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 24 chapter 33 >>

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MR. DEERING had not lost consciousness; he was soon able to swallow some water, and to sit erect and greet his son, who, now that the first startled moments of meeting were over, seemed to each of the three shockingly unlike the Brook Deering they had parted from less than two years before.

That Brook Deering was a picture of bright young manhood, brimming over with exuberant spirits; the Brook Deering now before them was pale, and thinner than they had known him, with a strange strained look in the large blue eyes and about the handsome mobile mouth, and a nervous tremulousness in every movement of the slim, white hands, grown thin like the face. As he crossed the room to draw a chair forward, that he might seat himself beside his father, they noted, too, that he limped painfully. In the surprise of his arrival, no one had thought of the manner of it; but now Val seemed suddenly enlightened.

"Brook!" she exclaimed, "you—you came—you were upon that train?"

"Yes," he answered. "Do I not look as if I had been wrecked?" The soft slow voice was the same as of old, with only an added note of fatigue in it. And, when the chorus of exclamations and questions had ceased, Brook told them how he had arrived in New York by an earlier steamer than he had at first chosen, finding that he "could easily manage it so."

"You see," he narrated, leaning back in the softly-cushioned chair, | | 160 quite regardless of his soil and disarray, and looking oftenest at Valentine while he spoke—" you see, I chanced, almost at the last moment, upon Craig—Henry Craig. I do not know whether you ever, heard me speak of him or not; I knew him at college, just knew him, no more; well, he was booked for an earlier boat, and began to relate to me how he found his time for sailing coming quite too soon; how much he'd give for another week on shore, etc. I believe, as usual, there was a young lady in it. I didn't interest myself much in his reasons, but I having got myself into a fever to come home, was anxious to be off. So to be brief, we made an exchange. I set out a week earlier than I had hoped to do, with his ticket, and without going through the formula of exchanging my name for his on the passenger list. You know I'm always a little sea sick, and this time I was very much worse than usual, so much so that I could hardly keep on my legs, even when we reached New York; and I had to stay there, willy nilly, and coddle myself. The doctor there said that the trouble was in my system before I left the other side; called it a malarial complication, aggravated by sea-sickness, and a severe cold. Of course, I wouldn't alarm you by wiring, as he warranted me able to come on in a few days, and, of course, I chanced upon that unlucky train, and the jar of the fall down that embankment, together with the other horrors, have about upset me."

"Oh!" Brenda sprang toward the bell, but Brook put out his hand.

"Don't ring, Mamma Brenda—"

"I must. Pardon me, Brook! You must go to your room, I—"

"Wait. I met Mrs. Merton as I came in; she is looking out for me, never fear." He turned toward Valentine.

"Did you receive my letters, Cousin Val?"

"I did," replied the girl, a touch of restraint in her tone. "One at least; the one announcing your coming. The other was received, I regret to say, by my dog Cap, in my absence, and was torn to tatters before I became aware of its existence."

Brook laughed softly. "I must become acquainted with that animal. Did you—could you decipher any part of it?"

"A word and a date, nothing more."

"There was not much more. It was written later than the other by three days, and was to tell you that I was coming earlier than I, at first, announced to you. It was not a brilliant epistle, and Cap was a sagacious dog." He turned again toward his father, his face becoming suddenly grave.

"You knew of the accident, sir?" he said, and before Mr. Deering could reply, went on; "it's a sad affair, but not so many hurt as was at first feared. It's bad enough, however; several killed; others, probably a dozen, seriously wounded, and nearly all more or less bruised or scratched, jarred, or lamed—like myself." He got up as he spoke, slowly, and with evident effort, and his father broke in suddenly:

"Boy, you must get out of those garments at once! You are lame, and you do not look too well! Don't stop here a moment longer."

"Thank you, sir. The fact is, I tried to help a little, without at first realising that I was not up to it. It was not pleasant work. Luckily | | 161 there's a fine fellow of a doctor at hand doing wonders, and everywhere at once, it would seem." While he was speaking, Mrs. Merton had opened the door, and she now came forward.

"Your room is ready, sir," she said, with a smile, for Brook Deering was a favourite with the Beechwood household.

"And he must go at once," broke in Brenda, and she went with him to the door and out into the hall beyond.

