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 42 chapter 63 >>

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CHAPTER XLIII.
MURTAGH'S THEORY.

THE evening of the day which witnessed Murtagh's exploration of the attic, Doctor Ware's professional interview with Sarita, and the departure of Valentine's maid, saw the family of Beechwood all assembled in the drawing-room after dinner.

There was a long call from Mr. Baird and John Redding, and while they were claiming the attention of the others, "Uncle Holly" found opportunity to exchange a few words with Valentine.

"Did your maid really go?"

"Yes."

"And you are quite ready for the substitute?"

"Quite ready. Is she here?"

"She will arrive to-morrow. Has Mrs. Deering been informed?"

"Yes. She sees nothing strange in Lotty's desire for a holiday, and is too preoccupied to think twice about the new maid whom I am taking `upon trial.'" She paused a moment, while Doctor Ware, crossing the room to join the group at the farther end, passed near them, and fluttered the leaves of a book of prints which the detective had brought to her as a pretext for seating himself at her side upon a low divan.

"Have you any instructions to give me?" she asked when Ware had passed.

"None. The woman understands her rôle perfectly. Treat her precisely as you would any other maid. Stop—there is one thing which you can do, if you will."

What is that?"

"Simply that you speak of your new maid to Judith—is not that her name?"

"Judith is Mrs. Deering's maid."

"Then say to Judith that she will oblige you by being a little kind to Rosa—that is the new maid's name—and by helping her with advice at need."

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"That will be easy," said Valentine. "Judith is my very good friend—but,"—she stopped, and a flash came into her dark eyes.

You must assure me of one thing," she said, with sudden firmness.

"What thing?" smiling a little.

"Can you assure me that, through me or this new maid, no harm will come to Mrs. Deering?"

"I can! Neither through you, the new maid, nor myself—now or at any time."

"Thank you!" She turned her face a trifle more away from those beyond, and toward him. "Can you tell me anything more?" she whispered.

"About—"

"About—the other case?" She bent her head and began to turn the pages of the book of prints.

"Yes, we are progressing—a little."

The group about Mrs. Deering was breaking up; Mr. Baird was about to take leave, and there was no further opportunity for speech between them until they were about to separate for the night. Then he whispered while wishing her good-night:

"She will drive over from Rosedale with a letter to you from a Mrs. Berrian."

This was not the only clandestine last word "Uncle Holly" had contrived to let drop. He had leaned over the doctor's shoulder, in passing his chair, long enough to say below his breath:

"My room to-night—after twelve."

Ware's reply had been an almost imperceptible nod, and he went to his room a little later, feeling like a man who has yet much to do.

He had not exchanged one word in private with "Uncle Holly" since his return from his morning drive with Mrs. Deering; and he was wondering much as to the result of the search in the attic. But he had more than this to think of. And he went to do a little interviewing on his own account before the hour for his talk with the detective.

It was eleven o'clock when he entered his own room, and half an hour later when he opened his door again, he found the west hall quiet and in semi-darkness. Some paces beyond his door a single lamp, turned low by some careful hand, was burning dimly, and the dusk about his door emboldened him to set it ajar a scant half inch; next he turned his own lamp very low and placed it behind a threefold table screen; this done, he drew a chair near his door and settled himself to wait.

He had much to think of, and the time did not seem long before he heard a faint rustle in the hall, and peering out saw, what he had been waiting for, a tall form gliding past his door and toward the rear end of the hall. A moment later, standing at his door, he heard the sound of a key softly turned in a lock, and then he went swiftly to his table, turned up his lamp, and, leaving his door wide open, stepped boldly out, moving noiselessly upon slippered feet.

"Mrs. Merton, may I have a word with you?"

"Ah!" The housekeeper, leaving Sarita's door, after turning the key in the lock, had hastened her steps to go to her own rest, after this | | 281 late waiting in order to protect Sarita against herself—and she now stood before Doctor Felix surprised, but by no means alarmed, by his sudden appearance. Mrs. Merton was a woman of practical sense, and with "no nerves, nor nonsense about her," and upon hearing his request she wasted no words, but bidding him follow her, conducted him downstairs, through the dimly lighted halls and into her own sanctum, where, in the morning, he had listened to the confession of the somnambulist.

