- CHAPTER XV HOPE'S SECRET
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or do you really prefer the other name?--and how am I to know which is the real one? How I would love to see you when you read these lines. Did you think all was up with me when I took that sudden downward flight? Ah, no! you and I are in the same world yet; we will stay in it together, and go out of it--depend upon it--not far apart. Meantime the old days are ended--are they not? And who is the woman with the great brown eyes, tall and fair and stately? You need not to admire stately women, my dear--I want to know more of her, and for this reason I wish to see you. I do not beg you to come. I do not command it, for I know--now--where to look for you, and I can come to you at need. I always did come to you at need, you remember.
"Do you know a place called The Heights. It is isolated--very. There is a roundabout sort of a wood road, which a horse and vehicle can traverse, and there is also a bicycle track much more direct--that is, from Lakeville. Do you know the three tall elms that give The Heights a name? They | | 178 stand due south from the rustic bridge, and half a dozen rods away. I shall be there--at the elms--at 6 p.m. precisely. I may not venture to ask you be there also, but--should you--I shall bring with me the beloved stick for which you have longed, and it shall be yours at parting--all yours, straight from the hand of your friend of other days."INEZ."
This is the letter which is read aloud by Cassandra Chetwynde, and which goes from her hand to that of Hope, who looks at it closely, looks again, an then starts and rises abruptly.
"Wait a moment," she says, and is gone, returning like a flash with a tiny folded bit of paper in her hand.
"Sit down again, Auntie, and let me tell you the history of this," and she holds up the little note of warning flung into her lap in the train on the day of her return from the mountains.
"You see," she says, as she smooths out the sheet, "that this one is written with a pencil, and undoubtedly, in haste, possibly upon the train; and this," holding up the letter of the rose-bush, "is more carefully written; and with ink, but--look at them!"
"They're the same!" cries the other, after a close scrutiny. "How fortunate that you kept that note!"
"Perhaps," says Hope dryly. "Do you think we can find this Inez?"
"I think the sheriff can. It is not our business, Hope Chetwynde. He must have those letters--at once."
With the letters to aid him the sheriff is not | | 179 long in constructing a theory. He is a keen man, who has the instinct of the investigator inborn. Moreover, he is keenly interested in the work in hand, and if he were called off to-morrow he would doubtless keep on secretly to the end, not for glory--he cares not a rap for the applause of his kind--but because it is not in him to sit down and be content with a riddle unsolved before him.
He knows all the people about Lee and Lakeside, and is known of most, and he has never worn a disguise in all his life. He has the greatest admiration and the greatest respect for Hope Chetwynde, and if she were to close the case to-morrow and bid him seek no further he would obey her in his way. He would not remonstrate, he would, to all appearances, put aside all further thought of the "Chetwynde Mystery" as it is called by the newspapers. He would do all this cheerfully, and--he would scorn to present a bill for work unfinished; but "Tom Cook" never lets go his grip upon a mystery. Baffled, he does not lay down the clue and forget the case, and he carries in his acute brain to-day threads, clues, details of more than one affair of which he hopes and expects further developments as time goes on, and the cunning cease to fear and to be watchful.
He says little when the two letters are placed in his hands, and he even affects not to feel sure of the resemblance of the two handwritings, but he chuckles over them as he drives away from the villa and talks to his hardy and faithful steed, himself a very efficient aid to his master in his long-distance work, for "Ranty" can cover more ground in a given time, his master fully believes, than any other living horse.| | 180
He lets a week pass before he again visits the villa, where he appears, usually, at an early evening hour. He comes with no effort at secrecy, leaving Ranty either saddled or before the carriage tied ostentatiously at the front gate, which opens for pedestrians midway between the two carriage gates, and admits them to a broad gravel path leading straight to the door.
Now Hope, in asking Mrs. Hilton's consent to the telling of Lorna's experience at need, has been looking forward to certain possibilities. It has seemed to her perfect frankness will be needful, but upon conferring with her aunt they agree that something may very well be left to the sheriff's astuteness, and so the hypnotic feature has been omitted and the sheriff knows from them simply that Lorna, setting out for a ride in Felix Chetwynde's company, and finding herself indisposed, returned to her home, while Felix, presumably, has gone on and to the Heights.
Sheriff Cook is nothing if not direct. Beginning with a review of his first discoveries, he adds--
"Before a man can go far in an inquiry of this sort he must find a motive and a person upon whom to fix suspicion. The theory may not be right and the person may be innocent, but, even so, this beginning may lead to better things. The beginning I had to have, and--there was only one possible clue in sight."
"And that?" questions Hope.
"Is the bicycle ride with Miss Hilton."
Like two foolish virgins Hope and her aunt exchange quick glances, but the sheriff's eyes are | | 181 lowered, and, not seeing the sudden gleam in their grey depths, the two breathe freely while recognising their folly.
"I hardly understand," ventures Hope, who scarcely realises how her attitude toward the Hiltons has changed, even as she is thinking how needless it is to connect Lorna Hilton with this affair, and how much it will hurt her--as well as Mrs. Hilton and--well, yes Loyd--if she is made to figure even as one of the witnesses in the case.
