The Stillwater Tragedy
THE general effect on Stillwater of Mr. Shackford’s death and the peculiar circumstances attending the tragedy have been set forth in the earlier chapters of this narrative. The influence which that event exerted upon several persons then but imperfectly known to the reader is now to occupy us.
On the conclusion of the strike, Richard had returned, in the highest spirits, to his own rooms in Lime Street; but the quiet week that followed found him singularly depressed. His nerves had been strung to their utmost tension during those thirteen days of suspense ; he had assumed no light responsibility in the matter of closing the yard, and there had been moments when the task of sustaining Mr. Slocum had appeared almost hopeless. Now that the strain was removed a reaction set in, and Richard felt himself unnerved by the fleeing shadow of the trouble which had not caused him to flinch so long as it faced him.
The recollection of his quarrel with his cousin, which the rush of subsequent events had partly crowded out of the young man’s mind, began to assail him whenever he was alone. How cruelly he had been misunderstood ! He brooded over the mortification he had received until the thought of it became unbearable; yet what steps could he take to disabuse the cynical old man of the idea that an attempt had been made to extort money from him? Richard was no longer contented to pass the evening with a book in his own chamber; when not with Margaret, his restlessness drove him out into the streets, where he wandered for hours, frequently not returning to his lodgings until long after every one was abed.
On the morning and at the moment when Mary Hennessey was pushing open the scullery door of the house in Welch’s Court, and was about to come upon the body of the forlorn old man lying there in his night-dress, Richard sat eating his breakfast in a silent and preoccupied mood. He had retired very late the previous night, and his lack-lustre eyes showed the effect of insufficient sleep. His single fellow-boarder, Mr. Pinkham, had not returned from his customary early walk, and only Richard and Mrs. Spooner, the landlady, were at table. The former was in the act of lifting the coffee-cup to his lips, when the school-master burst excitedly into the room.
“ Old Mr. Shackford is dead ! ” he exclaimed, dropping into a chair near the door. “ There ’a a report down in the village that he has been murdered. I don’t know if it is true. . . . God forgive my abruptness ! I did n’t think!” and Mr. Pinkham turned an apologetic look towards Richard, who sat there deathly pale, holding the cup rigidly within an inch or two of his lip, and staring blankly into space like a statue.
Copyright, 1880, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
“I — I ought to have reflected,” murmured the school-master, covered with confusion at his maladroitness. “ It was very reprehensible in Craggie to make such an announcement to me so suddenly, on a street corner. I — I was quite upset by it.”
Richard pushed back his chair without replying, and passed into the hall, where he encountered a messenger from Mr. Slocum, confirming Mr. Pinkham’s intelligence, but supplementing it with the rumor that Lemuel Shackford had committed suicide.
Richard caught up his hat from a table, and hurried to Welch’s Court. Before reaching the house he had somewhat recovered his outward composure; but he was still pale and internally much agitated, for he had received a great shock, as Lawyer Perkins afterwards observed to Mr. Ward in the readingroom of the tavern. Both these gentlemen were present when Richard arrived, as were also several of the immediate neighbors and two constables. The latter were guarding the door against the crowd which had already begun to collect in the front yard.
A knot of carpenters, with their toolboxes on their shoulders, had halted at the garden gate on their way to Bishop’s new stables, and were glancing curiously at the unpainted façade of the house, which seemed to have taken on a remote, bewildered expression, as if it had an inarticulate sense of the horror within. The men ceased their whispered conversation as Richard approached, and respectfully moved aside to let him pass.
Nothing had been changed in the cheerless room on the ground floor, with its veneered mahogany furniture and its yellowish leprous wall-paper, peeling off at the seams here and there. A caneseated chair, overturned near the table, had been left untouched, and the body was still lying in the position in which the Hennessey girl had discovered it. A strange chill — something unlike any atmospherical sharpness, a chill that seemed to exhale from the thin, pinched nostrils — permeated the apartment. The orioles were singing madly outside, their vermilion bosoms glowing like live coals against the tender green of the foliage, and appearing to break into flame as they took sudden flights hither and thither; but within all was still. On entering the chamber Richard was smitten by the silence, — that silence which shrouds the dead, and is like no other. Lemuel Shackford had not been kind or cousinly ; he had blighted Richard’s childhood with harshness and neglect, and had lately heaped cruel insult upon him; but as he stood there alone, and gazed for a moment at the firmly shut lips upon which the mysterious white dust of death had already settled, — the lips that were never to utter any more bitter things, — the tears gathered in Richard’s eyes and ran slowly down his cheek. After all said and done, Lemuel Shackford was his kinsman, and blood is thicker than water !
Coroner Whidden shortly appeared on the scene, accompanied by a number of persons ; a jury was impaneled, and then began that inquest which resulted in shedding so very little light on the catastrophe.
