Chapter XVIII. In Mr. Woodward's Library
 

Though outwardly calm, I was considerably agitated as I walked to Darbyville. Why the merchant had sent for me I could not surmise. Of course it was on account of the robbery, but so far as I knew both of us had taken a separate stand, and neither would turn back. I thought it barely possible that he wished to intimidate me into receding from my position. He was as much of a bully in his way as Duncan, and would not hesitate to use every means in his power to bring me to terms.

Arriving at Mr. Woodward's house, I ascended the steps and rang the bell.

"Is Mr. Woodward in?" I asked of the girl who answered the summons.

"I'll see, sir," she replied. "Who shall I say it is?"

"Roger Strong."

The girl left me standing in the hall. While waiting for her return I could not help but remember the old lines:--

  " 'Will you walk into my parlor?'
     Said the spider to the fly."

But if I was walking into the spider's parlor, it would be my own fault if I got hurt, for I was entering with my eyes open. I determined to be on my guard, and take nothing for granted.

"Mr. Woodward will be pleased to see you in his library," said the girl upon her return, and then, having indicated the door, she vanished down the back hall.

As I put my hand upon the door-knob, I heard steps upon the stairs, and looking up saw Duncan Woodward descending.

His face was still swollen from the punishment I had inflicted upon him. Nevertheless, he was faultlessly dressed in full evening costume, and I rightly conjectured he was going to spend the night in some fashionable dissipation such as dancing or card-playing.

"Hello! how did you get in here?" he exclaimed.

"Was let in," was my mild reply, not caring to pick a quarrel with him.

"Was, eh? And what for, I'd like to know?"

"That's your father's business, Duncan."

"Don't Duncan me any more, Roger Strong. What's my father's business?"

"What I came for. He sent for me."

"Oh, he did. Reckon he's going to square accounts with you."

"I don't know what accounts he's going to square," I went on in curiosity.

"Didn't you as much as try to intimate he was lying-- down in Judge Penfold's court this afternoon?"

"I only told what I knew to be the truth," I replied calmly.

"The truth. Humph! I believe you took the widow's money yourself."

"Take care what you're saying," I replied angrily. "I don't propose to stand any such talk from you."

Duncan grew speechless. "Why, you-- you--" he began.

"Hold up now before you say something that you'll be sorry for. This is your house, but you have no right to insult me in it."

"Quite right, Strong, quite right." The library door had opened, and Mr. Woodward stood upon the threshold, gazing sharply at his son. "Strong is here upon my invitation, Duncan; you ought to treat him with more politeness," he added.

If Duncan was amazed at this speech, so was I. The merchant taking my part? What did it mean?

"Why, I-- I--" began Duncan, but he could really get no further.

"No explanation is necessary," interrupted his father, coolly.

"Strong, please step in, will you?"

"Yes, sir," and I suited the action to the word.

As I did so Duncan passed on to the front door.

"I'll get even with you yet, you cad!" he muttered under his breath; but I paid no attention to his words. I had "bigger fish to fry."

Once inside of Mr. Woodward's library, the merchant closed the door behind me and then invited me to take a seat beside his desk, at the same time throwing himself back in his easy chair.

"I suppose you thought it rather singular that I should send for you," he said by way of an opening.

"Yes, sir, I did," was all I could reply.

"I thought as much. It was only an impulse of mine, sir, only an impulse. I wished to see if we cannot arrange this-- this little difficulty without publicity. I would rather lose a good deal, yes, sir, a good deal, than have my name dragged into court."

"All I ask is for justice," I replied calmly. "I am under arrest for a crime of which I am innocent. On the other hand, you are trying to shield a man I know is guilty."

I expected a storm of indignation from Mr. Woodward because of the last remark. Yet he showed no sign of resentment.

"Don't you think you might be mistaken in your identification of Mr. Stumpy?" he replied, and I noticed that again he nearly stumbled in pronouncing the tramp's name.

"No, sir," I replied promptly.

"Remember that you saw him only by lantern light, and then but for a few minutes."

"I saw him by daylight as well."

"When?"

"In the morning. He came as a beggar."

"A beggar? Impossible!" The merchant held, up his hands in assumed amazement. "Why, Strong, the idea of Mr. Stumpy begging is ridiculous."

"Just the same it is true, Mr. Woodward. And what is more, he is the thief, and you know it."

"That's a strong assertion to make, sir, a very strong assertion."

"Nevertheless, I believe I can prove my words."

Mr. Woodward turned slightly pale.

"You can prove no such thing," he cried.

"Yes, I can. Didn't Stumpy admit he had taken the money?"

"Never, sir."

"He did."

"When?"

"This afternoon while you were at Decker's place."

Had I slapped the merchant in the face he would not have been more surprised. He sprang to his feet and glared at me.

"You-- you-- Who says he made such an admission?"

"I say so."

"Ah! I see, you were spying on us. You rascal!"

"It strikes me that you are the rascal," I returned. "You try deliberately to shield a thief."

"What!"

"Yes, it's true."

"Can you prove it?"

Mr. Woodward asked the question sneeringly, but there was much of curiosity in his tones.

"Perhaps I can."

The merchant pulled his mustache nervously.

"Strong, you are greatly mistaken. But don't let us quarrel any more."

"I don't want to quarrel."

"I feel badly over the whole affair, and Mr. Stumpy is fairly sick. I suppose you think you are right, but you are mistaken. Now I have a proposition to make to you." Mr. Woodward leaned forward in his chair. "Suppose you admit that you are mistaken-- that Mr. Stumpy is not the man? Do this, and I will not prosecute you for having taken my papers."

I was surprised and indignant; surprised that Mr. Woodward should still insist upon my having taken his papers, and indignant because of his outrageous offer.

"Mr. Woodward," I began firmly, "you can prosecute me or not; Stumpy is the guilty man, and I shall always stick to it."

"Then you will go to jail, too."

"For the last time let me say I have not seen your papers."

"It is false. You took them from this room last night. At the very time you pretend you were after the robber at Mrs. Canby's house you were here ransacking my desk."

"Mr. Woodward--"

"There is no use in denying it. I have abundant proofs. The girl who cleaned up here this morning found a handkerchief with your name on it lying on the floor. If you weren't here, how did that come here?"

"My handkerchief?"

"Yes, sir, your handkerchief; and Mary O'Brien can identify it and tell where she found it."

"Some one else must have had it," I stammered, and then suddenly: "I know who the party is-- Duncan."

"Duncan!"

"Yes, sir. He took that handkerchief away from me when the Models waylaid me!"

"My son! Really, Strong, you are mad! But I will take you in hand, sir; yes, indeed, I will."

"No, you won't, Aaron Woodward!" I cried, for once letting my temper get the better of me. "You are awfully cunning, but I am not afraid of you. I am willing to have all these matters sifted to the bottom, and the sooner the better. What papers have you missed? Were they the ones that Holtzmann of Chicago is after? How is it that my father is in prison while you live in style on money you never earned? Who is the relative that left it to you? Did you ever make a clear statement concerning the transactions that took away my father's honest name?"

"Stop! Stop!"

"I will not stop! You want an investigation; so do I. Luckily my uncle, Captain Enos Moss, has just returned from a voyage. He has quite some money, and I know he will use it to bring the guilty parties to justice. And then--"

I did not finish. Mr. Woodward had strode over to the door and locked it, putting the key in his pocket.

"You know too much, Strong," he muttered between his set teeth, as he caught me by the collar; "too much entirely. We must come to a settlement before you leave this room."