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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"THESE are my terms, madam, the only terms upon which I can enter upon this case."

"But—are they not unusual?"

"Perhaps; and I think the case, in some respects, may prove unusual. Candidly, Mrs. Deering, I believe you will find in the end that this plan will have spared you much. In short, it's the only way, I can accept no other."

Detective Murtagh and Brenda Deering were sitting in Mr. Baird's study face to face, with a small table containing writing materials and some books between them; and Mr. Baird, a little aloof and in the background, a witness and listener, at the request of both. Brenda had formally preferred her request, and Murtagh had been making known his "terms" at some length. They had been, as she has said, somewhat unusual, and not at all to her liking. And now—as she hesitates, reluctant to accept them, yet growing more and more anxious to secure his aid, and confident of his ability, she turns to Mr. Baird.

"Tell me," she appeals to him; "will this really be best? Do you advise me to fold my hands and close my eyes, and let this man come into my house and take control? Would you do likewise in my position?"

"Candidly, Mrs. Deering, I see no better way; no way so good, in fact. In your position I would accept Mr. Murtagh's terms."

Again she was silent for long moments, with her eyes bent upon the floor. Then she lifted her head with a quick, almost haughty movement.

"I accept," she said firmly; "and I have just thought of a strong reason why I should."

"Then," said the detective, "that we may quite understand each other, may we hear this reason?"

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"It has just occurred to me," she replied in the same firm, half-haughty manner, "that, as one of the inmates of Beechwood, who are to come under your eye, sir, I am, of course, open to suspicion, like the others, and, until you have decided upon my guilt or innocence, you cannot confer with me upon the subject of your work. If, as has been intimated, I am hiding a guilty knowledge, you must not put me on my guard by informing me of your progress."

An odd smile lurked behind the false moustache that adorned Murtagh's shrewd face, as he replied:

"If you are 'hiding a guilty knowledge,' Mrs. Deering, you are doing it faultlessly; and now, if you please, we will arrange our plans, so far as we can at present; I shall prefer that we do not need to hold a second meeting, not for some days at least. You are sure that you understand all clearly?—That I am to manage your case exclusively; that I am to enter your house in some capacity, and am to carry on my work independently, only conferring with you when I wish your co-operation; and that, in the meantime, I am to employ such assistants as I may think fit, and am to work out the case unquestioned until such time as I find it wise, or needful, to make known anything that I may discover; and that you will not require a report from me until I succeed, or am convinced that I cannot succeed? You agree, in the presence of Mr. Baird, to all this?"

"I agree to all," she replied firmly, "asking, only, if there shall be a limit as to time?"

"If the person who poisoned your husband is under your roof, Mrs. Deering, I promise to discover it before a month passes; perhaps not with all the proof we shall need before I can denounce, or declare the truth; but, if I have not fixed my suspicion upon someone by that time, I shall remove my seat of operations, and search for my quarry outside of your house. And now, let me consider, upon my part, what I can do to relieve you of suspense. First, I will work in a manner as little disturbing to you as possible; I will devote my every energy to your case, and I will, when I have fixed upon a subject for suspicion, let you know that I have made such a beginning; for it is, as you must know, one thing to suspect, to gather, and hold, clues, and quite another, and more difficult, to acquire proof strong enough to stand in a court of law. So I will not name the suspected person—unless—"

"Unless—" she broke in quickly—" unless that suspected person should be myself!"

Ferriss Murtagh leaned across the little table, and locked straight into her eyes.

"Mrs. Deering," he said, slowly and with quiet dignity, "when I discover, or believe, you to be worthy of suspicion, I will tell you so, and withdraw from the case! Even a detective can be a gentleman, and—he does not hunt down his employer."

A hot flush swept her face, but she met his gaze resolutely. "Pardon me," she said simply, "I did not realise how you must take that speech. When you tell me that I am guilty, you will doubtless have found your proof. In the meantime, how do you intend to enter my house, to become one of the household, and not be known or suspected?"