The investigation completed, there were endless details to attend to, — papers to be hurriedly examined and sealed, and arrangements made for the funeral on the succeeding day. These matters occupied Richard until late in the afternoon, when he retired to his lodgings, looking in on Margaret for a few minutes on his way home.
“ This is too dreadful! ” said Margaret, clinging to his hand with fingers nearly as icy as his own.
“ It is unspeakably sad,” answered Richard, — “ the saddest thing I ever knew.”
“ Who — who could have been so cruel ? ”
Richard shook his head.
“ No one knows.”
The funeral took place on Thursday, and on Friday morning, as has been stated, Mr. Taggett arrived in Stillwater, and installed himself in Welch’s Court, to the wonder of many in the village, who would not have slept a night in that house, with only a servant in the north gable, for half the universe. Mr. Taggett was a person who did not allow himself to be swayed by his imagination.
Here, then, he began his probing of a case which, on the surface, promised to be a very simple one. The man who had been seen driving rapidly along the turnpike sometime near daybreak, on Wednesday, was presumably the man who could tell him all about it. But it did not prove so. Neither Thomas Blufton, nor William Durgin, nor any of the tramps subsequently obliged to drop into autobiography could be connected with the affair.
These first failures served to stimulate Mr. Taggett; it required a complex case to stir his ingenuity and sagacity. That the present was not a complex case he was still convinced, after four days’ futile labor upon it. Mr. Shackford had been killed — either with malice prepense or on the spur of the moment— for his money. The killing had likely enough not been premeditated; the old man had probably opposed the robbery. Now, among the exceptionally rough population of the town there were possibly fifty men who would not have hesitated to strike down Mr. Shackford if he had caught them flagrante delicto and resisted them, or attempted to call for succor. That the crime was committed by some one in Stillwater or in the neighborhood Mr. Taggett had never doubted since the day of his arrival. The clumsy manner in which the staple had been wrenched from the scullery door showed the absence of a professional hand. Then the fact that the deceased was in the habit of keeping money in his bedchamber was a fact well known in the village, and not likely to be known outside of it, though of course it might have been. It was clearly necessary for Mr. Taggett to carry his investigation into the workshops and among the haunts of the class which was indubitably to furnish him with the individual he wanted. Above all, it was necessary that the investigation should be secret. An obstacle obtruded itself here: everybody in Stillwater knew everybody, and a stranger appearing on the streets or dropping frequently into the tavern would not escape comment.
The man with the greatest facility for making the requisite researches would of course be some workman. But a workman was the very agent not to be employed under the circumstances. How many times, and by what strange fatality, had a guilty party been selected to shadow his own movements or those of an accomplice ! No, Mr. Taggett must rely only on himself, and his plan was forth with matured. Its execution, however, was delayed several days, the cooperation of Mr. Slocum and Mr. Richard Shackford being indispensable.
At this stage Richard went to New York, where his cousin had made extensive investments in real estate. For a careful man, the late Mr. Shackford had allowed his affairs there to become strangely tangled. The business would detain Richard a fortnight.
Three days after his departure Mr. Taggett himself left Stillwater, having apparently given up the case ; a proceeding which was severely criticised, not only in the columns of The Stillwater Gazette, but by the townsfolks at large, who immediately relapsed into a state of apprehension approximating that of the morning when the crime was discovered. Mr. Pinkham, who was taking tea that evening at the Danas’, threw the family into a panic by asserting his belief that this was merely the first of a series of artistic assassinations in the manner of those Memorable Murders recorded by De Quincey. Mr. Pinkham may have said this to impress the four Dana girls with the variety of his reading, but the recollection of De Quincey’s harrowing paper had the effect of so unhinging the young school-master that when he found himself, an hour or two afterwards, in the lonely, unlighted street he flitted home like a belated ghost, and was ready to drop at every tree-box.
The next forenoon a new hand was taken on at Slocum’s Yard. The new hand, who had come on foot from South Millville, at which town he had been set down by the seven o’clock express that morning, was placed in the apprentice department, — there were five or six apprentices now. Though all this was part of an understood arrangement, Mr. Slocum nearly doubted the fidelity of his own eyes when Mr. Taggett, a smooth-faced young fellow of one and twenty, if so old, with all the traits of an ordinary workingman down to the neglected finger-nails, stepped up to the desk to have the name of Blake entered on the pay-roll. Either by chance or by design, Mr. Taggett had appeared but seldom on the streets of Stillwater ; the few persons who had had anything like familiar intercourse with him in his professional capacity were precisely the persons with whom his present movements were not likely to bring him into juxtaposition, and he ran slight risk of recognition by others. With his hair closely cropped, and the overhanging brown mustache removed, the man was not so much disguised as transformed. “ I should n’t have known him ! ” muttered Mr. Slocum, as he watched Mr. Taggett signing the indentures. During the ensuing ten or twelve days Mr. Slocum never wholly succeeded in extricating himself from the foggy uncertainty generated by that one brief interview. From the moment the new hand was assigned a bench under the sheds, Mr. Slocum saw little or nothing of him.
