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The Stillwater Tragedy
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
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"Do you mean he thinks he has found out whoi killed Mr. Shackford?"

"He believes he has fallen upon clews which will lead to that. The strange things I alluded to are things which Richard will have to explain."

"Richard? What has he to do with it?"

"Not much, I hope; but there are several matters which he will be obliged to clear up in order to save himself from very great annoyance. Mr. Taggett seems to think that—that"—

"Good heavens, papa! What does he think?"

"Margaret, he thinks that Richard knew something about the murder, and has not told it."

"What could he know? Is that all?"

"No, that is not all. I am keeping the full truth from you, and it is useless to do so. You must face it like a brave girl. Mr. Taggett suspects Richard of being concerned, directly or indirectly, with the crime."

The color went from Margaret's cheek for an instant. The statement was too horrible and sudden not to startle her, but it was also too absurd to have more than an instant's effect. Her quick recovery of herself reassured Mr. Slocum. Would she meet Mr. Taggett's specific charges with the like fortitude? Mr. Slocum himself had been prostrated by them; he prayed to Heaven that Margaret might have more strength than he, as indeed she had.

"The man has got together a lot of circumstantial evidence," continued Mr. Slocum cautiously; "some of it amounts to nothing, being mere conjecture; but some of it will look badly for Richard, to outsiders."

"Of course it is all a mistake," said Margaret, in nearly her natural voice. "It ought to be easy to convince Mr. Taggett of that."

"I have not been able to convince him."

"But you will. What has possessed him to fall into such a ridiculous error?"

"Mr. Taggett has written out everything at length in this memorandum-book, and you must read it for yourself. There are expressions and statements in these pages, Margaret, that will necessarily shock you very much; but you should remember, as I tried to while reading them, that Mr. Taggett has a heart of steel; without it he would be unable to do his distressing work. The cold impartiality with which he sifts and heaps up circumstances involving the doom of a fellow-creature appears almost inhuman; but it is his business. No, don't look at it here!" said Mr. Slocum, recoiling; he had given the book to Margaret. "Take it into the other room, and read it carefully by yourself. When you have finished, come back and tell me what you think."

"But, papa, surely you"—

"I don't believe anything, Margaret! I don't know the true from the false any more! I want you to help me out of my confusion, and you cannot do it until you have read that book."

Margaret made no response, but passed into the parlor and closed the folding-doors behind her.

After an absence of half an hour she reentered the breakfast room, and laid Mr. Taggett's diary on the table beside her father, who had not moved from his place during the interval. Margaret's manner was collected, but it was evident, by the dark circles under her eyes, and the set, colorless lips, that that half hour had been a cruel thirty minutes to her. In Margaret's self-possession Mr. Slocum recognized, not for the first time, the cropping out of an ancestral trait which had somehow managed to avoid him in its wayward descent.

"Well?" he questioned, looking earnestly at Margaret, and catching a kind of comfort from her confident bearing.

"It is Mr. Taggett's trade to find somebody guilty," said Margaret, "and he has been very ingenious and very merciless. He was plainly at his wits' ends to sustain his reputation, and would not have hesitated to sacrifice any onen rather than wholly fail."

"But you have been crying, Margaret."

"How could I see Richard dragged down in the dust in this fashion, and not be mortified and indignant?"

"You don't believe anything at all of this?"

"Do you?" asked Margaret, looking through and through him.

"I confess I am troubled."

"If you doubt Richard for a second," said Margaret, with a slight quiver of her lip, "that will be the bitterest part of it to me."

"I don't give any more credit to Mr. Taggett's general charges than you do, Margaret; but I understand their gravity better. A perfectly guiltless man, one able with a single word to establish his innocence, is necessarily crushed at first by an accusation of this kind. Now, can Richard set these matters right with a single word? I am afraid he has a world of difficulty before him."

"When he returns he will explain everything. How can you question it?"

"I do not wish to; but there are two things in Mr. Taggett's story which stagger me. The motive for the destruction of Shackford's papers,—that's not plain; the box of matches is a puerility unworthy of a clever man like Mr. Taggett, and as to the chisel he found, why, there are a hundred broken chisels in the village, and probably a score of them broken in precisely the same manner; but, Margaret, did Richard every breathe a word to you of that quarrel with his cousin?"

"No."

"He never mentioned it to me either. As matters stood between you and him, nothing was more natural than that he should have spoken of it to you,—so natural that his silence is positively strange."

"He may have considered it too unimportant. Mr. Shackford always abused Richard; it was nothing new. Then, again, Richard is very proud, and perhaps he did not care to come to us just at that time with family grievances. Besides, how do we know they quarreled? The village is full of gossip."

"I am certain there was a quarrel; it was only necessary for those two to meet to insure that. I distinctly remember the forenoon when Richard went to Welch's Court; it was the day he discharged Torrini."

A little cloud passed over Margaret's countenance.

"They undoubtedly had angry words together," continued Mr. Slocum, "and we are forced to accept the Hennessey girl's statement. The reason you suggest for Richard's not saying anything on the subject may suffice for us, but it will scarcely satisfy disinterested persons, and doesn't at all cover another circumstance which must be taken in the same connection."

"What circumstance?"

"His silence in regard to Lemuel Shackford's note,—a note written the day before the murder, and making an appointment for the very night of it."

The girl looked steadily at her father.

"Margaret!" exclaimed Mr. Slocum, his face illuminated with a flickering hope as he met her untroubled gaze, "did Richard tell you?"

"No," replied Margaret.

"Then he told no one," said Mr. Slocum, with the light fading out of his features again. "It was madness in him to conceal the fact. He should not have lost a moment, after the death of his cousin, in making that letter public. It ought instantly to have been placed in Coroner Whidden's hands. Richard's action is inconceivable, unless—unless"—

"Do not say it!" cried Margaret. "I should never forgive you!"

In recapitulating the points of Mr. Taggett's accusation, Mr. Slocum had treated most of them as trivial; but he had not been sincere. He knew that that broken chisel had no duplicate in

Stillwater, and that the finding of it in Richard's closet was a black fact. Mr. Slocum had also glossed over the quarrel; but that letter!—the likelihood that Richard kept the appointment, and his absolute silence concerning it,—here was a grim thing which no sophistry could dispose of. It would be wronging Margaret to deceive her as to the vital seriousness of Richard's position.

"Why, why did he hide it!" Mr. Slocum persisted.

"I do not see that he really hid it, papa. He shut the note in a book lying openly on the table,—a dictionary, to which any one in the household was likely to go. You think Mr. Taggett a person of great acuteness."

"He is a very intelligent person, Margaret."

"He appears to me very short-sighted. If Richard were the dreadful man Mr. Taggett supposes, that paper would have been burnt, and not left for the first comer to pick up. I scorn myself for stooping to the suggestion!"

"There is something in the idea," said Mr. Slocum slowly. "But why did Richard never mention the note,—to you, or to me, or to anybody?"

"He had a sufficient reason, you may be sure. Oh, papa, how ready you are to believe evil of him!"

"I am not, God knows!"

"How you cling to this story of the letter! Suppose it turns out to be some old letter, written two or three years ago? You could never look Richard in the face again."

"Unfortunately, Shackford dated it. It is useless for us to blindfold ourselves, Margaret. Richard has managed in some way to get himself into a very perilous situation, and we cannot help him by shutting our eyes. You misconceive me if you imagine I think him capable of coolly plotting his cousin's death; but it is not outside the limits of the possible that what has happened a thousand times may have happened once more. Men less impulsive than Richard"—

"I will not listen to it!" interrupted Margaret, drawing herself up. "When Richard returns he will explain the matter to you,—not to me. If I required a word of denial from him, I should care very little whether he was innocent or not."

Mr. Slocum threw a terrified glance at his daughter. Her lofty faith sent a chill to his heart. What would be the result of a fall from such a height? He almost wished Margaret had something less of that ancestral confidence and obstinacy the lack of which in his own composition he had so often deplored.

"We are not to speak of this to Richard," he said, after a protracted pause; "at least not until Mr. Taggett considers it best. I have pledged myself to something like that."

"Has Richard been informed of Mr. Taggett's singular proceeding?" asked Margaret, freezingly.

"Not yet; nothing is to be done until Mr. Taggett returns from New York, and then Richard will at once have an opportunity of clearing himself."

"It would have spared us all much pain and misunderstanding if he had been sent for in the first instance. Did he know that this person was here in the yard?"

"The plan was talked over before Richard left; the details were arranged afterwards. He heartily approved of the plan."

A leisurely and not altogether saint-like smile crept into the corners of Margaret's mouth.