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"I will tell you—but, first, how many of your household know the truth?"

"Four, including myself."

"Very well; in, say two days, Mr. Baird here will make it known, to these, yourself included, that a detective is in Beechwood, and looking into the case. In due time it may be well to have some person, say an agent, a tramp, or some stranger of inquiring mind appear and become more or less conspicuous: a dummy detective, in fact; it is sometimes necessary and helpful to set up a 'pigeon,' a sham detective whose movements may be as mysterious as we please, and who can be watched ad libitum while the bona-fide detective works on undiscovered. You comprehend?"


"I think, too, that I may have to ask you to make some change in, or to enlarge, your family; carefully, of course, and with reasons foo such changes which must be patent to all."

"It shall be done, when I am shown the way."

"Thanks. And now, for myself, Mrs. Deering, do you happen to have any relative, distant and not likely to appear in Pomfret for a time, an uncle in South America or out West, or a second cousin, elderly and socially inclined? I must become a member of your house-hold, In some sort, and the character of a relative would afford me excellent opportunities."

"I see," she said musingly, and then after a brief consideration she looked across at Mr. Baird, caught his eye, and they spoke together.

"Uncle Nat?" she said to him.

"Your Uncle Nat!" said he.

Murtagh smiled. "It sounds promising," he said. "May I ask who Uncle Nat is?"

There was a faint smile upon Brenda's face as she replied, "Uncle Nat, or Nathan R. Holly, is an uncle of my mother's, and he must be now about sixty-six years old; yes, quite that, for he was sixteen years older than she, and she would be fifty if she were living now. My mother was an orphan at ten years of age; and she lived with the Hollys, her mother's family, until one of the aunts married, against the wishes of her people. Mother was then fourteen, and she elected to cast in her lot with this aunt. She never went back to the Hollys, and I have never seen any of the family except this aunt, and Uncle: Nat. He is unmarried, and considered eccentric."

"Good!" broke in the detective. "Has he ever visited Beech-wood?"


"Oh! then he would be remembered by some of your household?"

"I think not. His stay was so short, only for a day. He was hardly seen by the servants, except for the maid who served at dinner, and she is not here now, and by Mrs. Merton, who can't see half across the room without spectacles, and who only had glimpses of him at best. He came in Mr. Deering's waggon from the station, and went in the same manner; as for the young men and Miss Rodney, they were away, all of them—at school."

"How long since that visit?"

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"It was the summer of my marriage—five years ago almost."

"Does he correspond with you?"

"He writes to everyone of his relatives twice a year a letter of half-a-dozen lines, and always the same, informing us that he 'yet lives,' of the state of his health, present and past, that he is still a 'sensible single man,' and lastly, his address for the time."

"Will you describe him?"

"Not far from your height, with a slight stoop and a decided limp of the right leg, hair grey, very thick and worn longer than common, whiskers at side of face, also bushy grey and short, big moustache. Wears glasses, and was always rolling and smoking very mild cigarettes; a great talker, and given to asking questions—rather prying in fact; fond of arguing, and of giving advice; quite wealthy, but very stingy and addicted to the wearing of shabby clothing."

"Capital!" cried the detective, "it could not be better! And he is now—,

"In California when last heard from."

"One thing more, Mrs. Deering. I want, right away, a plan of your house, with the names of the occupants written in each bedroom space. Let it be upon a large sheet of bristol, and do not omit a single detail. Indicate with especial clearness all connecting doors and passages above stairs; can you do this?"

"I think so. I can draw a little, and have drawn a plan now and then."

"Mrs. Deering," broke in the banker, "is very skilful with pen, pencil, or colours, and has a nice taste for architecture. The newer, and, I may say, the better, part of Beechwood, as it now stands, was planned by her."

"That is good! I feel encouraged; with such a start as this, and with such a rôle to play, I can ask for nothing more for myself. Now, Mrs. Deering, if I should ask you to dismiss one of your maids, what one would you choose to dispense with? Mind I do not wish you to make such a change now, but I may require it later, and—it will help me to know beforehand what servant we shall have to replace."

