In his interest in what was going on on the other side of the wall, Sweetwater had forgotten himself. Daylight had declined, but in the darkness of the closet this change had passed unheeded. Night itself might come, but that should not force him to leave his post so long as his neighbour remained behind his locked door, brooding over the words of love and devotion which had come to him, as it were from the other world.
But was he brooding? That sound of iron clattering upon iron! That smothered exclamation and the laugh which ended it! Anger and determination rang in that laugh. It had a hideous sound which prepared Sweetwater for the smell which now reached his nostrils. The letters were burning; this time the lid had been lifted from the stove with unrelenting purpose. Poor Edith Challoner’s touching words had met, a different fate from any which she, in her ignorance of this man’s nature — a nature to which she had ascribed untold perfections — could possibly have conceived.
As Sweetwater thought of this, he stirred nervously in the darkness, and broke into silent invective against the man who could so insult the memory of one who had perished under the blight of his own coldness and misunderstanding. Then he suddenly started back surprised and apprehensive. Brotherson had unlocked his door, and was coming rapidly his way. Sweetwater heard his step in the hall and had hardly time to bound from his closet, when he saw his own door burst in and found himself face to face with his redoubtable neighbour, in a state of such rage as few men could meet without quailing, even were they of his own stature, physical vigour and prowess; and Sweetwater was a small man.
However, disappointment such as he had just experienced brings with it a desperation which often outdoes courage, and the detective, smiling with an air of gay surprise, shouted out:
“Well, what’s the matter now? Has the machine busted, or tumbled into the fire or sailed away to lands unknown out of your open window?”
“You were coming out of that closet,” was the fierce rejoinder. “What have you got there? Something which concerns me, or why should your face go pale at my presence and your forehead drip with sweat? Don’t think that you’ve deceived me for a moment as to your business here. I recognised you immediately. You’ve played the stranger well, but you’ve a nose and an eye nobody could forget. I have known all along that I had a police spy for a neighbour; but it didn’t faze me. I’ve nothing to conceal, and wouldn’t mind a regiment of you fellows if you’d only play a straight game. But when it comes to foisting upon me a parcel of letters to which I have no right, and then setting a fellow like you to count my groans or whatever else they expected to hear, I have a right to defend myself, and defend myself I will, by God! But first, let me be sure that my accusations will stand. Come into this closet with me. It abuts on the wall of my room and has its own secret, I know. What is it? I have you at an advantage now, and you shall tell.”
He did have Sweetwater at an advantage, and the detective knew it and disdained a struggle which would have only called up a crowd, friendly to the other but inimical to himself. Allowing Brotherson to drag him into the closet, he stood quiescent, while the determined man who held him with one hand, felt about with the other over the shelves and along the partitions till he came to the hole which had offered such a happy means of communication between the two rooms. Then, with a laugh almost as bitter in tone as that which rang from Brotherson’s lips, he acknowledged that business had its necessities and that apologies from him were in order; adding, as they both stepped out into the rapidly darkening room:
“We’ve played a bout, we two; and you’ve come out ahead. Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Brotherson. You’ve cleared yourself so far as I am concerned. I leave this ranch to-night.”
The frown had come back to the forehead of the indignant man who confronted him.
“So you listened,” he cried; “listened when you weren’t sneaking under my eye! A fine occupation for a man who can dove-tail a corner like an adept. I wish I had let you join the brotherhood you were good enough to mention. They would know how to appreciate your double gifts and how to reward your excellence in the one, if not in the other. What did the police expect to learn about me that they should consider it necessary to call into exercise such extraordinary talents?
“I’m not good at conundrums. I was given a task to perform, and I performed it,” was Sweetwater’s sturdy reply. Then slowly, with his eye fixed directly upon his antagonist, “I guess they thought you a man. And so did I until I heard you burn those letters. Fortunately we have copies.”
“Letters!” Fury thickened the speaker’s voice, and lent a savage gleam to his eye. “Forgeries! Make believes! Miss Challoner never wrote the drivel you dare to designate as letters. It was concocted at Police Headquarters. They made me tell my story and then they found some one who could wield the poetic pen. I’m obliged to them for the confidence they show in my credulity. I credit Miss Challoner with such words as have been given me to read here to-day? I knew the lady, and I know myself. Nothing that passed between us, not an event in which we were both concerned, has been forgotten by me, and no feature of our intercourse fits the language you have ascribed to her. On the contrary, there is a lamentable contradiction between facts as they were and the fancies you have made her indulge in. And this, as you must acknowledge, not only proves their falsity, but exonerates Miss Challoner from all possible charge of sentimentality.”
“Yet she certainly wrote those letters. We had them from Mr. Challoner. The woman who brought them was really her maid. We have not deceived you in this.”
“I do not believe you.”
It was not offensively said; but the conviction it expressed was absolute. Sweetwater recognised the tone, as one of truth, and inwardly laid down his arms. He could never like the man; there was too much iron in his fibre; but he had to acknowledge that as a foe he was invulnerable and therefore admirable to one who had the good sense to appreciate him.
“I do not want to believe you.” Thus did Brotherson supplement his former sentence. “For if I were to attribute those letters to her, I should have to acknowledge that they were written to another man than myself. And this would be anything but agreeable to me. Now I am going to my room and to my work. You may spend the rest of the evening or the whole night, if you will, listening at that hole. As heretofore, the labour will be all yours, and the indifference mine.”
With a satirical play of feature which could hardly be called a smile, he nodded and left the room.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55