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 XXXV.
UNCLE NAT.

UNCLE NAT HOLLY arrived duly. "Came, saw, and conquered."

The letter announcing his arrival was received by Mrs. Deering a short time before dinner; she had complained of a headache earlier in the day, and she entered the dining-room, where the entire household were assembled, looking unusually pallid and weary. When dessert was before them, and she had sent away the servants, she drew the letter from her girdle, and put it into Doctor Ware's hand.

"Doctor," she said, smiling with an evident effort, "I have but now received this letter: it is not private, and concerns, in a way, all of us; will you read it for the benefit of all?"

Doctor Ware took the letter without question, and with perfect readiness, and, before anyone could interpose, question, or comment, began to read:

"BOSTON, June 29th, 1887. "MY DEAR NIECE BRENDA,—

This to tell you that I am still in the land of the living, and that my health is good, but not so good that I could not wish it better. The west, in fact, seems not to agree with me, and I have been advised to leave it, which I proceeded to do last month. I have also been advised to try life in the country, or in some suburban town for a time, and as you have more than once, in the past, urged me to tarry under your hospitable roof, I have determined, after some consideration, weighing all the pros and cons, and looking in the face all the advantages and disadvantages, to come to your little town and try a season of country quiet in the bosom of your amiable family. My wants, as you must know, are few and simple, and I shall endeavour to conform myself to the ways of your household. I breakfast, as you know, invariably at six o'clock, but I shall not ask you to arise, or to call up your people at that hour; I am quite willing to breakfast in my own room, indeed, I think I shall prefer it.

"As I shall follow this letter in a day or two, I will not prolong it, but wishing well to all your household, and to yourself most particularly (as one of my own kin), I subscribe myself your affectionate relative,

NATHAN HOLLY.

"N.B.—I forgot to mention that I shall bring my own shower-bath. H"

As the doctor put down the letter there were smiles upon some of the faces about the table, but Brenda's was very grave. She had been toying with a tiny fruit knife, and she did not put it down, nor lift her eyes as she said after a moment's silence,

"You have heard the letter; I would like to hear from all of you—will the coming of another, of an almost stranger, at such a time as this, affect anyone disagreeably or in any manner interfere with that, | | 223 which is, just now, of foremost importance to us all? Bruce—Brook, what do you both think?"

Bruce turned a questioning glance toward Brook, and, after a moment, the latter spoke.

"We are not a cheery household," he said, "but Beechwood has always borne a reputation for hospitality. I am hardly fitted to perform the duties of host, but if Mr. Holly, of whom I have heard my father speak, or, was it you, Mrs. Deering?" turning his face toward Brenda—"if Mr. Holly is fond of quiet, and can content himself among us, why, let him come say I, eh—cousin?" turning from Brenda to Bruce.

"I quite agree with you," said Bruce quietly.

"Now, Valentine?" spoke Brenda.

"I see no objections! On the contrary, I think we need some out. side influence; someone who does not know us so well that we may venture to throw off ceremony, and be at times as dull as we seem to feel." She turned toward Doctor Ware—"I speak, of course, for but four of us." She smiled. "Now, doctor, let your voice be heard."

Doctor Ware, whose eyes from the first had been looking through half-closed lids at the pale face of his hostess, now cast a glance around the table.

"Since my opinion has been asked," he ventured, "I will say that, first of all, it seems to me, we should know if the lady of the manor desires to receive this new guest—her relative?"

Brenda lifted her eyes quickly, "Speaking for myself alone," she said with decision, "while there are reasons that will make this visit just now almost a painful one, still, I should not like to refuse my hospitality, even now."

"Then," said the doctor promptly, "I feel free to say that it seems to me eminently fitting that, just now, a relative of Mrs. Deering, old enough to stand to her in the position of friend, protector, and adviser, should be in a position which enables him to come to her, and remain, even for a little time, under her roof."

"Right!" said Bruce Deering quickly.

"Quite right," added Brook, with a languid nod.

And so it was settled, and the way for Detective Murtagh's entrance into the house of mystery was made clear.

The next morning, as she was coming down the lower hall on her way to the housekeeper's domain, Brenda encountered Sarita, and paused to ask a question.

"Is Mrs. Merton busy now, Sarita?"

"Yes, madam. Something is a little amiss in the cold room, she is instructing them about the ice again."

Both women smiled their mutual understanding. Mrs. Merton was rigid in the matter and manner of using the ice in the room between the big cellars, where the milk, butter, fruit, and sundry other summer dainties were kept in cold storage; and new arrivals of fruit, butter, etc., must be put away under her own watchful eye.

"You know," added Sarita, still smiling, "the fruit from Lund & Co. came early this morning."

"Indeed!" Brenda turned back. "Then you may deliver my | | 224 message, Sarita, when you go down. Tell her that we are to have a guest, who may arrive very soon."