Mr. Taggett took lodging in a room in one of the most crowded of the low boarding-houses, —a room accommodating two beds besides his own : the first occupied by a brother neophyte in marble-cutting, and the second by a morose middle-aged man with one eyebrow a trifle higher than the other, as if it had been twisted out of line by the strain of habitual intoxication. This man’s name was Wollaston, and he worked at Dana’s.
Mr. Taggett’s initial move was to make himself popular in the marble yard, and especially at the tavern, where he spent money freely, though not so freely as to excite any remark except that the lad was running through pretty much all his small pay, — a recklessness which was charitably condoned in Snelling’s bar-room. He formed multifarious friendships, and had so many sensible views on the labor problem, advocating the general extinguishment of capitalists, and so on, that his admits tance to the Marble Workers Association resolved itself into merely a question of time. The old prejudice against apprentices was already wearing off. The quiet, evasive man of few words was now a loquacious talker, holding his own with the hardest hitters, and very skillful in giving offense to no one. “ Whoever picks up Blake for a fool,” Dexter remarked one night, “ will put him down again.” Not a shadow of suspicion followed Mr. Taggett in his various comings and goings. He seemed merely a good-natured, intelligent devil; perhaps a little less devilish and a trifle more intelligent than the rest, but not otherwise different. Denyven, Peters, Dexter, Willson, and others in and out of the Slocum clique were Blake’s sworn friends. In brief, Mr. Taggett had the amplest opportunities to prosecute his studies. Only for a pained look which sometimes latterly shot into his eyes, as he worked at the bench, or as he walked alone in the street, one would have imagined that he was thoroughly enjoying the half-vagabond existence.
The supposition would have been erroneous, for in the progress of those fourteen days’ apprenticeship Mr. Taggett had received a wound in the most sensitive part of his nature; he had been forced to give up what no man ever relinquishes without a wrench, — his own idea.
With the exception of an accident in Dana’s Mill, by which Torrini’s hand had been so badly mangled that amputation was deemed necessary, the two weeks had been eventless outside of Mr. Taggett’s personal experience. What that experience was will transpire in its proper place. Margaret was getting daily notes from Richard, and Mr. Slocum, overburdened with the secret of Mr. Taggett’s presence in the yard, — a secret confined exclusively to Mr. Slocum, Richard, and Justice Beemis,— was restlessly awaiting developments.
The developments came that afternoon when Mr. Taggett walked into the office and startled Mr. Slocum, sitting at the desk. The two words which Mr. Taggett then gravely and coldly whispered in Mr. Slocum’s ear were, —
“ RICHARD SHACKFORD.”
Mr. Slocum, who had partly risen from the chair, sank back into his seat. “ Good God !” he said, turning very pale. “ Are you mad ! ”
Mr. Taggett realized the cruel shock which the pronouncing of that name must have caused Mr. Slocum. Mr. Taggett had meditated his line of action, and had decided that the most merciful course was brusquely to charge young Shackford with the crime, and allow Mr. Slocum to sustain himself for a while with the indignant disbelief which would be natural to him situated as he was. He would then in a manner be prepared for the revelations which, if suddenly presented, would crush him.
If Mr. Taggett was without imagination, as he claimed, he was not without a certain feminine quickness of sympathy often found in persons engaged in professions calculated to blunt the finer sensibilities. In his intercourse with Mr. Slocum at the Shackford house, Mr. Taggett had been won by the singular gentleness and simplicity of the man, and was touched by his misfortune.
After his exclamation Mr. Slocum did not speak for a moment or two, but with his elbows resting on the edge of the desk sat motionless, like a person stunned. Then he slowly lifted his face, to which the color had returned, and making a movement with his right hand as if he were sweeping away cobwebs in front of him rose from the chair.
“ You are simply mad,” he said, looking Mr. Taggett squarely and calmly in the eyes. “ Are you aware of Mr. Richard Shackford’s character and his position here ? ”
“ Do you know that he is to marry my daughter ? ”
“ I am very sorry for you, sir.”
“You may spare me that. The pity is on my side. You have fallen into some horrible delusion. I hope you will be able to explain it.”
“I am prepared to do so, sir.”
“Are you serious ? ”
“Very serious, Mr. Slocum.”
“ You actually imagine that Richard Shack— Pshaw ! It’s simply impossible ! ”
“ I am too young a man to wish even to seem wiser than you, but my experience has taught me that nothing is impossible.”
