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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 breakfast-table, 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 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?"
"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."
"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.
"He put his arm around me and kissed me."
"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.
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