- CHAPTER XXII SUSPENSE
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DURING the next few days Sheriff Cook is very busy with certain litigations of importance, which require his almost constant service, and when he finds leisure, at the end of the fourth day, to look about him, and learn the gossip of the town, he finds it busy with the name of Loyd Hilton.
How it began it is hard to guess, and how amazingly a six-days' growth of gossip can spread, only the dweller in the village, the country community, and the little suburb of a large city, may know.
It had gone the length and breadth of Lee, and was on its travels up and down the lake shore, when Sheriff Cook first sighted it and sought to run it down. "Ain't heard on it?" queries Jim Walker, whose mission in life seems to be to assist at saloon seances, and street-corner confabs, and to subsist, as best he can, without much effort. "Wa', I do' know, it's strange! Ye see, yo've bin to court purty stiddy, 'n then yu sort of holt folks off 'bout talken with | | 242 yu 'bout your line o' work, anyhow." And here Jim winks and looks knowing and confidential, and makes the sheriff long to kick him.
"Can't tell how I hearn of it, first. But day 'fore yestiddy Tom Cole tole me 't that Brooks boy, what's allus pokin' around and snoopin', found a pi'ce ev paper onto the sidewalk, like 's if 't 'd ben tore of ov a letter; 'n it claimed tu be from somebody 't was clearin' out ter git out uv trouble on 'count uv havin' seen young Hilton shoot that Chetwynde feller up 't ther Heights. Oh, thar's lots o' fool talk goin' on sher-uff!"
And this the sheriff soon discovered.
When he had spent two days sifting, questioning, listening to "old women's tales" here and there, he had made no perceptible progress. He had obtained the scrap of paper, a dirty pencilled scrawl, written with evident attempt at disguise.
It appeared like a half-sheet, the last page of a letter, written in pencil, and sadly blurred, and it ran thus:
"--count of seeing the Hilton fellow shoot at Chetwynde up at the Heights, close by the ravine. If the sheriff had any eyes he'd see quick enough how he got across the broken bridge, what I'd like to know just for curiosity, is--how did the old wreck fall down just in the nick of time.
"Can't say when I'll come back; not till that thing blows over, for I don't care about being a witness. Take care o' my interests, old feller. Yours on the jump,--T."
What the sheriff thought of this record, it would have been hard to tell by his looks or words. What | | 243 he did was to read it over once and again, examine it under a strong lens, nod two or three times, and then lock it carefully away in the drawer which contained the other "documents in the case."
The breath of the mouth is an elusive thing, and even a keen sheriff or acute detective may not overtake it. Had that rumour taken concrete form, Sheriff Cook would certainly have overtaken it, spurred on by his anger and his zeal. But he could not stop this rumour, nor run it to its source.
Mrs. Kane, chronic gossip, and wholly unreliable, told a story about a shabby boy who had with him a muddy bicycle, and who regaled a knot of other boys, "jest afore her kitchin winder," with a long tale about Hilton's animosity to Chetwynde, their meeting in the woods, their quarrel about something unknown, and the final shot resulting from it.
This tale, coming from any other source, would have set the sheriff on a hunt for the boy, who "Rid away on his rickety ole wheel, jes' like ther wind!" But no one considered Mrs. Kane's tales, and he let it pass, though the description of the boy gave him a moment's thought.
But on the sixth day after his night at the villa, Mr. Cook himself receives a letter, dropped in the Lakeside post office. It is brief and to the point.
"If you want to arrest the person who shot Felix Chetwynde, arrest Loyd Hilton. He will confess if arrested."
There is no signature, and when the sheriff has read it he indulges in violent use of the language which stands, with him, for profanity.
"It looks, to a man up a tree," he soliloquises, | | 244 "as if somebody was trying to force my hand. They want me to arrest Hilton, to get him into trouble. Or else"--here he strikes his big hand upon his knee with sudden emphasis--"or else somebody's afraid. I'll happen to look another way at the wrong time. Now who--"
He starts again, closes his lips, opens them to emit a long shrill whistle, and goes, after just another moment's thought, to his desk, where he writes a short note to Hope Chetwynde, sending it by a swift messenger.