"Yes, he approved of the plan," repeated Mr. Slocum. "Perhaps he"—Here Mr. Slocum checked himself, and left the sentence flying at loose ends. Perhaps Richard had looked with favor upon a method of inquiry which was so likely to lead to no result. But Mr. Slocum did not venture to finish the suggestion. He had never seen Margaret so imperious and intractable; it was impossible to reason or to talk frankly with her. He remained silent, sitting with one arm thrown dejectedly across the back of the chair.

Presently his abject attitude and expression began to touch Margaret; there was something that appealed to her in the thin gray hair fallowing over his forehead. Her eyes softened as they rested upon him, and a pitying little tremor came to her under lip.

"Papa," she said, stooping to his side, with a sudden rosy bloom in her cheeks, "I have all the proof I want that Richard knew nothing of this dreadful business."

"You have proof!" exclaimed Mr. Slocum, starting from his seat.

"Yes. The morning Richard went to New York"—Margaret hesitated.

"Well!"

"He put his arm around me and kissed me."

"Well!"

"Well?" repeated Margaret. "Could Richard have done that,—could he have so much as laid his hand upon me—if—if"—

Mr. Slocum sunk back in the chair with a kind of groan.

"Papa, you do not know him!"

"Oh, Margaret, I am afraid that that is not the kind of evidence to clear Richard in Mr. Taggett's eyes."

"Then Richard's word must do it," she said haughtily. "He will be home to-night."

"Yes, he is to return to-night," said Mr. Slocum, looking away from her.



XXII



During the rest of the day the name of Richard Shackford was not mentioned again by either Margaret or her father. It was a day of suspense to both, and long before night-fall Margaret's impatience for Richard to come had resolved itself into a pain as keen as that with which Mr. Slocum contemplated the coming; for every hour augmented his dread of the events that would necessarily follow the reappearance of young Shackford in Stillwater.

On reaching his office, after the conversation with Margaret, Mr. Slocum found Lawyer Perkins waiting for him. Lawyer Perkins, who was as yet in ignorance of the late developments, had brought information of his own. The mutilated document which had so grimly clung to its secret was at last deciphered. It proved to be a recently executed will, in which the greater part of Lemuel Shackford's estate, real and personal, was left unconditionally to his cousin.

"That disposes of one of Mr. Taggett's theories," was Mr. Slocum's unspoken reflection. Certainly Richard had not destroyed the will; the old man himself had destroyed it, probably in some fit of pique. Yet, after all, the vital question was in no way affected by this fact; the motive for the crime remained, and the fearful evidence against Richard still held.

After the departure of Lawyer Perkins, who had been struck by the singular perturbation of his old friend, Mr. Slocum drew forth Mt. Taggett's journal, and re-read it from beginning to end. Margaret's unquestioning faith in Richard, her prompt and indignant rejection of the whole story, had shaken her father at moments that morning; but now his paralyzing doubts returned. This second perusal of the diary impressed him even more strongly than the first. Richard had killed Lemuel Shackford,—in self-defense, may be, or perhaps accidentally; but he had killed him! As Mr. Slocum passed from page to page, following the dark thread of narrative that darkened at each remove, he lapsed into that illogical frame of mind when one looks half expectantly for some providential interposition to avert the calamity against which human means are impotent. If Richard were to drop dead in the street! If he were to fall overboard off Point Judith in the night! If only anything would happen to prevent his coming back! Thus the ultimate disgrace might be spared them. But the ill thing is the sure thing; the letter with the black seal never miscarries, and Richard was bound to come! "There is no escape for him or for us," murmured Mr. Slocum, closing his finger in the book.

It was in a different mood that Margaret said to herself, "It is nearly four o'clock; he will be here at eight!" As she stood at the parlor window and watched the waning afternoon light making its farewells to the flower-beds in the little square front-gardens of the houses opposite, Margaret's heart was filled with the tenderness of the greeting she intended to give Richard. She had never been cold or shy in her demeanor with him, nor had she ever been quite demonstrative; but now she meant to put her arms around his neck in a wifely fashion, and recompense him so far as she could for all the injustice he was to suffer. When he came to learn of the hateful slander that had lifted its head during his absence, he should already be in possession of the assurance of her faith.

In the mean while the hands in Slocum's Yard were much exercised over the unaccountable disappearance of Blake. Stevens reported the matter to Mr. Slocum.

"Ah, yes," said Mr. Slocum, who had not provided himself with an explanation, and was puzzled to improvise one. "I discharged him,—that is to say, I let him go. I forgot to mention it. He didn't take to the trade."

"But he showed a good fist for a beginner," said Stevens. "He was head and shoulders the best of the new lot. Shall I put Stebbins in his place?"

"You needn't do anything until Mr. Shackford gets back."

"When will that be, sir?"

"To-night, probably."

The unceremonious departure of Blake formed the theme of endless speculation at the tavern that evening, and for the moment obscured the general interest in old Shackford's murder.

"Never to let on he was goin'!" said one.

"Didn't say good-by to nobody," remarked a second.

"It was devilish uncivil," added a third.

"It is kind of mysterious," said Mr. Peters.

"Some girl," suggested Mr. Willson, with an air of tender sentiment, which he attempted further to emphasize by a capricious wink.

"No," observed Dexter. "When a man vanishes in that sudden way his body is generally found in a clump of blackberry bushes, months afterwards, or left somewhere on the flats by an ebb tide."

"Two murders in Stillwater in one month would be rather crowding it, wouldn't it?" inquired Piggott.

"Bosh!" said Durgin. "There was always something shady about Blake. We didn't know where he hailed from, and we don't know where he's gone to. He'll take care of himself; that kind of fellow never lets anybody play any points on him." With this Durgin threw away the stump of his cigar, and lounged out at the street door.

"I couldn't get anything out of the proprietor," said Stevens; "but he never talks. May be Shackford when he"—Stevens stopped short to listen to a low, rumbling sound like distant thunder, followed almost instantly by two quick faint whistles. "He's aboard the train to-night."

Mr. Peters quietly rose from his seat and left the bar-room.

The evening express, due at eight, was only a few seconds behind time. As the screech of the approaching engine rung out from the dark wood-land, Margaret and her father exchanged rapid glances. It would take Richard ten minutes to walk from the railway station to the house,—for of course he would come there directly after sending his valise to Lime Street.

The ten minutes went by, and then twenty. Margaret bent steadily over her work, listening with covert intentness for the click of the street gate. Likely enough Richard had been unable to find any one to take charge of his hand-baggage. Presently Mr. Slocum could not resist the impulse to look at his watch. It was half past eight. He nervously unfolded The Stillwater Gazette, and sat with his eyes fastened on the paper.

After a seemingly interminable period the heavy bell of the South Church sounded nine, and then tolled for a few minutes, as the dismal custom is in New England country towns.

A long silence followed, unrelieved by any word between father and daughter,—a silence so profound that the heart of the old-fashioned time-piece, throbbing monotonously in its dusky case at the foot of the stairs, made itself audible through the room. Mr. Slocum's gaze continued fixed on the newspaper which he was not reading. Margaret's hands lay crossed over the work on her lap.

Ten o'clock.

"What can have kept him?" murmured Margaret.

"There was only that way out of it," reflected Mr. Slocum, pursuing his own line of thought.

Margaret's cheeks were flushed and hot, and her eyes dulled with disappointment, as she rose from the low rocking-chair and crossed over to kiss her father good-night. Mr. Slocum drew the girl gently towards him, and held her for a moment in silence. But Margaret, detecting the subtile commiseration in his manner, resented it, and released herself coldly.

"He has been detained, papa."

"Yes, something must have detained him!"



XXIII



When the down express arrived at Stillwater, that night, two passengers stepped from the rear car to the platform: one was Richard Shackford, and the other a commercial traveler, whose acquaintance Richard had made the previous evening on the Fall River boat.

There were no hacks in waiting at the station, and Richard found his politeness put to a severe test when he saw himself obliged to pilot his companion part of the way to the hotel, which lay—it seemed almost maliciously—in a section of the town remote from the Slocums'. Curbing his impatience, Richard led the stranger through several crooked, unlighted streets, and finally left him at the corner of the main thoroughfare, within pistol-shot of the red glass lantern which hung over the door of the tavern. This cost Richard ten good minutes. As he hurriedly turned into a cross-street on the left, he fancied that he heard his name called several times from somewhere in the darkness. A man came running towards him. It was Mr. Peters.

"Can I say a word to you, Mr. Shackford?"

"If it isn't a long one. I am rather pressed."

"It is about Torrini, sir."

"What of him?"

"He's mighty bad, sir."

"Oh, I can't stop to hear that," and Richard quickened his pace.

"The doctor took off his hand last Wednesday," said Peters, keeping alongside, "and he's been getting worse and worse."

Richard halted. "Took off his hand?"

"Didn't you know he was caught in the rolling-machine at Dana's? Well, it was after you went away."

"This is the first I've heard of it."