"I understand," she answered quietly; "you wish to put a woman of your own choosing in the vacant place. My servants are all good, all faithful, or so I believe, and if possible, I will ask you to choose for yourself the place you may wish made vacant."

Again a look of satisfaction crossed the face of the detective. For some reasons her answers pleased him, but he only said, "In that case we will let `Uncle Nat Holly' choose when the time comes. And by the way, Mr. Holly is too far off; we must transfer him to, let us say, Boston; will that do?"

"It was his native place," replied Brenda.

"Very good! Then, Mrs. Deering, you may look to hear from your Uncle Holly within a day or two, and to see him a little later."

And so, after a few more words of instruction and precaution, they separated, and Brenda Deering, sleeplessly pacing her room late that night, faced the fact that, alone, and unaided, she must play a hard part, must open her doors to this strange peremptory man, and let in, not himself alone, but such others as he might choose, to supplant he | | 212 faithful people. And not even Bruce and Brook Deering, nor yet her best friend, Valentine, might know the truth concerning this man whom she had put into power, and whom she had promised to obey blindly.

"It must all be borne!" she murmured, standing at her window, and looking out, through the midnight star-shine, to the woods beyond, where a long train was wending its way with rumble and roar, and occasional flashings from its lamps, as it wound about the long curves where the train had been wrecked less than a month ago. Looking back to that time it seemed, to her, far in the past. "And I believed, that night, that I was bearing much!—that my position was a hard one," she thought. "How could I guess,—but it has reached the worst now. And somehow, from somewhere, I must find strength to bear it!" Suddenly she sprang away from the window and drew the curtain close. Her eyes were wide and startled, and her hand shook as it grasped the heavy drapery. "What was that?" She crossed the room swiftly, turned out the light and went cautiously back to the open window, avoiding the slightest sound, and dropping upon her knees she drew the curtain a little way apart and looked cautiously out. She had seen, she was sure, she had seen a figure come out from the shadow of a clump of shrubbery, stand for a moment there, and suddenly draw back again with the effect of vanishing, being swallowed up by the great dark mass at its back.

She waited, it seemed to her many long minutes, her hand clutching the curtain, her breath coming quickly. Her window faced the south, and commanded a view of the rear half of the great lawn and rose garden on that side, but the front of the lawn and the south gate were shut from her gaze by the jutting south-west wing, in which were situated the rooms of the two young men, and some great chambers. Below her stretched a broad balcony, covering a part of the conservatory, and at one side sheltering the entrance which communicated most directly with the library. While she looked eagerly, with a strange agitation and impatience, she kept her place, and, to her strained gaze, it seemed that the mass of bushes rustled now and then, and quivered, as if agitated by some unquiet presence among its slender bending branches, and inwardly she was saying over and over, "Whocan it be?" Not a burglar. She never thought that possible; she would not have spent a short ten seconds watching the movements of a possible burglar with the anxiety and suspense with which she watched the place where the shadowy form had vanished. Her house was burglar proof, if the best of modern appliances could make it so. And she would have turned the espionage of a burglar over to a servant without an instant's loss of time. But this!"Who is it?" She almost hears the question repeat itself in the air about her, so intently, so earnestly does she propound it to herself, and then herself makes answer—"It was a woman!"

Yes, that is why she looks, and waits, and wonders fearfully. The figure seen for a moment, and through the gloom that she can but lust penetrate, is the draped figure of a woman.

And now, when some long minutes have actually passed, hours she almost thinks them, something causes her to start, and almost to cry put; she has never once taken her eyes from that clump of bushes | | 213 near the corner of the wing, and she has not seen the 'gure which glides silently forward, from beneath her very window, it would seem, until it has crossed half the space visible to her between the balcony beneath and the bushes, which are surely rustling now. Yes! and the draped figure emerges again! The two figures meet, seem to blend for a moment as one, and then both vanish again behind the sheltering bushes.