“ I begin to believe so myself. I suppose you have grounds, or something you consider grounds, for your monstrous suspicion. What are they ? I demand to be fully informed of what you have been doing in the yard, before you bring disgrace upon me and my family by inconsiderately acting on some wild theory which perhaps ten words can refute.”
“ I should be in the highest degree criminal, Mr. Slocum, if I were to make so fearful an accusation against any man unless I had the most incontestable proofs in my hands. In searching among the workshops and the low places of the village for the murderer of Lemuel Shackford, I stumbled upon a clew which led me in a totally different direction. I passed from point to point with amazement, and with sorrow, believe me, until I had forged around the guilty man a chain of evidence in which not a single link is missing or a single link imperfect.”
Mr. Taggett spoke with such coldblooded conviction that a chill crept over Mr. Slocum, in spite of him.
“ What is the nature of this evidence ? ”
“ Up to the present stage, purely circumstantial.”
“ I can imagine that,” said Mr. Slocum, with a slight smile.
“ But so conclusive as to require no collateral evidence. The testimony of an eye-witness of the crime could scarcely add to my knowledge of what occurred that Tuesday night in Lemuel Shackford’s house.”
“ Indeed, it is all so clear! But of course a few eye-witnesses will turn up eventually,” said Mr. Slocum, whose whiteness about the lips discounted the assurance of his sarcasm.
“ That is not improbable,” returned Mr. Taggett gravely.
“ And meanwhile what are the facts ? ” " They are not easily stated. I have kept a record of my work day by day, since the morning I entered the yard. The memoranda are necessarily confused, the important and the unimportant being jumbled together; but the record as it stands will answer your question more fully than I could, even if I had the time — which I have not — to go over the case with you. I can leave these notes in your hands, if you desire it. When I return from New York ” —
“ You are going to New York ! ” exclaimed Mr. Slocum, with a start. “ When ? ”
“ If you lay a finger on Richard Shackford, you will make the mistake of your life, Mr. Taggett! ”
“ I have other business there. Mr. Shackford is not to be troubled at present. He will be in Stillwater to-morrow night. He engaged a state-room on the Fall River boat tins morning.”
“ How can you know that ? ”
“ Since last Tuesday none of Mr. Shackford’s movements have been unknown to me.”
“ Do you mean to say that you have set your miserable spies upon him ? ” cried Mr. Slocum.
“I should not state the fact in just those words,” Mr. Taggett answered. “ The fact remains.”
“ Pardon me,” said Mr. Slocum. “ I am not quite myself. Can you wonder at it?”
“ I do not wonder.”
“ Give me those papers you speak of, Mr. Taggett. I would like to look through them. I see that you are a very obstinate person when you have once got a notion into your head. Perhaps I can help you out of your error before it is irreparable,”
“ All this is to be in confidence, sir,” replied Mr. Taggett stiffly.
“ I should think so! ” said Mr. Slocum, with a forced laugh. Then, after hesitating a second, he added, “ I may mention the matter to my daughter? Indeed, I could scarcely keep it from her.”
“ Perhaps it is better she should be informed.”
“ And Mr. Shackford, when he returns to morrow ? ”
“ If he broaches the subject of his cousin’s death, I advise you to avoid it.”
“ Why should I ? ”
“ In the first place, it might save you or Miss Slocum some awkwardness,— in case your testimony were called for in court; and, in the second place, Mr. Shackford’s story should first be heard at the investigation, which is to take place almost immediately.”
“ I doubt if the blunder will go so far as that.”
“ An investigation is inevitable.”
“ Very well,” said Mr. Slocum, with an impatient movement of his shoulders ; “neither I nor my daughter will open our lips on this topic. In the mean while you are to take no further steps without advising me. That is understood ? ”
“ That is perfectly understood,” returned Mr. Taggett, drawing a narrow red note-book from the inner pocket of his workman’s blouse, and producing at the same time a small nickel-plated doorkey. “This is the key of Mr. Shackford’s private workshop in the extension. I have not been able to replace it on the mantel-shelf of his sittingroom in Lime Street. Will you have the kindness to see that that is done at once ? It is desirable that he should find it there.”
A moment later Mr. Slocum stood alone in the office with Mr. Taggett’s diary in his hand. It was one of those costly little volumes — gilt-edged and bound in fragrant crushed Levant morocco — with which city officials are annually supplied by a community of grateful taxpayers.
The dark crimson of the flexible covers, as soft and slippery to the touch as a snake’s skin, was perhaps the fitting symbol of the darker story that lay coiled within. With a gesture of repulsion, as if some such fancy had flitted through his mind, Mr. Slocum tossed the notebook on the desk in front of him, and stood a few minutes moodily watching the reflets of the crinkled leather as the afternoon sunshine struck across it. Beneath his amazement and indignation he had been chilled to the bone by Mr. Taggett’s brutal confidence. It was enough to chill one, surely; and in spite of himself Mr. Slocum began to feel a certain indefinable dread of that little crimsonbound book.
