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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THE next morning, while Brenda and Valentine were pacing the eastern terrace, which was at the rear of the house, invisible from the highway and sheltered and secluded at all times, Brenda received a brief note from Mr. Baird.

"Mr. Murtagh has promised to serve you, and this I assure you means much. Will you so manage matters that I can see you alone at eleven o'clock this morning? I will call at that hour.


So ran the note, and no answer was required. Brenda stopped short in her walk to peruse it, and, a few paces away, Valentine halted, awaiting her. They had been together almost constantly since the night before, but they had been quite silent since Val's stormy outbreak upon leaving the library. Indeed, since the discovery of the poison, a strange feeling of constraint seemed to have fallen upon each. But now as Brenda lifted her eyes from the note in her hand, they met those of Valentine fixed upon her with wistful intentness, and she made a sudden step toward her, and put the paper in her hand.

"Read," she said.

Val read the few words at a glance, and gave the note back.

"I am glad!" she said quickly, and then, for a moment, both were silent, Brenda looking away and Valentine again studying her face. Suddenly she came closer and caught Brenda's hand in both of her own.

"Brenda!" she said very gently; "are you going to try to bear this all alone? Have you shut me out?" Brenda turned and their eyes met again. "Because," went on the young girl, "I want to help you, and—" her voice breaking, "I want you to help—me!"

Brenda caught her breath hard and slipped her free hand through her companion's arm, and so for a moment they moved slowly along the terrace.

"Val," began Brenda, "do you know that I am under suspicion?"

"You are not!"


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"I say you are not! Oh, I know what you mean! I saw, and I understood! But what does the half wild talk or hint of a sick boy weigh? If he were not distraught—beside himself, I should hate Cousin Brook for that—but—"

"Val, mark me. There is more trouble to come. I feel it, and—Val, listen. You heard my husband's strange instructions: by them you are made your own mistress, you are free to go—to leave Beech-wood and all this black trouble. I have no right to keep you here! And you are too young to be mixed in all this horror. Think, Val, a whole household under suspicion, a detective, more than one perhaps watching our every breath. That is what it will be! Don't you see?"

"I see that you don't want me I And I never dreamed—Brenda Deering, tell me, why do you want to drive me away?"

"Drive you! Val, I am thinking of you! I dare not think of myself." She turned away her face.

Valentine stopped short, and, putting up her two little hands, forcibly turned the white pained face toward herself, then she dropped her hands, and, catching Brenda's arm, drew it close within her own.

"Dear," she said with tearful firmness, "we must understand each other. And to begin, let me tell you that I would never forgive you for sending me away, if I thought you did not want me! And that I would not go even if you said go! This is not the time for any one to leave Beechwood. And I hope you want me, and need me—a little. I want to help you—as much as I can—but even if I can't help or comfort you, dear, I must and will stay."

"Oh, Val, Val!" Brenda caught her in her arms, and held her close. "You know how I need you. And since you will stay, I am glad! I can't think how I could have borne to live here now without you!" And for some moments the two walked on, silent, but feeling that, somehow, the barrier between them, which each felt, and neither could define, had been borne down by their mutual love, and trust, and sorrow. It was Valentine who broke the silence as they turned to go toward the house.

"Brenda—about Brook, do—do you think there is—danger—for his reason?—his mind? He seems so strange, so different."

"His mind! How—do you know—" Brenda stopped short. She had supposed that no one, save herself and Bruce, knew the truth concerning Brook's mother.

"Yes. I know, and—we are going to confide in each other, are we not, Brenda?—I'll tell you how. Not long before Brook went away, you know he was—was—"

"Was very much in love with you," interposed Brenda, gently.

"Yes, we could all see that—and not Brook only—"

"Hush! Well, Uncle Lys called me into the study one day, and talked to me very gently and kindly, as he always did. He—he wanted me to know the truth about Brook—and what might come upon him, perhaps, at some future time—to warn me, if need be."


