! let me finish. He had been hired to drive those animals across in just that way."
"By Mr. Chetwynde."| | 164
"Oh, I feared--I feared! Have you told me all?"
"Not quite. The horse and single top buggy was hired from Sol Hirsch, who lives four miles from the Heights, on the Lakeville road. He was to take the rig to the Heights and leave it there, in the bushes at two o'clock p.m."
"On that day?"
"On that day."
"And by the same--"
"By Mr. Chetwynde again. The horse came home, shortly after sundown, without a driver, panting and covered with foam. You see--"
"I see that behind the murder there is mystery. It is what I feared!"
"Ah! you feared?"
"Yes." Hope rises and stands erect before him. "I can say no more now. But, tell me, what does this mean--to you. Can you explain it?--any of it?"
"Your brother prepared to meet--some one--at the Heights, perhaps."
"And he, or the other, or both, were to have gone away in the carriage."
"The mules, I neglected to say, were found not far from home quite early in the afternoon."
"Well, I don't see--"
"If, for any reason," the sheriff goes on, ignoring her nervous interjection, "he wanted the bridge down, say, to cut off pursuit for a time, I can see how cleverly it might have been done. A number of | | 165 heavy animals are driven across an unsafe bridge one at a time, and slowly. Now, may they not have been bunched together, as they say out West, and, when close to the bridge, frightened into rushing across it?"
"You are right! You must be right!"
"Such a rush would be sure to carry down the bridge. I happen to know its condition."
Hope bends her head, and for some moments seems studying her next words, then, "Is there anything else?" she asks; "any other clue or discovery?"
"There is the cane."
"The cane belonged to my brother; both Mr. Hilton and Mr. Glynne have seen it in his possession."
"I know." The sheriff is looking at her attentively. "But--have you ever seen it in your brother's possession? Was it ever, to your knowledge, in this house?"
"To my knowledge--no." And now, in her turn, she studies his face. "Do you attach any especial importance to that cane, Mr. Cook?"
"Any point, not fully understood, in a case like this is likely to prove important. You see, there is much in your brother's own movements on the day of his death which we cannot yet explain. I think it may become needful to go into your brother's personal history to know more of his private affairs."
Hope actually starts, but instantly controls herself; and, after a moment more of silence on the part of both, she consults the little clock upon the mantel.| | 166
"Is there anything more--anything, I mean, where I can assist? Any questions--" She catches herself, and stops short. She has not meant to use this word. She is not prepared to answer questions yet, and she wishes he would go. She needs time to think, and it is quite time--she sees it now--to act.
"There's one other little thing," the sheriff goes on; "it can't mean much, but there was a strange boy hanging about this place yesterday. He was seen by two or three. He came into the grounds, I am told. Do you know of such a lad?"
"I suppose you mean the boy who asked to look at my brother shortly before the funeral service began. It was some lad whom Felix had befriended--or so he said."
"Oh, simple enough. Did you ask his name?"
"I did not. It was not kind of me, but--I forgot."
"And quite naturally." The sheriff rises. "If you have nothing more to say I will go. And--" he looks at her expectantly, and she understands.
"I suppose you want to question me soon about Felix, Mr. Cook. But I am hardly prepared now; hardly fit. I want to think about what you have told me. Will you come to-morrow evening?"
He consents with ready willingness to abide by her time and desires. To-morrow night will be quite soon enough he tells her. And then, at the door, he adds--
"By the way, it may be well, perhaps, when I have talked with you to-morrow evening, if I see your aunt also. You have been away of late, and she--"| | 167
"She may think of something which you ought to know? Quite true. I will speak to my aunt. She will not object, I am sure."
As he bows himself out with old-fashioned politeness, for Sheriff Cook is not a young man, Hope puts out a detaining hand.
"One other word. You still think--you are quite sure, that it is best to keep this search a secret for the present--are you not?"
"Quite sure! It is the best, the surest way to success."
It is four o'clock when the sheriff leaves the villa, and in half an hour Hope reins her horse in, for the second time, before the door at Redlands, and so intent has she been upon her errand that she is fairly startled when she finds herself face to face with Loyd Hilton.
