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. It is quite unnecessary. 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 Shackford--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 evidence in my hands."
Mr. Taggett spoke with such cold-blooded 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.
"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 will be in Stillwater to-morrow night. He engaged a state-room on the Fall River boat this morning."
"How can you know that?"
"Since last Tuesday none of his 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." Then, after hesitating a second, Mr. Slocum added, "I may speak of this 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?"
"It might save you or Miss Slocum some awkwardness,--but you must use your own discretion. As the matter stands it makes no difference whether Mr. Shackford knows his position to-day or to-morrow. It is too late for him to avail himself of the knowledge. Otherwise, of course, I should not have given myself away in this fashion."
"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 door-key. "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 sitting-room in Lime Street. Will you have the kindness to see that it is done at once?"
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 note-book 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 crimson-bound 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; to-night, 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.
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