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 28 chapter 33 >>

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THE shock which, in spite of his vigorous manhood, had so suddenly prostrated Bruce Deering, could not long hold him in its thrall. He rallied soon, and, but for the set lips and sombre eyes, was much the same quiet, self-controlled, unreadable Bruce Deering, who had stood up erect and seemingly unshaken by the awful charges against him, and the dangers by which he was menaced, and which day by day were drawing nearer. But he was not the same, and they who knew him best could mark the change.

Brenda saw it, and said—to herself—" This has been a heavier blow, a greater shock to Bruce, than was the other. He was not affected by his own trouble and danger, as he is by—this!"

Valentine saw it and said in the depths of her heart, "How much more will he bear without flinching—and—alone?"

And Mr. Baird saw it and said, aloud, and at the very beginning of the first council held between himself, John Redding, Doctors Liscom and Ware, "Bruce Deering's face never looked so set, stern, and full of the grim force that is in him, as he looks now. His own troubles never shook him as does this! And—"

"You are right!" John Redding declared with emphasis. "He was willing, you say, to let the inquiry in his own case drop; and to see the detective, who might have vindicated him, discharged, and the case fall flat. But he won't let this matter rest, depend upon that! I don't believe he has given a thought to his own affairs, since he learned the truth concerning his uncle's death!"

But Brook Deering did not rally so quickly; he shut himself up, and for a time refused to see a physician; at last he would receive Liscom, and no other.

The doctor's report was most unsatisfactory.

"The poor boy seems dazed," he had said to Brenda, who with Bruce and Doctor Ware together awaited his verdict. "He talks queerly and seems hardly to realise the case—or the horror of it; is not quite himself, in fact. It may need only a short course of sedatives to quiet him and bring him out all right, but I should say, decidedly, that he has not been a well man for some time. This trouble, coming suddenly as it has, does not altogether account for his present state."

"That," broke in Brenda, "is just what Doctor Ware has said."

"Ware was right, and you are fortunate to have him among you just now. But Brook has just taken another whim, if I may call it such. He has tired of his solitude, and he wants you, Bruce, to stay with him."

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Bruce and Brenda exchanged quick glances. "What do you advise?" the former inquired.

"If it will not tax you too much, I think he should not be much alone; and it won't do, I fear, to force anyone upon him who is unwelcome or strange."

"It couldn't be done!" declared Bruce. "I know that! And, if it will be best, I am ready to bear him company for a few days or a week."

"I hope he will be quite himself before that."

"Quite himself!" Brenda started forward and laid a hand upon his arm. "Doctor, do you see—do you think there is any danger—danger to his mind?"

"Oh, I hope not, I hope not—you see—"

But now it was Bruce who broke in.

"You speak of his condition prior to his arrival here; his illness on shipboard and in New York; tell us, do you think he may have had a touch, the faintest taint, of his mother's horrible affliction, previous to his coming home?"

"Really! I hope not. Oh, I hardly—and still—" he checked himself, evidently he was troubled.

"It might have been!" broke in Bruce. "Is that what you were about to say? Doctor, tell us! Is such a thing possible?"

"It is possible—yes, but not likely. I think—unless—unless he may have been mentally troubled in some manner unknown to us, seriously troubled."

"Ah!" Brenda's start was almost violent, but the doctor went on:

"I must ask you, right here, if Brook knows of the taint in his mother's blood?"

"No," replied Bruce and Brenda at once; and Bruce went on:

"It was not known to me until we were about setting out for school, and then, it was not my uncle who told me. At almost the last moment Sarita came to me and, after swearing me to secrecy, told me how my poor aunt died, and begged me to look closely after my cousin, because of this hidden danger, of which he was ignorant, and she added that my uncle fancied it would be best that he did not know of it, owing to his sensitive, nervous temperament, and that she had been forbidden to tell of it. You see," turning to Doctor Ware, who, thus far, had taken no part in the conversation, while listening with keen interest, "Sarita was his nurse from infancy, and is much attached to him."

Doctor Ware nodded and opened his lips for the first time, turning and addressing Brenda.