"And so I know. And I can't help seeing how much Brook is affected by all this trouble. Oh, Brenda, he must have been a little wild, or he never—"

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"Hush, dear, and don't be uneasy about Brook; I have talked with Doctors Ware and Liscom, and they agree that this disturbance is only what might have been looked for from one of his temperament. They think he will soon be himself again."

"How fortunate that Doctor Ware is here! And how relieved I feel concerning Brook. Poor boy! Brenda, what would you do if the worst should happen to him?"

Brenda Deering looked down upon that lovely face upturned to hers with grave intentness. "Do not be anxious, dear; if that should happen, and we do not look for it, be sure that my dear husband's only son should never be sent among strangers. I would keep him at Beechwood with nurses, if that would serve; or, if need be, with keepers,—and a straight-jacket."

"Oh!" shuddered Valentine, "but that would be terrible!"

"Yes," replied Brenda Deering with bitter emphasis; "if that happens, it will indeed be the crowning horror, and I shall know that something has brought a curse upon Beechwood."

There was a little more talk about Valentine, her business and her plans. Brenda was generous, but Valentine, who was generous also, had the final word, and uttered it with force and spirit.

"It's of no use, dear; I could not go anywhere, now, and be happy; as for being gay or seeking my own pleasure, you must know I can't do that! I'm better than nobody, and, so long as you need me, or until the shadows are lifted, I shall stay at Beechwood! It is still my home, by his wish—for a year!"

After this there were few reserves between them; only upon one topic the silence was almost absolute. Bruce Deering's name was not spoken between them, save in passing mention, and his affairs and interests were, as much as possible, ignored, seemingly, by mutual consent.

Bruce Deering did not appear at the breakfast table, but, while the others yet lingered in the morning-room,—silent, except for the desultory talk carried on with more effort than was manifest upon the surface between Doctor Ware and the aunt and uncle, who were the sole remaining guests, and who were about to leave Beechwood on the following day—Sarita opened the door, and Bruce entered. He had breakfasted with Brook, whom he reported as not quite strong enough to come down, but feeling calm, and anxious to see Doctor Ware, who, he hoped, would pronounce him able to lay aside his invalid habits, and begin to do his part as son of the house. "These," said Bruce, "were his own words, which I repeat, that you, doctor, may know what is expected of you." And then, as the doctor went his way, he turned to Brenda:

"I am going to town," he said, "in an hour. May I have a word with you before I go?"

She arose quickly. "At once," she replied, "for I expect Mr. Baird soon, and also Mr. Redding in the course of the morning;" and she led him across the hall and into the darkened library, where she drew aside one of the heavy curtains, and, seating herself near the window, bade him take the place nearest her.

"I am glad of this opportunity," she said at once. "but I will hear you before I begin."

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"I think you know what it is that I wish to say. I want you to express your wishes—your will—concerning myself. Circumstances have so changed things that I can no longer consider my own feelings; indeed, I may say, these are changed in some ways since—since my uncle's death."

"I know," she sighed.

"I had said that I would not—could not—come back to Beechwood, as to my home, until the cloud hanging over me was lifted-in some manner. Now—I have talked with the others, Baird, Redding, Ingram, the rest. I have listened to my uncle's written request, and have been urged by Brook to come back, to remain here. I have set aside my own wishes, even my interests, as much as I can, and I now ask you what is your will? Will it suit you to have me come back? will it help or hinder?—can I be of use, or shall I be one shadow the more, when shadows are already too many? Be quite frank, Mrs. Deering, as frank as you were once before. What is your will?"

She had listened intently, and she now asked quietly,—

"Am I to decide this?"


"Then I say, stay! It was your uncle's wish living, he asks it dead; and for myself—Bruce, I will be frank. It will help me much to know that you are here—and that in my own house I have one friend—one who neither distrusts nor accuses—" He started, and she stopped suddenly. "Bruce—do you—distrust—accuse?"

"I! Great heavens, NO! How can you ask?"

"Because—you know—I may as well say it out: Brook has thrown down the gauntlet."

"Brook is maddened with grief!"

"I know! But the doubt was there before the madness. If he recovers, if he can take up the work actively, he will be my enemy!"

