- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XXVII. POISON.
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"MRS. DEERING, can you bear to hear something—something worse even than this present grief?"
"Worse!" Brenda Deering, pallid and sad-eyed, looked up at the speaker wonderingly; "what can be worse than my husband's death, to me, who am left so utterly alone,—at such a time?"
"Ah! truly, it is sad! terribly sad! And yet I must open your eyes to worse horrors. God knows I would soften the blow if I could. At least I can say this, I came here as your husband's friend; he trusted me—"
"And now I say to you, let me stay, so long as I can serve you, so long as I am needed, as your friend also. Let me help you; and pray feel, if you can, that you are not alone. In the ordeal before you, use me—command me, to the uttermost."
"The ordeal! What—what is it? Bruce—''
"It is not Bruce, Mrs. Deering. Oh! I cannot prepare you! I must speak the brutal truth! Your husband died of poison!"
Small wonder that Brenda Deering fell beneath this blow, and that, for a long hour, she lay stricken, dazed, silent, and strengthless, in her darkened room, with Valentine and Mrs. Merton watching beside her, with her maid upon guard at the outer door of the apartment, and with Doctor Ware pacing the hall beyond, waiting for what he knew must come.
It came soon. Valentine opened the outer door and beckoned him.
"She is better," the girl whispered; "she is in her boudoir, and wishes to see you alone; she has not spoken except to express this wish, and she looks as pale as death. Doctor, what is it?"
"I can answer you better, Miss Rodney, when I have seen her," he replied gravely. "Will you, and Mrs. Merton also, remain within call? I do not think she will faint again, but she has received a terrible shock," and he entered the boudoir.
Brenda did not stir from the low chair on which she reclined, with | | 173 her face in shadow, and she began to speak at once, in a strange, controlled tone, which grew stronger as she talked on."
Tell me—what you can."
He drew a chair near her own, and replied in a hushed tone, as he seated himself,—
"It is very little. Upon coming yesterday, I saw at once that there was no hope, and I was greatly surprised at the symptoms. He only lived, as you know, a little more than an hour. I knew I was certain, while he breathed his last, that his life had been tam red with, and I thought it terribly unfortunate that Doctor Liscom was out of town. Do not start; his presence could not have helped or hindered. As soon as he came, I took him into the library and told him what, I felt sure, was the truth. At first he could not believe it; but he was soon and sadly convinced. There is nothing more to be said now, Mrs. Deering. As physicians, familiar with the poison's symptoms, we are both morally certain that Mr. Deering's life has been shortened by poison, and I have come to you to ask, that you allow us to take the steps necessary to obtain the legal proof; meantime, of course, no one except yourself has been given a hint of this. What shall be done, and whether this shall be made known, or withheld, we have decided to leave with you."
She made no movement, but he could see her hands grip the arms of her chair as if in restraint or for support, as she asked slowly:
"You—you are sure—both of you—that it is—poison?"
"Sure! Only too sure!"he sadly answered.
"And—do you think—could it have been—in any way—an accident or mistake?"
"If our theory is correct, one mistake, which might have been possible—barely possible—one dose, wrongly given, could not have produced the conditions which we believe to exist."
"If we find our suspicions verified, it can be nothing less than that—unless—"
She stopped him with a swift gesture.
"Murder may be possible—suicide NEVER!"
"I quite agree with you! Mrs. Deering, time is of value, tell me your commands, and pardon my haste."
"Doctor Ware," her tone was firmer now, and sounded almost stern, "in such a case as you suppose, can there be two ways?"
"There is—of course, much to be considered!, and—"
"There is nothing to be considered!" she broke in. "If you prove what you believe, nothing but justice;" she leaned toward him, and the strong spirit of the woman began to reveal itself through her fine eyes. "If Lysander Deering, in his own house, his own bed, among his friends, has been foully dealt with, there is but one course left for us. Justice! Vengeance!"
"Then you consent—"
"I desire you to ascertain the truth at once. To make the result known to me first—and then—then you must advise me!" As he arose she put out her hand again. "One thing more. No one must suspect what you are about to do" He turned toward the door, and, | | 174 as he laid his hand upon the latch, she spoke yet again. "Doctor, I think you must help me! I cannot break down! I must be strong, and not waste your time by any weakness on my part. Can you strengthen me in body and nerves?"
"I will send you something at once," he replied, and went out in evident haste.