"It was hard lines for him, sir, with the woman and the two children, and nothing to eat in the house. The boys in the yard have done what they could, but with the things from the drug-store, and so on, we couldn't hold up our end. Mr. Dana paid the doctor's bill, but if it hadn't been for Miss Slocum I don't know what would have happened. I thought may be if I spoke to you, and told you how it was"—

"Did Torrini send you?"

"Lord, no! He's too proud to send to anybody. He's been so proud since they took off his hand that there has been no doing anything with him. If they was to take off his leg, he would turn into one mass of pride. No, Mr. Shackford, I came of myself."

"Where does Torrini live, now?"

"In Mitchell's Alley."

"I will go along with you," said Richard, with a dogged air. It seemed as if the fates were determined to keep him from seeing Margaret that night. Peters reached out a hand to take Richard's leather bag. "No, thank you, I can carry it very well." In a small morocco case in one of the pockets was a heavy plain gold ring for Margaret, and not for anything in the world would Richard have allowed any one else to carry the bag.

After a brisk five minutes' walk the two emerged upon a broad street crossing their path at right angles. All the shops were closed except Stubbs the provision dealer's and Dundon's drug-store. In the window of the apothecary a great purple jar, with a spray of gas jets behind it, was flaring on the darkness like a Bengal light. Richard stopped at the provision store and made some purchases; a little further on he halted at a fruit stand, kept by an old crone, who had supplemented the feeble flicker of the corner street lamp with a pitch-pine torch, which cast a yellow bloom over her apples and turned them all into oranges. She had real oranges, however, and Richard selected half a dozen, with a confused idea of providing the little Italians with some national fruit, though both children had been born in Stillwater.

Then the pair resumed their way, Peters acting as pioneer. They soon passed beyond the region of sidewalks and curbstones, and began picking their steps through a narrow, humid lane, where the water lay in slimy pools, and the tenement houses on each side blotted out the faint starlight. The night was sultry, and door and casement stood wide, making pits of darkness. Few lights were visible, but a continuous hum of voices issued from the human hives, and now and then a transient red glow at an upper window showed that some one was smoking a pipe. This was Mitchell's Alley.

The shadows closed behind the two men as they moved forward, and neither was aware of the figure which had been discreetly following them for the last ten minutes. If Richard had suddenly wheeled and gone back a dozen paces, he would have come face to face with the commercial traveler.

Mr. Peeters paused in front of one of the tenement houses, and motioned with his thumb over his shoulder for Richard to follow him through a yawning doorway. The hall was as dark as a cave, and full of stale, moldy odors. Peters shuffled cautiously along the bare boards until he kicked his toe against the first step of the staircase.

"Keep close to the wall, Mr. Shackford, and feel your way up. They've used the banisters for kindling, and the landlord says he shan't put in any more. I went over here the other night," added Mr. Peters reminiscentially.

After fumbling several seconds for the latch, Mr. Peters pushed open a door, and ushered Richard into a large, gloomy rear room. A kerosene lamp was burning dimly on the mantel-shelf, over which hung a coarsely-colored lithograph of the Virgin in a pine frame. Under the picture stood a small black crucifix. There was little furniture,—a cooking-stove, two or three stools, a broken table, and a chest of drawers. On an iron bedstead in the corner lay Torrini, muffled to the chin in a blanket, despite the hot midsummer night. His right arm, as if it were wholly disconnected with his body, rested in a splint on the outside of the covering. As the visitors entered, a tall dusky woman with blurred eyes rose from a low bench at the foot of the bed.

"Is he awake?" asked Peters.

The woman, comprehending the glance which accompanied the words, though not the words themselves, nodded yes.

"Here is Mr. Shackford come to see you, Torrini," Peters said.

The man slowly unclosed his eyes; they were unnaturally brilliant and dilated, and seemed to absorb the rest of his features.

"I didn't want him."

"Let by-gones be by-gones, Torrini," said Richard, approaching the bedside. "I am sorry about this."

"You are very good; I don't understand. I ask nothing of Slocum; but the signorina comes every day, and I cannot help it. What would you have? I'm a dead man," and he turned away his face.

"It is not so bad as that," said Richard.

Torrini looked up with a ghastly smile. "They have cut off the hand that struck you, Mr. Shackford."

"I suppose it was necessary. I am very sorry. In a little while you will be on your feet again."

"It is too late. They might have saved me by taking the arm, but I would not allow them. I may last three or four days. The doctor says it."

Peters, standing in the shadow, jerked his head affirmatively.

"I do not care for myself," the man continued,—"but she and the little ones—That is what madden s me. They will starve."

"They will not be let starve in Stillwater," said Richard.

Torrini turned his eyes upon him wistfully and doubtfully. "You will help them?"

"Yes, I and others."

"If they could be got to Italy," said Torrini, after meditating, "it would be well. Her farther," giving a side look at the woman, "is a fisherman of Capri." At the word Capri the woman lifted her head quickly. "He is not rich, but he's not poor; he would take her."

"You would wish her sent to Naples?"

"Yes."

"If you do not pull through, she and the children shall go there."

"Brigida!" called Torrini; then he said something rapidly in Italian to the woman, who buried her face in both hands, and did not reply.

"She has no words to thank you. See, she is tired to death, with the children all day and me all night,—these many nights."

"Tell her to go to bed in the other room," said Richard. "There's another room, isn't there? I'll sit with you."

"You?"

"Your wife is fagged out,—that is plain. Send her to bed, and don't talk any more. Peters, I wish you'd run and get a piece of ice somewhere; there's no drinking-water here. Come, now, Torrini, I can't speak Italian. Oh, I don't mind your scowling; I intend to stay."

Torrini slowly unknitted his brows, and an irresolute expression stole across his face; then he called Brigida, and bade her go in with the children. She bowed her head submissively, and fixing her melting eyes on Richard for an instant passed into the adjoining chamber.

Peters shortly reappeared with the ice, and after setting a jug of water on the table departed. Richard turned up the wick of the kerosene lamp, which was sending forth a disagreeable odor, and pinned an old newspaper around the chimney to screen the flame. He had, by an odd chance, made his lampshade out of a copy of The Stillwater Gazette containing the announcement of his cousin's death. Richard gave a quick start as his eye caught the illuminated head-lines,—Mysterious Murder of Lemuel Shackford! Perhaps a slight exclamation escaped Richard's lips at the same time, for Torrini turned and asked what was the matter. "Nothing at all," said Richard, removing the paper, and placing another in its stead. Then he threw open the blinds of the window looking on the back yard, and set his hand-bag against the door to prevent it being blown to by the draught. Torrini, without altering the rigid position of his head on the pillow, followed every movement with a look of curious insistence, like that of the eyes in a portrait. His preparations completed for the night, Richard seated himself on a stool at the foot of the bed.

The obscurity and stillness of the room had their effect upon the sick man, who presently dropped into a light sleep. Richard sat thinking of Margaret, and began to be troubled because he had neglected to send her word of his detention, which he might have done by Peters. It was now too l ate. The town clock struck ten in the midst of his self-reproaches. At the first clang of the bell, Torrini awoke with a start, and asked for water.

"If anybody comes," he said, glancing in a bewildered, anxious way at the shadows huddled about the door, "you are not to leave me alone with him."

"Him? Whom? Are you expecting any one?"

"No; but who knows? one might come. Then, you are not to go; you are not to leave me for a second."

"I've no thought of it," replied Richard; "you may rest easy.... He's a trifle light in the head," was Richard's reflection.

After that Torrini dozed rather than slumbered, rousing at brief intervals; and whenever he awoke the feverish activity of his brain incited him to talk,—nowe of Italy, and now of matters connected with his experiences in this country.

"Naples is a pleasant place!" he broke out in the hush of the midnight, just as Richard was dropping off. "The band plays every afternoon on the Chiaia. And then the festas,—every third day a festa. The devil was in my body when I left there and dragged little Brigida into all this misery. We used to walk of an evening along the Marinella,—that's a strip of beach just beyond the Molo Piccolo. You were never in Naples?"

"Not I," said Richard. "Here, wet your lips, and try to go to sleep again."

"No, I can't sleep for thinking. When the Signorina came to see me, the other day, her heart was pierced with pity. Like the blessed Madonna's, her bosom bleeds for all! You will let her come to-morrow?"

"Yes, yes! If you will only keep quiet, Margaret shall come."

"Margherita, we say. You are to we her,—is it nnot so?"

Richard turned down the wick of the lamp, which was blazing and spluttering, and did not answer. Then Torrini lay silent a long while, apparently listening to the hum of the telegraph wires attached to one end of the roof. At odd intervals the freshening breeze swept these wires, and awoke a low aeolian murmur. The moon rose in the mean time, and painted on the uncarpeted floor the shape of the cherry bough that stretched across the window. It was two o'clock; Richard sat with his head bent forward, in a drowse.