Bruce was silent.

"You know it," she added after a moment, and then she went on hurriedly, "Bruce, I can be quite frank with you. I must be! I must talk to someone. The worst has not yet come—for me! I have two enemies."


"Yes. That man Wiggins. Did you think we were rid of him? Even while my husband lay unburied in the house, that man has tried to approach me, has asked for an interview. It was a note this time, oh! vilely written and spelt. He says he can tell me something to my advantage, and that I refuse to hear it at my own risk."

"The brute! You must not let this pass. But he can have no reference to—"

"To this last horror? No, it has something to do with the amethyst button, I daresay."

Bruce groaned and struck his hands together in impotent anger.

"But, worst of all," she went on, "is the arrangement of the property. I can see how it must look to Brook; he no doubt accuses me of unduly influencing my husband; of unfairly getting all into my own hands, of undermining him in his absence; you can see how he might construe it so?"

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"Not if he keeps his senses."

She turned away with a despairing gesture.

"How will it end?" she cried. "It is enough to drive us all mad; Bruce, your uncle trusted you always. Do you know why he made that strange will?"

"I! Heavens! Brenda! No. I do not even guess,—but you—surely you understand it?"

She started back, and her face flushed and paled again.

"I do not!" she answered, her tone grown suddenly cold. She took out her watch. "It is time for Mr. Baird—almost," she said. "You will come back then prepared to take up your old quarters? And, Bruce,—try to understand Brook, and—don't let—anything come between you two."

Their eyes met for a moment, then he moved toward the door. "I shall take possession of my old room at once," he said, "and in truth, I suppose I shall come under surveillance with the other inmates of Beechwood. One question: Is—is Miss Rodney to remain?"

"Valentine is to remain. She has the—courage and—the will."

"The wish also?"

"Also the wish."

"I am glad—for your sake." He put his hand upon the door.

"One thing," she said, coming a step after him. "I suppose we shall soon have a detective among us. I don't know how or when—yet, but it will be best that we do not seem to consult together, that we live as openly as possible; and—I shall let myself be guided by him altogether—I shall be quite frank concerning myself; for you—"

"I have nothing to conceal," he declared with a haughty lift of the head.

. . . . . . .

Mr. Baird came promptly and his stay was not long.

Murtagh, he told her, held his decision in reserve until he could consult with herself. He must see her, alone, and without the knowledge of anyone at Beechwood. Could she leave the house quietly and be at the lower gate at eight o'clock? His carriage would be near and himself in waiting.

But Brenda would make no unnecessary mysteries: "I might succeed in going and coming unaided," she said firmly, "but the chances would be against it. It is not unusual for me to walk in the grounds at evening, usually upon the terrace. I can trust Mrs. Merton; she knows nothing about our need for a detective, and so can suspect nothing. I will tell her that I want to consult with you and with Mr. Redding, upon business matters of my own, and to do it privately. And she will see me to the gate, and have the door opening upon the terrace ready for me when I return. Will that serve?"

"It would serve admirably," he assured her, and went his way.

. . . . . . .

When Doctor Ware entered Brook Deering's presence he found him sitting at his open window, clothed and groomed with nicest care; apparently quite calm, and seeming stronger than he had dared to hope or expect.

They talked for a few moments as men will when they are strangers, | | 205 almost, and surrounded by the gloom of a house of mourning. Then Brook began.

"Doctor, I am so, more than anxious to be well, to possess my usual strength, and the quietest of nerves, that I am, perhaps, growing womanish in my fancies. The fact is, I want to tell you about some queer symptoms which attended my sickness in New York, as well as that little attack upon the water," he paused and seemed to be considering his words; "I have never thought myself a nervous fellow, and yet I don't know how to account for one symptom of each of these attacks, unless I do attribute them to nerves—or—worse."


