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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WHEN "Uncle Holly" reached the west hall and looked about him, he breathed an actual sigh of relief and satisfaction upon finding the place given over to silence and the light breezes that came in through the open windows, and he lost no time in hurrying to his room, where he thrust into his pockets such articles as he fancied he might need while engaged in his search after "rats." In an outer pocket he thrust a wicked-looking steel trap, with its slender chain dangling just in sight. While in another, and inner pocket, securely hidden, he put a bunch of skeleton keys, and so equipped, and with a tiny dark lantern—such as is only known to those of his profession, and one other—concealed beneath his coat, he sped up the stairway regardless of "Uncle Holly's" rheumatism.

At the head of the stairs, as he had expected, was a door, which he opened without resorting to his keys, and when he had closed it behind him he found himself in a long, low room, not too well lighted, and filled with the odds and ends that accumulate in attics of high degree during years of good living, renewals, breakage, rents, and wear and tear. This attic belonged to the older portion of Beechwood, and, as he looked around him, he said to himself:

"This covers my rooms, the doctor's, and Deering's. Umph!"

He made a tour off the place, stepping carefully; stooping clown, now and then, to examine the floor, and coming to a halt at a door in the inner wall or partition. It was midway between the door of entrance and the front of the long attic, and he saw, at once, that it must open upon the newer part of the house. But here he found use for his skeleton keys, for the door was locked, and the key nowhere visible.

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The light was dim in this quarter, and he took out his little lantern and struck a light, by which he examined the door and its lock, for some seconds; also the floor and walls near it. He was some moments in finding the key which would unlock the door, but when it was done the hinges worked noiselessly, opening and closing as easily as the door of a drawing-room.

A little to his surprise, he found three or four steps before him, and then he remembered that the newer chambers of Beechwood, as well as the walls of the lower rooms, were very high. There was more light in this part of the attic, and less debris; several huge trunks, a number of packing-cases, and a quantity of furniture, partly worn, and all of it, covered with canvas or other dust protectors, was placed in orderly fashion, near the central part of the long room, all of it standing free from walls and windows, only a few of which were shuttered, and there was little else.

At the front, where the mansard jutted out over the vestibule, a small alcove was formed, and the double window in the centre let in a long, broad ray of light through a half-curtained sash. "Uncle Holly" went towards it with the quick, cat-like steps of a professional burglar, and when he had reached a point opposite the window, and almost within the alcove, he stopped short, and uttered a single word in a sibilant whisper:


. . . . . . .

"Well—what can I do to oblige you?"

It was Doctor Ware who thus spoke. He was sitting in the small but snug little room set apart to the use of Mrs. Deering's housekeeper, and borrowed, for the time, by Sarita, that she might hold an interview, undisturbed, and as secret as might be, with Doctor Ware.

He had returned from his drive with Brenda just in time for luncheon, and, during that meal, had been obliged to sit opposite "Uncle Holly," and, in spite of his outward self-control, to feel both curious and exasperated. Curious because he felt sure that something had occurred of more than momentary importance, and exasperated to see how suave and amiable was his vis-à-vis. How slowly and indifferently he made his way through the menu, and how serenely he allowed Brook Deering to fasten himself upon him for a promenade in the grounds, each with his tiny cigarette, and "Uncle Holly" earnestly arguing the advantage of preparing one's own, against Brook's declaration that the advantage of choosing and using one's favourite tobacco could not compensate for the labour of shaping and rolling the little cylinders.

"It's like snuff!" he declared. "The worst of taking it is, that one must dabble in the brown stuff with the fingers," and "Uncle Holly" argued the point "as if he had no other interest in life," thought the doctor, turning away from the open door, from which he had watched the two go toward the terrace.

And then he had encountered Sarita, who had proffered, most respectfully, her request that he would give her a few moments,—" If she might dare ask so great a favour!"—that she might speak with him about her own health.

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Wondering somewhat, but quite willing to hear her, more because of the detective's interest in her than because he saw any symptoms of serious illness in the little brown face, and small alert figure, he followed her to the housekeeper's sanctum, and seated himself with his back to the window; and, having closed the door carefully, she turned, and, after a moment's hesitation, took a low seat opposite him and facing the light.

"What can I do to oblige you?"

He had put the question in his best professional tone, and he was a trifle disgusted with himself to find that without in the least wishing or willing it, he had let his mind take on an attitude of antagonism. Of course the reason was not far to seek. He had been influenced, unconsciously, by the detective; and he gave himself a vigorous mental shake, and tried to force his mind into a more reasonable attitude, with the outward result of a relaxed countenance, and a manner so exceedingly affable that the patient, who at first had seemed to hesitate, and was about to plunge into a running prelude of deprecation and excuse, took heart of grace, and plunged at once into the thick of the business, and Doctor Ware found himself listening with a growing personal interest.

She was sorry, more sorry than she could say, to have to trouble him, to trouble anyone with such an ailment as hers; but she owed it to others, even more than to herself, to try and find help for a trouble that was very old, and which, she had hoped, had ceased to trouble her. But she knew now that it was a false hope; and when Mrs. Deering had spoken to Mrs. Merton, in her hearing, about the way in which that kind, good Mr. Holly had been annoyed, by what he supposed to be rats, she saw, clearly enough, what she must do. For it was she who had disturbed Mr. Holly, and not the rats at all; and it was likely, unless something could be done, to occur again.

Just here the doctor experienced a slight return of the sceptical sensation.

"Do you mean," he asked, "that you are likely to disturb Mr. Holly more, even, than the rats did?"

"More! that is it! If I could but tell! It was I who kept that good man awake! And, try as I may to prevent it, I may do so again!"

"You mean you may be wakeful and inclined to sit up? to occupy yourself?"