In the fewest possible words he made known his errand, and finished by saying:

"Of course you must see that one cannot treat such a case without a very exact knowledge of previous condition; and I did not think it best to ask too many questions of the patient. It is not wise, in such cases, to let the patient see how serious the matter may be. If I can get my information from you—it will be much better not to arouse the memory, or excite nerves, already somewhat strained, by questioning Madam Sarita too closely. Then—too—a nervous patient is apt to exaggerate symptoms. Will you tell me—now—about your first know ledge of these attacks?"

Mrs. Merton, who had been standing very straight before him, seated herself, and crossed her hands upon her black silk apron.

"Sarita was here," she began, "when I came back to take charge, after Mr. Deering's return from abroad. I had been in the family before, but when he came back I was taking care of an invalid sister, and I did not come back to Beechwood until after her death."

"Your sister's death?"

"Yes. The woman who had been in charge happened to leave at about that time. I was told that she and Sarita could not agree, and that she left because they would not send Sarita away. But I never inquired into the rights of the matter—it did not concern me to do so, and I found no reason to complain of Sarita; she became a help to one in many ways. Now, Doctor Ware, will you say just what it is that you want me to tell you?"

"I want to know the symptoms of those first attacks. How often they came; how long they lasted, and if, in your opinion, or to your knowledge, there was any cause for them? If they were brought on by any trouble—excitement—bad news—anything of that sort?"

"I see," said the housekeeper, thoughtfully. "I suppose you are thinking it strange that I am the only one in the house who has known about these sleep-walking spells; but, you see, when the first one came on, at least the first known to me, there was no mistress at Beechwood; I was alone in charge, and Sarita so dreaded that Mr. Deering should know of these attacks. You see she came here as Mr. Brook's nurse, and she had still the full care of the lad, for he was a lad then."

"At about what age was he?" asked the doctor, casually.

"At the time of her first attack? Why, that was ten years ago, and he must have been nearly fourteen, for he was about to go away, for the first time, to school, he and his cousin. Up to that time they had always had a tutor since they grew too big for the governor."

"And it was shortly after the young men went away, then, that this first attack appearance"

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"No. It was before—now that I think, it must have been very near the time of their going. I remember that I fancied, a little, that Sarita, between working hard to get Mr. Brook ready—for she made many of his finer clothes, she preferred to do it, until he was quite a big boy and would not allow it any longer,—and fretting, had brought it upon herself."

"You thought, then, that she had overworked—?"

"Worked and worried. Sarita had cared for Master Brook from his infancy, and was much attached to him. I thought she dreaded to part with him, but when I said as much to her she was almost angry at me, and said it was the return of an old trouble."

"I see!" Doctor Ware had meant to cut this late interview as short as possible. But he found his interest growing, and Mrs. Merton an intelligent and willing narrator. When at last he closed his catechism and returned to his own room, having first cautioned Mrs. Merton to maintain a discreet silence upon the subject of this interview, he found that it was far past twelve o'clock. He had made an ally of Mrs. Merton, of this he felt assured, and almost his last words to her had been:

"I am glad that Madam Sarita came to you in her dilemma, and I hope we can control this nocturnal restlessness, so that Mrs. Deering need not be disturbed by hearing of it. The task of locking her door every night, if it has to be long-continued, may become a burden to you, Mrs. Merton, and in that case, I will try and relieve you. I trust, however, that this new outbreak may be soon checked." And then he had thanked her cordially, and in a way to quite win the allegiance of the good-hearted, practical, and honest soul.

"He's a nice, kind, sociable gentleman," the housekeeper declared to herself, when she had watched him go down the dim hall, and up the stairs to the west wing, "and Sarita may thank her stars that I insisted on her seeing a doctor. It's of no use, I couldn't have stood the responsibility alone. And I can't see why she held out against it so!"