"Brenda," her husband called after them, "when Ware comes back he must look after Brook's lameness." She nodded and walked with Brook to the foot of the stairs; her face was very serious, and she seemed about to begin some speech, over which she evidently hesitated, when he turned and laid his two hands upon her arms just above the wrists—a boyish gesture which she at once recognised with a half smile.

"Mamma Brenda," he began anxiously, with his blue eyes seeking hers, "I want you to tell me about my father. Has he been ill, or troubled, or both? He looks both sick and sorry! It made my heart jump when I first saw him. What is it?"

Brenda nodded toward the stairs, where, half-way up, Mrs. Merton was standing, and drew away her hands.

"Impulsive as ever, I see," she smiled." Your father has been quite ill, Brook, but he is better now, and, we hope, improving, although I have felt anxious at times, and am very glad you have come just at this time. When you are thoroughly rested, come to my boudoir; I want to have a talk with you, alone, and soon—before you talk with the others, in fact. Now, go, I won't even question you about the accident; although we know so little concerning it. Do you feel that you can talk with me just a little to-night?"

"I will come to you in half-an-hour, fair lady," he said, with a smile, as he began to mount the steps slowly, and with evident painful effort.

Before half-an-hour had passed, owing to the thoughtfulness of Doctor Ware, who sent one of the men as soon as he could be spared, they had further news from the wreck.

Across the creek, and on the further side of the railway track, were some half-a-dozen houses, all of them being much nearer the scene of the disaster than was Beechwood, and one fortunately was so large, having been erected for the use of workmen lately engaged in laying a double track along the line—that all the dead, seven in number, could be readily and decently sheltered there, while the farm-houses nearer opened hospitable doors to the seriously wounded, and gave temporary shelter to all in any way disabled. For the rest, the uninjured women and children, were, by the direction of Doctor Ware, already nearing Beechwood, where he had assured them shelter, and whither they were being guided by the big soft-hearted gardener. And so, for the remainder of the night and all of the following day the splendid Deering house was turned into an hospital, where frightened children and weary women were housed and fed and clad, and Brenda, Valentine, Mrs. Merton, and the maids were too busy for thought of anything save their stranger guests, their needs and comforts.

"Mrs. Merton," said Brenda with prompt decision, as she threw open the doors of her dainty rooms to her wet and bedraggled guests, | | 162 we must have fires all over the house, in all the chambers, and upon this floor. And hot tea and coffee must be prepared at once; food, of course, later, as soon as maybe. You will attend to this, and Sarita—where is Sarita?" for, looking about among the faces grouped around her, eagerly awaiting her instructions, Sarita's was the only one missing. And then, upstairs and down, the name of Sarita was called and called again; but it was some moments later that Sarita appeared among them, no one seemed to know just whence or how.

"Madam Sarita," spoke Mrs. Merton, with a touch of sharpness in her voice, "we have needed you; Mrs. Deering has called—"

"Ah, I am sorry!" broke in the tardy one, in an unsteady voice, and clutching the arm of the girl near her, not seeming to notice that it was the same whom, not long before, she had reprimanded, and sent out to the roadside gate. "I am sorry, but I went out-outside to look—to see, to listen, and try to hear—ah, those poor people!—I could not stay within!"

The last of the wrecked visitors were being ushered in by Mrs. Merton through the hospitably open rear door, and, under cover of the bustle of their entrance, and the kindly greetings of Brenda and Valentine, Marthe the maid twitched her arm from beneath Sarita's trembling hand, and said in a spiteful little half-whisper:

"Been outside—to see, to listen, indeed! I'd like to find the place where you stood! I 'spose it didn't rain there?" and she caught at Sarita's sleeve.

It was quite true that the rain was still pouring, and that the entering refugees were dripping forlornly, but Sarita's garments were a trifle damp, and nothing more.

. . . . . . .

The morning that followed this night of tempest, and death, and destruction, dawned clear and bright, and Beechwood, so wakeful, so busy during the hours of darkness, seemed a house of silence when the sun awoke, in spite of the number, sleeping, for the most part, beneath its roof. But Brenda Deering was early astir, and, having assured herself that her husband was sleeping quietly, she went below and out upon the eastern terrace, where, to her surprise, she encountered Brook Deering. He was leaning against a slender pillar of the portico, and he looked pale and languid, but he started forward with his old smile and quick word of welcome, and put out his hand.