During the past few days they have met daily, and the young man has been able to serve her in a variety of ways, and so simply, with such gravely courteous readiness, has he placed himself at her disposal that she has forgotten, for the time, the prejudice with which she has learned to regard him in the past, and has accepted his aid as frankly, as freely as it has been proffered.
In fact they are better friends to-day than weeks of ordinary social intercourse could have made them, and one of them at least scarcely remembers that they ever were strangers.
As he advances to meet her, there is a look of genuine welcome in the serious golden-brown eyes, heavy with their burden of unshed tears; but in | | 168 his face, as he lifts it toward her, and holds out his hands to lift her from her saddle, there is such a look of longing and sorrow, and hopelessness, bravely and patiently borne, that she starts, and her lips are parted to say--she knows not what, but the eyes, which in a single glance can tell the love or sorrow of a lifetime, are veiled almost instantly, and when the lids are again lifted the look is hidden and only sincere welcome and eagerness to serve speak from their dark depths. But the look, that other look, it has been imprinted by his soul upon hers. Such looks have shaped some lives and wrecked others, and once seen can never be forgotten.
She has come with her heart full of her errand, so unhappily definite, so miserably peremptory, but when she finds herself going up the broad steps toward the shaded corner of the piazza, where Lorna Hilton, still pale and weak, reclines in her hammock, she lets him lead her on, and takes the hand so swiftly reached out to her, holding it between her own, and forgetting, for one brief moment, her griefs and ills.
Miss Hilton looks really ill, and her dark eyes have, so Hope thinks, the strangest look of troubled inquiry--a puzzled, half-expectant look, and there is a pathetic droop of the dark-fringed lids, and the sweet lips, paler than their wont, which touches Hope, and arouses her wonder.
"I fear this is more than indisposition, Miss Hilton," she says, her surprise speaking in her face. "You scarcely seem strong enough to be up and out of doors."| | 169
"I am better here," the girl says feebly, "and it's only 'excess of enthusiasm,' so the doctor says. I am forbidden to cycle any more for a time."
"And very wisely I should think. Is this the result of trying to vie with your brother, in spite of his superior strength?" As she speaks the light words, she is asking herself if it is possible that her dead brother's death is in any way accountable for Lorna's condition. She has heard, and read, of the terrible exhaustion of the subject following upon these hypnotic demonstrations, and while mentally determining to inform herself better regarding this uncanny science, she adds a few more words of hopeful sympathy, and turns toward Loyd, who, making no effort to join in their brief talk, yet stands leaning against a pillar quite near, though somewhat in the background.
Her former attitude of aloofness, which has been quite manifest to Loyd Hilton, and her determined evasion of the frequent opportunities for a meeting between the two, all her proud and half-resentful efforts to baffle Felix in his too evident desire to "throw her at Loyd Hilton's head"--as Aunt Cass has very frankly described it--all this is forgotten, swept away by the events of the past few days, and her brother's strange death has put all minor grievances out of Hope's thought; and Loyd Hilton's ready aid, the manner in which, in the most matter-of-course way, he has stood between her and the hard, unpleasant details of the days before the burial, doing all as the friend and near neighbour of a household with no masculine head, and doing it without ostentation, holding himself in | | 170 the background, and only his work bespeaking his presence--all this has been noted, and Hope, always honest whatever her faults of impatience and personal pride, has been surprised to find that while always present at need, he was, somehow, invisible, or entrenched behind some barrier of distance or surrounding, whenever she has attempted to speak her thanks, her appreciation, and her growing good-will.
It had almost seemed that he avoided meeting her face to face in her own home, but he did not seek to evade her now, though he had taken no part in her brief talk with Lorna. And she turned toward him with extended hand, and bravely made the amende honorable.
"You have not given me an opportunity to thank you, Mr. Hilton, for all the kind acts that have made the past few days a little less terrible, less hard to endure! I have been so much absent, I have chosen to be so much a stranger here, that many things difficult and unpleasant would have fallen upon my shoulders but for you. To come, as you did, without formality, simply as friend and neighbour, and to rid my aunt and myself of the worst, the hardest--it was good, it was chivalrous of you!"