"A guest!" Sarita checked herself after uttering these two words, which had been accompanied with a sudden and quite perceptible start. "Pardon me—"

"And," went on the lady of Beechwood, "he may remain for some time. Mrs. Merton will, I think, remember him, and possibly you will also. Do you recall an old gentleman who paid us a short visit a few years ago, while the young people were all in school? He was my uncle, rather my mother's uncle, a Mr. Holly. I think Mrs. Merton will do well to be prepared for him to dine with us any evening after to—night, until he arrives, which may, indeed, be to-morrow.'

Sarita's face wore a look almost like that of relief; but the pile of clean linen, which she held across her arm, was unsteady under the thin hand which held it in place.

"Yes, madam," she began hurriedly; "do you wish me to tell her what room shall be prepared for Mr.—Mr. Holly?" and then she added hastily, "I seem to recall the visit you name, it was short, was not it? I am quite sure I did not chance to see him."

"Possibly not." Brenda too drew a breath of relief, and then paused to consider a moment. "No, Sarita, we will let the room go. Uncle Holly, I remember, was quite fanciful about his surroundings. He was fond of an especial outlook, but I really can't remember if it was east, north, or west. There are rooms enough; I think it will please him to be allowed to choose."

"Ah! yes, madam."

Brenda had turned toward the front stairway, and Sarita, after standing a moment as she had been left, went also on her way. The hand lightly pressing down the snowy linen still trembled slightly, but the look upon her face, like that which Brenda now wore, was one of absolute relief.

"Ah—h—h!" she soliloquised, as she went briskly on, "for one minute I felt, oh, how startled! But this old uncle! all the better to have him, and even more in this lonely place. It's better for that poor lad! Poor lad—poor, poor lad!"

And Brenda was thinking, "She does not remember him. I thought as much, but am glad to be assured! As to the room, I am sure it is best to wait."

. . . . . . .

On the morning after the interview with Tom Wells, Detective Murtagh left Pomfret by an early train, and three days later Mr. Nathan Holly arrived at the Pomfret station unheralded, and, it would seem, a trifle out of temper. He was a ruddy-faced old gentleman, with bushy white hair curling all about his head and standing out like a snowy halo, surrounding a face from which a pair of deep-set eyes looked out through large, round, orbed "nose glasses," and from under shaggy brows, that stood out, overshadowing even the glasses. There was a moustache, too, not quite so white as the hair and brows, but matching them in thickness, spreading out and terminating upon either cheek in short bushy whiskers, which left bare only the upper face and a prominent pink chin. He wore a wide-standing collar, and | | 225 a stock, white and none too fresh; and his dress was somewhat old-fashioned and a trifle shabby. His hands were gloved with precision; he wore a glossy silk hat, evidently lately brushed, and carried a gold-headed cane and a silver-handled umbrella; a new linen duster. noticeable for its wrinkles, hung over one arm, the hand grasping a small satchel; while the umbrella was stuck beneath the opposite arm, and its accompanying hand held the cane and two or three newspapers crushed together.

His first act upon skipping from the car steps to the platform was to look about him for a place whereon to deposit his satchel and duster, and having found it—in the form of a big box of "groceries," just disembarked, and about to be seized upon by a brawny, non-uniformed expressman, he dropped his burdens thereon, and hastened with evident anxiety to the door of the baggage car, from whence he returned a moment later beaming with satisfaction, and with a small Scotch terrier snugly tucked under the arm so lately disencumbered.

He seemed a very bustling old gentleman, and he put a hand to his ear when addressed, and spoke in that elevated tone common to most persons who are deaf, or "hard of hearing," and—before he had collected his luggage—which was considerable, including a big trunk, a valise large enough to hold the contents of a small trunk, a box of books, and a pair of travelling rugs, strapped and checked, not to mention the shower bath, and some few smaller belongings—it had been pretty well made known to all of Pomfret in and about the station that the new arrival was a guest for Beechwood, and that he was not a little surprised at the non-appearance of the Beechwood carriage.

"My niece certainly has failed to receive my letter," he declared, looking about him in high surprise, and murmuring an aside to the little dog, now comfortably curled into the crook of his master's elbow. "Fidèle, we must find a carriage, and we shall, no doubt, take Niece Brenda quite by surprise after all!"

And so, leaving his luggage behind, he finally departed in one of the town carriages, leaving a last injunction:—

"If anyone should arrive from Beechwood, after I go, you may let them take my luggage—all of it, and tell them to be particularly careful with the shower bath."

