Chapter XXVI. Under Suspicion
 

Never in the entire history of Creekdale had there been such intense excitement as when word was received of the murder of old David. At first people could not believe it was true, and thought there had been some mistake. But when the men who had found David related the story then all doubt was set aside. The store was crowded that afternoon with excited men who had gathered to hear the smallest detail, and to discuss with one another the whole affair. It was Sandy Miller who described how he had made the discovery, and then shouted for his companions.

"Was the letter lying near?" Andy Forbes asked.

"I didn't notice it at first," was the reply, "as I was so overcome by the sight before me. It must have been lying there all the time, for Jim Goban saw it at once."

"Where is that letter now?"

"Jim has it, I guess. It wasn't a letter, but merely an envelope with 'Jasper Randall' written plain on the outside. You should have seen that fellow's face when Jim showed it to him."

"But do you think that proves anything?" Andy enquired.

"Wouldn't like to say. But you know as well as I do how suspicious the thing looks, and how much the lawyers will make out of it."

"Is the body at the Haven now?" one of the men asked.

"We took it there," Andy replied. Then he paused and looked around upon his audience. "I hope I shall never have to take part in such a business again," he continued. "I can't get the face of that girl Betty out of my mind, and her wild cry is still ringing in my ears. I thought she would go crazy for sure when she heard what had happened."

"She was very fond of the old man, so I understand," Ned Purvis remarked.

"She certainly was. They were just like father and daughter. But I must say that Miss Sinclair was a regular brick. She took charge of everything at once and seemed to know the right thing to do. But, my, her face was pale, and you should have seen her eyes--when she turned them upon Jim Goban."

"What did she do that for?" Ned questioned.

"Because Jim showed her the envelope and hinted that Randall was the guilty one."

"Did she say anything?"

"Never a word. But her eyes said enough, and I saw Jim flinch as if he had been struck in the face."

"The women folks say that her and him are pretty thick," Steve Clemwell drawled. "Maybe that's the reason why she's goin' to stick up fer him. They've been seen drivin' together, and he's been often at her house."

"But what reason would Randall have for murdering Crazy David?" Andy asked. "They've always been the best of friends, and they've never had a quarrel as far as I know."

"But the old man had money, so it was reported," Ned replied. "Andy here knows something about that."

The storekeeper, however, shook his head. He was not anxious now to appear to know more than he really did. He alone of all the men was feeling keenly for Jasper.

"Mark my word, men," and he looked around solemnly upon those before him, "there's a deep mystery connected with this affair. You have taken for granted that Randall is guilty because that envelope was found near the body. But I think we had better keep our mouths shut, for if we don't some of us may get into trouble. There's going to be a big time over this, and it's best for us to wait and see what will be the outcome. When the detectives get to work they won't leave a stone unturned, and the smallest detail which bears upon the matter will be put into evidence.

"When will the detectives begin work?" Ned asked.

"I don't know, and I don't suppose any of us will, for that matter. They're not going to inform the public of their movements, and maybe we'll never know they've been here. But they'll find out all there is to know, or I'm much mistaken."

"D'ye s'pose they'll arrest that chap on suspicion?" Steve enquired, as he cut a slice from a plug of tobacco he was holding in his hand. "I've heered they ginerally do that furst of all so as to make no mistake."

"Most likely they will," Andy replied. "I wonder where he is, anyway. I haven't seen him since he left us in the woods."

"Maybe he's cleared out," Ned suggested.

Scarcely had he finished speaking ere Jasper entered the store. His face was very pale, and he walked at once toward Andy.

"I want to use the phone," he told him.

"All right, go ahead," and the storekeeper motioned to a small closet-like compartment in one corner of the room. Andy prided himself upon this place which he had built with his own hands. As there were generally people in the store he found it important that the ones using the telephone should be as private as possible. It was for his own protection as well as for others that he had built it.

Jasper at once crossed the room, entered the place and closed the door tightly after him. He well knew that the ears of all would be strained to the utmost to hear what he was saying. It took him only a short time to call up Central in the city and to get into communication with Mr. Westcote. His message was very brief.

"There is great trouble here, and you must come as soon and fast as you possibly can. Come at once to my cabin, and bring the best lawyer in the city. I will explain everything then."

That was the message, and in reply Mr. Westcote told him that he would leave immediately in his car, travel as fast as possible, and bring his own lawyer with him.

Jasper then crossed the room and paid the storekeeper the price of the message. There was a dead silence while he did this, which Jasper was not slow to notice. He spoke to none of the men gathered there, in fact did not even look at them, but left the store as soon as possible.