Chivalrous! This last word slips out unawares, and it is her one only allusion to her attitude towards him previous to the tragedy which has brought them together so, while it has separated them and changed their attitude, each to each. Changed them, yes; but in a way and with a difference which she has yet to know.
Loyd seems embarrassed, and he takes her hand in the lightest, briefest of clasps, as he says--| | 171
"It seemed only what I must have done in any case." Hope wonders a little at his meaning. "There seemed no one else, except Glynne, and we were so much nearer. If I made no blunders, and forgot, or omitted, nothing I--we--must thank Mrs. Hilton. She told me what ought to be taken from your shoulders."
And this brings Hope back to the remembrance of her errand, and she asks to be shown to Mrs. Hilton's room, if that lady can receive her.
"Mrs. Hilton," she begins at once, when the two are face to face, "if we are quite safe from interruption I have a request to make."
Mrs. Hilton has been writing in the library, and now she takes in her hand the sheet of notepaper upon which she has been engaged, and conducts her visitor to an inner room.
"We are quite safe here, at least," she answers Hope. "This is my especial den, as you would have known had you been less a stranger to us this summer."
"Mrs. Hilton, forgive me! Indeed I realise how much sweet companionship I have lost. And now that I do come it is only to trouble you!"
"It will not be a trouble to be of use to you, my dear, if that is what you mean."
"Ah! don't be too kind--not yet. This is really an unpleasant thing I am come to ask. Mrs. Hilton, I have had an interview with Sheriff Cook, and also with Doctor Jarvis, and--they both agree that my brother was murdered."
"Oh!" The lady, so swiftly surprised, could utter no further syllable, and for a time sits beside | | 172 the girl with pallid cheeks and lips closed tightly to prevent a quiver or a cry. And Hope, eager no to end the painful interview, hastens to explain, telling, not of the doctor's discovery, but of the sheriff's fixed belief. But she does not tell of the footprints, the tracked vehicle, or his reasoning about the bridge, and the manner of its probable destruction.
"With this new light upon the affair, Mrs. Hilton," she adds at last, "I have decided to have this matter investigated privately, and as thoroughly as possible. I will spare no pains, no expense; and I came here to-day to ask your permission to tell Sheriff Cook what you have told me about Miss Hilton's experience with--my brother that afternoon. I need not say that I will guard her name most carefully, I am sure. And--you must see that we are handicapped at the very outset if we cannot have all the facts."
There is anxiety in the eyes of Mrs. Hilton, and there is relief as well.
"My dear," she says, after a moment's thought, "I cannot in all fairness forbid this thing; but tell me your chief object in entering upon this investigation. If it--is it justice or vengeance?"
"Mrs. Hilton," the girl breaks in hastily, "I will, be frank with you! I must talk to some one, and--I have not even consulted my aunt as yet. I cannot rid myself of the idea that there is a mystery behind all this trouble. It is more than suicide because of a disappointment; more than an accidental death; more than the common case of footpads, of murder for robbery. I have thought and thought, and I have reached a stage where I | | 173 must go forward! I owe it to Felix to clear his name of the stigma of suicide if he was murdered; I owe it to myself as well; and--I owe it to Miss Hilton to make all clear, if possible. Sheriff Cook will regard my wishes, and nothing will be made public if it seems best, for any reason, to suppress what we may discover." She rises quietly. "Have I your permission, then?"
"You have my permission, and I wish I might have your confidence as well."
Hope's eyes met hers, clear and full. "I am going now to consult my aunt," she says, "and if it is best, if I may, I see no reason why you should not know what is being done. Still I cannot promise. I dare not promise--blindly."
"You are right!" says the lady, "quite right."
It is late when Hope reaches home, and she suppresses her impatience until dinner is over. Then she follows her aunt to her own room, and asks for an audience there.
"I have something very serious to tell you, Aunt Cassie," she says, "and we must not be interrupted nor overheard."
