- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XLIV. GHOSTLY FOOTSTEPS.
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THE week that followed Murtagh's visit to the mansard, and its attendant discoveries, passed away in comparative quiet. After a few clays, Doctor Ware took possession of the key of Santa's room, Mrs. Merton giving it into his hand with perfect confidence, for was he not only Santa's physician, but her near neighbour as well; up late at night, and early in the morning.
"Not that it matters so much about the mornings," she had assured Doctor Felix, "for Sarita is always a late riser, and, for a long time, has been her own mistress so far as her hours of rising were concerned. Now I'm up early enough," the good woman had concluded, "but I don't love late hours, and so, when the lights are out below stairs, I go to my own room, and it is a bit of a tax to go up and look after Sarita. Not that I'd refuse any more than I did before, if it was necessary, but since you are so willing—"
And the doctor had declared his more than willingness; adding that it might happen, should Sarita have a serious visitation of somnambulism, that she would make a violent effort to get out, and for that reason, it was best, also, that she be not aware of the change, or the cause of it.
Of course the detective's reason for wishing to give Sarita free right of way for her possible sleep walking was plain enough to Doctor Ware. He hoped that she would pay a visit to the mansard, and so give him some hint or sign, to help him to new conclusions of | | 288 to strengthen and confirm the old. But, though they watched, alternately, early and late, for several nights, nothing came of it, except that regularly at evening Sarita placed her key in Mrs. Merton's hands, that lady passed it on to Doctor Ware, and he, each morning, turned it in the lock and left it sticking there, to be removed by Sarita, who was profuse in her thanks to Mrs. Merton, and she, good soul, confided to her confederate that it made her feel "really guilty," to be receiving thanks for trouble she had not taken.
But one night, at the end of this seemingly profitless week, after an unusually late sitting in the drawing-room, and a long wait for the house to settle into quiet after, the two confidants held a long secret session in Murtagh's room, and separated in the small hours, mutually agreeing to sleep, both of them, until morning. And sleep they did.
For more than a week past Brook Deering had been regularly visible at table, often retiring soon, upon plea of fatigue, but always reappearing when the next summons came.
But, on the morning after this above-mentioned conference, and its following mutual nap, Brook did not appear in the breakfast-room, and Doctor Ware had just risen from the table when William entered, hastily, with a request that he would come at once to his master.
"He's had a bad night, sir," said the man anxiously, "and he don't seem like himself hardly, this morning."
Brook was stretched out in a big reclining chair beside the window, wrapped in a dark dressing-gown, and while his face seemed un-naturally white, his eyes and cheeks burned feverishly.
He dismissed the servant, and, asking the doctor to be seated, plunged at once into his subject.
"Doctor, I am glad that I have opened the way for this; for I don't feel as if I could go into details, now, not as I feel at present!" He put out his hand in obedience to the doctor's silent gesture, and the latter counted a high pulse, and saw that the excitement was indeed an over-mastering one, whatever the cause.
He dropped the wrist gently, and said, with his eyes scanning every symptom: "You have got yourself into a fever, and William says you had a bad night. Is it insomnia?"
"Insomnia! If that were all! Doctor, look at me! Do I look rational?"
"And to be credited, then?"
"As much as usual. Why not?"
The young man paid no heed to the implication, but went on eagerly—nervously.
"I have told you of those strange sensations, at other times; but—doctor, do you believe in—in the supernatural?"
"That's a large question; the supernatural, in its true meaning, is something above and beyond nature; if you ask me if I doubt everything in nature, or beyond it, which I cannot understand—frankly I do not. One man's brain cannot compass the universe."
"Then—do you believe that the dead can return?" he leaned for, ward eagerly; his eyes widened, and wavered.| | 289
"I do not know. If the dead still are, and remain, as in life, free agents, so called, why should they not return—if they would?"
"Ah!" he sank back in his chair, and closed his eyes, and so sitting spoke.
"At least you will not scoff at me nor call me mad! Doctor Ware, last night, between one o'clock and two, or later, I lay in this bed and heard footsteps come and go, come and go, slowly, distinctly, up and down; footsteps—that I recognised"
"In this room?" asked the doctor, calmly.
"No. There!" he pointed to the wall facing northward, on the inner side of the room.