Ten minutes later Brenda's maid brought, and dealt out to her, the desired tonic, and, when she had swallowed it, she shut herself up alone in her room again, bidding her maid deny her, even to Valentine.
For two hours the big splendid house, with its closed and darkened rooms, was as quiet as if all the life beneath its roof had gone out, like that of its kindly master, to meet the eternal mysteries; but only to him was the silence peaceful. Brenda, alone with the great horror which made the natural sorrow of an hour before seem a comfort in comparison, was fighting for strength: striving for self-mastery, struggling with doubts and fears unutterable. Valentine, ignorant of the worst, yet sorely grieving over the loss of so dear a friend, so kind a guardian, sat beside her window, thinking sadly, and with tear-dimmed eyes. And in another room, darkened and closed to all without, the son of the house, and the nephew, who had also held a son's place in the heart and the home of the man lying so silent below, were together, sharing the heaviness and sorrow which had fallen upon Beechwood. Brook Deering lay upon a couch, his face showing white and drawn in the dim light, and, not far from him sat Bruce Deering with his head bowed upon his hand, and his face more sorrow-smitten than it had been in the worst moment of his own trial and danger. Both were, and had long been, silent; and both were thinking, sadly, strangely, and yet, with a difference.
Even in the room where the dead man lay, and where the two physicians were so sadly, strangely occupied, there was not a sound that could be heard outside the door, where, from time to time, a silent flitting figure passed, seemed to listen, and fluttered away, only to return again and again.
For two weary hours Brenda Deering, in her closed boudoir, made no sign, much to the anxiety of the maid who waited, forlornly, in the stillness of the dressing-room. But at the end of that time the little bell which connected boudoir and dressing-room tinkled softly. To the nervous woman in waiting it seemed to clang, and she hastened to her mistress.
"Has anyone asked for me?" queried Brenda.
"Very well. When Doctor Ware inquires for me, tell him I wish also to see Doctor Liscom—both together."
"Is Miss Rodney still in her room?"
"I think so."
"And the gentlemen?"
"They have not appeared, but their light has burned all night."
"Ah! Close the door, Judith, and draw up the curtain of that south window. Then you may bring me a cup of coffee, and tell | | 175 Mrs. Merton to have breakfast ready to serve as soon as anyone appears."
As the girl crossed the room, she stole a surprised and anxious glance at the face of her mistress. Brenda Deering's face would have startled a less observing and interested person than faithful Judith, so pale it was, and set in lines that were stern and cold, almost to rigidity. In the two hours just passed, alone with a horror greater than anyone could know, Brenda Deering had discovered within herself, dormant, but strong when shocked into action, a new element, a power which held her calm, set her heart to beating strong and full, cleared her mind of its doubts and tremors, controlled her every nerve, aroused her will, and made it a dominating power.
And so, a few moments later, the two physicians found her, and, after one glance at her face, exchanged looks which were eloquent. They had feared an outbreak, woe following upon horror, and here, instead, stood a woman, pallid, 'tis true, but calm and firm, and ready to meet their eyes, and to anticipate the verdict they dreaded to pronounce.
"I see," she said, in steady tones, rising from her place near a darkened east window, as Judith closed the door behind them, "it is as you feared?"
Again the two men exchanged quick glances, which she as quickly intercepted.
"Do not fear to be frank with me," she went on; "I have quite prepared myself, and there will be no scene here. Tell me all—at once!"
"It is as we feared, Mrs. Deering. There is ample proof of poison, in quantities so large that they must have been given in several doses, four or five, at least. Mr. Deering's disease alone was not sufficient—"
"One moment!" It was Doctor Ware who had spoken, and she interrupted him with something like impatience in voice and gesture. "Tell me in the fewest words, did my husband die of his disease or by poison—which?"
"Your husband, Mrs. Deering, was prostrated by the excitement which began with the murder of Joe Matchin, and ended with the railway accident, with its attendant circumstances. That prostration would have been a serious one, I think, and might have resulted, later, in his death,—but—were it not for repeated doses of the poison, he would be living now."
"Then—he was—murdered?" She turned from one to the other.
"You believe this? both of you?"
"Yes," replied Doctor Ware, with decision.
"Unhappily, Mrs. Deering," added Liscom, "the evidence is but too plain."
She turned and went slowly back to the darkened window, where two seats were drawn near to her own.