From the time the blow had fallen and he realised that he was a man suspected of murder, he seemed to be dazed.

He had gone to his own cabin and had tried to reason the whole thing out. But the more he thought the more puzzled he became. There was no doubt that David had been murdered, but who had done the deed, and for what purpose? Only one person came to his mind, and he recalled what Betty had told him about the old man's narrow escape from the rolling log. Though he felt that Sydney Bramshaw had something to do with the affair, he had no definite proof. He naturally connected him with the murder. But what object would the man have for doing such a dastardly deed? He wondered much about the envelope, and how it got there. He had never been to that spot before, and he was quite certain that David did not have it with him. Somebody, then, must have obtained possession of the envelope and dropped it near the body in order to cast suspicion upon him. But why should any one wish to involve him in such a serious crime?

Long and carefully Jasper considered the matter in an effort to solve the problem. But the more he thought the greater was he puzzled. He realised that he must have assistance as that envelope and the fact that he was on the road with David the night of the murder would tell strongly against him. He naturally turned to Robert Westcote as the one man who could help him and would stand by him in his time of need.

He felt very lonely and wretched as he left the store and walked slowly up the road. He did not wish to go back to the silence of his own cabin. If he could only speak to some one and feel that all were not against him it would be some comfort. He thought of Lois, and wondered if she were at the Haven. He was certain that she would not believe him guilty of such a cowardly deed, but would stand by him to the last. Yes, she was the very one, and he would go to her at once. His step quickened as this impulse possessed him and he hurried rapidly along the road, with swinging strides.

"Hello, you seem to be in a great hurry."

Jasper started at these words, stopped short and looked in the direction from whence the voice came. As he did so his face darkened, for there, sitting before his easel not far from the road, was Sydney Bramshaw.

His brush was poised in hand as if he had merely paused in his work of sketching a bunch of birch trees a short distance away.

"You seem to be in a great hurry," the artist repeated, evidently enjoying the forbidding expression upon Jasper's face.

"Well, what of it?" was the curt reply. "It's a free country, isn't it?"

"That all depends," and Bramshaw laid down his brush in a thoughtful manner. "It might be free to one and not to another. You and I can do about as we please to-day, and no one will try to interfere with us. But it isn't the same with the one who put that poor old man out of business last night. He isn't free in the sense we are."

"So you've heard about it, have you?" Jasper questioned.

"Oh, yes. The whole country is wild with the news. I have been talking to a number of people and they are greatly worked up over the cowardly deed. Poor old David! He certainly was an innocent cuss."

"When did you first hear about it?" Jasper enquired.

"Not until late this morning. I am a sound sleeper."

"You surely must be. I don't see how any man could sleep with all the noise the men made passing along the road last night. Were you up late, eh?"

"What do you mean?" and an angry light leaped into Bramshaw's eyes. "I wish you to know that I went to sleep with the birds last night."

"I am glad to hear of it. You didn't always keep such good hours, especially one night when I caught you prowling about my place. Perhaps a hint to the wise was sufficient, and you have changed your manner of living."

"D---- you!" Bramshaw cried, rising to his feet. "I was willing to be friendly with you, but you insult me to my face."

"That's much better than insulting you behind your back, isn't it? You are sure who does it and you can act accordingly."

"Is that a challenge to fight?"

"Take it any way you like. I am anxious to get my hands on somebody to-day, for I want a little exercise. I'm getting tired of doing nothing."

"But there's nothing to be gained by fighting," Bramshaw protested. "What reason have we for fighting?"

Jasper gave a sarcastic laugh, and looked the artist up and down.

"You certainly wouldn't gain much by fighting, but I would. Sydney Bramshaw, I believe you are a miserable sneak, ay, and worse, and it would be a great satisfaction for me to get my hands on your measly carcass just for two minutes."

Under the impulse of the moment Jasper had left the road and approached close to the artist. The latter shrank back and his face paled at the action of his formidable opponent.

"Bah! I wouldn't touch you," Jasper sneered. "I wouldn't spoil your nice clothes and your soft delicate hands. Oh, no. Go on with your work of painting the beautiful things in nature."

For a few seconds Jasper stood and looked upon the man cowering before him. He longed to pierce his very soul that he might learn whether his suspicious were really true. He was tempted to startle him with a question about that envelope. But, no, he felt that it would be better to consult the lawyer before saying anything.