Whatever it contained, the reading of those pages was to be a repellent task to him; it was a task to which he could not bring himself at the moment; tonight, in the privacy of his own chamber, he would sift Mr. Taggett’s baleful fancies. Thus temporizing, Mr. Slocum dropped the volume into his pocket, locked the office door behind him, and wandered down to Dundon’s drug store to kill the intervening hour before supper-time. Dundon’s was the aristocratic lounging place of the village, — the place where the only genuine Havana cigars in Stillwater were to be had, and where the favored few, the initiated, could get a dash of hochheimer or cognac with their soda-water.
At supper, that evening, Mr. Slocum addressed scarcely a word to Margaret, and Margaret was also silent. The days were dragging heavily with her; she was missing Richard. Her own daring travels had never extended beyond Boston or Providence ; and New York, with Richard in it, seemed drearily far away. Mr. Slocum withdrew to his chamber shortly after nine o'clock, and, lighting the pair of candles on the dressing-table, began his examination of Mr. Taggett’s memoranda.
At midnight the watchman on his lonely beat saw those two candles still burning.
Mr. Taggett’s diary was precisely a diary, — disjoined, full of curt, obscure phrases and irrelevant reflections, — for which reason it will not be reproduced here. Though Mr. Slocum pondered every syllable, and now and then turned back painfully to reconsider some doubtful passage, it is not presumed that the reader will care to do so. An abstract of the journal, with occasional quotation where the writer’s words seem to demand it, will be sufficient for the narrative.
In the opening pages Mr. Taggett described his novel surroundings with a minuteness which contrasted oddly with the brief, hurried entries further on. He found himself, as he had anticipated, in a society composed of some of the most heterogeneous elements. Stillwater, viewed from a certain point, was a sort of microcosm, a little international rag-fair to which nearly every country on earth had contributed one of its shabby human products. “ I am moving,” wrote Mr. Taggett, “in an atmosphere in which any crime is possible. I give myself seven days at the outside to light upon the traces of Shackford’s murderer. I feel him in the air.” The writer’s theory was that the man would betray his identity in one of two ways : either by talking unguardedly, or by indulging in expenditures not warranted by his means and position. If several persons had been concerned in the crime, nothing was more likely than a disagreement over the spoil, and consequent treachery on the part of one of them. Or, again, some of the confederates might become alarmed, and attempt to save themselves by giving away their comrades. Mr. Taggett, however, leaned to the belief that the assassin had had no accomplices.
The sum taken from Mr. Shackford’s safe was a comparatively large one, — five hundred dollars in gold and nearly double that amount in bank-notes. Neither the gold nor the paper bore any known mark by which it could be recognized; the burglar had doubtless assured himself of this, and would not hesitate to disburse the money. That was even a safer course, judiciously worked, than to secrete it. The point was, Would he have sufficient self-control to get rid of it by degrees ? The chances, Mr. Taggett argued, were ten to one he would not.
A few pages further on Mr. Taggett compliments the Unknown on the adroit manner in which he is conducting himself. He has neither let slip a suspicious word, nor made an incautious display of his booty. Snelling’s bar was doing an unusually light business. No one appeared to have any money. Many of the men had run deeply into debt during the late strike, and were now drinking moderately. In the paragraph which closes the week’s record Mr. Taggett’s chagrin is evident. He confesses that he is at fault. “ My invisible friend does not materialize so successfully as I expected,” is Mr. Taggett’s comment.
His faith in the correctness of his theory had not abated ; but he continued his observations in a less sanguine spirit. These observations were not limited to the bar-room or the workshop; he informed himself of the domestic surroundings of his comrades. Where his own scrutiny could not penetrate, he employed the aid of correspondents. Through this means he learned that the SavingsBank had received no recent heavy deposit. In the course of his explorations of the shady side of Stillwater life, Mr. Taggett unearthed many amusing and many pathetic histories, but nothing that served his end. Finally, he began to be discouraged.
Returning home from the tavern, one night,, in rather a desponding mood, he found the man Wollaston smoking his pipe in bed. Wollaston was a taciturn man generally, but this night he was conversational, and Mr. Taggett, too restless to sleep, fell to chatting with him. Did he know much about the late Mr. Shackford? Yes, he had known him well enough, in an off way, — not to speak to him ; everybody knew him in Stillwater ; he was a sort of miser, hated everybody, and bullied everybody. It was a wonder somebody did n’t knock the old silvertop on the head years ago.
