Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

A Dead Man's Step, an electronic edition

by Lawrence L. Lynch [Van Deventer, Emma Murdoch]

date: 1893
source publisher: Ward, Lock & Co., Limited
collection: Genre Fiction

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<< chapter 23 chapter 33 >>

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CHAPTER XXIV.
BROOK.

THE week which followed the withdrawal of Detective Murtagh from the Pomfret Bank Tragedy, as the affair had come to be named in the newspapers of the neighbourhood, was, outwardly at least, a very quiet one; not that the interest had in the least lessened in the town and county, and even beyond, but nothing happened, and there were only rumours and gossip for the eagerly waiting public.

Murtagh had remained several days in Pomfret, keeping, to the end, his place as Mr. Baird's new man, and going at last suddenly, and in the sight of men. Receiving in the morning a telegraphic message warning him of the illness of his "only brother," bidding an ostentatious farewell to Tom Wells and others in the afternoon, and departing | | 152 in the early evening with due gravity, and many publicly uttered regrets at leaving so good a place as "Banker Baird's."

Before going, he had talked with Tom Wells privately as well as in public, leaving in Tom's retentive memory certain hints and suggestions for his possible future use; and also leaving with him, to be duly posted, a letter addressed to Jonas Wiggins, wherein that personage was sharply reminded that the "eye of fate" was always upon him, and bidding him hold himself discreetly aloof from" all persons and matter connected with a certain button, no longer in his possession."

"You see, Wells," Murtagh had said, "I quit playing horse-jockey to-night, and as I think I can make myself more useful in another quarter, you may not see me again for—well, for some time. See? So look out for Wiggins, and if you think he meditates any mischief, give him a little scare. Don't let him go before the Grand Jury if it can be prevented. I guess you can `prevent.'" And so they separated, with Wells in fond faith that, somewhere, unseen but sure, Murtagh was still devoted to the Pomfret mystery.

The day after his interview with the detective, Lysander Deering did not leave his room. He had passed an almost sleepless night, and was feverish, and so suddenly weak, that Brenda was anxious at once to send for Doctor Liscom. But her husband would not hear of it. He was only tired, he insisted. What he wanted was rest, perfect rest, and quiet. She must see that he had this, no one must be admitted, unless it might be Bruce, whom, by the way, he did not look for.

"Liscom has turned me off, you know," he said, with an attempt at playfulness. "You know he said when I went to New York that he washed his hands of me, that I was food for the specialist. By the way, when does Doctor Ware come back?"

"He might come at any time now," Brenda told him; and he declared himself in favour of Doctor Ware.

"He has followed the case from first to last, and has heard the instructions of the great wise man," he argued, meaning by the "wise man" the city physician to whom Doctor Liscom had sent him for the last word upon his case. "We will wait for Ware, Princess; somehow, I like the young fellow; he's the best of company, and, just now, a little good company, not too intimate with Pomfret, is what we all need."

Doctor Ware, the young physician who had accompanied them from New York, had proved both useful and agreeable in more ways than one. Being at Pomfret, he had decided to go a little farther west, where a cousin, who had grown up in the Ware household like a brother, had established himself at Preston, seventy miles away, and on the direct railway line from Pomfret. He would spend a few days with his cousin, Doctor Ware had said, and on his return, at their request, he would stop and see if the invalid had further need of him.

And so it came to pass that Lysander Deering spent the long day alone in his room, denying himself even to Mr. Baird to whom he sent down these faintly scrawled lines:

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"KIND FRIEND,—

Be kind to me now and excuse me! Kinder yet and tell those who must know, how we have disposed of our concern in the horror. Make them to understand that for me it is past discussion. I have informed B. D. by message.

DEERING."