Leaving the artist, Jasper regained the highway with a bound, and hurried onward. It did not take him long now to reach the road leading to the Haven, and his angry mood passed like a cloud from the face of the sun when he saw Lois standing there beneath the shade of a large tree. Her eyes brightened when she saw him, and without a word she held out her hand. For a few heartbeats neither spoke, but their eyes met, and Jasper knew by the look that Lois gave him that she at least was true and believed in him.

"You know all?" he stammered.

"No, not all," was the quiet reply. "But I know enough to make me certain that the people in this place are wrong in their suspicions."

"Whom do they suspect?" Jasper eagerly asked, thinking that perhaps he might learn something new.

"Don't you know?"

"Yes, I'm afraid I do," Jasper bitterly replied. "But I can endure it if I know that you believe me to be innocent."

"I certainly do, no matter what others think."

"What proof have you?"

"Your life; isn't that proof enough?"

"It may be to you, but I'm afraid it will count but little at the trial."

"At the trial!" Lois repeated in amazement. "Surely you'll not be-----"

"Arrested?" Jasper assisted, as Lois' voice faltered.

"Yes, that's what I mean."

"I'd like to know what's to prevent it. Wasn't I with David the night he was murdered, and wasn't that envelope with my name on it found by his body? Do you for one moment imagine that I can hope to escape a severe grilling and perhaps conviction with such evidence against me?"

"But it isn't right," and Lois stamped her foot impatiently. "It's only circumstantial evidence, and that shouldn't count."

"But it does. It has convicted many men before this. But tell me, did you learn what is troubling Betty?"

"It's about Mr. David, you know. She grieves very much over his death. She loved the old man dearly, almost as if he were her own father."

"I know she feels badly. But isn't there something else troubling her as well? Didn't you notice it?"

"I did, but Betty would tell me nothing. I believe she has been frightened in some way, for at times she started up in terror, and her whole body trembled. I wonder what it can be!"

Before Jasper could reply, an auto swung up the road and stopped near them. There were two men in the car and almost intuitively Jasper knew that they were detectives. They looked keenly at the two standing beneath the tree, and then asked the way to Captain Peterson's. Jasper told them, and without another word they turned to the left and sped up to the house.

"Who are they, do you suppose?" Lois asked.

"They must be detectives," Jasper slowly replied.

"Oh!" It was all that Lois could say as she stood watching the car until it drew up before the Haven.

"I shall go back to my cabin now," Jasper remarked. "I expect Mr. Westcote shortly, and so I must be there when he arrives."

Slowly they walked along the road to the gate leading to the Sinclair house. For a while neither spoke. Jasper realised that it would be a long time ere he would again be with her who was so dear to him. Perhaps never, for who could tell what the lap of the future might contain? Lois was thinking of the same thing, and her heart was very heavy. There came to her mind the words Margaret had so lightly spoken over the tea-cup. Why had she not warned Jasper? she asked herself over and over again. Never before had she fully comprehended what this man really meant to her. He was the first one who had ever inspired her with the spirit of courage and endurance. Not once had she heard him whine or complain but, in her presence at least, he had always appeared as master of his fate. Now he was going from her, and she might never see him again. But no matter what happened she was sure that he would bear himself manfully, and fight to the very last.

Having reached the gate, they paused. Both knew that the moment for parting had come and strange feelings stirred their hearts. Jasper thought that Lois never looked so beautiful. Oh, if he were only certain that she loved him. If he could only take her in his arms and tell her of his love, and feel that his great love was returned; then he could go down into the dark valley of trouble, and perhaps death, with a braver heart. But, no, it would not do for him to tell of his love now with such a shadow hanging over his head. There were many things he longed to do, but all he did was to step forward, seize Lois' right hand in his, and press it fervently to his lips. Instantly he realised his boldness.

"Forgive me," he cried, "but I could not help it."

"There is nothing to forgive," Lois quietly replied, though her heart was beating fast and her face was more flushed than usual. "You had better go now, for Mr. Westcote may come at any moment. Good-bye, and may God bless and keep you."

That was the hardest parting Jasper had ever known. But as he walked up the road a new spirit possessed his soul. He knew what it was to fight, for he had fought all his life long. But now he had the vision of a fair woman to sustain him, and for her sake, and to show her that he was worthy of her trust he would still fight the fiercest battle of all. What the outcome would be he could not tell, but he was determined to bear himself in such a manner that Lois would never be ashamed of him. He well knew that even a defeated man might be more of a conquerer than those who triumphed over him. And even as he walked there flashed suddenly into his mind a vision of the Man of Sorrows bearing his cross. Why had he not thought of Him before? he asked himself. There was his example to follow; there was the One who was the victor even on the cross, and there was the One to whom he could now turn for comfort in the hour of his great need.