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 45 chapter 63 >>

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WHEN Wells and the quondam John Ross had exchanged greetings, and established themselves in the convenient upper room, still held at the disposal of the detective, this latter personage came promptly to the point.

"Yes, Wells," he said, in reply to the huntsman's greeting, which had been a characteristic mingling of surprise and interrogation. "Yes, I'm here yet. I have been here ever since I saw you last; and am likely to be here for some time longer; and I've reached a point where I must have some help from you, or be a good deal hindered; and at a very important point in our little game too.—No, I don't use it—that way."

Wells, who had taken from his pocket a bar of tobacco, and silently proffered it, at what he recognised as the end of Murtagh's speech, now bit off a comfortable "chew," and replacing it in his pocket, said, with laconic brevity:

"Wal, what's wantin'?"

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"I believe you know, Wells! I want that amethyst button. It will help me immensely."

Wells crossed one leg over the other, and chewed his weed in silence for a moment. Then he folded his arms and turned himself' squarely toward Murtagh.

"Look here, Mr.—John Ross, I ain't doubtin' you! I believe you're a square man; but you're old business!—an' your business is ter chop ter the line, as they say, an' never mind what the chips falls. D'ye recollect what I told ye once afore?"

"About the button?"

"Jest so. Wal, I'll tell yer, seein' 'tis you, one time more. I ain't goin' ter hand over that button to anybody, not so long as there's a chance of its hurtin' Bruce Deerin'!"

"But, if he's guilty?"

"He ain't guilty! no more'n I am!"

"And that's your ultimatum?"

"It's my—no, sir-ee!

—termatum! Ye can swear to that!"

Murtagh's face drew down to a very sober length.

"But, Wells, don't you know that Wiggins will be likely to tell that button story in court? and he suspects you of finding it."

"Oh, yes! I've heard about that. And you're right about his tellin' the story in court; he's been cousinin' with the prosecutin' attorney, and old Carton; an' he'll do his dirtiest, don't you forget it! However, I guess I kin hold my own with Jone Wiggins yit!"

"Wells," the detective lowered his voice persuasively, "this is between you and me! Nobody else knows you have ever seen that button, eh? except Deering, of course."

"Of course," assented Wells.

"Well, now,—I'm authorised; just—tell me what you' rather have than that button?—five hundred?—a thou'?—out with it."

Tom Wells got up with a quick spring that sent the chair he had vacated tumbling backward with a crash.

"Consarn ye!" he cried. "I s'pose you're doin' right enough, from your pint of view, but—darn it all! I've a good mind to knock ye down—anyhow!"

"But, Wells, listen!" Murtagh got up and caught him by the arm, 44 no one would ever be the wiser."

"Shet up, can't ye?" twitching his arm away. "I'm out of this business! I ain't the feller you've took me fur, Mr.—and you ain't the man I took you fur; offerin' bribes! It's time for me terbe goin'!"and he strode toward the stairway.

But a sudden suppressed sound caused him to turn; Murtagh, close at his heels, was shaking with soft laughter, and, in a moment, had the big huntsman in a muscular grip.

"I guess we weren't so very much mistaken in each other, Wells," he said, drawing the other back and releasing him, to set right the over-turned chair. "The fact is, old fellow, we've made up our minds, Mr. Baird and I, to let you into matters a little deeper; but I could not risk it without trying your mettle—don't you see? Not that either of us felt any great uneasiness or doubt. Sit down again, man!" and Wells | | 299 dropped down into his place again, only muttering as he seated himself, in a half aside:

"I swan to man!"

"Now then, Wells," went on the detective, briskly, "time flies, and I must be back at my post soon, and that post happens to be, at present, Beechwood."


"Yes, sir! Did you happen to hear that a certain Mr. Holly, distant relative, was a guest up there?"