"Doctor!" He drew his chair closer to that of his visitor, and lowered his tone, "I have reflected, and have determined to put my confidence in you rather than in Liscom. You are nearer the age when the sympathies would be most likely to interest themselves in my case, or any case, such as mine, and in truth, I find that I can more readily confide my mental anxieties to you, a stranger, than to Liscom, who knows me, as well as all others of whom I must speak. Shall I tell you of the 'symptoms' first, or of the causes to which I attribute the symptoms? Have you time to hear me a little longer?"

"My time is quite at your disposal, Mr. Deering, but I will hear the symptoms first if you please, and then shall appreciate your confidence if you choose to bestow it upon me."

"Then I will say, briefly, that a short time before I left Paris to come home, I found myself ailing, and, being eager to set out on the appointed day, I rather unwillingly consulted a physician. He told me it sometimes happened that travellers abroad overdrew upon their strength, in sight-seeing, doing the continent, etc., and that I had, no doubt, brought myself into this class. He said that, while there was no organic illness, I was menaced by a light attack of 'nerves,' which, if not relieved and the strain relaxed, might even become nervous prostration. I was ill a week. At the end of that time I set out eagerly for New York. On board ship I was again brought down, and the ship's doctor agreed with the other that nervous prostration was `indicated.' He seemed interested in my symptoms, and I saw that he was studying me closely. Finally he questioned me about my family, the health and temperament of my parents, and he asked if any of my ancestors had been the victims of nervous disease in any form. When I told him that I thought not he seemed surprised, and at parting he gave me some good advice, warning me among the rest to avoid all strong excitement when possible, assuring me that the quieter my life the better my health was sure to be. Well, this grew monotonous. I had another little breakdown in New York, and for the third time was a victim of `nerves,' and received the same good advice, more briefly given, to be sure, after the manner of the busy city physician, and with less display of personal interest. Now, doctor, upon each of these three occasions I have been singularly nervous, unable, in fact, to control either tongue or temper; excitable, and this, in me, is most unnatural; at the worst, experiencing sensations so singular that I have feared for myself. Doctor,—there were moments, | | 206 not long, and not frequent in their occurrence, when I felt my brain reeling, and I feared for my sanity."

He ceased speaking, and waited with his eyes fixed upon the other's face.

"There are two reasons," began Ware, slowly, "for attacks such as yours: one is a disordered physique; the other, mental strain, which may arise from over-study, too great stress of thought in the student, or trouble, grief, anxiety,—suspense."

"Suspense!" The word broke from Brook Deering's lips with sudden force, and his face dropped for a moment upon his hand. "As if that alone were not >enough!"

In the long silence following these strange words, Doctor Ware leaned forward and took the wrist of the other between his own calm strong fingers. Deering lifted his head; and, after a moment, the hand was gently released, and the doctor said:

"If you wish to go on, if there is anything you wish me more thoroughly to understand, please let us have it over at once, and as briefly as you may—for your own sake. You are holding yourself in with a strong hand now; you must relax the strain—soon."

"Ah!" exclaimed his patient, "you do understand me! And, doctor, that is what I want! To be frank then, doctor, I am ill! I have been ill from suspense for two years, and it is beginning to tell! It's the old story, and I don't shine in it. I had but just returned from school when I met and, of course, became infatuated with a young lady, who was by years exactly my own age, and in experience was older than I by five. She was the daughter of a neighbour, one of my father's friends, handsome, brilliant, and accomplished, a woman to win and hold a wiser and a better man than I. Of course I became her slave, and she at first, I think, looked upon me as a mere boy. In act and deed for nearly two years I was her lover, though no words had passed between us, thanks to my father's wise counsel. He had made me see that I was too young to be altogether bound. While he did not object to the young lady, he could not; it was my youth which made him object. Well, I went away for a summer's outing, and when I came home all became changed; I met my father's ward, Valentine Rodney; she was not a stranger to me, but I had seen her last as a child; she came back to us, her school days done, a charming young woman. Then began a struggle; in honour I was bound to one with all my heart, and soul, and mind; I loved the other, but I was strong in those days, and no one, I am sure, guessed my secret; I was hopeful too, and decided between my desire to confess my fickleness to the first love, and trust to her womanly kindness and magnanimity, and the temptation to drift for a little and trust to time. And then, as fate would have it, my fair neighbour and her father went to Europe; even yet I did not speak; I was satisfied with things as they were, and in my young egotism confident of ultimate success."