"Now the cousin is dead, you are as rich as a prince,—are you not?" inquired Torrini, who had lain for the last half hour with his eyes wide open in the moonlight.

Richard straightened himself with a jerk.

"Torrini, I positively forbid you to talk any more!"

"I remember you said that one day, somewhere. Where was it? Ah, in the yard! 'You can't be allowed to speak here, you know.' And then I struck at you,—with that hand they've taken away! See how I remember it!"

"Why do you bother your mind with such things? Think of just nothing at all, and rest. Perhaps a wet cloth on your forehead will refresh you. I wish you had a little of my genius for not keeping awake."

"You are tired, you?"

"I have had two broken nights, traveling."

"And I give you no peace?"

"Well, no," returned Richard bluntly, hoping the admission would induce Torrini to tranquilize himself, "you don't give me much."

"Has any one been here?" demanded Torrini abruptly.

"Not a soul. Good Heaven, man, do you know what time it is?"

"I know,—I know. It's very late. I ought to keep quiet; but, the devil! with this fever in my brain! . . . . Mr. Shackford!" and Torrini, in spite of his imprisoned limb, suddenly half raised himself from the mattress. "I—I"—

Richard sprung to his feet. "What is it,—what do you want?"

"Nothing," said Torrini, falling back on the pillow.

Richard brought him a glass of water, which he refused. He lay motionless, with his eyes shut, as if composing himself, and Richard returned on tiptoe to his bench. A moment or two afterwards Torrini stirred the blanket with his foot.

"Mr. Shackford!"

"Well?"

"I am as grateful—as a dog."

Torrini did not speak again. This expression of his gratitude appeared to ease him. His respiration grew lighter and more regular, and by and by he fell into a profound sleep. Richard watched awhile expectantly, with his head resting against the rail of the bedstead; then his eyelids drooped, and he too slumbered. But once or twice, before he quite lost himself, he was conscious of Brigida's thin face thrust like a silver wedge through the half-open door of the hall bedroom. It was the last thing he remembered,—that sharp, pale face peering out from the blackness of the inner chamber as his grasp loosened on the world and he drifted off on the tide of a dream. A narrow white hand, like a child's, seemed to be laid against his breast. It was not Margaret's hand, and yet it was hers. No, it was the plaster model he had made that idle summer afternoon, years and years before he had ever thought of loving her. Strange for it to be there! Then Richard began wondering how the gold ring would look in the slender forefinger. He unfastened the leather bag and took out the ring. He was vainly trying to pass it over the first joint of the dead white finger, when the cast slipped from his hold and fell with a crash to the floor. Richard gave a shudder, and opened his eyes. Brigida was noiselessly approaching Torrini's bedside. Torrini still slept. It was broad day. Through the uncurtained window Richard saw the blue sky barred with crimson.



XXIV



"Richard did come home last night, after all," said Mr. Slocum, with a flustered air, seating himself at the breakfast table.

Margaret looked up quickly.

"I just met Peters on the street, and he told me," added Mr. Slocum.

"Richard returned last night, and did not come to us!"

"It seems that he watched with Torrini,—the man is going to die."

"Oh," said Margaret, cooling instantly. "That was like Richard; he never thinks of himself first. I would not have had him do differently. Last evening you were filled with I don't know what horrible suspicions, yet see how simply everything explains itself."

"If I could speak candidly, Margaret, if I could express myself without putting you into a passion, I would tell you that Richard's passing the night with that man has given me two or three ugly ideas."

"Positively, papa, you are worse than Mr. Taggett."

"I shall not say another word," replied Mr. Slocum. Then he unfolded the newspaper lying beside him, and constructed a barrier against further colloquy.

An hour afterwards, when Richard threw open the door of his private workshop, Margaret was standing in the middle of the room waiting for him. She turned with a little cry of pleasure, and allowed Richard to take her in his arms, and kept to the spirit and the letter of the promise she had made to herself. If there was an unwonted gravity in Margaret's manner, young Shackford was not keen enough to perceive it. All that morning, wherever he went, he carried with him a sense of Margaret's face resting for a moment against his shoulder, and the happiness of it rendered him wholly oblivious to the constrained and chilly demeanor of her father when they met. The interview was purposely cut short by Mr. Slocum, who avoided Richard the rest of the day with a persistency that must have ended in forcing itself upon his notice, had he not been so engrossed by the work which had accumulated during his absence.

Mr. Slocum had let the correspondence go to the winds, and a formidable collection of unanswered letters lay on Shackford's desk. The forenoon was consumed in reducing the pile and settling the questions that had risen in the shops, for Mr. Slocum had neglected everything. Richard was speedily advised of Blake's dismissal from the yard, but, not knowing what explanation had been offered, was unable to satisfy Stevens' curiosity on the subject. "I must see Slocum about that at once," reflected Richard; but the opportunity did not occur, and he was too much pressed to make a special business of it.

Mr. Slocum, meanwhile, was in a wretched state of suspense and apprehension. Justice Beemis's clerk had served some sort of legal paper—presumably a subpoena—on Richard, who had coolly read it in the yard under the gaze of all, and given no sign of discomposure beyond a momentary lifting of the eyebrows. Then he had carelessly thrust the paper into one of his pockets and continued his directions to the men. Clearly he had as yet no suspicion of the mine that was ready to be sprung under his feet.

Shortly after this little incident, which Mr. Slocum had witnessed from the window of the counting-room, Richard spoke a word or two to Stevens, and quitted the yard. Mr. Slocum dropped into the carving department.

"Where is Mr. Shackford, Stevens?"

"He has gone to Mitchell's Alley, sir. Said he'd be away an hour. Am I to say he was wanted?"

"No," replied Mr. Slocum, hastily; "any time will do. You needn't mention that I inquired for him," and Mr. Slocum returned to the counting-room.

Before the hour expired he again distinguished Richard's voice in the workshops, and the cheery tone of it was a positive affront to Mr. Slocum. Looking back to the week prior to the tragedy in Welch's Court, he recollected Richard's unaccountable dejection; he had had the air of a person meditating some momentous step,—the pallor, the set face, and the introspective eyes. Then came the murder, and Richard's complete prostration. Mr. Slocum in his own excitement had noted it superficially at the time, but now he recalled the young man's inordinate sorrow, and it seemed rather like remorse. Was his present immobile serenity the natural expression of a man whose heart had suddenly ossified, and was no longer capable of throbbing with its guilt? Richard Shackford was rapidly becoming an awful problem to Mr. Slocum.

Since the death of his cousin, Richard had not been so much like his former self. He appeared to have taken up his cheerfulness at the point where he had dropped it three weeks before. If there were any weight resting on his mind, he bore it lightly, with a kind of careless defiance.

In his visit that forenoon to Mitchell's Alley he had arranged for Mrs. Morganson, his cousin's old housekeeper, to watch with Torrini the ensuing night. This left Richard at liberty to spend the evening with Margaret, and finish his correspondence. Directly after tea he repaired to the studio, and, lighting the German student-lamp, fell to work on the letters. Margaret came in shortly with a magazine, and seated herself near the round table at which he was writing. She had dreaded this evening; it could scarcely pass without some mention of Mr. Taggett, and she had resolved not to speak of him. If Richard questioned her it would be very distressing. How could she tell Richard that Mr. Taggett accused him of the murder of his cousin, and that her own father half believed the accusation? No, she could never acknowledge that.

For nearly an hour the silence of the room was interrupted only by the scratching of Richard's pen and the rustling of the magazine as Margaret turned the leaf. Now and then he looked up and caught her eye, and smiled, and went on with his task. It was a veritable return of the old times. Margaret became absorbed in the story she was reading and forgot her uneasiness. Her left hand rested on the pile of answered letters, to which Richard added one at intervals, she mechanically lifting her palm and replacing it on the fresh manuscript. Presently Richard observed this movement and smiled in secret at the slim white hand unconsciously making a paper-weight of itself. He regarded it covertly for a moment, and then his disastrous dream occurred to him. There should be no mistake this time. He drew the small morocco case from his pocket, and leaning across the table slipped the ring on Margaret's finger.

Margaret gave a bewildered start, and then seeing what Richard had done held out her hand to him with a gracious, impetuous little gesture.

"I mean to give it you this morning," he said, pressing his lip to the ring, "but the daylight did not seem fine enough for it."

"I thought you had forgotten," said Margaret, slowly turning the band on her finger.

"The first thing I did in New York was to go to a jeweler's for this ring, and since then I have guarded it day and night as dragonishly as if it had been the Koh-i-Noor diamond, or some inestimable gem which hundreds of envious persons were lying in wait to wrest from me. Walking the streets with this trinket in my possession, I have actually had a sense of personal insecurity. I seemed to invite general assault. That was being very sentimental, was it not?"