The curtains were tightly drawn, and the place was sultry in con-sequence, but Ware closed and locked the door; and then, when Murtagh had turned up the light, the two men looked at each other. Both faces were alert and eager, and there was a gleam of suppressed excitement in the eyes of each. They sat down close together beside the little table, and the doctor made his brief explanation.

"I was detained; Mrs. Merton made a very late visit to our hall to-night. I will give you the details later—when I have heard the adventures of the attic." Both men spoke just above a whisper, and they wasted few words, knowing the value of time and the risk they ran. "Did you succeed?" finished Ware.

"Did I?" Murtagh's eyes shot out one flashing glance, and he laid an open palm with strong pressure upon his visitor's knee. "Man, I have got my hand upon the throat of a double mystery!"

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"Good!" Ware leaned eagerly toward him." Is it for my ears?"

"Assuredly." The detective put up his hand and turned down the tight once more. "We can use that later," he said, and then, with slow emphasis, "You remember my visit to the church?"

"Of course."

"And what I brought away?"

"Yes."

"Now listen. Do you know that at the time of the Matchin murder, and for two weeks before it, this househad stood comparatively empty? First went the master and mistress and Miss Rodney, with their servants—see?"

"Yes," wonderingly.

"A few days later, Mr. Bruce Deering, who at that time was a resident here, overheard an interview between Madam Sarita and one of the others who remained, to the effect that if he—Deering—were not there to be catered for, the servants might all have a holiday,—see?"

"Yes—yes."

"Upon which Deering obligingly betakes himself to down-town quarters, leaving the servants in possession. Next the housekeeper, good soul, goes away for a rest. Next one maid and then another, until finally, at the time of the murder, Sarita has possession of the house, with only the gardener here, who sleeps at home, and the two men who sleep at the stables. There is a maid, whose family live across the field, and she is retained, in seeming; but really is permitted to go home, and makes only an occasional short visit to Sarita."

"Well?" said the doctor, when the other had been silent for a long moment.

"Well—that's all—of that. Now I am going to begin at the beginning. And the beginning is—Joe Matchin's murder."

"Ware started, but the detective hurried on, speaking now in rapid, jerky undertones.

"When I had looked over the ground, and heard the stories of the different witnesses, I began to construct a theory, having no sort of proof; and I began with the proposition that Bruce Deering's tale is true, and that, just before he found Matchin in his death struggle, some one had rushed away from that bank in search of shelter. And then I asked myself where did he go? where could he go? easiest, and with greatest assurance of safety? Without a doubt he went east, everything west of the bank was open, so to speak; nothing there to screen a fleeing man! I studied hard upon this point, and when I found how quickly the search was organised, how thorough it was, and how un-successful, I said to myself, the murderer never ran far! He went into instant hiding—in some place very near. Now where was the nearest and safest place?"

"Good heavens! You don't mean—Miss Wardell's house?"

"Better yet; right across the way, big, empty, densely-shaded, was St. Mark's Church."

"Gad!"

"But, to hide in St. Mark's, he must have had an accomplice—after the fact, if not before! I began to took for the accomplice. I | | 284 asked myself, Was there anyone near the place that night who might have aided the murderer? Now, remember, in looking over the ground, the bank and its surroundings, I can't help seeing that it would have been very easy for one to hide in the church or in the Wardell house; both were close at hand; both in dense shadow; and—there was no other place near or possible! If Bruce Deering was on the spot to grapple with the fleeing assassin, and if the others joined him less than five minutes later, as we have been told, the fugitive could not have found shelter in any of the farther houses upon the bank block in time. Now, while I was reasoning in this fashion, with my mind made up to learn more of that big house so close to the church, Wells told the story of his encounter with Miss Wardell. At midnight, while Matchin is being slain, that young lady is sitting reading alone in her library, facing the bank. A little later, after the alarm of the bell, and the gathering of a crowd at the bank, Wells, in passing the house, sees Miss Wardell. He has a lantern, and she is plainly visible. The story of the encounter, as Wells told it, was enough to arouse suspicion in any mind, but no one seemed to notice its strangeness, because it was Miss Wardell."

