Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville/Chapter 13
BOB WEST, HARDWARE DEALER.
A few steps down the little street brought the girls to the hardware store, quite the most imposing building in town. They crossed the broad platform on which stood samples of heavy farm machinery and entered a well-stocked room where many articles of hardware and house furnishings were neatly and systematically arranged.
The place seemed deserted, for at that time of day no country people were at Millville; but on passing down the aisle the visitor approached a little office built at the rear of the store. Behind the desk Bob West sat upon his high stool, gravely regarding his unusual customers over the rims of his spectacles.
"Good morning," said Louise, taking the lead. "Have you a stew pan?"
The merchant left the office and silently walked behind the counter.
"Large or small, miss?" he then asked.
The girls became interested in stew pans, which they were scarcely able to recognize by their official name. Mr. West offered no comment as they made their selection.
"Can you send this to the Wegg farm?" asked Louise, opening her purse to make payment.
"I have no means of delivering goods," said he; "but if you can wait a day or two I may catch some farmer going that way who will consent to take it."
"Oh. Didn't Captain Wegg purchase his supplies in the village?" asked the girl.
"Some of them. But it is our custom here to take goods that we purchase home with us. As yet Millville is scarcely large enough to require a delivery wagon."
The nieces laughed pleasantly, and Beth said:
"Are you an old inhabitant, Mr. West?"
"I have been here thirty-five years."
"Then you knew Captain Wegg?" Louise ventured.
The answer was so frank and free from embarrassment that his questioner hesitated. Here was a man distinctly superior to the others they had interviewed, a man of keen intellect and worldly knowledge, who would be instantly on his guard if he suspected they were cross-examining him. So Louise, with her usual tact, decided to speak plainly.
"We have been much interested in the history of the Wegg family," she remarked, easily; "and perhaps it is natural for us to speculate concerning the characters of our predecessors. It was so odd that Captain Wegg should build so good a house on such a poor farm."
"And he was a sea captain, who retired far from the sea, which he must have loved."
"To be sure."
"It made him dissatisfied, they say, as well as surly and unsociable; but he stuck it out even after his poor wife died, and until the day of the murder."
"Murder?" in a tone of mild surprise.
"Was it not murder?" she asked, quickly.
He gave his shoulders a quiet shrug.
"The physician pronounced it heart disease, I believe."
"Eh? Why, one who was fishing in the neighborhood for trout, and staying at the hotel. Old Dr. Jackson was in Huntington at the time, I remember."
The girls exchanged significant glances, and West noted them and smiled again.
"That murder theory is a new one to me," he said; "but I see now why it originated. The employment of a strolling physician would give color to the suspicion."
"What do you think, sir?" asked Patsy, who had been watching the man's expression closely.
"I? What do I think? Why, that Captain Wegg died from heart disease, as he had often told me he was sure to do in time."
"Then what made old Mr. Thompson go mad?" inquired Beth.
"The shock of his friend's sudden death. He had been mentally unbalanced for some time previous—not quite mad, you understand, but showing by his actions at times that his brain was affected."
"Can you explain what became of their money?" asked Louise, abruptly.
West gave a start, but collected himself in an instant and covered the action with another shrug.
"I cannot say what become of their money," he answered.
It struck both Beth and Louise that his tone indicated he would not, rather than that he could not say. Before they had time to ask another questioned he continued:
"Will you take the saucepan with you, then, or shall I try to send it in a day or so?"
"We will take it, if you please," answered Louise. But as he wrapped it into a neat parcel she made one more effort.
"What sort of a young man was Joseph Wegg?"
"Joe? A mere boy, untried and unsettled. A bright boy, in his way, and ambitious to have a part in the big world. He's there now, I believe."
He spoke with an air of relief, and handed Louise the parcel.
"Thank you, young ladies. Pray call again if I can be of service to you," he added, in a brisker tone.
They had no recourse but to walk out, which they did without further words. Indeed, they were all three silent until they had left the village far behind and were half way to the farm.
Then Patsy said, inquiringly:
"We have progressed," announced Louise, seriously.
"In what way?"
"Several things are impressed upon my mind," replied the girl. "One is McNutt's absurd indignation when he thought we hinted that he was the murderer."
"What do you make of that?" queried Patsy.
"It suggests that he knows something of the murder, even if he is himself wholly innocent. His alibi is another absurdity."
"Then that exonerated Old Hucks," said Patsy, relieved.
"Oh, not at all. Hucks may have committed the deed and McNutt knows about it. Or they might have been partners in the crime."
"What else have you learned, Louise?" asked Beth.
"That the man West knows what became of the money."
"He seems like a very respectable man," asserted Patsy.
"Outwardly, yes; but I don't like the cold, calculating expression in his eyes. He is the rich man of this neighborhood. Do you suppose he acquired a fortune honestly in this forsaken district, where everyone else is poor as a church mouse?"
"Seems to me," said Patsy, discontentedly, "that the plot thickens, as they say in novels. If we interview many more people we shall find ourselves suspecting an army."
"Not at all, my dear," replied Louise, coldly. "From our present knowledge the murder lies between the unknown avenger and Hucks, with the possibility that McNutt is implicated. This avenger may be the stranger who posed as a physician and said Captain Wegg died of heart disease, in order to prevent the simple people from suspecting a murder. His fishing was all a blind. Perhaps McNutt was his accomplice. That staring scarecrow would do anything for money. And then we come to the robbery. If Hucks did the murder he took the money, and perhaps West, the hardware dealer, knows this. Or West may have arrived at the house after the mysterious stranger committed the deed, and robbed the two men himself."
"And perhaps he didn't," said Patsy, skeptically. "Do you know, girls, I'd like to find Joe Wegg. He could put us right, I'm sure."
"Yes. Why don't we suspect him of something? Or Ethel; or old Nora?"
"Do be sensible, Patsy," said Beth, impatiently.
But Louise walked on a way in silence. Presently she remarked:
"I'm glad you mentioned Joe Wegg. The boy gives me an idea that may reconcile many conflicting suspicions."
"In what way, Louise?"
"I'll tell you when I've thought it out," she replied.