When Brenda Deering came down to receive her guest there were no traces in face, voice, or manner of the panic of dread and self-scorn that had shaken her half-an-hour since, as she stood face to face with the fact that, from the moment when this detective should cross her threshold, she became, not the lady of Beechwood and its lawgiver, but a hypocrite, carrying on—from morn to night, and day after day in the house, which could be but a mockery of home henceforth—a part in a dark and hateful drama, a hard, exigent part in which the last act was still, to all alike, veiled in mystery.

To the very last she had resolutely held herself in check, and then had come that bad half-hour when, face to face with that which her own act had made inevitable, she gave way to the tempest—of horror, and impotent anger, at the fate that had so hemmed her in. so entangled, flouted, and tortured her.

| | 226

But the storm had passed, and the die being cast, she faced the future, which was so full of suspense, with lips set in fine firm lines, and a heart which she had forbidden to falter or look back.

"We must run no risks, once I am under your roof," the detective had said, "and must not allow ourselves, at any time, to drop our characters, even for a moment; we may be alone, but, except when it must be done, let no words 'out of character' pass our lips between your walls; an occasional exchange of writing, even, would be safer."

And so it was from the first. "Uncle Holly" slid into his place in this strangely-assorted household, and the first dinner at which he assisted was pronounced by all to have been really an improvement upon many previous ones, since the crape had been removed from the great door, and the present family had gathered around the table at Beechwood.

It had been impossible for Doctor Ware, however great his desire, to keep the ball of conversation rolling, to create even the quietest social atmosphere about a table where the other four, despite their efforts, more or less spasmodic, were so overwhelmed with the gloom of the past and present. But "Uncle Nat," as he soon came to be called, was a strong ally and aid. He was sufficiently tactful, and, upon being informed of the recent calamity and loss which had over-whelmed Beechwood and its inmates, said neither too much nor too little, and was careful to avoid unpleasant repetitions. He was full of harmless chatter, and it soon became evident that he enjoyed his own discourse.

When proffered the choice of several rooms, he at once proved that Brenda had been wise in allowing him his choice.

On the night of his arrival he had occupied a room assigned him by Mrs. Merton without demur.

"Put me just where it suits you to-night, my dear," he said to Brenda with a benign smile; "and to-morrow, if you will allow me, I will look about a bit. I am a little inclined to like certain views, directions, etc.; especially I do not like the afternoon sunlight, nor a leafy window view too near; but wait—wait, till I look at your fine place at my leisure; you know I hardly did it justice before."

The choice he made on the following day was something of a surprise, even to Brenda. The wing, in the front of which the two young men were quartered, was a part of the original dwelling, and had been little changed when the repairs and alterations were made which transformed the north and eastern portion of the roomy and somewhat rambling house, into the "main building." In this part of the dwelling a long wide corridor ran from front to rear, above and below stairs, and, upon the second floor a second hall, crossing this at right angles, intersected, and ended, at the point where the passage in the west wing ran to the front, where, to the right, were Brook Deering's apartments; opposite them, to the left, the rooms set aside to Bruce, and, adjoining these, the spacious room occupied by Doctor Ware. The doctor's room, like the others, opened upon the main hall, which terminated pleasantly, at the front, in a big curtained bay with cushioned seats; and, to the rear, in a flight of stairs leading directly down to the dining-room door, and, above, starting upward from the rear, a | | 227 lesser flight led up to the mansard floor, unoccupied, since the renewal, used only for storage, and given over to cobwebs in dusky corners, to lurking shadows, and—perhaps, to rats.

From the head of the down-going staircase a hall ran past the side wall of the doctor's apartment, and, opposite this wall, to the rear, two doors opened upon two chambers, large and well lighted, but looking out upon the rear terrace and a small portion of the flower garden. This hall formed, with the main hall of the wing, a shapely L, and it terminated as it began, in a stairway which went down to the side entrance before mentioned and terminated vis-à-vis with the side door of the library below.

Upon one of these two rear rooms, situated between the two lesser staircases, Uncle Nat, after some hesitation, fixed his choice. It was not the most spacious, nor yet the most sumptuous, room at his disposal, but he said:

"You see, it has two windows to the east, and actually no afternoon sunlight. I can't abide the afternoon sunlight; besides," glancing around to where Brenda stood, somewhat in the rear, "excuse me for saying that I don't like those new-fangled brass bedsteads either, for all their pearl inlay and their summery looks. I like a good old-time four-poster, like this," pointing to the massive old piece of mahogany that had once been prized by Lysander Deering's mother, because of its age and its associations. "I like it, and I like to sleep with my head to the north. Always do even if I have to turn around a new bed every night. Don't worry because it is not as big or as fine as some of your company rooms. You know, I'm not to be company—just one of the family, eh? It's retired, and that's worth more than a little to a man who snores as I do. By-the-bye, who sleeps in the next room?"