A long time she sits watching, wondering, dazed. The figures do not reappear, though an hour passes, and she sits and waits, and thinks strange thoughts, makes wild guesses.

Finally she gets up, lets the curtain fall and relights her lamp, which burns on brightly until day dawns golden and fair, and the troubled mistress of Beechwood sinks to sleep just as the sun peeps out, and the young birds begin to twitter in their nests not far from her now darkened window.

And her last waking thought was this: "I shall not TRY to unravel it! I will tell it to that man at the first possible moment! That and all the rest. I will not bear it alone another day!"

Morning and second thought found her in the same mind, and in spite of the fact that they had decided not to meet again until "Uncle Nat" should appear at Beechwood, Brenda rang at the door of the banker's house before the luncheon hour, and, after some waiting, was once more admitted to the presence of Detective Murtagh, who was snugly quartered in an upstair room, secluded but cosy, where she found him writing busily, but ready to listen to the long story, which was not in some of its details so new to him as one might suppose from his manner of hearing it.

"Mrs. Deering," he said, when she had told him the story of the previous night, and followed it up with still other revelations, "you would have blocked our wheels, and, perhaps, hindered our progress more than a little, if you had kept this back; and you have told me, to-day, that which may prove of more use, of more value, to me, than all that has gone before! And now, let me beg of you, if there is anything else, anything, however remote, that concerns any of these interested parties, anything unusual, or that seems to you in the least degree peculiar, do not keep it from me. The slightest hint of all may contain the key of the whole business. Is there anything more?"

He was standing before her, alert and earnest, and his eyes searched her face.

"There is something more!" he said, when he had waited a long moment for her to speak. "Remember, please, our plan is the chain—one missing link, and the rest breaks and fails us."

She got up quickly, and threw back her head, "There is one thing," she began, "which, in the strangeness and excitement of yesterday, I did not remember until later, and then I thought it would not be essential, would have no bearing upon the case. I will let you hear it, now, and when you have heard it, you will have all, absolutely all, that I can tell you."

And standing erect before him she related the story of the document placed in her hands by her husband weeks before his death, and missing on the day of his burial.

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"And you thought this non-essential?—of no bearing upon the case! Mrs. Deering, you have barely escaped a serious error! You have just now enabled me, for the first time, to put my hand upon something tangible! Do me another favour."

"Name it then."

"Go home, and, as calmly as you can, think over this interview,—the one during which that paper was put into your hand. Try to recall every word, everyone, and, if you can write them down, so much the better. Omit no word that in any way concerned that paper: can you do this?"

"I will do it," she said firmly, "I have no other wish than to help you in any way."

"You are helping me, much; first, with the plan of the house, next, with this memoranda of your interview, and, last, with another piece of writing, which I shall find most useful for reference. Will you write me out, as clearly and as fully as you can, a description of your servants, their names, where they have lived, anything you may know of their parents, or relatives of any sort; all that you know of their lives before they came to you, and especially, of their misdeeds, faults, habits, good or bad, and any quarrels or enmities that may exist among them. This may seem strange to you, and, if we could meet, and talk freely, and at all times, it would not be needful; but 'Uncle Holly' must be above suspicion as much as Cæsar's wife. It will be a dull labour, perhaps a tedious one."

"It will help me over a few of the hours which are all tedious, those spent in effortless thinking doubly so. You shall have the plan of the house to-night, through the hands of Mr. Redding, who comes to advise with my Cousin Valentine concerning her business interests, and the others as soon as possible. I can add to my knowledge concerning the servants by a few judicious questions and a little delay."

"Take your own way and time," he said. And then, as she was about to go—"Mrs. Deering," he added, earnestly, "I am going to ask you to let this burden that you are trying to bear almost alone, slip, as much as can be, from your shoulders, and to try and feel, through the days of suspense that are before you, a little faith in me, in my good intentions, my zeal in your service, and in the hope I now have, that the mysteries shall be cleared up and the truth be known at last. Trust me, and be patient. Somewhere there is a solution for every problem, an answer for every riddle."

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