- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XLVII. THE PRODIGAL BROTHER.
|<< chapter 46||< chapter 34||chapter 48 >||chapter 63 >>|
THE PRODIGAL BROTHER.
UNCLE HOLLY came late to breakfast next morning, so late, indeed, that all the family had breakfasted, and only Valentine remained in the morning-room, loitering over a vase of roses upon a low side table.
When the maid had put down his coffee and muffins, and retired to bring the glass of milk which he often took with his morning meal, and now demanded, Valentine, who had been chatting brightly across her shoulder, came close behind his chair, and, while in the act of leaning over to place a rosebud beside his plate, said, just above her breath:
"Rosa will see you in my boudoir when you have finished here;" and, as the door swung back, and a second maid came in with hot dishes, she went on louder and with perfect nonchalance, "My red African lily, by the way, has three blossoms; if you will not keep me | | 306 waiting too long, I will take you to my boudoir and let you peep at it."
In spite of this bait, "Uncle Holly" made his usual slow and hearty breakfast, while Val chatted with him across the table, and made believe eat a saucer of strawberries, and when he had finished, they went up the stairs together, she still talking airily, and he wearing in his button-hole the rosebud she had placed beside his plate.
In the upper hall they encountered Brenda, and Valentine said at once:
"Mr. Holly is coming to see my red lily; there are three this morning; won't you come, Brenda?"
Brenda's answering smile was very shadowy: "Thank you, Val, I think I must go on. Brook has been quite ill again, Doctor Ware tells me. I am going to see him," and they went their separate ways.
The boudoir was untenanted when they entered it, and Valentine, merely proffering him a chair by the balcony window, where the vases of lilies were blooming, nodded her head and passed on to the next room.
A moment later he heard a door close sharply, and then Rosa entered through the curtained doorway by which her new mistress had gone. She held a key between her thumb and forefinger, and glanced at it as she approached him, sitting promptly down upon the light chair which he had pulled close before him.
"She has shut herself into her dressing-room, and made me lock her in," Rosa began in her quiet tones. "She's so charming, it's really a pleasure to be her maid! only she won't let me do my whole duty," she stopped as abruptly as she had begun, and drew a folded paper from the bosom of her dress.
"It's there in detail," she said, in a business-like tone. "It's as you supposed; evidently she has never thought of anyone questioning Judith, and has never cautioned her."
"And you found it all out?"
"All! Well—I found out that—at the time of her marriage she had the full set; they were made at Tiffany's, and bear his mark. There was some sort of wager, or jest, which ended in her giving them each one"
"One? You are sure of that? One to each?"
"Sure! she has the rest; the brooch and ear pendants still."
"And Sarita?" he asked.
She glanced at the paper still in his hands.
"Sarita is more reserved than I could wish," she said.
"She is not in the best state of mind for sociability just now," he replied, smiling a little; "have patience, and drop a word or two, at the right time, in praise of Mr. Brook Deering."
"You mean—the good-looking, blonde invalid?"
Brook Deering was lying upon his bed when Doctor Ware visited him that morning. He was wrapped in a loose dressing-gown of a purplish blue shade, and the colour emphasised the pallor of his face and made him look ghastly.| | 307
He had passed another restless night, and had been troubled again by the ghostly footsteps. He was very nervous and unusually talkative; and, this morning, he had no doubt regarding his night's experience. He had not dreamed it; it was a ghostly visitation. He had heard his dead father's footsteps in his old room, of that he was sure. He told the story to Brenda when she came to see him, although he had been so reticent about his first experience, and had enjoined upon the doctor the strictest secrecy; and when Bruce came in, a little before luncheon tune, he told it to him. When Sarita was admitted to his room, still later, for Doctor Ware had prohibited a morning visit, and limited that of the afternoon, lie told it over again to her, in the presence and hearing of William.
By the next morning it was known all through the house that "Mr. Brook" had heard uncanny footsteps in his father's room, and that he was almost "out of his mind" in consequence; and while they were discreetly quiet in the presence of their superiors—below stairs the servants discussed the strange occurrence over and over.
Meantime—as the doctor had predicted—Sarita's first midnight ramble was followed by a second; and this time, when she went up the stairs leading to the mansard, with half of a fresh candle in the short brass candle-stand, she found the door at the top open
She entered the older attic at once, and after some wandering about—carrying the candle with a firm and steady hand—she approached the door of the inner and newer apartment. At first she tried to open it, but when this failed she put down the candle as before, and after seeming to listen a moment with her ear close to the door, she knocked three knocks, slow and distinct, the same as before.