And so it also came to pass that Mr. Baird passed an uncomfortable series of half-hours calling in turn upon the clergyman, the coroner, and the lawyer, telling each that the active work upon the "Pomfret Mystery" was now given over to the hands of Sheriff Carton and his numerous deputies, and giving to each the same answer to the same question:

"I cannot tell! I don't understand it! I only know that I, for one, shall abide by Deering's decision. There is a mystery here, greater even than we at first supposed, and including, perhaps threatening, those we never dreamed of in connection with the case. I, for one, shall comply without further question." And the clergyman and the coroner had decided likewise; but John Redding said:

"I have nothing to say to this! But I shall not abandon Bruce Deering's interests! I believe your detective knows more than he has told. And if I see Bruce in danger, I shall call upon him for this knowledge."

Lysander Deering appeared at the breakfast-table next day pale and more languid than usual, but otherwise quite himself. The word had gone forth to the household, and the name of Joe Matchin was not breathed aloud in or about Beechwood, nor was the bank tragedy discussed aloud, above stairs or below.

Before noon Doctor Ware appeared; he was in the best of spirits, and the elder man seemed to be at once awakened and aroused out of himself. In the afternoon he ordered the carriage and announced his intention of taking Doctor Ware to drive.

"He has hardly seen Pomfret," he declared to Brenda, "and I feel the need of a little mild exercise myself."

When they had spent an hour or more driving around and about Pomfret, and had turned the horses' heads toward home, Mr. Deering directed the conversation, which before had been fitful, toward himself and his late illness, recalling some of the opinions and injunctions of the city physician, and questioning the younger practitioner as to his own ideas and opinions.

"The fact is, doctor," he said after a little, and speaking with sudden gravity, "I want to have a few words with you, which must be at once frank and confidential, concerning myself. Doctor Brandreth has assured me that I may rely upon you as upon himself—that you thoroughly understand my case. Tell me, do I seem to you the same as when you set out for Preston—the same, physically and mentally?"

The young doctor favoured him with a quick, sharp, side glance, and said,

"Frankly, no, Mr. Deering. I see a difference. I should say that you have not been able to follow out Brandreth's injunctions, to avoid mental disturbance, and all but the lightest physical effort. You seem to me to have encountered some disturbing element, or circumstance. Bodily, you have been over-active, and mentally, you are even now disturbed and unsettled—am I saying too much?"

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"You are saying no more than the truth. Doctor, you are acquainted with the unhappy business which brought me home, and you know that a member of my own family has been connected with it, most unfortunately. I need not go into details, I cannot, indeed! What I must tell you is this—I have been seriously disturbed, excited, tried, within the last few days, and I feel the effects of the strain. For my wife's sake I am trying to spare myself, in fact am pursuing a course quite other than I would were she not to be considered. But I cannot keep utterly out of the trouble all about us. And I cannot go away. Indeed, my wife would be the last person, under present circumstances, to ask it. I want to ask two things of you. First, I wish you to tell me, candidly, frankly, without fear of its effects upon me, for suspense is my worst enemy now—I want to know if you think there is danger for me in—in the present environments? If, should there come yet more trouble, a still harder shock, is my life in danger? and, is my time short? Wait. I must know! there is much in the way of business which must be done! neglect would result in wrong to others! Great wrong! I don't ask you to answer now, hastily! Think this over. Look me over, if there is need; and this evening, after dinner, come to me in the library and let us talk freely with each other."

"Thank you, Mr. Deering." Doctor Ware drew a long breath of relief. "I should much prefer that; and, while I believe that you have more of strength and vitality than even Doctor Brandreth is aware of, but quite agree with you, any business that will tend to ease of mind, should be at once transacted. This done, I think you may see many years yet; you possess two strong aids to health, worth, indeed, even more than our medical skill, and both together, all together, I think your case is far from desperate."

"And those aids?"

"Are courage, and strength of will. I might add patience, as well."

"Thanks, doctor, and now for my next request. It is this. If I should break down, and, somehow, I feel strangely upon this subject—almost superstitious, in fact—, who have never before been superstitious—if I should need the care of a physician, will you come to Pomfret and take me in charge—exclusive charge?" There was a quiver of the voice as he uttered the last two words. Then after a moment of silence he added with a half laugh that had a tinge of nervousness in it,

"Doctor, I may as well expose all my weaknesses! For what else am I your patient? But, first,—will you come at need?"