"Yes, perhaps."

"That small piece of gold meant so much to me."

"And to me," said Margaret. "Have you finished your letters?"

"Not yet. I shall be through in ten minutes, and then we'll have the evening to ourselves."

Richard hurriedly resumed his writing and Margaret turned to her novel again; but the interest had faded out of it; the figures had grown threadbare and indistinct, like the figures in a piece of old tapestry, and after a moment or two the magazine glided with an unnoticed flutter into the girl's lap. She sat absently twirling the gold loop on her finger.

Richard added the address to the final envelope, dried it with the blotter, and abruptly shut down the lid of the inkstand with an air of as great satisfaction as if he had been the fisherman in the Arabian story corking up the wicked afrite. With his finger still pressing the leaden cover, as though he were afraid the imp of toil would get out again, he was suddenly impressed by the fact that he had seen very little of Mr. Slocum that day.

"I have hardly spoken to him," he reflected. "Where is your father, to-night?"

"He has a headache," said Margaret. "He went to his room immediately after supper."

"It is nothing serious, of course."

"I fancy not; papa is easily excited, and he had had a great deal to trouble him lately,—the strike, and all that."

"I wonder if Mr. Taggett has been bothering him."

"I dare say Mr. Taggett has bothered him."

"You knew of his being in the yard?"

"Not while he was here. Papa told me yesterday. I think Mr. Taggett was scarcely the person to render much assistance."

"Then he has found nothing whatever?"

"Nothing important."

"But anything? Trifles are of importance in a matter like this. Your father never wrote me a word about Taggett."

"Mr. Taggett has made a failure of it, Richard."

"If nothing new has transpired, then I do not understand the summons I received to-day."

"A summons!"

"I've the paper somewhere. No, it is in the pocket of my other coat. I take it there is to be a consultation of some kind at Justice Beemis's office to-morrow."

"I am very glad," said Margaret, with her face brightening. To-morrow would lift the cloud which had spread itself over them all, and was pressing down so heavily on one unconscious head. To-morrow Richard's innocence should shine forth and confound Mr. Taggett. A vague bitterness rose in Margaret's heart as she thought of her father. "Let us talk of something else," she said, brusquely breaking her pause; "let us talk of something pleasant."

"Of ourselves, then," suggested Richard, banishing the shadow which had gathered in his eyes at his first mention of Mr. Taggett's name.

"Of ourselves," repeated Margaret gayly.

"Then you must give me your hand," stipulated Richard, drawing his chair closer to hers.

"There!" said Margaret.

While this was passing, Mr. Slocum, in the solitude of his chamber, was vainly attempting to solve the question whether he had not disregarded all the dictates of duty and common sense in allowing Margaret to spend the evening alone with Richard Shackford. Mr. Slocum saw one thing with painful distinctness—that he could not help himself.



XXV



The next morning Mr. Slocum did not make his appearance in the marble yard. His half-simulated indisposition of the previous night had turned into a genuine headache, of which he perhaps willingly availed himself to remain in his room, for he had no desire to see Richard Shackford that day.

It was an hour before noon. Up to that moment Richard had been engaged in reading and replying to the letters received by the morning's mail, a duty which usually fell to Mr. Slocum. As Richard stepped from the office into the yard a small boy thrust a note into his hand, and then stood off a short distance tranquilly boring with one toe in the loose gravel, and apparently waiting for an answer. Shackford hastily ran his eye over the paper, and turning towards the boy said, a little impatiently:

"Tell him I will come at once."

There was another person in Stillwater that forenoon whose agitation was scarcely less than Mr. Slocum's, though it greatly differed from it in quality. Mr. Slocum was alive to his finger-tips with dismay; Lawyer Perkins was boiling over with indignation. It was a complex indignation, in which astonishment and incredulity were nicely blended with a cordial detestation of Mr. Taggett and vague promptings to inflict some physical injury on Justice Beemis. That he, Melanchthon Perkins, the confidential legal adviser and personal friend of the late Lemuel Shackford, should have been kept for two weeks in profound ignorance of proceedings so nearly touching his lamented client! The explosion of the old lawyer's wrath was so unexpected that Justice Beemis, who had dropped in to make the disclosures and talk the matter over informally, clutched at his broad-brimmed Panama hat and precipitately retreated from the office. Mr. Perkins walked up and down the worn green drugget of his private room for half an hour afterwards, collecting himself, and then dispatched a hurried note to Richard Shackford, requesting an instant interview with him at his, Lawyer Perkins's, chambers.

When, some ten minutes subsequently, Richard entered the low-studded square room, darkened with faded moreen curtains and filled with a stale odor of law-calf, Mr. Perkins was seated at his desk and engaged in transferring certain imposing red-sealed documents to a green baize satchel which he held between his knees. He had regained his equanimity; his features wore their usual expression of judicial severity; nothing denoted his recent discomposure, except perhaps an additional wantonness in the stringy black hair falling over the high forehead,—that pallid high forehead which always wore the look of being covered with cold perspiration.

"Mr. Shackford," said Lawyer Perkins, suspending his operations a second, as he saluted the young man, "I suppose I have done an irregular thing in sending for you, but I did not see any other course open to me. I have been your cousin's attorney for over twenty-five years, and I've a great regard for you personally. That must justify the step I am taking."

"The regard is mutual, I am sure," returned Richard, rather surprised by this friendly overture, for his acquaintance with the lawyer had been of the slightest, though it had extended over many years. "My cousin had very few friends, and I earnestly desire to have them mine. If I were in any trouble, there is no one to whom I would come as unhesitatingly as to you."

"But you are in trouble."

"Yes, my cousin's death was very distressing."

"I do not mean that." Mr. Perkins paused a full moment. "The district attorney has suddenly taken a deep interest in the case, and there is to be a rigorous overhauling of the facts. I am afraid it is going to be very unpleasant for you, Mr. Shackford."

"How could it be otherwise?" asked Richard, tranquilly.

Lawyer Perkins fixed his black eyes on him. "Then you fully understand the situation, and can explain everything?"

"I wish I could. Unfortunately, I can explain nothing. I don't clearly see why I have been summoned to attend as a witness at the investigation to be held to-day in Justice Beemis's office."

"You are unacquainted with any special reason why your testimony is wanted?"

"I cannot conceive why it should be required. I gave my evidence at the time of the inquest, and have nothing to add to it. Strictly speaking, I have had of late years no relations with my cousin. During the last eighteen months we have spoken together but once."

"Have you had any conversation on this subject with Mr. Slocum since your return from New York?"

"No, I have had no opportunity. I was busy all day yesterday; he was ill in the evening, and is still confined to his room."

Mr. Perkins was manifestly embarrassed.

"That is unfortunate," he said, laying the bag on the desk. "I wish you had talked with Mr. Slocum. Of course you were taken into the secret of Taggett's presence in the marble yard?"

"Oh, yes; that was all arranged before I left home."

"You don't know the results of that manoeuvre?"

"There were no results."

"On the contrary, Taggett claims to have made very important discoveries."

"Indeed! Why was I not told!"

"I can't quite comprehend Mr. Slocum's silence."

"What has Taggett discovered?"

"Several things, upon which he builds the gravest suspicions."

"Against whom?"

"Against you."

"Against me!" cried Richard, recoiling. The action was one altogether of natural amazement, and convinced Mr. Perkins, who had keenly watched the effect of his announcement, that young Shackford was being very hardly used.

Justice Beemis had given Mr. Perkins only a brief outline of the facts, and had barely touched on details when the old lawyer's anger had put an end to the conversation. His disgust at having been left out in the cold, though he was in no professional way concerned in the task of discovering the murderer of Lemuel Shackford, had caused Lawyer Perkins instantly to repudiate Mr. Taggett's action. "Taggett is a low, intriguing fellow," he had said to Justice Beemis; "Taggett is a fraud." Young Shackford's ingenuous manner now confirmed Mr. Perkins in that belief.

Richard recovered himself in a second or two. "Why did not Mr. Slocum mention these suspicions to me?" he demanded.

"Perhaps he found it difficult to do so."

"Why should he find it difficult?"

"Suppose he believed them."

"But he could not believe them, whatever they are."

"Well, then, suppose he was not at liberty to speak."

"It seems that you are, Mr. Perkins, and you owe it to me to be explicit. What does Taggett suspect?"

Lawyer Perkins brooded a while before replying. His practice was of a miscellaneous sort, confined in the main to what is technically termed office practice. Though he was frequently engaged in small cases of assault and battery,—he could scarcely escape that in Stillwater,—he had never conducted an important criminal case; but when Lawyer Perkins looked up from his brief reverie, he had fully resolved to undertake the defense of Richard Shackford.

"I will tell you what Taggett suspects," he said slowly, "if you will allow me to tell you in my own way. I must ask a number of questions."