In response to this note, and scarcely an hour after it is despatched, Hope and her aunt arrive at the office, and are closeted for another hour with the sheriff.
When the midnight express steams out from Lee, en route for the east, Sheriff Cook, in a very modest and retiring manner, enters the smoking car on the side farthest from the station platform, and when morning dawns he is far from Lee.
When Hope and her aunt bid Sheriff Cook adieu for an indefinite length of time, it is with very sober, very startled faces in which, in spite of the seriousness and the wonder, there is a certain blending of something like hope, like hesitating but growing relief.
This the sheriff sees. What does he not see? And he holds the little spinster's gloved hand, as if forgetfully, for a long moment, while he says--
"Now remember, ladies, as yet this is only a pretty and well-fitting theory, with of course some proof, but nothing conclusive as yet. I know how | | 245 long the time will seem to you, but if I do not come back by the first of the week you will know that the east has sent me to the west, and that will mean, or may mean, that we are upon the right track at last. My advice to you both is, see as few people as possible, refuse to be interviewed or questioned; I think I would rather not write you--"
"Don't!" says Aunt Cass with an assumption of severity, and withdrawing her hand as if she had forgotten where it lay. "There's an old maid in the post office."
"An inquisitive old maid," corrects Sheriff Cook coolly. "I had her in my mind. And a country post office--your affairs, ladies, are of deep interest to this community. I think I have no more to say. I am leaving to you the hardest task. Patience, and waiting."
"One thing--" Hope hesitates, and her face is rosy, while her eyes are full of pain. "The--the Hiltons--how--"
"I had thought at first that I would see young Hilton. I had hoped he might approach me, but I think we had better let matters rest as they are. The gossip can be no worse. And after all, a meeting now would be difficult--awkward, in fact, now. Your course has been a wise one; why change it? Courtesy toward the ladies, avoidance of him for the present. That, I think, is wisest."
"Pardon me. It is best to understand each other," it is Aunt Cass who speaks firmly but with her most courteous accent. "I have been, or tried to be, the same friend to Mrs. Hilton and to Lorna Hilton as before all this wretchedness. I have been | | 246 to see them, and shall go again. It is a promise, in fact. As for Loyd Hilton, I pity the fellow; and we seldom meet. You surely do not desire me to desert those two women. They have not a woman friend nearer than the city." "I desire nothing which is distasteful to you, Miss Chetwynde. And I have every confidence in your discretion. Goodbye, once more, ladies." "He has confidence in my discretion," muses Aunt Cass, as they ride home side by side, and silently for the most part. "He actually thought I questioned his belief in my ability to keep a secret. I wonder what he would say if I told him of the ghost? And I suppose he ought to know it. Still, it's not my ghost, and Mrs. Hilton has asked me to keep it to myself. I'll tell him my own discoveries, every one of them, but not the affairs of my friends. As for Hope, it's just as well, I fancy, that she took the ghost story so lightly, and that I did not force her attention, nor indulge in details. Because--" But here Aunt Cass turns suddenly toward her niece. "Were you very much surprised, Hope?" Her voice is gentleness itself, and the sudden question is prompted by the long half sob, half sigh that breaks from the girl's silent lips. Hope shakes her head and turns to meet her aunt's eyes. "No, Auntie. I have been haunted by the shadow of the thing, always I think in a vague way. And of late I have been haunted by it. The thought and the wish--I can't talk about it yet, Auntie."| | 247
"And I won't," declares Aunt Cass, kindly patting the hand upon the reins.
For some moments they drive on in silence, then Hope, woman-like, speaks again.
"I am wondering what he could have meant when he said that there was something else--a quite important discovery, which he must not mention until his return."
"You mean Mr. Cook?"
"I can't imagine."
But Hope says no more: only her thoughts run on and on until she finds herself saying over and over to her inner self, "What if he has found the person who wrote that note--who saw Loyd shoot him!" And her cheek grows paler, and she reaches home heavy-hearted, more than ever anxious, and carrying now, for how long she knows not, a weighty burden of suspense.
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