She has dreaded this interview not a little, fearing an outbreak of that nervous voluble temper in which Aunt Cass sometimes indulges herself. And not this alone; she had seen, with increasing gratification, how Felix had been of late winning his way into his aunt's good graces, for the two had, from the first, seemed to react upon each other, like flint upon steel, and she is loth to suggest aught which may challenge the ever-ready, "I told you so!" and "I always said it."| | 174
But while she has seen the little spinster tried many ways, and subject to many phases of a somewhat uncertain temper--and temperament, she yet to learn the strength, lying, like the soundest of cores, at the heart of a fruit somewhat knotty and uneven upon the surface, and when she has poured out her story, telling it as she has heard it--Lorna's adventure first, and the discoveries, beliefs, and surmises of the sheriff and Doctor Jarvis later--she looks with growing wonder and relief into the face of a new Aunt Cassandra, grave, collected, silent, for many moments.
At last she takes Hope's hot hand in her own--for the girl has grown excited and feverish from the strain of the day's interviews and the anxiety for the result of this last--and says slowly, as if weighing with care her every word--
"My dear child! this has been a terrible thing for you to bear, even for a little time, alone. But while I am inexpressibly pained, yes, and shocked, I am not altogether--surprised, and, if you are not already too tired, I am going to tell you why."
"I am not too tired, Auntie. In fact I can't rest while there is anything to hear, and--we must understand--everything before I see Sheriff Cook again. I am listening, Aunt Cassie."
But the little spinster sits in silence for some moments before she begins.
"I can see," she says at last, "just how you must wonder at Lorna Hilton's experience that afternoon but--I can corroborate all she says, Hope, and more, for--I have been a victim also of this strange influence. Were you not surprised to see me in | | 175 bicycle attire, and to know that I actually rode one of the machines?"
"Well, it was hypnotism that did it; neither less nor more."
"I have heard you speak in favour of the bicycle, Auntie. Did you really care nothing for the exercise?"
"Nothing! Less than nothing. Why, I thought you knew that I was simply teasing you--you were so fiercely at war with all bicycle riders. Looking back now, I am well assured that ever since the meet at Manhattan Beach last June Felix has been practising his hypnotic arts upon me."
"But why, Aunt Cass? Why?"
"We won't discuss the reason yet. Let me tell my story," and she relates in the simplest and most matter-of-fact manner her experience as a hypnotic subject; telling how, little by little, she had found herself listening to Felix, and believing him so long as he was beside her; thinking with tolerance of the exercise, and wondering what it must be like. How, after Hope's departure, he had been very constantly with her; always genial, never argumentative; how she fell quite rapidly now under the spell, and how a sudden cessation of the hypnotic influence, owing to his own mental preoccupation, had puzzled and then startled her, and had set her to thinking, aided by an article on hypnotism in the daily paper. Then had come Mrs. Hilton, and the full conviction that she had been, either for purpose or practice, hypnotised again and again, and had grown complaisant while in this mood, until her old antagonism was quite forgotten.| | 176
"And you really learned to ride a wheel while under this influence?"
"There isn't a doubt of it."
"But--you can still ride?"
"True. Because the lesson was never withdrawn, I suppose."
"Oh, I know what you mean," and here the spinster's whimsical side crops out again. "I have ridden a wheel in the face of all the country round almost, and now I won't stop! Do you think I will avow that I learned, willy nilly, to do a thing I have always despised?"
"But need you--"
"Oh, don't argue I I shan't stop cycling at present, and--I must say it is not half bad exercise--once you quit tumbling about."
"But, Aunt Cass, why did he teach you? What was his reason?"
"To become necessary to me, and to gain my goodwill by contributing to my amusement, I suppose. Let's drop that point, Hope! There's more to tell," and without more ado she goes on to relate the interview between Felix and Terence Glynne, of which she had heard the greater part, the reading of the letter by Felix, and her subsequent rescue of it from the grasp of the brier-rose bush.
"And do you mean," cries the girl, when all is told, "that you have not yet looked at that letter?"
"Not from that day to this. It's a woman's letter--that's all I know!"
"Then, Aunt Cassandra, let us read it at once. Who knows what it may tell us!"
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