Thus Mr. Wollaston grimly, with his pores stopped up with iron-filings, — a person to whom it would come quite easy to knock any one on the head for a slight difference of opinion. He amused Mr. Taggett in his present humor.
No, he was n’t aware that Shackford had had trouble with any particular individual ; believed he did have a difficulty once with Slocum, the marble man ; but he was always fetching suits against the town and shying lawyers at the mill directors, — a disagreeable old cuss altogether. Adopted his cousin, one time, but made the house so hot for him that the lad ran off to sea, and since then had had nothing to do with the old bilk.
Indeed! What sort of fellow was young Shackford ? Mr. Wollaston could not say of his own knowledge ; thought him a plucky chap ; he had put a big Italian named Torrini out of the yard, one day, for talking back. Who was Torrini? The man that got hurt last week in the Dana Mill. Who were Richard Shackford’s intimates? Could n’t say ; had seen him with Mr. Pinkham, the school-master, and Mr. Craggie, — went with the upper crust generally. Was going to be partner in the marble yard and marry Slocum’s daughter. Will Durgin knew him. They lived together one time. He, Wollaston, was going to turn in now.
Several of these facts were not new to Mr. Taggett, but Mr. Wollaston’s presentation of them threw Mr. Taggett into a reverie.
The next evening he got Durgin alone in a corner of the bar-room. With two or three potations Durgin became autobiographical. Was he acquainted with Mr. Shackford outside the yard ? Rather. Dick Shackford ! His (Durgin’s) mother had kept Dick from starving when he was a baby, — and no thanks for it. Went to school with him, and knew all about his running off to sea. Was near going with him. Old man Shackford never liked Dick, who was a proud beggar ; they could n’t pull together, down to the last, — both of a piece. They had a jolly rumpus a little while before the old man was fixed.
Mr. Taggett pricked up his ears at this.
A rumpus ? How did Durgin know that? A girl told him. What girl? A girl he was sweet on. What was her name? Well, he didn’t mind telling her name; it was Molly Hennessey. She was going through Welch’s Court one forenoon, — may be it was three days before the strike, — and saw Dick Shackford bolt out of the house, swinging his arms and swearing to himself at an awful rate. Was Durgin certain that Molly Hennessey had told him this ? Yes, he was ready to take his oath on it.
Here, at last, was something that looked like a glimmer of daylight!
It was possible that Durgin or the girl had lied; but the story had an air of truth to it. If it were a fact that there had recently been a quarrel between these cousins, whose uncousinly attitude towards each other was fast becoming clear to Mr. Taggett, then here was a conceivable key to an enigma which had puzzled him.
The conjecture that Lemuel Shackford had himself torn up the will—if it was a will, for this still remained in dispute — had never been satisfactory to Mr. Taggett. He had accepted it because he was unable to imagine an ordinary burglar pausing in the midst of his work to destroy a paper in which he could have no concern. But Richard Shackford would have the liveliest possible interest in the destruction of a document that placed a vast estate beyond his reach. Here was a motive on a level with the crime. That money had been taken, and that the fragments of the will had been carelessly thrown into a waste-paper basket, just as if the old man himself had thrown them there, was a stroke of art which Mr. Taggett admired more and more as he reflected upon it.
He did not, however, allow himself to lay too much stress on these points; for the paper might turn out to be merely an expired lease, and the girl might have been quizzing Durgin. Mr. Taggett would have given one of his eye-teeth just then for ten minutes with Mary Hennessey. But an interview with her at this stage was neither prudent nor easily compassed.
“ If I have not struck a trail,” writes Mr. Taggett, “ I have come upon what strongly resembles one; the least I can do is to follow it. My first move must be to inspect that private workshop in the rear of Mr. Slocum’s house. How shall I accomplish it? I cannot apply to him for permission, for that would provoke questions which I am not ready to answer. Moreover, I have yet to assure myself that Mr. Slocum is not implicated. There seems to have been also a hostile feeling existing between him and the deceased. Why did n’t some one tell me these things at the start! If young Shackford is the person, there is a tangled story to be unraveled. Mem: Young Shackford is Miss Slocum’s lover.”
Mr. Slocum read this passage twice without drawing breath, and then laid down the book an instant to wipe the sudden perspiration from his forehead.
In the note which followed, Mr. Taggett described the difficulty he met with in procuring a key to fit the wall-door at the rear of the marble yard, and gave an account of his failure to effect an entrance into the studio. He had hoped to find a window unfastened; but the window, as well as the door opening upon the veranda, was locked, and in the midst of his operations, which were conducted at noon-time, the approach of a servant had obliged him to retreat.