"What was his story—Wells, I mean?"

"Why, that passing her place he sees her by the light of his lantern; she is near a small arbour that is midway between the rear end of the house and the low wire fence that separates the place from the church grounds. There is only a little strip of ground, six feet perhaps, between that fence and the rear wall of the church; and, at the corner of the Wardell lot, and shaded by the great trees, is the rear entrance. Miss Wardell inquired into the cause of the disturbance, and, being told, she tells Wells how she had heard someone running past not long before, and, soon afterward, the sound of horses' feet on the avenue;—you don't see anything very suspicious in all this, I dare-say—but, remember, it is my business to look everywhere for possible clues or proofs."

"Of course."

"And, almost at the moment before the inquiry or inquest was over, something else came in my way; Miss Wardell's carriage passed the bank and drove out of town; she, thereby, avoiding the chance of being called in as a late witness, after Wells had told his story. I took pains to find out where she drove, afterward; and where do you think she went?"

"I can't imagine!"

"She came here. The family were gone; everyone was away but Madam Sarita; but Miss W——drove to Beechwood, sat in her carriage and chatted a few moments with Sarita, and drove away. Now, I gave no thought, at the time, to her visit here, but when I learned that she had finished her drive by calling at the coroner's house, where she had a few pleasant words with the coroner and sheriff, I said to myself, It may mean nothing, but I've got to believe that assassin was hidden, almost on the premises, or I've got to believe that Bruce Deering knows more than he has told."

"And—do you think that?

"We won't go into that just now. I want to get through with Miss | | 285 Wardell. If I had seen any other shadow of a clue I might not have given so much thought to a very small matter; especially when I had learned what a prominent and proper personage the lady was; but, in fact, we detectives learn, very early in our career, not to be awed by wealth, and that crime thrives well in high places. I was a stranger in Pomfret, with no prejudices and with no predilections. Of course. I began trying to find out all I could about the lady; and about the first thing I learned was that St. Mark's has a fine organ, that Miss Wardell plays upon it often, and that she has a key of the rear door."

Ah!" the doctor actually started.

"Not long after," went on Murtagh, "I chanced to pick up a cub, who was on his way to Beechwood with a telegram. I was figuring, at the time, as a sort of groom for Mr. Baird. I was somewhat interested in Beechwood, because of its connection with the bank; and when, five minutes after the telegram was delivered by the boy, I saw the woman Sarita—I did not know who she was then—rush out from the house to the stables, I lingered until I saw a horse and covered buggy come out from the gate, with Sarita driving. Half-way to town Miss Wardell came dashing up on a splendid roan, and I was near enough to see the meeting. The buggy was going at a lively pace, and so was the horsewoman. They pulled up short, and I saw a note pass from the lady's hand to the Frenchwoman's. The woman turned back without entering town; and Miss Wardell rode on a little distance; then she turned townward, overtook the messenger boy, stopped him, gave him some instructions and dashed away. A few minutes later I again overtook the boy, and found, no matter how, that two telegrams had been given into his care to be sent to the city."

Murtagh stopped a moment, and seemed to consider. "I won't take time to give you methods," he resumed, "but try and make my facts brief. Of course I began then to study Sarita, and at once connected that visit of Miss Wardell's, on the afternoon of the inquest, with this other meeting, for I had made up my mind that the telegram given to Sarita by the boy had started the woman off to see Miss Wardell, and Miss W——must have been coming with instructions. I found out the meaning of the telegram, and there seemed to have been an effort, on the part of Sarita, at least, to keep the Deerings from coming too soon to Beechwood."

"Heavens! what a singular state of affairs."