"At this moment, Mr. Deering, I know of nothing to prevent. As you are aware, at present I am Doctor Brandreth's assistant, and I think he will hardly object. He takes great interest in your case, and in yourself. But your confession, I am anxious to hear it all."

"Ware, do you believe in dreams, signs, warnings?"

"That's a large question. I don't know why I should not.. We should not disown what we cannot disprove. We are surrounded by mystery; are ourselves mysteries; and dreams, sleep I that is the greatest mystery."

"Well, I have had a dream. I have never been a superstitious | | 155 man, and this is most likely an idiosyncrasy of my disease, nothing more. But you shall judge—and laugh, if you like."

"I shall not laugh. Only a man of small wit laughs at what is beyond his comprehension."

"True. Briefly, then, I have three times dreamed that I was dead, that I died suddenly, and that when dying, at the last gasp, conscious but helpless, I saw, seemingly fleeing from me, but with faces turned back, two figures, a man and a woman. I could not distinguish clearly either their faces or their forms, although in my dream I knew them, and called to them as they fled; called each by name. Yes; in my dream I knew them, and was filled with horror that it should be,they. But, upon waking, while I could recall every other ghastly detail of the dream, I could not recall their names. But I knew they had killed me, they had given me a poisoned drink. I did not see the act, but I knew it had been done. Each time as they fled, I arose, dying though I was, and took two or three steps toward them, then I fell dead, and falling, awoke."

"Fell dead—and—"

"Yes, fell, knowing myself dead as I fell. I tell you the sensation was most horrible! At the instant of waking I had the feeling of actual coming back to life."

"Singular; and when did this dream first occur?"

"Oh, I see you do think it the result of my sickness. But I dreamed it first two years ago, when I was, or believed myself, in perfect health."

"And next?"

"Ah! what will you say to this? It came next in New York, when I was totally unaware of trouble here at home. It came on the night of Joe Matchin's murder, which I did not hear of until a week later."

Doctor Ware looked very grave.

"Very strange, certainly," he said; "and the third dream?"

"Came the night before last. It almost upset me. I had been more than usually worried and troubled that day, and unusually anxious and excited that evening. It was more than I could easily shake off. I kept my room all day."

For a long time they drove on in utter silence. Then the younger man looked about him suddenly, as if seeking to shake off some troublesome thought, and saw that they were nearing Beechwood.

"If you don't object, Mr. Deering," he said soberly, "I should like to talk of this again. At present, I think it is best that we withdraw our minds from the subject as soon as possible. Meantime," he added, "I thank you for telling me this."

"And I," rejoined Deering, as they were entering the gate, "am glad I have told it! It's a relief, somehow!"

Dinner that day would have been a very solemn and silent function, had it not been for Doctor Ware and Brenda Deering. Mr. Deering looked weary and ate little, and Valentine was silent and listless, and ate almost nothing. The evening was a dark and gloomy one, the sun had set in a bank of clouds, and a cool wind had sprung up from westward, rushing and rustling among the leafy branches of the trees about the house, and causing the trellised vines and climbing rose bushes to | | 156 creak and scatter their leaves and blossoms. A little more than a mile away, across the creek and through the wood, ran the railroad track which curved inward farther south and entered the town at its lower end. The A. C. and D. was a busy road, and to-night the trains seemed rushing through the dark wood, recklessly and often, and with an unusually fiendish clamour and clang of bells and whistles and wheels.

They had finished dinner, and dessert was upon the table, when suddenly the wind seemed to rise, the rain began to pour, and there came a blinding flash of lightning and a peal of thunder that was deafening; and for half-an-hour they sat about the table and listened and talked fitfully, while the storm raged and the thunder and lightning seemed almost constant. Then, suddenly, the door of the dining-room was flung open, and one of the maids sprang into the room with a white, scared face.

"Oh!" she cried, "there's been an accident on the railroad, and the car is burned and everybody killed or burnt to death! You can hear 'em from the east porch, and the men—"

It was Doctor Ware who, rising swiftly and turning upon her, checked her excited speech with a commanding gesture.