"I did not find you in your bower last night, lady fair, and hardly hoped to do so when I learned that you were occupied in sheltering the storm-driven and wrecked. How miserable that my home-coming, which I have so anticipated, should be so attended I If I were superstitious I might think myself a bird of ill omen."

Brenda's answer was brief and her look serious, "I am glad to have met you so early, Brook," she said, looking about her the while; "have—have you seen anyone this morning?"

"Not a soul! I have not been here myself more than five minutes."

"And—last night—have you seen your old nurse, Brook?"

"Sarita! bless her brown face! No; and I'm ashamed that I went to bed and forgot to ask after her. Is—has anything happened to Sarita? Is she well? Is she here?"

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"Yes," replied Brenda, turning hastily toward the house. "Yes, to all, and I wonder she has not come down before now; she is an early riser, still. But come in, Brook, come to my boudoir, I want to tell you something before you see—any of the others."

"I wonder," he said, as they crossed the wide hall toward the stairway, "if Nurse Sarita has heard that I am here?"

At the foot of the stairway, Brenda, who had hurried him forward in spite of his limp, turned and put a hand upon his arm. "I am hurrying you too much, Brook," she said apologetically, "but I want to get you upstairs before you meet with anyone, Sarita in particular; you know how she will chatter, and then, the others will be stirring soon. Sarita was very nervous last night, owing to the storm and the accident, and, in the excitement, she somehow missed you; no one happened to see you enter. Mrs. Merton tells me the hall was quite deserted, and she only chanced out from the kitchen just as you passed the arch."

"Then she can't know I am here?"

"Hardly." She pushed open the door of the boudoir. "I suppose you mean Sarita? Go in, Brook, I will join you in a moment." As he entered, she closed the door after him and went on quickly to the door of her chamber, which opened upon the hall, entering there, and, in a moment, coming into the boudoir by another communicating door. She held some loose papers in her hand, and came straight toward him where he sat in a low broad chair near an open window, out of which he was looking with eager interest.

"Brook," she began, coming close, and now making no effort to conceal the anxiety in her face, "we must lose no time; what I have to say is serious. Tell me, have you had any recent news from Pomfret? Have you, on the train, on the road, anywhere heard what has happened here among us?"

He started, and then sank back in his chair, a spasm of pain crossing his face. "Brenda, good heavens I what do you mean? I have seen no one, heard nothing. What is it?—tell me! Is any one—of our friends—dead—or—what is it?"

"Someone is dead. Yes. Murdered! Brook, you must be calm, and prepare to hear sad news. Bruce is in deep trouble."

"Bruce! Dear old fellow! What a beast I am to have forgotten him for a moment! Where is he? What is it?"

She laid the packet of papers upon the little reading-stand near the window, and pushed it toward him.

"You will find the hateful story there," she said; "read it, and do not forget that there are people all about us; even in the next room some children are sleeping." She turned away and seated herself wearily near another window, letting her head rest upon her hand, but keeping her eyes upon his face as he read. She saw the start and shock with which he read the announcement of Joe Matchin's murder, the in credulity and horror, as he read on, merging into indignation, scorn, and anger. In the papers under his hand the hateful story was all set forth with the usual incisive heartlessness of the newspaper report, and, when he had read them all, they slid from his hands to the floor, and, pallid and trembling, he got upon his feet. saying, with a choke in his throat | | 164 "Brenda—it is monstrous! I—I must go to Bruce—at once!"

As he turned from the window, Brenda sprang toward him.

"Sit down, Brook!" she commanded. "Sit down and control yourself; we want your help; you—you must be strong, you must hear the rest, know what the evidence is, before you see Bruce, your father, anyone, outside this room."

"The evidence!" he gasped. "Is there anything more—worse than this?" pointing downward, and spurning the papers with his foot, to sink the next moment, with a groan, back into the cushioned chair, big drops of sweat standing out upon his forehead.

"Forgive me, Brenda," he said, after a moment, "don't—don't call anyone," for she had made a movement toward the door. "I—I don't mind the pain! I'll control myself, though it's awfully sudden—and—you must go on—you are right, I must hear it all, else how can I stand by Bruce!" He leaned back in the chair, and turned his face toward the window; then, after a moment, he sat erect before her, and said, quite calmly, "I am all right now. Tell me the rest, please."

For answer Brenda came and stood before him again, and held out to him the brooch with the amethyst and pearls forming the initials B. D. "Brook," she said, with her eyes upon his face, "look at this."