Richard gave a half-impatient nod of assent.

"Where were you on the night of the murder?" inquired Lawyer Perkins, after a slight pause.

"I spent the evening at the Slocums', until ten o'clock; then I went home,—but not directly. It was moonlight, and I walked about, perhaps for an hour."

"Did you meet any one?"

"Not that I recollect. I walked out of town, on the turnpike."

"When you returned to your boarding-house, did you meet any one?"

"No, I let myself in with a pass-key. The family had retired, with the exception of Mr. Pinkham."

"Then you saw him?"

"No, but I heard him; he was playing on the flute at his chamber window, or near it. He always plays on the flute when he can't sleep."

"What o'clock was that?"

"It must have been after eleven."

"Your stroll was confined to the end of the town most remote from Welch's Court?"

"Yes, I just cruised around on the outskirts."

"I wish you had spoken with somebody that night."

"The streets were deserted. I wasn't likely to meet persons on the turnpike."

"However, some one may have seen you without your knowing it?"

"Yes," said Richard curtly. He was growing restive under these interrogations, the drift of which was plain enough to be disagreeable. Moreover, Mr. Perkins had insensibly assumed the tone and air of a counsel cross-examining a witness on the other side. This nocturnal cruise, whose direction and duration were known only to young Shackford, struck Lawyer Perkins unpleasantly. He meditated a moment before putting the next question.

"Were you on good terms—I mean fairly good terms—with your cousin?"

"No," said Richard; "but the fault was not mine. He never liked me. As a child I annoyed him, I suppose, and when I grew up I offended him by running away to sea. My mortal offense, however, was accepting a situation in Slocum's Yard. I have been in my cousin's house only twice in three years."

"When was the last time?"

"A day or two previous to the strike."

"As you were not in the habit of visiting the house, you must have had some purpose in going there. What was the occasion?"

Richard hung his head thoughtfully. "I went there to talk over family matters,—to inform him of my intended marriage to Margaret Slocum. I wanted his good-will and support. Mr. Slocum had offered to take me into the business. I thought perhaps my cousin Lemuel, seeing how prosperous I was, would be more friendly to me."

"Did you wish him to lend you capital?"

"I didn't expect or wish him to; but there was some question of that."

"And he refused?"

"Rather brutally, if I may say so now."

"Was there a quarrel?"

Richard hesitated.

"Of course I don't press you," said Mr. Perkins, with some stiffness. "You are not on the witness stand."

"I began to think I was—in the prisoner's dock," answered Richard, smiling ruefully. "However, I have nothing to conceal. I hesitated to reply to you because it was painful for me to reflect that the last time I saw my cousin we parted in anger. He charge me with attempting to overreach him, and I left the house in indignation."

"That was the last time you saw him?"

"The last time I saw him alive."

"Was there any communication between you two after that?"

"No."

"None whatever?"

"None."

"Are you quite positive?"

"As positive as I can be that I live and have my senses."

Lawyer Perkins pulled a black strand of hair over his forehead, and remained silent for nearly a minute.

"Mr. Shackford, are you sure that your cousin did not write a note to you on the Monday preceding the night of his death?"

"He may have written a dozen, for all I know. I only know that I never received a note or a letter from him in the whole course of my life."

"Then how do you account for the letter which has been found in your rooms in Lime Street,—a letter addressed to you by Lemuel Shackford, and requesting you to call at his house on that fatal Tuesday night?"

"I—I know nothing about it," stammered Richard. "There is no such paper!"

"It was in this office less than one hour ago," said Lawyer Perkins sternly. "It was brought here for me to identify Lemuel Shackford's handwriting. Justice Beemis has that paper!"

"Justice Beemis has it!" exclaimed Richard.

"I have nothing more to say," observed Lawyer Perkins, reaching out his hand towards the green bag, as a sign that the interview was ended. "There were other points I wished to have some light thrown on; but I have gone far enough to see that it is useless."

"What more is there?" demanded Richard in a voice that seemed to come through a fog. "I insist on knowing! You suspect me of my cousin's murder?"

"Mr. Taggett does."

"And you?"

"I am speaking of Mr. Taggett."

"Well, go on, speak of him," said Richard desperately. "What else has he discovered?"

Mr. Perkins wheeled his chair round until he faced the young man.

"He has discovered in your workshop a chisel with a peculiar break in the edge,—a deep notch in the middle of the bevel. With that chisel Lemuel Shackford was killed."

Richard gave a perceptible start, and put his hand to his head, as if a sudden confused memory had set the temples throbbing.

"A full box of safety matches," continued Mr. Perkins, in a cold, measured voice, as though he were demonstrating a mathematical problem, "contains one hundred matches. Mr. Taggett has discovered a box that contains only ninety-nine. The missing match was used that night in Welch's Court."

Richard stared at him blankly. "What can I say?" he gasped.

"Say nothing to me," returned Lawyer Perkins, hastily thrusting a handful of loose papers into the open throat of the green bag, which he garroted an instant afterwards with a thick black cord. Then he rose flurriedly from the chair. "I shall have to leave you," he said; "I've an appointment at the surrogate's."

And Lawyer Perkins passed stiffly from the apartment.

Richard lingered a moment alone in the room with his chin resting on his breast.



XXVI



There was a fire in Richard's temples as he reeled out of Lawyer Perkins's office. It was now twelve o'clock, and the streets were thronged with the motley population disgorged by the various mills and workshops. Richard felt that every eye was upon him; he was conscious of something wild in his aspect that must needs attract the attention of the passers-by. At each step he half expected the leveling of some accusing finger. The pitiless sunshine seemed to single him out and stream upon him like a calcium light. It was intolerable. He must get away from this jostling crowd, this babel of voices. What should he do, where should he go? To return to the yard and face the workmen was not to be thought of; if he went to his lodgings he would be called to dinner, and have to listen to the inane prattle of the school-master. That would be even more intolerable than this garish daylight, and these careless squads of men and women who paused in the midst of their laugh to turn and stare. Was there no spot in Stillwater where a broken man could hide himself long enough to collect his senses?

With his hands thrust convulsively into the pockets of his sack-coat, Richard turned down a narrow passage-way fringing the rear of some warehouses. As he hurried along aimlessly his fingers encountered something in one of his pockets. It was the key of a new lock which had been put on the scullery door of the house in Welch's Court. Richard's heart gave a quick throb. There at least was a temporary refuge; he would go there and wait until it was time for him to surrender himself to the officers.

It appeared to Richard that he was nearly a year reaching the little back yard of the lonely house. He slipped into the scullery and locked the door, wondering if his movements had been observed since he quitted the main street. Here he drew a long breath and looked around him; then he began wandering restlessly through the rooms, of which there were five or six on the ground-floor. The furniture, the carpets, and all the sordid fixtures of the house were just as Richard had known them in his childhood. Everything was unchanged, even to the faded peacock-feather stuck over the parlor looking-glass. As he regarded the familiar objects and breathed the snuffy atmosphere peculiar to the place, the past rose so vividly before him that he would scarcely have been startled if a lean, gray old man had suddenly appeared in one of the doorways. On a peg in the front hall hung his cousin's napless beaver hat, satirically ready to be put on; in the kitchen closet a pair of ancient shoes, worn down at the heel and with taps on the toe, had all the air of intending to step forth. The shoes had been carefully blacked, but a thin skin of mould had gathered over them. They looked like Lemuel Shackford. They had taken a position habitual with him. Richard was struck by the subtile irony which lay in these inanimate things. That a man's hat should outlast the man, and have a jaunty expression of triumph! That a dead man's shoes should mimic him!

The tall eight-day clock on the landing had run down. It had stopped at twelve, and it now stood with solemnly uplifted finger, as if imposing silence on those small, unconsidered noises which commonly creep out, like mice, only at midnight. The house was full of such stealthy sounds. The stairs creaked at intervals, mysteriously, as if under the weight of some heavy person ascending. Now and then the woodwork stretched itself with a snap, as though it had grown stiff in the joints with remaining so long in one position. At times there were muffled reverberations of footfalls on the flooring overhead. Richard had a curious consciousness of not being alone, but of moving in the midst of an invisible throng of persons who elbowed him softly and breathed in his face, and vaguely impressed themselves upon him as being former occupants of the premises. This populous solitude, this silence with its busy interruptions, grew insupportable as he passed from room to room.

One chamber he did not enter,—the chamber in which his cousin's body was found that Wednesday morning. In Richard's imagination it was still lying there, white and piteous, by the hearth. He paused at the threshold and glanced in; then turned abruptly and mounted the staircase.