"Silence!" he said, then turning back, "Mr. Deering, ladies, allow me to go out and make a rational inquiry. It will take but a moment;" then taking the girl by the arm, "Come with me," he said, and led her from the room.

"What do you mean," he asked sternly when they were outside, "by coming in upon your sick master with such a tale as that? Have you not been warned, told, that he must not be startled, or troubled, in any such way?"

"I—I couldn't help it, indeed," she began to whimper, "it was all so sudden and—and Sarita said someone must go and tell Mr. Deering, for he might want to send assistance to the wreck and—"

"Marthe!" They had reached the servants' stairway, and, looking up at the sound of the sharp voice, they saw Sarita herself gazing down upon them. "Marthe," she said again, "'tis not so! Can you never do things right? I bade you go at once to the road, to the lowest gate, and there tell those who pass, that the poor people may have help quickly.Dieu! But it is awful! And, le docteur," bending down, and speaking in a tremulous tone of appeal, "will he not go to the help of those suffering, those wretched ones? Marthe!" again sharp and imperative, "go at once, at once; the lower gate."

Doctor Ware heard these last words as he passed on and out upon the east porch. He had not needed Sarita's appeal, but had already decided that, if the alarm were not a false one, he must at once go to the help of the victims of the accident. And he came out through the doorway with a question upon his lips. To his surprise he found there only the housekeeper, who was standing just outside, a lamp held aloft, and her gaze turned toward the paddock gate, through which he could just discern, aided by the lights from the house, the hastily retreating forms of two or three men.

"What is it, Mrs. Merton?" he asked quickly. "Has there really been an accident? I thought—"

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Yes," she broke in, "I am afraid so; a man—or a boy rather—came rushing to the kitchen door; he was guided, he says, by the light across the field, and thought ours must be the nearest place to come for help. They were thrown down the embankment over there—two coaches, he said, well filled, and many are hurt, and the coaches badly crushed with people penned inside them. Hear them!" shielding her lamp with a large, plump hand. Through the rush of the rain and the gusts of wind they could hear the cries of men, and the uneven sound of a bell, half-muffled and metallic, as if, maimed and broken from its anchorage, it were being struck fiercely with hammers or bars of iron. "We were at supper when the boy came," Mrs. Merton went on; "and before I could move or say a word, Sarita flew up like a mad woman, fairly shrieking to the men that they must go at once—back with the boy and help; and, before I knew it, she had them all out of the house and there they go! And the maids, she has sent everyone out to the road to hail the passers-by, and now she has rushed off to her room to pray, she says, at this time, when she and I are the only ones left to do anything."

It was quite true. Already the men were running across the field, and the maids could be heard calling to each other from the upper and lower gates.

Doctor Ware was the man for emergencies. In a few words he made known to those who waited in the dining-room the little he himself had found out. And seeing that Mr. Deering had received no harm from the shock, and that all three were only anxious for the sufferers out in the night and storm, he at once prepared to go, like the rest, to the scene of horror, equipped for the work which, he knew, would be ready to his hand.

"If we can send anything, do anything! Doctor, send back those men of mine at once," said Mr. Deering, "or make any use of them that you can. And—the sufferers—there are houses much nearer and easier of access, but ours is open to the sufferers,—you understand?"

Intent upon his errand, the young man ran hastily up to his room by the front stairway, and, having obtained all that he would be most likely to need, he bethought himself of the rear stairway as being nearer than the other, and hurried down the hall; he moved swiftly, and, as he began the descent of the stairs, he heard, below him, a low, sibilant sound, like an exclamation quickly stifled, and followed by two or three whispered words. He was only a moment in reaching the foot of the stairs, and in one swift glance took in several things. The hall below, lately so well illuminated, was in almost total darkness, except for the curving approach to the servants' living room and the kitchen; from this an unseen light threw some gleam across the door opening upon the porch at the foot of the stairs, and directly in his path stood Sarita. He put out his hand and touched her, as a signal to make way for him, and he felt that she was trembling violently, her face turned toward the closed door.