"And—did your husband ever mention this subject to you, Mrs. Deering?"

"Never in connection with his son. He told me, at the time of our marriage, and in a very few words, some of the circumstances of his former marriage, and also that his wife died abroad, and insane. The subject was never renewed between us. It was Mrs. Merton, who has lived in the Deering family, from her youth up, nearly all of the time, who told me that the poor lady's madness was inherited, and that it seldom lay dormant for long."

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There was a moment of silence, then the elder physician turned toward the younger.

"Ware," he said, "you have been a pupil of Brandreth, who is second to none in the knowledge, and cure, of the insane. What is your opinion of this case?"

"Before we can judge fairly there are two things to be learned. First, you think, all of you, that the young man is not aware of the possible taint in his blood. Or—wait—who in this house would be best able to speak upon this question with authority?—Would it be, do you think, his old nurse?

"Yes—yes," said first Brenda and then Bruce.

"Next, we must learn, if possible, if the patient has had a touch, ever so slight, of the old malady, even the least aberration. Mr. Deering, he has called for you. Do you think you might—learn the truth, in some way, from him?"

"I am willing to try," answered Bruce.

"Then, if you find that there has been no mental derangement; or if you find that it has occurred, but has been slight, and, if we also are sure that he is not aware of his sad inheritance, I should feel quite certain that he would, with proper treatment, recover soon, and be able to take a part in our councils; and his cure ought to be a matter of a few days only. And now—may we question this nurse? Not to alarm her unnecessarily, some one of us would best see her alone."

"Let it be you," said Brenda promptly. And so it was that, a few moments later, Sarita, somewhat surprised and wondering much, came into Doctor Ware's presence in the little morning-room, where he sat alone.

The woman's face was anxious, and her manner nervous. The doctor wasted no words.

"I am told," he began mildly, "that you were Mr. Brook Deering's nurse in his infancy, and that you could tell me what I wish to know regarding him, his general health, and so on." He paused. The woman's thin lips were closed over her even white teeth; they seemed to draw themselves into yet thinner lines as he spoke, and did not open when he ceased speaking.

He smiled slightly, and his tone became quite confidential.

"You see," he resumed, "your young master was not exactly well, he tells me, when he set out for home, and the shock of the accident, naturally, set him back a little. And, while he was still weak, this blow—his father's death, has proved too much for him, and we fear—"

Sarita's lips opened suddenly, and in a shrill cry, "Oh I Mon Dieu! Is he really so bad? Is it more than the nerves then—tell me quick?"

"It is the nerves that we are anxious about. Listen. The young man has inherited a fearful malady, which may crop out at any time, if he should become too much worried; or may never trouble him if he is guarded against certain shocks."

A change had crossed the woman's face; her eyes, which constantly glanced from point to point, and seldom rested for more than an instant upon the speaker's face, had lost their strained, anxious look, her lips were less tense, but she sighed audibly, and quickly ejaculated.

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"Yes, poor boy! He has to be guarded! He has been very unfortunate to have such a mother!"

"Even so. Now the worst thing that could happen to him, in his present state, would be to let him know, if he does not know, of the taint that he carries in his blood. I know that his father meant to keep the truth from him, but children find out so many things, you know. You have known him from his childhood; tell me, do you think he knows or guesses that his mother was insane?"

"Know it!" she cried, clasping her hands dramatically. "How could he, when the—oh! so dreadful secret has been guarded—oh! so carefully—by his father, by myself, and others, so few did know it. And who would tell?—No, he never knew it, never!"

"Thank you." The doctor arose with alacrity. "Then there is no reason why our friend may not soon be himself again, and able to take his place in the family councils."

"Oh, true. He is now the master here, is he not? An only son—"

"Probably," dryly. "But it's rather premature to call him master until the will has been read."

"Ah, yes! The will, and—" she caught her breath, hesitated for just an instant, and then asked, "And that—will that be—be very soon—before the—the burial—perhaps?"

"Not before, certainly. That is all, Madam Sarita, and thank you." He made a movement as if to pass her, but she did not seem to see it.