"Will you sit here, gentlemen?" she said in a voice strangely tame and unlike her own; and, when they had placed themselves, she resumed in the same strange, low tone, "I accept the service you have offered, Doctor Ware, and I beg, Doctor Liscom, that you, too, will help me with your advice, perhaps your aid. You are the first, the only ones to discover this? am I right? ''| | 176
"It has not passed our lips," replied the younger man.
"And you two have been—been there with the dead—have you learned anything that I do not know? Have you found—a—cause for suspicion—a clue."
"Have you, then, any reason for a suspicion?" she persisted, still in that calm, dull, unfamiliar tone.
"And yet—for there has been no stranger in that sick room—under this roof we must look for his murderer." Her words sounded as if forced from between her lips; there was an awful unnatural bitterness in their sound. The thought was not, could not have been new to either, though it had not been spoken between them, but it caused them both a thrill of horror, falling as it did from her pallid lips.
"Tell me," she demanded, her tone cold and firm again, "how must I begin? Doctor Liscom, you, I know, have other duties, but I ask you to give me all the aid you can, and you, Doctor Ware, will you stay here and give me your help as you would have given it to him? Dare I take you at your word?"
"Mrs. Deering," said the young man, "Doctor Liscom is the man whose name should be known as your adviser and helper in this matter. As for me, you have only to command. I am at your service, and his."
"Thank you," she murmured. "I understand—you are right.
Now, tell me what is the first thing to be done?"
"I think," said the young man, after a moment's hesitancy and waiting—" I think, first, you should decide how best to discover the truth. And shall the facts be made known, or—shall they be kept from the public?—Will you make your search openly or in secret?"
Her answer came quickly. "Let it be kept from the public if possible! But—I cannot carry this burden alone! Valentine must know, and Mr. Baird!"
Doctor Liscom looked up quickly. He had been pondering with bent head and wrinkled brow. "I would suggest another," he said. "We cannot have too many clear heads—and cool heads. I suggest John Redding."
Brenda turned towards Doctor Ware a look of inquiry. "He is a young lawyer," she explained. "My husband—thought well of him."
"He is a bright fellow," added the elder man. "By the way, Mrs. Deering, is Ingram still away?"
"I believe so."
"And is he still Mr. Deering's attorney?"
"No." Again she addressed herself in explanation to the young physician. "Mr. Ingram, Doctor Ware, is an old man, retired from active practice for several years. He has been, for a long time, my husband's legal adviser in all things, and he remained such long after he had given up his regular practice, but that was changed, not long since."
"Changed?" ejaculated Doctor Liscom.| | 177
"Yes. Changed soon after we went to New York. The new arrangement was made there, in fact. You may remember, doctor, that Mr. Ingram went to the city with us?"
"Yes, now that I recall it, he did."
"It seemed a little strange to me then, and I do not really understand it now. It was to effect this change that he went with us to the city. Mr. Redding followed us a few days later, and the three were together much of the time, for the week that followed. Mr. Deering explained to me, as a reason for the change, Mr. Ingram's increasing age and ill health, his desire for perfect freedom, and his purpose to travel for some time. I was desired to keep as a secret, the fact that there had been a change in my husband's business relations, and, somehow, I received the impression that it was more because of a whim or fancy of Mr. Ingram's—a reluctance, on his part, to let it become known, in Pomfret, that he had been obliged to abandon business altogether."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Doctor Liscom, "I see, yes. That is characteristic of Ingram! He was a queer man, and a shrewd. Then, of course, you will wish to include Redding?"
"I thank you for suggesting it." She put a hand to her head, "I fear my head is not so clear as I thought. Yes, let us have them all as soon as possible: Mr. Baird, Mr. Redding, and Valentine—"
"And—the young men?" suggested Doctor Liscom.
"Ah! I don't know—Brook—you know Brook, Doctor Liscom? How easily he becomes excited. He has not been strong, nor well, since the accident; and his father's death has quite broken him down. As for Bruce, I don't think we can get him away from his cousin. Brook will not be alone when he is ill—ah!"
There was a quick knock, followed by the opening of the door just a hair's breadth, or enough to admit a voice, the voice of Sarita. "Mrs. Deering! Madam!—If you will come one moment;" the voice was agitated, anxious.
Brenda went quickly to the door: "One moment," she echoed, and went out, with only a backward glance.
Sarita stood outside the door with starting eyes, and hands clutching at each other nervously.
"Madam!" she cried, "do come to Master Brook I He—he—I think he must be going mad!"
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