Forced to lay aside, at least temporarily, his designs on the workshop, he turned his attention to Richard’s lodgings in Lime Street. Here Mr. Taggett was more successful. On the pretext that he had been sent for certain drawings which were to be found on the table or in a writing-desk, he was permitted by Mrs. Spooner to ascend to the bedroom, where she obligingly insisted on helping him search for the apocryphal plans, and seriously interfered with his purpose, which was to find the key of the studio. While Mr. Taggett was turning over the pages of a large dictionary, in order to gain time, and was wondering how he could rid himself of the old lady’s importunities, he came upon a half-folded note-sheet, at the bottom of which his eye caught the name of Lemuel Shackford. It was in the hand writing of the dead man. Mr. Taggett was very familiar with that handwriting. He secured the paper at a venture, and put it in his pocket without examination.
A few minutes later, it being impossible to prolong the pretended quest for the drawings, Mr. Taggett was obliged to follow Mrs. Spooner from the apartment. As he did so he noticed a bright object lying on the corner of the mantelshelf,— a small nickel-plated key. In order to take it he had only to reach out his hand in passing. It was, as Mr. Taggett had instantly surmised, the key of Richard’s workshop.
If it had been gold, instead of brass or iron, that bit of metal would have taken no additional value in Mr. Taggett’s eyes. On leaving Mrs. Spooner’s he held it tightly clasped in his fingers until he reached an unfrequented street, where he halted a moment in the shadow of a building to inspect the paper, which he had half forgotten in his satisfaction at having obtained the key. A stifled cry rose to Mr. Taggett’s lips as he glanced over the crumpled notesheet.
It contained three lines, hastily scrawled in lead-pencil, requesting Richard Shackford to call at the house in Welch’s Court at eight o’clock on a certain Tuesday night. The note had been written, as the date showed, on the day preceding the Tuesday night in question, — the night of the murder !
For a second or two Mr. Taggett stood paralyzed. Ten minutes afterwards a message in cipher was pulsing along the wires to New York, and before the sun went down that evening Richard Shackford was under the surveillance of the police.
The doubtful, unknown ground upon which Mr. Taggett had been floundering was now firm under his feet,—unexpected ground, but solid. Meeting Mary Hennessey in the street, on his way to the marble yard, Mr. Taggett no longer hesitated to accost her, and question her as to the story she had told William Durgin. The girl’s story was undoubtedly true, and as a piece of circumstantial evidence was only less important than the elder Shackford’s note. The two cousins had been for years on the worst of terms. At every step Mr. Taggett had found corroboration of Wollaston’s statement to that effect.
“ Where were Coroner Whidden’s eyes and ears,” wrote Mr. Taggett, — the words were dashed down impatiently on the page, as if he had sworn a little internally while writing them, — “ when he conducted that inquest! In all my experience there was never a thing so stupidly managed.”
A thorough and immediate examination of Richard Shackford’s private workshop was now so imperative that Mr. Taggett resolved to make it even if he had to do so under the authority of a search-warrant. But he desired as yet to avoid publicity.
A secret visit to the studio seemed equally difficult by day and night. In the former case he was nearly certain to be deranged by the servants, and in the latter a light in the unoccupied room would alarm any one of the household who might chance to awaken. From the watchman no danger was to be apprehended, as the windows of the extension were not visible from the street.
Mr. Taggett finally decided on the night as the more propitious time for his attempt, — a decision which his success justified. A brilliant moon favored the in-door part of the enterprise, though it exposed him to observation in his approach from the marble yard to the veranda.
With the dense moonlight streaming outside against the window-shades, he could safely have used a candle in the studio instead of the screened lantern which he had provided. Mr. Taggett passed three hours in the workshop, — the last hour in waiting for the moon to go down. Then he stole through the marble yard into the silent street, and hurried home, carrying two small articles concealed under his blouse. The first was a chisel with a triangular piece broken out of the centre of the bevel, and the other was a box of safetymatches. The peculiarity of this box of matches was — that just one match had been used from it.
Mr. Taggett’s work was done.
The last seven pages of the diary were devoted to a review of the case, every detail of which was held up in various lights, and examined with the conscientious pains of a lapidary deciding on the value of a rare stone. The concluding entries ran as follows : —
“ Tuesday Night. Here the case passes into other hands. I have been fortunate rather than skillful in unmasking the chief actor in one of the most singular crimes that ever came under my investigation. By destroying three objects, very easily destroyed, Richard Shackford would have put himself beyond the dream of suspicion. He neglected to remove these dumb witnesses, and now the dumb witnesses speak ! If it could be shown that he was a hundred miles from Stillwater at the time of the murder, instead of in the village, as he was, he must still be held, in the face of the proofs against him, accessory to the deed. These proofs, roughly summarized, are : —
“First. The fact that he had had an altercation with his cousin a short time previous to the date of the murder, — a murder which may be regarded not as the result of a chance disagreement, but of long years of bitter enmity between the two men.