"Ah! to be wakeful! If it were that only, one might be wakeful and yet be still! But I—ah—if I could know! If I could wake at the right time!'' and Sarita wrung her hands and looked at him appealingly.

The doctor made a sudden, forward movement, and looked at her keenly.

"Do you mean," he exclaimed, sharply, "that you walk in your sleep?"

"Ah, see! You have indeed guessed it. Yes! Once, for a long time, I did that, and then it went away, and I thought I was cured, that it had left me! But see, for years I have not been troubled, | | 277 except for once, two years ago or more; and then it was only for a little while."

"I see." The doctor's face had taken on its professional mark; and his voice was now soothingly sympathetic, as he asked:

"Does Mrs. Deering know of this?"

"Mon Dieu! No one knows it in this house, except Mrs. Merton; and when I found the old spell coming back, I threw myself upon her compassion, and it chanced that she knew the malady. She had seen it among her own people, and she helped me, and was most kind. And now—"

"In what way did she help you?" he broke in.

"Why, you see, when I found the spell working again, and would find myself, waking suddenly, standing in the middle of my room, or, perhaps, at the window; I found that I might leave my room and frighten someone very much, and so Mrs. Merton, very kindly, would always, the last thing at night, come to my door; I would put my key on the outside, and she would turn it so, and lock me in. And sometimes, oh, just once or twice, I waked myself trying to open my door—to get out.'

"I see," musingly. "And have you had more than this one attack? the one, I mean, which disturbed Mr. Holly?"

"Yes—yes! That was the third; really the others were—not much. I was so soon wakened."

"And—you will ask Mrs. Merton to take charge of your keys again.?"

"I have already done that, doctor," eagerly; "can you help me? Anything! Give me something to make me sleep too soundly to leave my bed—anything!"

He smiled.

"There might be danger in that," he said; "but we will see what we can do. I will write you a prescription, and you must use it with care, not to take overdoses. And now I must ask you some questions, in order to get at the cause of this trouble, if possible."

"Y—es!" She looked, he thought, a trifle uneasy.

"Have you inherited somnambulism?"


"Was this trouble in your family? is it inherited?"

"Oui! Yes! oh yes! My—my father before me was the same."

"I see. And these attacks, how long have they troubled you?"

Always—that is—not often—but, now and then, ever since I can remember."

"And they were likely to occur, of course, when something had happened; something to excite you or stir you a little—naturally?"

"Naturally?" she hesitated, and a wrinkle formed between her brows. "Oh, I think it may have been when I was more weary, or, perhaps, not quite well—that is all."

"That is all, eh?" He spoke like one who has exhausted a subject, and who drops it willingly. "Now, do you recall the number of those attacks—those of two or more years ago? How many were there? and how long did they last?"

"Oh, there were several! Almost every night for—for three weeks | | 278 or more—they came, and always Mrs. Merton shut me in. Then they seemed to leave me."

"Yes. And before that? how long had you been free from these attacks?"

"Why, some years—I forget exactly. Four or five years, I think.

"And those—how long did they trouble you?"

"Oh!—about the same time, I think."

"And what caused them, then? Six or seven years that must have been."

"Then? "—a look that only fell a little short of sullenness crossed her face, and she tapped her gaitered foot upon the floor. "Oh, nothing that I can remember now. Or, yes. I recall there was a little attack just before—indigestion, Mrs. Merton called it."

Was Mrs. Merton here so long ago?"

"Indeed, yes I Next to myself, Mrs. Merton has been here longest of any."

"And Mrs. Deering has never heard of these attacks, you tell me?"

"Never! At first she was not here. Then I did not like to trouble her—and—I felt—sensitive. And now—now do you not—do you not think there is unpleasantness enough—for her?"

"You are quite right." He got up quickly, and, after a few more questions, perfunctorily put, he turned towards the door.

"I will give you a prescription," he said again, "which you must begin with at once." And he was about to leave the room.

"Doctor!" Something in her voice caused him to stop and look at her keenly. He was sure that she was making an effort to speak with less eagerness or anxiety than she felt; and he could see the blood recede from her dark face and come slowly back again as she went on to say:

"Doctor, may I ask—just one question? It is not so strange when you think how long I have been in this family—and that I took care of him since he was a little lad I May I ask—will you tell me something about Master Brook Deering? Do you think he is really mending? Is there any danger in his—his malady? Is there—"

She stopped short, with a wild look in her eyes—a look of appeal and anxiety; a look that checked the words upon his lips, and caused him to stand staring into vacancy like one who seeks to grasp at something elusive—something escaping him. And this was indeed the truth concerning him. Standing there, at the moment, he was striving to hide a shock, sudden, strange, and second only to that which almost overwhelmed him at the moment when he had discovered the hand of the poisoner in the death of the master of Beechwood.

It was over in a moment—at least the outward signs of it. But he did not reply to her at once. When he did, it was slowly, like one weighing his words, and in a tone almost confidential.

"I am sure it is quite natural that you should be anxious about young Mr. Deering. I have understood that you were his nurse years ago, and perhaps you could tell me something about his childish ailments—something that would aid me to comprehend his case. I am glad you have spoken of this. I will say to you now that there is | | 279 something a little peculiar about his case. Had he always a very nervous temperament?"

"Nervous? Yes, at times; not always, and not—not cross or fretful, not like that at all."

"Was he strong as a child?"

"Strong? He was not often ill. But rugged—big, like Mr.—like his cousin; no." She hesitated, and then asked, eagerly, "You don't think—it will be serious?"

"Oh, I hope not. I hope not. But we will talk together again. To-morrow, perhaps, when I shall want to hear how you have passed the night."

He got away from her without more words. He wanted to gain his room, and to think. He also wanted to see Mrs. Merton, as privately as possible, and as soon.

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