He took it from her hand, and smiled faintly.

"Ah!" he said softly, "you have not parted with that."

"No. And you?—Brook—have you?"

"Brenda! his tone was gently reproachful, "your gift?"

"You—you have it?"

For answer he put his hand to his breast, and, after a moment, drew from some inner pocket a small flat leathern case, and laid it open upon his knee. It contained some letters and papers, and at one end was a little box-like compartment, which opened under his finger; in this lay half-a-dozen uncut and unset gems, a tiny jewelled pin, a ring, and a gold button, set with amethyst, and with its pearl monogram matching the jewel she had put into his hand.

"I do not part with my keepsakes," he said, still reproachfully. "See, here is your button, Brenda, here is Valentine's little pin, and here—" he took up the ring and a diamond flashed in the light—" is another;this—" he put it back softly, "I may be obliged to return to its giver, the others—never, I trust!" And he smiled in her face an instant, becoming grave again as he asked, "What can this have to do with—with this?" glancing down at the papers.

"Much!" she replied. "A button just like this," pointing to the amethyst, "was found upon the scene of the murder; near the body of Joe Matchin."

"My God! My God! Not his? Not—no! It had been stolen—or lost."

"Neither; Bruce has his button—as you have yours. Ah!"

As the words left her lips a quick knock sounded upon the door. It was Mrs. Merton in search of instructions, and Brenda did not hesitate. "I will come down at once," she said to the housekeeper, and, when that good woman had passed out of hearing, she turned in the doorway.

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"I must go below, Brook. Now that you have been informed of all this, you are better prepared to meet your father; remember, you must not show excitement, or anger, in his presence, nor talk too much upon this subject in his hearing. He is far from strong, and the doctors all order, insist upon, the utmost possible quiet. When this blow fell we were greatly alarmed for him. But he bears it wonderfully. Still, we must be very cautious. Remember—let your father take the lead—and be careful."

He was still seated, and he now stooped and picked up one of the scattered papers.

"With your permission, Brenda, I will sit here a little longer and re-read these things; I want to understand this wretched business if I can."

"Very good," she replied. "When you are ready, go to your father; he breakfasts in his own rooms, and rises promptly at seven." She shut the door behind her and went down to her earliest risen guests.

Ten minutes later Brook Deering, still sitting by the window, heard another rap at the door of theboudoir;and in response to his "come in," a maid handed him a slip of paper upon which was written:

"Brook, I forgot to warn you to say nothing about the button; he knows nothing of that. Confine yourself to what you read in the printed columns. Destroy this. B——"

Not long after this, Doctor Felix Ware, passing through the Lower hall saw a young man, pale and slender, but handsome and faultlessly dressed, come around the curve of the broad stairway, and encounter suddenly the woman Sarita, who was approaching briskly, and seemingly preoccupied.

"Sarita!" called the pale young man; and Doctor Felix heard her utter a sharp little cry, and saw her put out her hands and grasp at the one which the young man extended. "Why, nurse I Did I surprise you? Were you not told?"The woman made some indistinct reply, and some low spoken words were exchanged, Sarita seeming distinctly nervous, almost hysterical.

The greeting was soon over, and Sarita went hurriedly up the stairs, looking back with a strangely wistful face as the young man went limping toward the outer door.

Half-an-hour later Doctor Ware and Brook Deering met and were presented to each other at the breakfast table; they were only a party of three, Valentine being absent, looking, so Brenda explained, after the welfare of a young mother and two children, whom she had taken into her own rooms and under her own especial charge.

Brenda was full of anxiety; and, when the formalities of the table had been exchanged, she turned to Doctor Ware.

"Doctor—have you seen Mr. Deering this morning?"

"Yes. I have only just left him."

She turned inquiring eyes toward Brook. "And you?" she queried.

He shook his head. "I was told that the doctor was with him," he explained, "and did not think it best to intrude. "I told William to say that I would wait upon him after breakfast, if it suited him."

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"He is anxious to see you," the doctor said. "I think you would better not delay your visit long. He is more nervous this morning than I have seen him since the day he came home. I must warn you against any prolonged talk, any excitement. You will pardon me. I am told that you were in the wreck, and your face tells its own story of fatigue, and possibly some little nervous shock. It would, I think, be well to make your own fatigued condition excuse for not prolonging any interviews you may hold with your father to-day."