"Well that's me; don't look so astonished. Well—Mr. Baird has advised me to take you into full confidence, and I'm only too glad to do it; and when I am done, I think you'll be quite ready to put that button into my keeping, for, Wells," dropping into instant gravity," I hope it will help us towards finding out more than the truth about Joe Matchin. Wells, there's been more than one murder committed in Pomfret of late; and, I believe, upon my soul—that they were both committed by the same hand. Wells, you will give me your promise of secrecy? if not of help?"

"Of secrecy! so help me;—of help, too, if it's not against Bruce Deering!"

"I'll tell you what I can, and you must judge for yourself. Wells, that good man, Lysander Deering, did not die of `heart failure;' he was poisoned!"

And then, while Wells sat beside him, speechless, almost, with the shock and surprise, Murtagh hurriedly related so much of the story as was needful; omitting, by the way, much personal detail—but telling enough to place the case as clearly before Wells as it was in his own mind.

"So," said Wells, when he had exhausted his surprise, and pondered over the strange recital, "that was why you was so interested in St. Mark's, eh? Great snakes! but when one comes to think about it, there couldn't a been a better hidin' place, nor one half so handy. An' to think, no one ever thought of it but you! And—Miss Wardell!—that's a purty big pill to swaller!—but—if the church part of the business was true, the rest looks a puny closte fit. Jimmenetty! suppose the feller was a layin' in that arbour all the time she was talkin over the fence to me"

"Quite likely."

"But—Cracky! if the right man was in hidin', in the church first, and up at the big house afterward, that lets Bruce Deerin' out, don't it?"

"I hope so," said the other, evasively.

"But it does! And them two women; what does it all mean? them letters, and messages, and meetin's in the shrubbery, what do you make out of that?"

"Nothing as yet. At the worst Miss Wardell may have had reason to fear Matchin; these beautiful spirited women sometimes have secrets, and Matchin, so near her, night and day, may have discovered something—"

"Hum—well, she's allers been called a high-flyer!—but that French-woman—!"

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"Well, she is a Frenchwoman, and they are born intrigueants, so called. Sarita, I have been told, is very fond of money; Miss W——seems to have known her well; may the one not have been bribed to help the other out? Beechwood was empty, almost; one could hide there, and, when things were quiet, or there was danger of discovery, it would be a good point from which to tramp across the country to some of the neighbouring stations. This is only theory, mind; but the thing's possible."

"What I want to know is this; do you think it possible that Bruce Deerin' had any sort of hand in it?"

Murtagh looked away, and bit his lip; then he turned back with sudden resolution in his eyes.

"Tom Wells," he said, earnestly, "I believe you're as white a man as God ever made! I know I can trust you, and I won't ask you to trust me, and to give, what you believe to be, a solemn trust into my charge, without a return in kind! I can't say that I am sure of Deering's innocence, though, by feeling and instinct, I am drawn toward him!—But, Wells, do you remember when I bade you good-bye, and asked you to keep a look-out on Jonas Wiggins? well, I was leaving for good, then; or so I thought.—Leaving by the consent of Bruce Deering, and at the request of his uncle, who told me that there were reasons why the Deerings must not pursue the case; and asked me to let it drop, and go away. To leave it—to be worked out by the sheriff."

"Good lord!" Wells fairly groaned.

"And—did anyone else—did Baird know?"

"Baird knew, and Arden, and Redding,—they all said that the old man's health was at stake, that they did not understand, but they trusted him, and that he must have his will."

"But—you came back?"

"At the request of Mr. Baird—and Mrs. Deering—and to look into the poisoning case."

"But—great scott! You are working the other—?"

"Yes, I have been retained again."

"By Bruce?"

"No. For Bruce—and without his knowledge—by a friend. Don't press methere, Wells."

"Well I won't! and I won't try to guess either. For Bruce, you said?"

"Yes. For him—in his interest to clear him, to prove his innocence; nothing less will do. And now—Wells, about that button?"

. . . . . . .

An hour before sunset, "Uncle Holly" came back to Beechwood as he left it; sitting, jovial and smiling, beside Mr. Baird, and behind Lady Jane, whose praises he intermingled with eulogies of the stork farm. Throughout the dinner hour, and late that night, in the seclusion of his own room, he examined minutely, and gloated over, the amethyst button, with its tiny, glittering diamond sparks.