On gaining his old apartment in the gable, Richard seated himself on the edge of the cot-bed. His shoulders sagged down and a stupefied expression settled upon his face, but his brain was in a tumult. His own identity was become a matter of doubt to him. Was he the same Richard Shackford who had found life so sweet when he awoke that morning? IT must have been some other person who had sat by a window in the sunrise thinking of Margaret Slocum's love,—some Richard Shackford with unstained hands! This one was accused of murdering his kinsman; the weapon with which he had done it, the very match he had used to light him in the deed, were known! The victim himself had written out the accusation in black and white. Richard's brain reeled as he tried to fix his thought on Lemuel Shackford's letter. That letter!—where had it been all this while, and how did it come into Taggett's possession? Only one thing was clear to Richard in his inextricable confusion,—he was not going to be able to prove his innocence; he was a doomed man, and within the hour his shame would be published to the world. Rowland Slocum and Lawyer Perkins had already condemned him, and Margaret would condemn him when she knew all; for it was evident that up to last evening she had not been told. How did it happen that these overwhelming proofs had rolled themselves up against him? What malign influences were these at work, hurrying him on to destruction, and not leaving a single loophole of escape? Who would believe the story of his innocent ramble on the turnpike that Tuesday night? Who could doubt that he had gone directly from the Slocums' to Welch's Court, and then crept home red-handed through the deserted streets?

Richard heard the steam-whistles recalling the operatives to work, and dimly understood it was one o'clock; but after that he paid no attention to the lapse of time. It was an hour later, perhaps two hours,—Richard could not tell,—when he roused himself from his stupor, and descending the stairs passed through the kitchen into the scullery. There he halted and leaned against the sink, irresolute, as though his purpose, if he had had a purpose, were escaping him. He stood with his eyes resting listlessly on a barrel in the further corner of the apartment. It was a heavy-hooped wine-cask, in which Lemuel Shackford had been wont to keep his winter's supply of salted meat. Suddenly Richard started forward with an inarticulate cry, and at the same instant there came a loud knocking at the door behind him. The sound reverberated through the empty house, filling the place with awful echoes,—like those knocks at the gate of Macbeth's castle the night of Duncan's murder. Richard stood petrified for a second; then he hastily turned the key in the lock, and Mr. Taggett stepped into the scullery.

The two men exchanged swift glances. The bewildered air of a moment before had passed from Richard; the dullness had faded out of his eyes, leaving them the clear, alert expression they ordinarily wore. He was self-possessed, but the effort his self-possession cost him was obvious. There was a something in his face—a dilation of the nostril, a curve of the under lip—which put Mr. Taggett very much on his guard. Mr. Taggett was the first to speak.

"I've a disagreeable mission here," he said slowly, with his hand remaining on the latch of the door, which he had closed on entering. "I have a warrant for your arrest, Mr. Shackford."

"Stop a moment!" said Richard, with a glow in his eyes. "I have something to say."

"I advise you not to make any statement."

"I understand my position perfectly, Mr. Taggett, and I shall disregard the advice. After you have answered me one or two questions, I shall be quite at your service."

"If you insist, then."

"You were present at the examination of Thomas Blufton and William Durgin, were you not?"

"I was."

"You recollect William Durgin's testimony?"

"Most distinctly."

"He stated that the stains on his clothes were from a certain barrel, the head of which had been freshly painted red."

"I remember."

"Mr. Taggett, the head of that barrel was painted blue!"



XXVII



Mr. Taggett, in spite of the excellent subjection under which he held his nerves, caught his breath at these words, and a transient pallor overspread his face as he followed the pointing of Richard's finger. If William Durgin had testified falsely on that point, if he had swerved a hair's-breadth from the truth in that matter, then there was but one conclusion to be drawn from his perjury. A flash of lightning is not swifter than was Mr. Taggett's thought in grasping the situation. In an instant he saw all his carefully articulated case fall to pieces in his hands. Richard crossed the narrow room, and stood in front of him.

"Mr. Taggett, do you know why William Durgin lied? He lied because it was life or death with him! In a moment of confusion he had committed one of those simple, fatal blunders which men in his circumstances always commit. He had obliterated the spots on his clothes with red paint, when he ought to have used blue!"

"That is a very grave supposition."

"It is not a supposition," cried Richard. "The daylight is not a plainer fact."

"You are assuming too much, Mr. Shackford."

"I am assuming nothing. Durgin has convicted himself; he has fallen into a trap of his own devising. I charge him with the murder of Lemuel Shackford; I charge him with taking the chisel and the matches from my workshop, to which he had free access; and I charge him with replacing those articles in order to divert suspicion upon me. My unfortunate relations with my cousin gave color to this suspicion. The plan was an adroit plan, and has succeeded, it seems."

Mr. Taggett did not reply at once, and then very coldly: "You will pardon me for suggesting it, but it will be necessary to ascertain if this is the cask which Durgin hoped, and also if the head has not been repainted since."

"I understand what your doubt implies. It is your duty to assure yourself of these facts, and nothing can be easier. The person who packed the meat—it was probably a provision dealer named Stubbs—will of course be able to recognize his own work. The other question you can settle with a scratch of your penknife. You see. There has been only one thin coat of paint laid on,—the grain of the wood is nearly distinguishable through it. The head is evidently new; but the cask itself is an old one. It has stood here these ten years."

Mr. Taggett bent a penetrating look on Richard. "Why did you refuse to answer the subpoena, Mr. Shackford?"

"But I haven't refused. I was on my way to Justice Beemis's office when you knocked. Perhaps I am a trifle late," added Richard, catching Mr. Taggett's distrustful glance.

"The summons said two o'clock," remarked Mr. Taggett, pressing the spring of his watch. "It is now after three."

"After three!"

"How could you neglect it,—with evidence of such presumable importance in your hands?"

"It was only a moment ago that I discovered this. I had come here from Mr. Perkins's office. Mr. Perkins had informed me of the horrible charge which was to be laid at my door. The intelligence fell upon me like a thunder-clap. I think it unsettled my reason for a while. I was unable to put two ideas together. At first he didn't believe I had killed my cousin, and presently he seemed to believe it. When I got out in the street the sidewalk lurched under my feet like the deck of a ship; everything swam before me. I don't know how I managed to reach this house, and I don't know how long I had been sitting in a room up-stairs when the recollection of the subpoena occurred to me. I was standing here dazed with despair; I saw that I was somehow caught in the toils, and that it was going to be impossible to prove my innocence. If another man had been in my position, I should have believed him guilty. I stood looking at the cask in the corner there, scarcely conscious of it; then I noticed the blue paint on the head, and then William Durgin's testimony flashed across my mind. Where is he?" cried Richard, turning swiftly. "That man should be arrested!"

"I am afraid he is gone," said Mr. Taggett, biting his lip.

"Do you mean he has fled?"

"If you are correct—he has fled. He failed to answer the summons to-day, and the constable sent to look him up has been unable to find him. Durgin was in the bar-room of the tavern at eight o'clock last night; he has not been seen since."

"He was not in the yard this morning. You have let him slip through your fingers."

"So it appears, for the moment."

"You still doubt me, Mr. Taggett?"

"I don't let persons slip through my fingers."

Richard curbed an impatient rejoinder, and said quietly, "William Durgin had an accomplice."

Mr. Taggett flushed, as if Richard had read his secret thought. Durgin's flight, if he really had fled, had suggested a fresh possibility to Mr. Taggett. What if Durgin were merely the pliant instrument of the cleverer man who was now using him as a shield? This reflection was precisely in Mr. Taggett's line. In absconding Durgin had not only secured his own personal safety, but had exonerated his accomplice. It was a desperate step to take, but it was a skillful one.

"He had an accomplice?" repeated Mr. Taggett, after a moment. "Who was it?"

"Torrini!"

"The man who was hurt the other day?"

"Yes."

"You have grounds for your assertion?"

"He and Durgin were intimate, and have been much together lately. I sat up with Torrini the night before last; he acted and talked very strangely; the man was out of his head part of the time, but now, as I think it over, I am convinced that he had this matter on his mind, and was hinting at it. I believe he would have made disclosures if I had urged him a little. He was evidently in great dread of a visit from some person, and that person was Durgin. Torrini ought to be questioned without delay; he is very low, and may die at any moment. He is lying in a house at the further end of the town. If it is not imperative that I should report myself to Justice Beemis, we had better go there at once."

Mr. Taggett, who had been standing with his head half bowed, lifted it quickly as he asked the question, "Why did you withhold Lemuel Shackford's letter?"

"It was never in my possession, Mr. Taggett," said Richard, starting. "That paper is something I cannot explain at present. I can hardly believe in its existence, though Mr. Perkins declares that he has had it in his hands, and it would be impossible for him to make a mistake in my cousin's writing."

"The letter was found in your lodgings."

"So I was told. I don't understand it."

"That explanation will not satisfy the prosecuting attorney."

"I have only one theory about it," said Richard slowly.

"What is that?"