"And the burial?" she questioned timidly, "will that be soon?"

"Nothing has been decided as yet." He opened the door, and, stepping back, motioned her to pass out before him, which she did, with a quaint half-curtsy, and a murmured "Thanks! and pardon, monsieur!"

. . . . . . .

When Doctor Liscom revisited his patient, Bruce accompanied him and relieved the man who had been in attendance.

"He seems a little bit dazed yet, sir," said the servant, as he met them at the threshold, "but he ain't quite so restless. I think the powders is a workin'."

"I hope so," replied the doctor. "Mr. Deering will take your place now, William, but you had better sleep in the next room, I think; Mr. Deering may need you."

But such was not the case. For an hour or two Brook was quiet and seemed half asleep. As the evening wore on, he became restless, and kept up a constant motion of hands, or head, or feet; he spoke but little, and only in half-uttered exclamations; but often he would sigh heavily, and now and then a groan, or a half sob, would seem to burst from him against his will. Almost at midnight his nervousness increased, and the restlessness, which had seemed lessening, grew more marked and constant. For an hour or more this continued, until it burst all bounds, and he began to talk, rapidly, incoherently, a jumble of words, meaningless, and seemingly made up of fragments of remembrances past and present. At this point Bruce summoned William, and after some consultation they doubled the dose, as they had been instructed to do in an emergency, and, with some difficulty, prevailed upon Brook to swallow his medicine.

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Another long hour of raving followed, and then gradually the patient grew calmer, talked less, then ceased to talk, threw himself about with slackening energy, and then became almost passive.

At this point, Bruce prevailed upon him to move from the couch to the bed, which was fresh and cool, and screened from the light, and here he sank slowly into what seemed a dream-haunted sleep, in which he lay quiet enough, but whispering as he dreamed.

Midnight had now passed into the small hours, and Bruce, constrained to a quiet which made it difficult to control the drowsiness that now assailed him, was not sorry to hear a light tap at his door, and not much surprised to find Sarita standing at the threshold.

"Is he sleeping?" she asked, as he held up a warning finger. Then in response to his nod she went on rapidly, but in the lightest and clearest of whispers: "I came at midnight to the door, but he was so wild, I ran away again, for I knew you could not leave him then,—not even for hunger! I have kept the best, and there is the coffee hot. It is in the little morning-room,—can you not come now? All seems quiet." Then as he hesitated, tempted, indeed, as what man would not be who had slighted his food all the day—" If you do not mind—I might serve you, sir, and then run quickly here and sit until you come. I could be very quiet," she hazarded.

Bruce looked back, the patient was sleeping, and remembering the double dose of anodyne he said:

"Very well, Sarita, that will do, only—you need not go down with me; go in and look after Brook; I will take care of myself. If you need anyone, William is in the next room."

But Brook was sleeping when Bruce came back half-an-hour later, and Sarita reported his slumber as quite unbroken, and almost quiet. "There have been some whispers, but only a few, very faint, and quieter at the last."

And quieter he was. At daybreak all whispering had ceased. His sleep appeared dreamless, and two hours later, when Bruce, once more relieved by Sarita, came back from his early breakfast, he found his cousin not only awake, but quite calm. He was very weak, however, and the doctor forbade much talk. He was willingly quiet now, and very patient, but he still clung to Bruce; it seemed the one remnant of his late unreason. He wanted Bruce all the time within his sight, and, seeing him, he was, in all other respects, as wax in their hands. All the morning he remained quietly upon his couch near the half-darken east window, but at mid-day he asked permission to rise.

"Bruce," he said to his cousin, when, William having helped him to dress, he sat in his lounging-chair close beside the window, from which the couch had been rolled away, "I am thinking all the time of one thing, and it would be better, I am sure, that I speak and stop the repeated mental questions that I cannot keep back;"—he paused for a moment, and then went on, slowly, and in a low soft monotone, as if he were measuring his strength and husbanding it—" I know I have no strength for 'vain repetitions,' and I know also that there is a matter which should not be delayed-and in which—I should have a voice." He dropped his face upon his hand, and with it thus half | | 185 concealed from the other's view, went slowly on: "I want you to ask—the doctor—is Ware still here?"