"Allow me to pass," he said, in a low tone. "Who went out just now?"

She started, and uttered a strange sound, half-scream, half-shout, but she did not make way for him to pass.

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"Oh!" she began, catching at his arm as she turned toward him, "Le Docteur! Is it you, only! Fie upon me! See how I tremble, and only at you!"

"At me?"

"Ah, yes. I was looking, when, pauf! the light goes out, and I close the door, and hear, suddenly, when I think no one is above, and when Mrs. Merton is in the dining-room, someone coming behind me down the stairs, so quickly! My feet will not move! Ah! I tremble yet!"

"Do you mean to say," demanded he, impatiently, "that no one went out at that door just now?"

"Now! Why, there is no one to go! Only I looking out." She was still before him at the foot of the stairway, and he put her gently but firmly aside. "It is so dark, here," she persisted, "you saw only a shadow, mine, of course."

"Very likely," he said, dryly. "It was as tall as I, and it went out, as I must do. I would advise you to light the hall again."

But quick as he was, Sarita was quicker.

"Do you think someone is out there?" she cried with a shrill, nervous half-laugh. "Let us see!" She sprang to the door, opened it a little way, and thrust her head out. "Who's there?" she called, shrilly; "Marthe, girls; is this the time to make jokes?" Then she stepped back, "See," she said, "there is nobody—nobody at all!"

"So it seems," replied the doctor, and he went out into the darkness, but, as he picked his way with all possible haste through the paddock and on toward the wreck, he muttered, "Only a shadow, was it? Well, maybe, but my eyes are good, they don't often deceive me, and I could almost swear that I saw a man's figure steal through that door. I wonder if the little Frenchwoman has, by any chance, a follower."

A few moments later, Mrs. Merton came out from the dining-room and down the hall, which was still in darkness; she could dimly see that the door beyond was open a few inches, and, coming closer where the rays from the light beyond the curve made things clearer, she could see a hand holding the door in position, its owner invisible without.

"Sarita!" she exclaimed, pulling the door open with a quick jerk, "what are you doing outside in the dark like that? You look like a listening Indian."

Sarita started nervously, and then stepped inside, closing the door carefully behind her.

"I was listening for a man," she whispered cautiously.

"For a man! My patience! as if you hadn't sent away every man jack on the place your own self, even to the doctor."

"The doctor,—yes; that's it. The doctor declares that he saw a man go out of this door just ahead of him. Of course it couldn't be, could it? But it made me feel—a fidget, and I must look, you see."

"Umph!" scoffed Mrs. Merton, "little enough good your looking out for strange men will do; we'd much better be making ready for any poor hurt creature that may be brought here from that wreck. We're to take all that can be got here; that's the order," and she sailed toward the kitchen, Sarita following slowly in her wake.

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Meantime the Deerings had betaken themselves to the drawing-room, Valentine soon following; and here, for nearly an hour, they sat, talking but little, and waiting anxiously the return of someone with news from the scene of the disaster. Instead of being excited to his hurt, or in any way unnerved by the occurrence, Mr. Deering was the calmest of the three, only regretting that he might not venture forth through the storm to serve and aid whom he might. Brenda was very silent; the thought of such horror and suffering so near was more than she could bear calmly, and she longed to be assured that the reality was not so bad as the pictures her active imagination drew. As for Valentine, she seemed growing more nervous every moment; and when almost an hour had passed, she stopped her march up and down the length of the drawing-room, and went to the door.

"I am going out upon the balcony," she said; "I am stifling here." She threw open the door and started back with a cry.

Just across the threshold, soiled, and torn, and pale, but with hands outstretched, stood a young man, handsome in spite of all, and smiling as he made a slow step across the threshold.

"Brook!" cried Valentine.

"Brook Deering!" cried Brenda, springing up.

"Brook, Brook!" cried the man in the easy-chair, and, half rising, he fell back with closed eyes.

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