"I prefer not to state it now. I wish to stop at my boarding-house on the way to Torrini's; it will not be out of our course."

Mr. Taggett gave silent acquiescence to this. Richard opened the scullery door, and the two passed into the court. Neither spoke until they reached Lime Street. Mrs. Spooner herself answered Richard's ring, for he had purposely dispensed with the use of his pass-key.

"I wanted to see you a moment, Mrs. Spooner," said Richard, making no motion to enter the hall. "Thanks, we will not come in. I merely desire to ask you a question. Were you at home all day on that Monday immediately preceding my cousin's death?"

"No," replied Mrs. Spooner wonderingly, with her hand still resting on the knob. "I wasn't at home at all. I spent the day and part of the night with my daughter Maria Ann at South Millville. It was a boy," added Mrs. Spooner, quite irrelevantly, smoothing her ample apron with the disengaged hand.

"Then Janet was at home," said Richard. "Call Janet."

A trim, intelligent-looking Nova Scotia girl was summoned from the basement kitchen.

"Janet," said Richard, "do you remember the day, about three weeks ago, that Mrs. Spooner was absent at South Millville?"

"Yes," replied the girl, without hesitation. "It was the day before"—and then she stopped.

"Exactly; it was the day before my cousin was killed. Now I want you to recollect whether any letter or note or written message of any description was left for me at this house on that day."

Janet reflected. "I think there was, Mr. Richard,—a bit of paper like."

Mr. Taggett riveted his eyes on the girl.

"Who brought the paper?" demanded Richard.

"It was one of the Murphy boys, I think."

"Did you hand it to me?"

"No, Mr. Richard, you had gone out. It was just after breakfast."

"You gave it to me when I came home to dinner, then?"

"No," returned Janet, becoming confused with a dim perception that something had gone wrong and she was committing herself.

"I remember, I didn't come home. I dined at the Slocums'. What did you do with that paper?"

"I put it on the table in your room up-stairs."

Mr. Taggett's eyes gleamed a little at this.

"And that is all you can say about it?" inquired Richard, with a fallen countenance.

Janet reflected. She reflected a long while this time. "No, Mr. Shackford: an hour or so afterwards, when I went up to do the chamber-work, I saw that the wind had blow the paper off of the table. I picked up the note and put it back; but the wind blew it off again."

"What then?"

"Then I shut up the note in one of the big books, meaning to tell you of it, and—and I forgot it! Oh, Mr. Richard, have I done something dreadful?"

"Dreadful!" cried Richard. "Janet, I could hug you!"

"Oh, Mr. Richard," said Janet with a little coquettish movement natural to every feminine thing, bird, flower, or human being, "you've always such a pleasant way with you."

Then there was a moment of dead silence. Mr. Spooner saw that the matter, whatever it was, was settled.

"You needn't wait, Janet!" she said, with a severe, mystified air.

"We are greatly obliged to you, Mr. Spooner, not to mention Janet," said Richard; "and if Mr. Taggett has no questions to ask we will not detain you."

Mrs. Spooner turned her small amiable orbs on Richard's companion. That silent little man Mr. Taggett! "He doesn't look like much," was the landlady's unuttered reflection; and indeed he did not present a spirited appearance. Nevertheless Mrs. Spooner followed him down the street with her curious gaze until he and Richard passed out of sight.

Neither Richard nor Mr. Taggett was disposed to converse as they wended their way to Mitchell's Alley. Richard's ire was slowly kindling at the shameful light in which he had been placed by Mr. Taggett, and Mr. Taggett was striving with only partial success to reconcile himself to the idea of young Shackford's innocence. Young Shackford's innocence was a very awkward thing for Mr. Taggett, for he had irretrievably committed himself at head-quarters. With Richard's latent ire was mingled a feeling of profound gratitude.

"The Lord was on my side," he said presently.

"He was on your side, as you remark; and when the Lord is on a man's side a detective necessarily comes out second best."

"Really, Mr. Taggett," said Richard, smiling, "that is a handsome admission on your part."

"I mean, sir," replied the latter, slightly nettled, "that it sometimes seems as if the Lord himself took charge of a case."

"Certainly you are entitled to the credit of going to the bottom of this one."

"I have skillfully and laboriously damaged my reputation, Mr. Shackford."

Mr. Taggett said this with so heavy an air that Richard felt a stir of sympathy in his bosom.

"I am very sorry," he said good-naturedly.

"No, I beg of you!" exclaimed Mr. Taggett. "Any expression of friendliness from you would finish me! For nearly ten days I have looked upon you as a most cruel and consummate villain."

"I know," said Richard. "I must be quite a disappointment to you, in a small way."

Mr. Taggett laughed in spite of himself. "I hope I don't take a morbid view of it," he said. A few steps further on he relaxed his gait. "We have taken the Hennessey girl into custody. Do you imagine she was concerned?"

"Have you questioned her?"

"Yes; she denies everything, except that she told Durgin you had quarreled with the old gentleman."

"I think Mary Hennessey an honest girl. She's little more than a child. I doubt if she knew anything whatever. Durgin was much too shrewd to trust her, I fancy."

As the speakers struck into the principal street, through the lower and busier end of which they were obliged to pass, Mr. Taggett caused a sensation. The drivers of carts and the pedestrians on both sidewalks stopped and looked at him. The part he had played in Slocum's Yard was now an open secret, and had produced an excitement that was not confined to the clientele of Snelling's bar-room. It was known that William Durgin had disappeared, and tdhat the constables were searching for him. The air was thick with flying projectures, but none of them precisely hit the mark. One rumor there was which seemed almost like a piece of poetical justice,—a whisper to the effect that Rowland Slocum was suspected of being in some way mixed up with the murder. The fact that Lawyer Perkins, with his green bag streaming in the wind, so to speak, had been seen darting into Mr. Slocum's private residence at two o'clock that afternoon was sufficient to give birth to the horrible legend.

"Mitchell's Alley," said Mr. Taggett, thrusting his arm through Richard's, and hurrying on the escape the Stillwater gaze. "You went there directly from the station the night you got home."

"How did you know that?"

"I was told by a fellow-traveler of yours,—and a friend of mine."

"By Jove! Did it ever strike you, Mr. Taggett, that there is such a thing as being too clever?"

"It has occurred to me recently."

"Here is the house."

Two sallow-skinned children, with wide, wistful black eyes, who were sitting on the stone step, shyly crowded themselves together against the door-jamb to make passage-way for Richard and Mr. Taggett. Then the two pairs of eyes veered round inquiringly, and followed the strangers up the broken staircase and saw one of them knock at the door which faced the building.

Richard's hasty tap bringing no response, he lifted the latch without further ceremony and stepped into the chamber, Mr. Taggett a pace or two behind him. The figure of Father O'Meara slowly rising from a kneeling posture at the bedside was the first object that met their eyes; the second was Torrini's placid face, turned a little on the pillow; the third was Brigida sitting at the foot of the bed, motionless, with her arms wrapped in her apron.

"He is dead," said the priest softly, advancing a step towards Richard. "You are too late. He wanted to see you, Mr. Shackford, but you were not to be found."

Richard sent a swift glance over the priest's shoulder. "He wanted to tell me what part he had played in my cousin's murder?" said Richard.

"God forbid! the wretched man had many a sin on his soul, but not that."

"Not that!"

"No; he had no hand in it,—no more than you or I. His fault was that he concealed his knowledge of the deed after it was done. He did not even suspect who committed the crime until two days' afterwards, when William Durgin"—

Richard's eyes lighted up as they encountered Mr. Taggett's. The priest mistook the significance of the glances.

"No," said Father O'Meara, indicating Brigida with a quick motion of his head, "the poor soul does not understand a word. But even if she did, I should have to speak of these matters here and now, while they are fresh in my mind. I am obeying the solemn injunctions of the dead. Two days after the murder William Durgin came to Torrini and confessed the deed, offering to share with him a large sum in gold and notes if he would hide the money temporarily. Torrini agreed to do so. Later Durgin confided to him his plan of turning suspicion upon you, Mr. Shackford; indeed, of directly charging you with the murder, if the worst came to the worst. Torrini agreed to that also, because of some real or fancied injury at your hands. It seems that the implement which Durgin had employed in forcing the scullery door—the implement which he afterwards used so mercilessly—had been stolen from your workshop. The next morning Durgin put the tool back in its place, not knowing what other disposition to make of it, and it was then that the idea of shouldering the crime upon you entered his wicked heart. According to Torrini, Durgin did not intend to harm the old gentleman, but simply to rob him. The unfortunate man was awakened by the noise Durgin made in breaking open the safe, and rushed in to his doom. Having then no fear of interruption, Durgin leisurely ransacked the house. How he came across the will, and destroyed it with the idea that he was putting the estate out of your possession—this and other details I shall give you by and by."

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