Murtagh, who had possessed himself of keys enough to unlock all of Beechwood, had arranged this unlocking the first attic door, leaving the inner one secure.
"I don't want to let her into that inner place," he had said to the doctor, "until I have examined it again myself, and can give more time to it."
Sarita lingered for some time at the door of the inner attic; but finally she took up the candle and retraced her steps slowly with lagging and reluctant movement.
At the foot of the stairs she seemed to waver, and then, as before, she put the candle down upon the steps and went slowly toward the front of the house.
Here, too, the detective had prepared the way for her, and set a limit to her movements. She found the door of Mr. Deering's chamber not only unlocked, but slightly ajar, and she entered readily. They had thought it best not to cause fresh alarm to Brook to-night, and so, while the dressing-gown hung over the chair as before, the slippers had been removed.
When the two watchers, keeping well in the rear of the sleep-walker, reached the turn which brought them into the main hall, they saw, to their annoyance, that the lamp which usually burned at about the middle of the hall-way was flickering and sputtering, and scarcely served to show them the way through the big, shadowy place; but a moment later the chamber, at the door of which they stood, was dimly illu- | | 308 minated, and they could see from their station outside that Sarita had lighted one of the burners in the dressing-room instead of those in the chamber, and that, leaving this burning low, she was again in the outer room and before the fire-place. As on the previous night, she lifted the dressing-gown and thrust her arms into the sleeves, drawing it about her so closely that the loosely scattered roses on the pale ground tint seemed to stand out like dark spots upon a moonlit surface, and then once again she seated herself in the great easy-chair.
And now, as they stand close to the wall on either side of the chamber door, a sound from below causes them to start and simultaneously glide across the threshold, where they stand pressed against the wall and intently listening.
The sound comes from that part of the wide hall where Brenda's rooms are situated, and it sounds ominously like the creak of a door opened quickly. There is silence for a moment, and then they hear another sound, and know it to be the soft trailing of a woman's dress across the hall floor. Into the mind of each the same thought comes; someone—Brenda or Valentine, or perhaps one of their maids, has opened a door, and has discovered the sputtering and dying hall lamp. No doubt the person is about to extinguish it altogether.
Brenda's rooms are not far down the hall, and on the same side as is that of Mr. Deering, and almost opposite her door is Valentine's. Murtagh hopes that it may chance to be Valentine, who is now so near them, and both men wish ardently that, whoever it is, the person will not pass beyond the lamp in the direction of the front. The light from the dressing-room sheds dim rays across the chamber, and almost to the place where they stand, and Sarita sits before the cold grate as moveless as themselves. If she will but remain thus, until the person in the hall has extinguished the light and retired—if she does retire.
Meantime, in the hall, a little below the open door, Brenda Deering stands looking up at the lamp, which is almost out of her reach; she has scented, through the open transom above her door, the fumes of the exhausted and smoking lamp, to which the two watchers, in their interest in Sarita's movements, had not given a thought; and, perfect house mistress that she is, with a thought to the health and comfort of all her household, she has ventured out; she has crossed the hall without once glancing about her, and she now raises herself upon the tips of her toes, and lifts her arm to the burner overhead. Then, something tempts her to glance about her, before putting the place, and herself, into darkness.
All along the hall is the same dim quiet; all the doors are closed, and each, in its deep set casing, throws up a dark shadow,—all?—she lets her arm drop at her side, and lowers her heels to the floor. What ails her vision? Why should that oneplace—the place where her husband's door should stand—in the same depth of shadow as stand the others—why should she seem to see there a luminous bar not of light, but of something less dark and dense than the shadows below and above it? Was it a reflection? She looks about her, and takes a few steps forward, and then she draws herself suddenly erect, and her eyes light up with indignation.| | 309
Brenda Deering, with her fine nerves and sensible training, never thinks of anything uncanny in what she sees, for now she knows that her dead husband's room is open; that the weird light comes from within. And she glides quickly forward, her heart throbbing angrily at the thought that someone, doubtless of her own household, is prying, desecrating her dead husband's own—the place she has kept as sacredly as it had been in his life. With lip parted, and quivering, but not with fear, she creeps noiselessly up to the doorway and stands upon the threshold.