He uttered the last words with a touch of bitterness. The doctor smiled and asked kindly—

"Are you tired?"

"No. I want to cut it. There came a day when fear fell upon me. I had not dreamed of a rival, when suddenly I discovered that another | | 207 man was biding his time like myself, and hoping to win her. It came about in this way: I was chatting with my father one evening over our after-dinner cigars, when the talk turned upon his ward, and he let drop a few words that struck me, little though he guessed it, like a blow. 'Valentine,' he said, 'is a lovely girl, and I was beginning for the first time to feel the weight of the responsibility which comes when a young girl reaches the marriageable age, and is beautiful and rich. If you had not been so prompt in choosing for yourself, I might have been tempted to turn matchmaker, but it is all right, or will be, I think. Bruce, quiet, self-contained Bruce, has spoken to me, and I have given my consent gladly; stipulating only that he wait until she has passed her nineteenth birthday, before he cuts short her free girl-hood. Meantime, he has a free field for his wooing, and I don't think there are many girls who are heart free, and yet could withstand your cousin Bruce.' How much more need I tell you? I resolved to go away, but at the last I weakened. I could not resist her constant nearness, and, after I had almost committed myself, I fled her presence, and went to Bruce. I told him everything, and the generous fellow met me half-way; when I went abroad, there was an understanding between us. During my absence he was not to commit him-self by word or deed, and when I returned, we were to make the chances even, and she was to choose between us. I went away; but I could neither rest nor forget! I had never believed before in such love as I have felt, and still feel for that girl. Every hour I spent in a foreign land was flat and stale; she was in my mind everywhere As the last months of my probation were passing, I began to heat things that caused me to fear and chafe horribly: friends from home told me how often Bruce and Valentine were seen together, then came tales of other lovers; and finally, there came in a letter some words that burned into my brain: 'If I know the signs, Miss Valentine R. is losing her heart to your handsome cousin.' My handsome cousin! I had never thought of Bruce as handsomer than the average man, and this is what I did, fool that I was and am. I took one of his pictures, recently made, and a very good one, and showed it to some young ladies whom I knew in Rome. There was but one voice. It was pronounced `handsome,' splendid,' 'a noble head,' 'a manly face,' and so on, ad libitum. Then I met my old flame in Paris, and she told me that rumour had given them to each other. I resolved to come home then. A few weeks later we met again; I had not heard much from home for weeks; some letters, it was thought, had been lost, or mis-sent, I moved about so restlessly, and she told me then that my father was ill, that he had given up his place down town. I knew if my father was ill enough to give up his business, that he must be ill indeed, and I grew still more anxious—that was about the time of my father's first serious breakdown, and before I had decided to start, I received news from home direct: my father was better, but was going east soon to consult the physicians, and Valentine Rodney was going away also. The time of probation had not yet expired, and so I resolved to wait."

He stopped a moment and sighed long and heavily.

"You can guess the rest," he concluded wearily; "I wrote her eagerly that I was coming home, changed my plans slightly, and | | 208 wrote again,—I set out—arrived—what—do I find? After the shock of the wreck I am taken aside, as kindly as possible, and told that my cousin is accused of murder,—that my father is threatened with a serious illness,—and Valentine—the time of our probation, Bruce's and mine, will soon expire, but, even before this last terrible calamity, I knew that I was in honour bound to silence. She met me with the sweetest shyness, and, for the few moments before I heard of Joe Matchin's death, I was foolishly happy. And now—doctor, more than once since you saw me first, I have lost myself utterly—not with the haze of fever, but an actual annihilation of self. I fear this strange relaxing of the mental faculties; I fear the strange thoughts and fancies that now and then, for only a moment, but a fearful moment, catch and cling and clog about my brain. Tell me, what have I to fear, doctor? and what have I to hope?"

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