“ Secondly. The fact that Richard Shackford had had an appointment with his cousin on the night the crime was committed, and had concealed that fact from the authorities at the time of the coroner’s inquest.
“ Thirdly. That the broken chisel found in the private workshop of the accused explains the peculiar shape of the wound which caused Lemuel Shackford’s death, and corresponds in every particular with the plaster impression taken of that wound.
“ Fourthly. That the partially consumed match found on the scullery floor when the body was discovered (a style, of match not used in the house in Welch’s Court) completes the complement of a box of safety-matches belonging to Richard Shackford, and hidden in a closet in his workshop.
“ Whether Shackford had an accomplice or not is yet to be ascertained. There is nothing whatever to implicate Mr. Rowland Slocum. I make the statement because his intimate association with one party and his deep dislike of the other invited inquiry, and at first raised an unjust suspicion in my mind.”
The little red book slipped from Mr. Slocum’s grasp and fell at his feet. As he rose from the chair, the reflection which he caught of himself in the dressing-table mirror was that of a wrinkled, white old man.
Mr. Slocum did not believe, and no human evidence could have convinced him, that Richard had deliberately killed Lemuel Shackford ; but as Mr. Slocum reached the final pages of the diary, a horrible probability insinuated itself into his mind. Could Richard have done it accidentally ? Could he— in an instant of passion, stung to sudden madness by that venomous old man — have struck him involuntarily, and killed him ? A certain speech which Richard had made in Mr. Slocum’s presence not long before came back to him now with fearful emphasis : “ Three or four times in my life I have been carried away by a devil of a temper which I could n’t control, it has seized me so unawares.”
“ It has seized me so unawares ! ” repeated Mr. Slocum, half aloud ; and then with a swift, unconscious gesture, he pressed his hands over his ears, as if to shut out the words.
Margaret must be told. It would be like stabbing her to tell her all this. Mr. Slocum had lain awake long after midnight, appalled by the calamity that was about to engulf them. At moments, as his thought reverted to Margaret’s illness early in the spring, he felt that perhaps it would have been a mercy if she had died then. He had left the candles burning; it was not until the wicks sunk down in the sockets and went softly out that slumber fell upon him.
He was now sitting at the breakfasttable, absently crumbling bits of bread beside his plate and leaving his coffee untouched. Margaret glanced at him wistfully from time to time, and detected the restless night in the deepened lines of his face.
The house had not been the same since Lemuel Shackford’s death; he had never crossed its threshold; Margaret had scarcely known him by sight, and Mr. Slocum had not spoken to him for years ; but Richard’s connection with the unfortunate old man had brought the tragic event very close to Margaret and her father. Mr. Slocum was a person easily depressed, but his depression this morning was so greatly in excess of the presumable cause that Margaret began to be troubled.
“ Papa, has anything happened? ”
“ No, nothing new has happened; but I am dreadfully disturbed by some things which Mr. Taggett has been doing here in the village.”
“ I thought Mr. Taggett had gone.”
“ He did go ; but he came back, very quietly, without anybody’s knowledge. I knew it, of course ; but no one else, to speak of.”
“ What has he done to disturb you ? ”
“ I want you to be a brave girl, Margaret, — will you promise that ? ”
“ Why, yes,” said Margaret, with an anxious look. “You frighten me with your mysteriousness.”
“ I do not mean to be mysterious, but I don’t quite know how to tell you about Mr. Taggett. He has been working underground in this matter of poor Shackford’s death, — boring in the dark like a mole, — and thinks he has discovered some strange things.”
“ Do you mean he thinks he has found out who killed Mr. Skackford ?”
“ 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 Heaven, 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 memorandumbook, 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 foldingdoors behind her.
After an absence of half an hour she reëntered 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 one 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 ever breathe a word to you of that quarrel with his cousin ? ”
“ 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 does n’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 saintlike smile crept into the corners of Margaret’s mouth.
“ Yes, he approved of the plan,” repeated Mr. Slocum. “ Perhaps he ” — Here Mr. Slocum cheeked 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 falling 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.
During the rest of the day the name of Richard Shackford was not mentioned again either by 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 Mr. 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 selfdefense, 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 canceled his papers. I forgot to mention it. He did n’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 need n’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.
“ Did n't say good-by to nobody,” remarked a second.
“ It was devilish uncivil,” added a third.
“ It is kinder mysterious,” said Mr. Peters.
“ Some girl,” suggested Mr. Willson, with an air of tender sentiment, which he attempted further to emphasize by a capacious 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, would n’t it?” inquired Piggott.
“ Bosh ! ” said Durgin. “ There was always something shady about Blake. We did n’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.”
“ I could n’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 woodland, 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-luggage. 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.
“ 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 rockingchair 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 ! ”
Thomas Bailey Aldrich.