"Doctor Ware will remain here, for the present, at Mrs. Deering's request," replied Bruce.

"So! Then he should be one of us. Then won't you ask the two medical men to come here after luncheon? I cannot—yet meet with—the—ladies, and talk in—in their presence. But I must express my wishes and—ideas; and then you may confer with them and arrange as best we can. You understand me?"

"I understand," Bruce replied; "but we must first consult the doctor."

"I know! But Liscom will agree with me—I can't rest like this!"

And Liscom did agree with him, after consulting Ware. "I see no better way," he said, "now that he has made up his mind; and by hearing him, in this manner, we may save an unpleasant scene; and something must be decided on soon; we must talk it over with Mrs. Deering."

Mrs. Deering decided for them promptly. "If you think he is able to go through with it, it surely ought to be done. For, with Brook or without him, some action must be taken without another day's delay. Hear Brook—if you can—by all means, and the sooner the better. I am glad to be left out, and so, I know, will Val be. And I am anxious to hear what comes of your interview; make it as short as possible." And they did.

Brook was lying back in his invalid's chair, when the two physicians entered his room and seated themselves near him. His back was now toward the window, which gave all the light permitted in the room, and this light fell upon the faces of his visitors, while his own countenance, looking pallidly out from the shadow, seemed almost weird by contrast, and his blue eyes, hollow and dusky-ringed, looked pathetically large in the dimness about them.

"Gentlemen," he began, when he had greeted them, and courteously expressed his thanks to Doctor Ware for the assistance he was rendering them all, "I know I cannot waste my words, and I feel here," he placed his hand above his heart, "one potent reason. Let me, I beg, get it over, my part in it, as soon as I can." He paused a moment, then—"You agree that my father died from—poison—do you not?"

They both bowed silently.

"Have you found out the poison used? and have you made any discoveries? Tell me what you can."

"The drug was arsenic, given in several doses. We have discovered absolutely nothing beyond this," answered Liscom.

"Then—we must find the—culprit, in—this very house?" He spoke in the same restrained monotone he had used in addressing Bruce, and this time there was no response from either of his listeners.

"How many people have we in all?" He seemed to be mentally recalling them by name; but Bruce broke in almost curtly,

"Four men servants, half-a-dozen women, including Mrs. Merton and Sarita. The ladies—you and myself, fourteen all told."

"And one of these—" he caught his breath, and did not finish the sentence. "Shall we let this—be known to all Pomfret? to all the | | 186 world, or shall we keep my father's name out of the mouths of the multitude, while we search for the—the destroyer? Can we keep the secret, and do our work as well, for the—the wretch must be found! Nothing else matters after that!"

It was the question of questions with each and all, and being assured of this, Brook said at once,

"If we can keep the secret and still do what we must, by means let us keep it—as long as we can! Bruce, what say you?"

"There will be but one voice upon that."

Brook's head dropped back upon his cushions, and his words came lower and slower:

"It is my wish that my father be buried, as is fitting, with no haste, and all respect; that nothing be omitted, or lacking; and that, during the days that intervene before he is laid to rest, this awful secret shall be kept out of sight. Let none of the servants be dismissed, and, as soon as the last respects have been paid, let skilled helpers be called upon at once, and the work of vengeance begin!"

Doctor Ware arose suddenly, and caught the white hand which gripped at the chair-arm in his own.

"This is enough," he said, with a quick glance toward the others. "Mr. Deering, your wishes coincide in every detail with those of your father's wife. Your first endeavour, now, must be to put yourself in your physician's hands, and do nothing that may tend to retard your quick recovery. You have a strong will—use it; and, for the rest, until you are able to take command here, leave all to your friends." Then turning, "Gentlemen, Mr. Deering must be released from the restraint he has put upon himself. What he must have now is his valet—and—rest."

"Thank—you," muttered the white lips feebly; and as the three men went out at one door, William, fully instructed as to his duties, entered at the other, and took his young master in charge.

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