Young Deering thanked him with the frank cordiality which so quickly won him friends among strangers, and they began to talk about the wreck, of which Brook could tell little.

"It was all so sudden," he said. "There was the quick wrench, the stop, the overthrow, and all in a moment. Then, in another moment, the crashing and rending of the timbers, the hiss of steam, groans, shrieks, yells; all around a struggling, horrible mass, and over everything the darkness—and the driving rain. I had been ill on shipboard, and again in New York, but I forgot that, and, for a little, tried to be of some use. But I found it impossible. I must have been dazed more than I knew, for at first I did not realise that I was so near my home, that a little more effort would bring me here."

"Yes," assented Brenda. "No doubt you were dazed; that's how they all describe the first sensation;" and so the talk went on, until Brook Deering, pushing back his chair, declared his readiness to go at once to his father; "after which," he said to Doctor Ware, "I will turn myself over to you, doctor. I think I may need a very little patching up."

"Decidedly," replied the doctor. "I think you do."

"Doctor Ware," began Mrs. Deering when the door had closed behind the young man, "tell me, frankly and fully, has all this excitement, the storm, the wreck, and his son's sudden return, been an injury to my husband? Is he much worse?"

"Mrs. Deering, your husband, as I have said, is excited and nervous; there are also slight evidences of fever. He will need quiet and care for a few days. It is a `set back,' but, honestly, I see in it nothing more. A week ago I assured you that I could see no reason why he should not then go on gaining steadily, if slowly, and eventually become once more a man in fair health. Not quite so strong perhaps as before this illness; but if he leads, as he surely will, a quiet life, temperate in all things, he may easily outlive many who, to-day, seem stronger than he. What I said then, I say now. The progress has been retarded a little, but no serious harm has been done. It seemed to me," he added, after a moment's pause, "that the son stands in need of caution as well as the father. Is he usually—naturally, strong? I see that he has not his father's temperament."

A look of surprise crossed Brenda's face, but she answered candidly, "I suppose he must be like his mother; I never knew her. Brook has a light and gay disposition, frank, as you see. I was startled somewhat at his manner of taking the ill news I had to tell him this morning, to prepare him for a talk with his father. I looked to hear him rage rather than seem so crushed under it."

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"Indeed! I should take young Mr. Deering to be a person whose self-control was almost perfect."

"He is, instead, really impulsive, quick to anger, and as ready to forgive."

"Mrs. Deering," questioned he gravely, "are you a student of human nature? Do you believe that the human countenance, the head, can and does reveal all that a man is, and much that he does or may do?"

"Ah!" she exclaimed, "you are a physiognomist; a phrenologist, perhaps!"

"I am interested in the 'study of man by man,'" he smiled, "and I believe that therein lies one cure for much of the world's evil; what we are or may be is stamped upon our outward person, and because we cannot, or will not, read the handwriting of Nature, we are stumbling through this life deceived, disappointed, betrayed, strangers to those nearest us; oftentimes unable, when we most need the light, to distinguish between our friends and our foes, and yet we were not created to be mysteries one to another; not meant, I believe, to go through the world like maskers. For those who have learned the language, what a man is is written all over him."

"Doctor, do you believe this?" she cried, with eager earnestness.

"I do! And more and more the deeper I look into it."

"And—you can read—character—faces?"

"A little, and after a groping fashion, perhaps."

There was a sound at the door of the breakfast room, and Brenda arose quickly.

"I am interested more than you can think," she said earnestly.

"If I possessed this power I might—" she checked herself suddenly, and seemed to force down the eagerness from face and voice. "Someone is coming," she said, in a half reluctant tone. "Another time, doctor, will you tell me more of this—this new science!"

"It's as old as the hills!" He got up, and they moved toward the door side by side. "At another time, Mrs. Deering, I shall be yours to command." He opened the door; Mrs. Merton stood without, a question upon her motherly lips, and two or three children, already made friends, at her heels; and Brenda resumed anew her duties of hostess and Good Samaritan.

But in spite of these duties, and despite the fact that the servants, like the rest of the household, were not yet recovered from the exertions of the previous night, she found time, before the sun was high, to write a hasty line to Bruce Deering, and to send it by a trusted messenger. It contained only these words:

"Brook came last night. The other one is safe. B——"

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