He was thus engaged when he heard at his door—before which he, habitually now, kept a tall screen, except when he looked for a late | | 301 visit from the doctor—a soft scratching noise, such as might have been produced by a very young and timid mouse.

Opening the door noiselessly, he saw Doctor Ware without, in jacket and list slippers, and by sign was bidden to come out and follow him.

"She is going up the stairs," he breathed in Murtagh's ear, and the door was softly placed ajar, and the two men moved, in Indian file, and with Indian stealth, toward the stairway leading to the mansard.

The stair was enclosed, and they could see nothing until they had reached the foot; but here they paused and drew back, each with a quick catching of the breath. Half way up the flight, Sarita, in a long, loose gown of some pale grey stuff, was gliding upward, slowly and stealthily, with her head turned as if fearing observation; but her eyes were set and staring, and Doctor Felix knew, upon the instant, that she was, beyond doubt, asleep.

She carried in her hand a common candle, and, when she had reached the top stair, she put it down upon the landing, and again seemed to listen. After a little she put her hand upon the door and tried to open it, and, when it resisted her efforts, she waited a moment, standing with an ear close to the panel. Then, very softly, she rapped, one—two—three raps, soft but distinct, and at least a full half minute apart. There was another moment of waiting, and then, with a sound like a sigh, she turned and seated herself upon the upper stair, pushing her candle back into the darkest corner at the same time.

Then the two watchers exchanged inquiring glances, and withdrew a few steps down the hall.

"Did you know that door was locked?" whispered Murtagh.

"Yes; I asked Mrs. Merton about the keys to-day while you were gone. I told her to lock the attic door, suggesting, as a reason, the tendency of somnambulists to go aloft, and expressing a fear that the woman, should she do so, might expose herself to a severe cold in that big garret. Of course, as you very wisely suggested, I prefaced all this by telling her that in order to study her symptoms more closely, I meant to leave her door open some night, and to watch her movements in order the better to understand her case."

"I see; how long will she be likely to stay up there?"

"Depends entirely upon her former habits. Evidently she has waited up there, at some time, until someone chose to admit her; she may sit there an hour or even more. Wait, I'll take a look."

He was back in a moment with his report.

"She is leaning against the wall with her ear toward the panel of the door listening. She'll not move just yet."

"Then wait here a moment," whispered Murtagh, and he slipped down the hall and around the corner leading toward the newer wing. In a short time he was back again.

"It's all right," he whispered; "the door is not locked."

Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and then, a few minutes later, the doctor, going to reconnoitre at the foot of the stairway, came hastily back and motioned his companion to stand aside. A moment later Santa passed them; she was walking slowly and with head a little | | 302 advanced as if listening; she had abandoned her candle, leaving it, as they afterwards found, upon the stairs.

Slowly she made her way toward the front, until she had reached the corner, and here she paused with her face in the direction of the room occupied by the young men of the house, then she turned and went, with a somewhat faster movement, around the corner, down the main hall, and straight on, until she reached the door of the room that had been Lysander Deering's own. Here she paused and went through the pantomime of looking cautiously around, trying the door, and carefully opening it, and all with eyes set and unseeing.

The room, or suite of rooms, which had been Lysander Deering's, had been kept, since his death—indeed, since he was carried tenderly, in strong arms, out of them and into the secluded and airy north-east chamber where his last sigh was drawn—in the most exquisite order, and swept and garnished daily as if the master might at any moment re-enter and take possession again. In the alcove dressing-room the toilet tables bore their accustomed assortment of brushes, combs, flasks, razor cases, and the other various paraphernalia of a gentleman's toilet; and in the bedroom the curtains were partially drawn, an easy-chair stood in its usual position before the fire-place, with the master's dressing-gown thrown across its back, and a pair of silk-lined slippers upon the hearth, while upon the little stand, drawn close by the bed's head, stood a dainty water set, a night lamp, a bible and prayer-book, both bearing signs of long and familiar use, and in a slender crystal vase close beside them, a cluster of creamy roses newly gathered that morning, and placed there, as was her daily habit, by Brenda Deering.