"Very well, in two days the Deerings came, and the third day Miss W——was suddenly called away from home; she bought a ticket for a small town in the interior, but she went to New York, and so did I. I'll say no more on that now. I had just discovered that Miss Wardell had paid, at least, one midnight, or very late, visit to the grounds of Beechwood, and that someone from this house came forth to meet her, when I was requested to drop the case. I won't go into that either just now. I complied, and you know how it is that I am here again. Miss Wardell has paid, at least, two visits here by night since the death of Mr. Deering. One of them you were a witness of."

Murtagh paused again, but the doctor did not break the silence; he sat gravely alert and intently waited for what would come next.

My first theory, for I had considered several others and thrown | | 286 them aside, had grown considerably before I was ordered to halt, and I was on the point of visiting the church when the end came—the end of the Matchin case—but I made the visit, as you know, later, and there I found in the belfry, and the closet under the belfry and back of the organ, proof that someone had been in hiding in the church, and had been fed there, probably for several days, for the crumbs and fragments of food I found were of different degrees of staleness. The paper, you will remember, was a scrap of a New York Daily dated the morning of the day before the murder of Joe Matchin. Now, do yon see how I arrange these fragments of a chain of proof?"

"In part, of course. You think the assassin ran from the bank to the church, which I must agree looks probable in the light of your proofs. But must it have been by the aid of Miss Wardell that he reached that shelter?"

"Howߞe?"

"Suppose that he runs across as you have described, and lurks in the shadow of the trees until Deering comes and unlocks the door, might he not have slipped in then in the darkness, and have concealed himself?"

"Yes, if he knew Deering would do that thing. If Deering was his accomplice he might have furnished food to the hidden man, but it would not have been easy even at night; on the other hand, Miss Wardell played that organ nearly every day for two weeks after the murder."

"Ah! I give it up. I see my fallacy. Tell me, how do you fill out the breaks in this chain you have begun to weave?"

"I will, so far as I have them filled out. To begin, we are minus a motive, and that's a grievous blank. But this is how I see it. Our man comes from the city by rail, and over to the east, where the trains cross that high trestle and then swing around the short curve—seen the place?"

"Yes."

"And you know they run slowly there; well, we will say he dropped off there; it's easy enough to do; and there's a train that comes through at a little before dusk. He drops off there, and he makes the little mistake of stopping at a farm, where a lone widow lives, and getting a drink of milk. Then he lurks about until the hour comes to pay his visit to the bank; or—does he tap at that window where Miss W——sits alone? We won't decide upon that, but if my theory is not all myth, or worse, he does come out from the bank, after doing old Joe Matchin to death, and demands, compels, or implores, the young lady to help him; I can see how he might do it so easily! A quick run across the street, in the shadow of the big trees; a leap over the low fence; a tap at the window—there is shrubbery all about there; a wait in the arbour, perhaps, while she procures the key, and, again, the shrubbery, the low fence, the door under the trees!"

"It's horrible!" shuddered the doctor. "But the rest—Sarita—?"

"Ah, yes! There's a big gap to fill! Who is the murderer? what is he to these women? and when is he smuggled out of St. Mark's and into the mansard at Beechwood?"

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"What?"

"Yes. Someone has been hidden in the newer attic! The signs are more than enough. There is the old couch where, not long since, someone has slept. There has been food there, and fruit; a pencil, sharpened often, and the door has been kept oiled, until it opens like the door of my lady's boudoir!—But, best of all, is this." He opened a tiny box, turned up the light, and, holding out the box with one hand and the lamp with the other, said. "Look, but don't touch."

Lying upon a fluff of soft pink cotton was a tiny crescent, smooth and thin and fine; a fragment of nail carefully pared from somebody's finger.

And now they dropped into eager discussion, wondering comment, and close criticism of each other's views; after which Doctor Ware brought the conversation back to Sarita, and told the story of her somnambulism.

Before he had finished, Murtagh's eyes were gleaming, and when he had told how Mrs. Merton had taken charge of the key of the sleep-walker's door, he caught at the doctor's arm.

"Good he sibilated, "good! But you must relieve her! Relieve her at once! Get the key and do not lock the door! Be sure you do not lock her in!"

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