"Naturally." The sheriff draws his chair closer. "It pays to follow up even the little things in such an affair as this," he says oracularly; "and I started in right there. I won't stop for details now, I've been a week at the work; I've questioned half a hundred people, and I have friends at Redlands who can find out most things of importance there." He pulls from a pocket a small thick note-book and opens it. "Suppose I read you these items--some of them--they are filled in with dates and sources of information. These last I will omit." He holds the book out before them, for just a momentary glance at the closely written pages, and begins:--
"Mem.: 'September 9th Miss Lorna Hilton meets F.C.'--Felix Chetwynde, you know--'at the summer-house, and they go away together up the cart road towards the Heights. At three o'clock they were seen not far from the bridge across the ravine, but on this side of it.'"
"That," ventures Hope, "must have been just before she turned back."
"Ah! well, we will see," resuming his reading. "'At half-past four Mr. Loyd Hilton and Mr. Glynne | | 182 meet, midway between Redlands and Lee, let us say, and Hilton learns from Glynne that the ravine bridge is unsafe. Hilton turns back, and not long after Glynne also turns southward.'" He lays the open book downward upon his knee.
"All these points, which I give as facts, you will understand, are verified by witnesses, and I have used my reason to weave them together into a continuous whole. I want this emphasised in your mind. Now for fact and possibility. I'll try to blend all into what seems, at least, a plausible story."
"Plausible!" shrugs Hope, " I hate the word."
"Reasonable, then. Now to begin anew. You will see how much I owe to you, Miss Chetwynde," bowing to the spinster; "I have used your facts freely. Felix Chetwynde, then, in a talk with Mr. Glynne, agrees to play fair; to woo his lady and win her or lose her within the week. He then reads a letter from a certain Inez--person unknown--who commands, in a most peculiar way, his presence at the Heights at six o'clock of that day. He sends for his wheel, which is in the hands of the repairer, finds it unfinished, storms for a time, and, after an hour of waiting, calls for it in person, and finding it ready, and the workman absent, takes possession and goes his way. We next find him at Redlands, and wheeling southward with Miss Hilton. This is at three o'clock. These are all facts. Now I must diverge. A certain man owns a drove of mules, some of them so vicious that they have been forbidden grazing privileges along the highway. This man testifies that at, or near, noon Felix Chetwynde comes to him and offers him twenty dollars in | | 183 excess of his fine if he will lead those mules, one at a time, across the bridge at the ravine and leave them there until evening. This he does, crossing the bridge at half-past one o'clock, which fixes the fall of the bridge later than that hour. These are also facts. Now if some one could tell me why the bridge must fall--"
Hope opens her lips and closes them tightly again.
"It's pretty certain that the mules were driven over the bridge by some one, and your brother, Miss Hope, questioned the man and got the information that the animals would not recross unless driven, the grazing being of the best on the Heights. Now let us suppose that he wanted the bridge to fall at a certain time."
"But--for what reason?" asks Aunt Cass.
"I can suggest two. Suppose he and Miss Hilton have crossed the bridge, may he not have wished to prevent her return, and, by forcing the mules across at a rush, have caused the bridge to fall? I am presuming that he knew just how much strain it would stand. On the other hand, Miss Hilton may not have crossed, and the animals may have been driven across to wreck the bridge, that Madam Inez might see how impossible it would be for him to cross the ravine at six o'clock."
He pauses, but his auditors are silent. Hope's face is pale and drooping; while Aunt Cass sits uneasily in her chair. They know, now, that there is more to come.
"Of the last hypothesis," he goes on, "I can only say that it is possible; but until we have found the author of the Inez letter, we can go no further along | | 184 that road. Of the other," he once more refers to his note-books "we will go back to this fact; to begin, there were footprints on the upper or south side of the ravine that were made by a woman, or a child. And, beside a fallen log, caught in a clump of low bushes, I found a jetty coques feather, which matches those worn in Miss Hilton's Alpine hat that day. And now, my dear Miss Chetwynde, I may as well tell you what at present is my honest opinion." He straightens himself in his chair, and gives a last glance at the note-book. "I believe that Miss Lorna Hilton crossed the ravine upon the unsafe bridge that day; that your brother took her there, determined to learn his fate at once, and--that she refused him." He glances askance at the two, but both faces are averted, and at this he smiles. "Did he become desperate, then, and, having prepared for just such an emergency, drive the mules across and wreck the bridge, on pretext of their being dangerous animals? What did he say, or do, that Miss Hilton should go home and keep the matter silent at such at time? and why do not Loyd Hilton and Mr. Terence Glynne come forward and say that they were at, or near, the Heights that afternoon--and that as late as 6.30 p.m., Miss Hilton was with them then, and that the two men shook hands and separated? Hilton and his sister going by one way, and Glynne by the other? How is it that they heard no pistol-shot when they were in the woods at six-thirty o'clock, and Doctor Jarvis, as well as the experts, affirm that Chetwynde was dead at that hour? And--above all--how did Miss Hilton recross the ravine?"| | 185
"Mr. Cook!" It is Aunt Cassandra who suddenly interposes. "Tell us in plain words, whom you are about to accuse?"
"I accuse no one, yet! I suspect--strongly suspect Loyd Hilton!"
"And why not the other young man as well?" Cassandra asks.
He looks long at Hope, and then, as she motions him to proceed, replies--
"Because Hilton is not the man to let another out-do him in quickness of action. Glynne is a cooler man. Besides, she is his twin, and that, to sensitive temperaments, means much. More than that, Hilton was far the more agitated of the two; and last, Hilton's revolver, at his home, has one lately emptied chamber."
And now Hope Chetwynde is upon her feet, and like a blaze of white light flashes out her heart's secret to the sight of the others, and to herself as well.
"What!" she cries scornfully. "Have you put a spy in his own household--already?"
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