"Who occupies the room on the other side?"
"No one now."
"You are sure?"
"It was my father's room. No one has used it since he died."
"But—he did not die in that room."
"No. A week or more before he was removed to the south-east room; this was too near the front, Liscom thought, and the other was more secluded."
"Doctor," he lifted himself erect again, and opened his eyes, "what was it? for God's sake tell me! I did not dream it! I did not imagine it! Can such things be? Or am I losing my reason? I heard the footsteps—or—I am going mad!"
The doctor spent a long hour with the excited invalid, and left him, at last, somewhat calmer, having swallowed a quieting nerve-healing draught; at the door he met Bruce Deering, and, by a gesture, drew him away, and down to the lower hall.
"My patient, if not aroused, will soon be sleeping," he said, "and sleep just now is his greatest need. Besides, if you will, I should be glad of your company for a little while." He threw open the door of his room, and they entered and sat down opposite each other. It was their first tête-à-tête, for, while Bruce had held himself, at all times, since the shadow fell upon him, with quiet, self-respecting dignity, he had avoided any intimacy beyond the social contact of the table, and of the drawing-room for short seasons after dinner. He had felt, from the first, heartily drawn towards the genial and intellectual young physician, and, under other circumstances, would frankly have sought a better acquaintance; as for Doctor Felix, he had wished for some opportunity to come nearer this grave young man, who bore his trial with so much quiet, but genuine dignity.
"You will pardon me, I am sure," the doctor began, meeting the sober, steady, brown eyes with a frank, clear gaze, "for pouncing upon you so unceremoniously—though, on my own part, I am glad of any-thing that gives me an opportunity to converse with you a little. I have found your cousin in a strange state of mind this morning. I would like to tell you about it, and to ask you a few questions concerning him—if I may."
"Certainly," replied Bruce, gravely.
"And may I tell you of our interview this morning?"
"If it seems to you needful."| | 290
"It does. I wish to spare Mrs. Deering anything that I can, and this would, I am sure, be most trying to her; at the same time I feel that I must know something about your cousin's health and habits in the past."
"I am quite at your service, doctor." It was impossible to meet this frank man in any but a frank, cordial spirit.
"Thank you! Then, first, your cousin's mother, I am told, was an invalid for some time before her death?"
"Yes; even before her marriage, I think; and that lasted less than three years."
"And she was, at times, or at some time—insane?"
"So I have been told. Insanity was a family inheritance, upon her side."
"An inheritance! Mr. Deering, you and your cousin grew up side by side. Do you think he has inherited his mother's—curse?"
"Her curse? You have chosen the right word, doctor. No, I never have seen anything to indicate insanity, or its tendencies, in my cousin."
"Was, or is he, like his mother?"
"Not at all. So I have heard my uncle say, years ago. They were both fair; there the resemblance ended."
"Indeed! Was your cousin often ill, in his youth and childhood?"
"Seldom; we were a very healthful pair."
"Or, inclined to be nervous?"
"Nervous?" he paused a moment; "I think, perhaps, he was; at least, excitable."
"Do you mean excitable of temper?"
"Oh, no. Brook's temper was always a marvel of equability; it was I who flew into the passions; and out of them again."
"Do you mean that, as a lad, he never quarrelled with you?"
"Very seldom; and then it was not in words. In most affairs he yielded with a sort of amiable indifference. But he had a kind of quiet tenacity, when the point seemed worth winning. He never argued, or grew angry; but, somehow," Bruce laughed, as if at some amusing recollection, "he managed to have his way, his full share of the time."
"I see, tenacious in a quiet way. Was he—as a youth, inclined to be superstitious?"
"Well." Bruce threw back his head, and a smile flitted across his face, "Brook, you must know, was something of a woman's boy. He was in the care of a nurse, the woman Sarita, whom you, of course, have seen. She came with him from abroad after my aunt's death, and I think the boy got some of his notions from her. He was rather full of them, as a lad. Sarita was very much attached to him, and she kept her influence over him long after I had repudiated her good offices. She used to rather resent my small mutinies, and I some-times fancy that she has never quite forgiven me for some of the lessons in rebellion which I tried to instill into Brook."
"Did you succeed?" laughingly.
"Not very well; Santa's power was too strong."
