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Chapter 22

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!"

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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