Into this room went Sarita slowly and as silently as any ghost; just across the threshold she paused, turned her head from side to side, and then, with quick, long, sliding steps, crossed the alcove and entered there.

Murtagh put his lips to his companion's ear: "We can't see from here," he breathed; "are we safe to follow her?"

The doctor nodded, and whispered back: "Unless she wakes."

"We must risk it." They glided in through the still open door, and flattened themselves against the wall in a niche just big enough to hold them and formed by a jutting cabinet, and the corner of the room nearest the fire-place, where they could see the interior of the alcove. They had hardly placed themselves when the sleep-walker came out, moving like one no longer suspicious or in doubt.

She came straight to the door of the chamber by which they all had entered, and closed it swiftly and silently. Until then the windows, with their half-opened curtains, and the light kept dimly burning in the hall without, had rendered things barely visible; but now all was in semi-darkness, and Sarita's grey-clad form, the two windows opposite them, and the bed, standing midway between the windows and the fire-place near them, were the only things which outlined themselves in the gloom. Then they saw the grey figure move, and heard a quick hissing and sputtering sound, not loud but distinct. In a moment a tiny flame shot up, then a subdued light filled the room.

Murtagh caught the doctor's arm in his amazement, and peered into his face inquiringly. Could it be that this woman was asleep?

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And now they draw closer into the shadow of their niche, and standing there with bated breath, watched, almost doubting their own senses, a strange pantomime.

Once or twice she made the circuit of the chamber, stopping before one of the windows, and pulling down the blind with a quick jerk. There was no water in the carafe, but she went through the pantomime of pouring out a little, and holding it up to the light—setting it down at last untasted. And now they note in her movements a certain difference or change, and a singular mixture of hesitancy and sureness. She came to the fire-place next, and they grew almost breathless because of her nearness. Standing beside the easy-chair, she took up the silken dressing-gown, shook it out, and slowly drew it on over the sleeves of the grey robe. Then she moved to the opposite side of the fire-place, and deliberately thrust her feet into the soft slippers, and then for a time she sat in the big chair, half buried in its softness, and seemed to stare at a dream fire and to ponder.

It seemed an hour to the two watchers, really it was less than ten minutes, that she sat quite motionless; then she arose, and crossing her hands behind her, began to walk the floor, crossing the chamber, and traversing the length of the dressing-room. In the sleeping-room proper, the smooth inlaid floor was covered, except for a narrow margin next the walls, with a soft thick rug, but in the dressing-room, and the bath beyond, the polished floor was bare, except where, before the dressing-table, and in front of the low, cushioned window-seat, long, narrow strips of the rich Persian weave were laid.

As the slippered feet passed from the chamber and the soft rug, to the smooth and uncovered floor of the dressing-room, each footstep was distinctly heard, and Doctor Ware started at the sound. But Murtagh's hand was upon his arm, and again they stood and counted their own pulse beats, while the strange promenader passed up and down, confining herself, after a time, to the polished and responsive floor of the alcove, where each step sounded so clearly that they almost feared they would be heard without. After a time the steps became slower, and finally Sarita paused beside a small davenport just inside the alcove and near the window. She passed her hand lightly over its closed top, seemed to hesitate, repeated the movement, and gave a quick pull at the handle of the topmost drawer. Then something seemed to disturb her. She moved away a few steps, paused, seemed to listen; and then, going back to the chair beside the fire-place, pulled off the dressing-gown, letting it fall from her hands to the floor, dropped the slippers from her feet, and going to the door, opened it, and went quickly out, down the hall, and straight to her own room. She had not closed the door of the room she had left, and she did not close her own door, but going straight to her bed laid herself down upon it.