The doctor sat for a moment seeming to ponder his next question, | | 291 and then dashed suddenly into the story of his talk with Brook; when he had reached the end, Bruce Deering arose, and took a turn or two across the room; and he seemed both astonished and troubled. Presently he turned and resumed his seat.
"You say he appeared disturbed—excited by this—this fantasy? How did he look?"
"Excited and nervous. As if he were much wrought up. His eyes were glassy, almost: his cheeks crimson, his hands hot, and his pulse abnormally high."
"And he fully believes in these footsteps?"
"I think so. I am sure he does."
Again Deering seemed to be pondering, and finally, with some appearance of hesitation, he asked:
"Have you—studied his case closely, Doctor Ware?"
"And, will you tell me just what you think about it? frankly, and in confidence? I have never thought Brook a delicate fellow, any more than myself. He is of slighter mould, but in spite of that is muscular enough; and, for all his mild manners, and soft voice, he has never seemed effeminate or indolent. But there's something in him, since his return, that I can't account for; even by the changes, and trouble, he found himself in the midst of almost at once. With all his seeming easiness, and his amiability, I never thought, or knew him lacking in pluck, and tenacity; and yet—Is it this strange illness that has robbed him of the very elements he stands most in need of now?"
"I'll try and be frank, Mr. Deering, but I fear I can't enlighten you much; I'm something of a physiognomist, and I think I can read your cousin's character fairly well. You're quite right in saying that his is not a weak character,—however, at present, it may seem. Under those easy manners, and slow movements, there is plenty of tenacity. He has the temperament that gathers resentment slowly, but in which it lingers, and grows; and he is not quite evenly balanced. As to his illness—it is not purely a physical breaking down; I cannot trace his present condition to physical causes alone, nor can I attribute it all to his father's sad death. This breakdown had commenced before he arrived at Beechwood; on the night of the accident I saw that, but, save for a certain amount of fatigue and a slight lameness, I could see no reason for it. At this present time he is weaker than when became, besides being exceedingly nervous, and inclining toward irritability; but I can trace it to no one physical cause."
"And—do you think—as he seems to fear, that there is danger of even partial or short-lived insanity?"
"There should be none. Inherited insanity is apt to come suddenly and to be hastened by trouble, or calamity; since it has not yet appeared, I see no reason why it should develop, now, when the system has, in part at least, adjusted itself to the circumstances."
Deering sighed heavily.
"I wish it might have been different," he said, slowly. "At first I hoped so much from Brook's home-coming. He should stand between the ladies of this house and much of the trouble still menacing them, | | 292 and of which, unhappily, I form a part. Great heavens!" he sprang up, his face pale and drawn, and his hands clenched as if he were holding something in fierce restraint. "To think that instead of standing as a shield and helper in such a time as this, I am here in this house, only a reminder to them of yet more trouble, and that the worst is yet to come—and to come through me; as if this were not enough—and now the son of the house, who should stand beside his father's wife—and ward, and take the helm in such a time as this, will he fail them too? Must we have on the heels of humiliation and death—insanity?—or—"
"Mr. Deering!" Doctor Ware came close to him and laid a hand upon his arm. "Remember I have not predicted insanity for your cousin! On the contrary, since the worst, the shock at least, has passed, and the insanity has not manifested itself, there is little danger—" he paused a moment, and his voice dropped, "unless—"
"Unless some new or unknown cause arises—or exists."
A new note of meaning and interrogation had sounded in both voices, and Deering, who for a few moments had broken through the stern restraint which he had maintained so long and well, stopped, started, turned his face away for a moment, and seemed to command himself with a mighty effort.
"Doctor," he said in a tone which was not quite steady, "will you pardon me this outbreak, and forget—"
"One moment," there was a note of appeal in the doctor's tone and a still stronger appeal in his fine eyes. "Let me say a few words before you have quite shut yourself up in this mantle of dignity and reserve, which, fine and admirable as it is, can not be worn too long with no relaxation without disastrous consequences; there is a limit to your strength, and to mine. You have opened your heart for a moment, but I have only seen what I knew must be there:—natural and manly concern for the women who have a right to your care and protection. A month ago you and I were strangers, now—I wish we might be friends, in the truest and strongest meaning of the word. I will not offer my credentials—they were given, no doubt, to Lysander Deering weeks ago—otherwise I should hardly be here; but, tell me, if the time and the need come, the time when they need a strong arm, and you cannot do what you would, will you trust them to me?"he came a step nearer and put out his hand. For a moment Bruce seemed on the point of grasping it, then, suddenly, as he raised his eyes and met the glow, the tender fire in the deep grey orbs on a level with his own, his hand dropped suddenly to his side, and he moved back, paling, and then flushing slowly to his very temples; and so, for a long moment they faced each other.