He had been escorted through the various rooms by Mrs. Merton, and Brenda, for reasons best known to herself, had joined them as they came up the stairs. It was Mrs. Merton who replied,

"The next room is not occupied, and has not been for a long time, The house is so large, there are so many chambers," she added, as if to apologise for his lack of neighbours.

"Oh! that's just as well. It always sort of worries me to think that I am sleeping and snoring with a poor soul next door wide awake, perhaps, and wishing me in Jersey, eh, niece!" with another glance at Brenda. "By the way, where do these stairs go?" looking out at the curving descent so near his door.

"They connect with a side hall, and open upon a library door just opposite, and also lead almost directly to an outer door," answered Brenda.

"I see. And is it much used?"

"Hardly ever since the alterations were made. It connects with the dining-room, too."

"Oh! Does I Then I may use it-I may use it. Any objections?"

"None whatever."

But Uncle Nat had turned his attention toward the stairway. He walked toward it, humming softly, and stood for a moment looking | | 228 down. Then a backward step turned his attention to the rear end of the other portion of the L hall, and he pointed to a door which opened directly across it at the end, and moved toward it. As he stood facing it, the foot of the stairs communicating with the third floor was close at his right hand, so close, indeed, that one might have stepped from that rear doorway straight upon the first stair.

"What's this?" he asked, and he struck his extended finger upon the closed door, "does it open upon a balcony, or the like?"

Mrs. Merton, who had only followed him as far as the turn of the L, uttered a smothered exclamation, and went hastily toward him, Brenda still lingering in the background.

"That is a sleeping room, sir. It is occupied—I think—at this moment."

Uncle Nat drew back with ludicrous haste. "Is it, indeed? Oh, dear! Is it a guest, Niece Brenda?"

"Only one of our own people, Uncle Nat—Sarita by name, and at present Mrs. Merton's assistant."

"Oh, I see! Yes, yes!" He turned briskly and looked up the narrow flight leading to the mansard attic.

"Do you know I always had a hankering for prowling about an attic, especially on a day of storm, rain, and wind! Well," putting one foot upon the lower stair and then withdrawing it, "I won't ask two ladies to escort me through the attic!" He turned away and went back to the corner he had chosen for his own. "And so we have only the young men at the front, myself here, and your assistant, madam, in this wing? Room and to spare! I never did like a crowded house. A crowded house is an unhealthy house! Well, ladies, I like this apartment; I'll have my traps moved in and take possession—if—I hope the bed is well aired?"

Mrs. Merton drew herself erect, and answered somewhat stiffly, "Perfectly so, sir," and turned away, leaving Brenda and Uncle Nat to return as they would to the floor below.

As they were descending the broad front stairs, Brenda ventured a remark,—

"I hope you will not be disappointed in your new quarters, "she said; "I trust they will prove satisfactory."

"Oh, they will answer," he said carelessly, and then shooting her a quick glance, "They suit me perfectly," he added, and paused to take a quick, keen look up and down the upper hall before the next step downward should shut it from view. A few steps more and the lower hall was visible to the two from end to end, and, being assured of this, but without in the least dropping his rôle, Uncle Nat paused and detained his companion by a touch on the arm.

"It occurs to me that you might as well lock the door between my new apartment and that vacant room next door and give me the key, or else retain it yourself, that is if the room is ever used for storage or in any manner. It gives one a sort of uneasy feeling to have a door at his bed's head which he has not power to close against intruders,—ghostly, if none other."

"The room is never used." Brenda knew her cue.

"Never? Then, perhaps, I might be permitted to put my shower | | 229 bath and my trunk in that room? I should prefer not to use the door opening upon the hall, of course."

"I see," she answered. "It shall be arranged."

But she did not see as clearly as she could have wished. She saw nothing, in fact, save that, for some reason, he found these secluded rooms to his taste, and wished to make his privacy doubly secure.

One thing she was free to admit to her own consciousness, as she pondered late, and in her own room, the events of the day. He had not given her a hint of his purpose or plans, and she felt even more sure than at first that she would not be admitted to such confidence, but, in spite of this, she somehow felt a growing faith in this man who was playing here, among her friends, a part which gave little indication of the hidden force or power which she was beginning to believe this man possessed; and, for the first time since that awful second tragedy had fallen upon Beechwood, she placed her head upon her pillow with a growing hope and mounting trust that, from out that distant chamber with its "windows to the east," was to come the hand holding the clue which would unravel the mystery of Beechwood. And even as she sank to sleep, she murmured brokenly,—

"I can't—help-but believe—in him."

Only one thought troubled her: From the first she had felt, and in this instance with visible, tangible reasons for the feeling, a confidence in Doctor Ware, both as to his good faith, his friendly interest in her affairs, and his ability. And, over and over that night, she had said to herself, "If only I had brought them together, and asked them to help each other! I know he is strong and more than clever!"and these last words did not apply to Detective Murtagh.

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