As she crossed the threshold of Mr. Deering's chamber, the two watchers exchanged quick glances, and while Doctor Ware followed her at once, Murtagh lingered long enough to replace the gown and slippers, arrange the window shade as it had been before Sarita drew it down, turn off the light, and draw the door shut as he left the room.

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When he rejoined Doctor Ware, that votary of science was watching the now motionless woman from his place at the open door. He had taken possession of the candle Sarita had left in the stairway, and shading its flickering flame with his hand, was watching her by its aid.

As the detective reached his side, Ware placed the candle in his hand, and motioned him to shade it as he had done. Then he crept up to the bed, and leant over the sleeping woman, listening for her low breathing. In a moment he lifted his head, took the candle from Murtagh, and snuffing out the nearly spent wick, placed it upon a chair beside the bed. Then they went out, closed the door and turned the key.

When the two men were alone in the detective's room, and the usual precautions attended to, Murtagh turned upon his companion.

"That's been too much for me!" he declared," and I thought I knew a little about sleep-walking. Was she asleep, Ware?"

"Without a doubt!" They were standing face to face; Murtagh was too much aroused by what he had seen to think of the ordinary hospitalities. "She could not have played that rôle if she were Ristori herself. I never saw the like; such cases are few and far between—but I have read of similar ones."

"But—what was she doing? I supposed they always repeated themselves in that state—she—"

"Well—?" Ware smiled.

"Why, man, she was imitating—someone."

"Not a doubt of it, she was personating Lysander Deering."

"No! are you sure?"

"Sure. The thought struck me when she got herself into the gown and slippers; but when she began to pace the floor with her hands behind her—I happened to know that as a habit of Mr. Deering's."

"But what—how?—I thought—pshaw—she could never have done that in her waking moments?"

"No, but she may have seen just that pantomime under some peculiar circumstance, that was strange enough, or strong enough, to make a lasting impression. It has settled one question for us—or for me!"

"What is that?"

"Brook Deering's ghostly footsteps; I told you of them?"

"I remember."

"That dressing-room adjoins young Deering's sleeping-room. His bed stands near that wall. If he did not hear his father's footsteps, he heard, at least, a travesty of them."

"Surely. So he is not on the high road to insanity, after all?"

"I never supposed him to be." Ware's tone was dry, almost cynical. It caught Murtagh's attention.

"Shall you enlighten him?" he asked.

Instead of replying, the doctor asked a question. "Don't you want to see what the woman will do in the attic?"

"By all means!"

"Then I won't enlighten Deering. I would not—in any case—to be frank. It will cost us some trouble, but I should like to see her visit that room once more.

I think I can guarantee that she will | | 305 'walk' again to-morrow night,—that is—if you want to put in another all night's vigil?"

"Doctor," the detective's eyes were studying him narrowly, "do you mean that you can influence her, or drug her into that state?"

"Drug her? No. Influence? Well, it is the mind that does this kind of thing. Sarita has been in an uncomfortable frame of mind during the last twenty-four hours, and this night's ramble was the outcome of it. I think I can keep up this same disturbed mental state,—that is all."

"Good heavens! How?"

"Pardon me. Like yourself, I have in my mind, hazy and half-formed, some ideas so strange that, until they take a less fantastic shape, I dare not give them utterance. I shall try hard to formulate—or disperse them—soon."

"Well, I won't question you, doctor, only—will you interpret what we have seen to-night?"

"As I can. First, Sarita, for some days, has been in a state of mental anxiety, in part, about herself, but mostly, about another—matter. This last anxiety to-day became so strong as to throw her into the strained, nervous condition which has resulted in what we have just witnessed. Of the instinct which led her to that room to-night I can only guess, but it was not, I am almost sure, to personate Mr. Deering. That was an after instinct, which came, I think, upon reaching the room, and which drove out, for a time, her first impression.

"Well ejaculated Murtagh, beginning to look about for a place to sit, "I can't quite make you out; but I m reasonably convinced of one thing!"

"What is that?"

"That Madam Sarita did not go to that room, alone, and at mid-night, to-night for the first time"

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