Then Bruce spoke, seeming to control himself by an effort, and to choose his words—spoke slowly and with a strange huskiness as he went on.
"Doctor Ware, I could not doubt your honour if I would! When I found how much my cousin was prostrated after my uncle's death, and that you were to remain here as one of the household, I felt it my | | 293 duty to know all that could be known of you; and when Mr. Ingram went to New York lie was prompt in finding out, and sending; to me, assurance that no man or woman could have a truer or better friend than Doctor Felix Ware. A man would be a fool to refuse such friendship! I have been, and am thankful for it, for myself—and for them. But—I am very human—and more selfish than I once thought. And your voice and your eye have told me more than your lips have spoken! Doctor Ware, can you look in my face and say that, in offering your services, your friendship to me and to them, it is for no other reason—for no stronger reason than—sympathy, than chivalrous interest in two noble women overwhelmed now with trouble, and threatened—God help me—with more to come? I—I cannot take your hand, until—you answer me!"
Doctor Ware drew himself soldierly erect, and his grey eyes met the other's squarely.
"And if I say that, behind those other strong and sufficient reasons, there is another—stronger—and purely personal?"
"Then," Bruce folded his arms, and his voice had a dull despondent sound, "while no man to-day stands more in need of one true friend than do I, I must still refuse your hand and your friendship, while I cannot but respect and—yes, admire you, and shall try to be still thankful that such a friend has come among us. I am too human, too weak, to be a friend to the man who can go straight on and win for himself a happiness from which I am shutout! For—while I know that I have lost all right to hope, and have given up hope for myself, I cannot clasp hands in friendship with the man who will one day, perhaps, win the girl I have loved from her childhood! Ah, I have not been so blind."
He turned away and would have left the room without another word, but Felix Ware with one quick stride was beside him, between him and the door.
"Deering! Stop, man!" he exclaimed, and he caught the fingers outstretched to open the door, with his own strong right hand, and laid the left, firmly but gently, upon his shoulder. "You have been blind,—blind and deaf!—answer me now—this is not the moment for false delicacy! This girl—the girl you love—is it not Miss Rodney?"
"No matter!—no matter for anything—except this—you are safe to accept my friendship, to take my hand. Miss Rodney is very lovely, very sweet, but she is not the woman—the one fair woman for me!"and he caught Deering's two hands between his own, and pressed them vigorously.
"But—" began Bruce, "but I don't see—whom—how—"
"Deering!" the doctor' face became suddenly grave, and his voice solemn, almost reverent. "Let us not speak now of the whom or how! I have not the right to do so. I may not seek it nor ask it for many long months, perhaps never. As long as I can see her or serve her, I must be content and patient, unless," here he smiled,unless I should find what you thought you had found in me—a rival. I don't think I could shake hands with a rival any more than you could.| | 294
Someone tapped at the door and he opened it promptly, thinking and hoping to see "Uncle Holly." But it was Santa who stood upon the threshold with a troubled face and wide eyes.
"Doctor," she began, without seeming to notice Bruce, "they tell me that my—that Master Brook is ill—worse! That he had so very bad a night, and is now wild like—and—"
"Hush, Sarita; not so loud. If William has been talking nonsense below-stairs it must be stopped. Your young master passed a restless night and was somewhat tired this morning and a trifle nervous, There's nothing to be alarmed about, but you must not disturb him; I left him almost asleep."
"Thanks, doctor; many thanks," she turned as if to go.
"And how is it with you, Sarita? Did you rest well?" he asked.
"Oh, quite well, very well, thanks to your good medicine."
"Glad to hear it. Continue its use and don't think of going near Mr. Deering until you hear, through William, that he is awake."
"No, doctor, certainly not," and she turned away, a look of mingled relief and dissatisfaction upon her face.
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