She does not see the dark forms on either side, and very near her; all that she realises is that the room is filled with grey, dusky light—she cannot see the source from where she stands—and that—sitting before the fire-place, dimly outlined, but just as she has often seen him, with one arm—clad in the rose-strewn gown,—and supporting his bent head—and with the other outstretched along the arm of the chair—ah, the familiar attitude!—sitting thus is—Lysander Deering—or his ghost.
It lasted but an instant, that thrill of horror, which, in another, less fine and strong, would have ended in a terrified shriek, that would have aroused every sleeper under that roof; and then, with a low moan, Brenda Deering swayed, drooped, and would have fallen, but for the ready arms that caught and held her, close and tenderly.
"Quick—the candle!" Felix Ware is bearing down the corridor, with quick, noiseless strides, and palpitating heart, a burden he would gladly hold and keep; and Murtagh, with one swift backward glance at the figure in the chair, goes, with his fleetest, stillest steps, to the place where the candle still burns feebly upon the stairs.
By the faint light from the open windows, Ware can see a wide couch opposite the door, and there, slowly, gently, and most reluctantly, he lays her down; and when Murtagh appears with the candle he is kneeling beside her.
"Put it down," he says quickly, "she will soon revive; go back after her"And Murtagh goes back to the somnambulist.
In the dim light the doctor kneels, his fingers upon the slender wrist, marking the reviving pulse beats; there is a soft breeze blowing in through an open window; in a moment those lovely eyes will unclose, and then—he stoops until his head is close above her own, and one word escapes his lips in a hushed whisper; as if in response to it, the white lids are lifted, their eyes meet, and, for one short second, there is no veil between the souls looking out of those windows. Then the brown eyes droop, and a soft colour steals over the paleness of her cheeks.
"Do not speak nor stir, Mrs. Deering," he says softly; "I can explain everything; you have seen a sleep-walker, that is all!"
It is well that they are alone at that moment; for the tenderness that he must not, dare not, put into words, speaks in his voice, making words superfluous; and, for a moment, Brenda Deering is glad to lie with closed eyes, and let the strange, new sensation of rest and reassurance encompass and comfort her. She does not understand it, and does not seek to; and when, a moment later, he gently puts down the wrist, in which the pulse is growing stronger, and rising, asks, still | | 310 with that lingering cadence so strangely comforting: "May I ring for your maid?" she points mutely to the bell, which connects with Judith's room.
The maid comes promptly, and the doctor, having made a brief explanation, and promised to return with "Mr. Holly" as soon as she has recovered a little and regained her calmness, goes in search of the other parties to this midnight episode; feeling somewhat anxious and uncertain as to the outcome.
As he steps cautiously out into the hall, a low "hist" greets him, and he stops short. Not six feet away from him Murtagh stands flattened against the wall, and, just outside the door of Mr. Deering's room, Sarita stands in the attitude of one listening.
For a little they stand so still, all three, that he can hear the ticking of his watch; then the woman waves her hand, as if in gesture to some-one beyond her, stands a few moments as before, moves aside, as if to allow someone to pass, looks back, or seems to, as if at someone entering the room, and finally comes gliding toward the two watchers; she pauses at the turn in the hall, looks back, and then goes on, faster now, and—though the hall here is almost shrouded in darkness—with steps as sure as they are silent.
This time, as before, she ignores the candle, which has been restored to its place upon the stairway, and enters her room, leaving the door wide open as before, and lying down at once. As before, the doctor places the candle beside the bed, and closes the door.
Then the two men consult in low whispers.
"What did you tell her?" Murtagh begins.
"The truth, of course. That it was a sleep-walker, nothing more. But there must be an explanation."
"Will you make it? We have about reached a point where I must tell her of some of our discoveries. I can't go on until I do. But—it's too soon—a little. Who is with her?"
"The dark woman? Well, she is as trusty as steel! You can tell the story from the physician's point of view, and no fear of the maid." He turned away, then—" You might just say, for her benefit—I mean the lady's-maid—the lady will understand it—that I was disturbed by the noise, or that we were mutually aroused—"
He broke off and turned toward his own door with a smile upon his lips; Doctor Felix, with a gesture of acquiescence, was going, with long, silent strides, toward Brenda's boudoir.
Brenda listens to his story of the sleep-walking in silent surprise. He tells of his first interview with Sarita, and, as delicately as possible, explains the part Mrs. Merton has taken in keeping the unpleasant business from Sarita's master and mistress; and Brenda listens with gentle words of sympathy for the afflicted one, and kindly encomiums for good Mrs. Merton.
"Poor Sarita!" she murmurs when all is told. "She must not be left alone after this! Someone must remain with her at night, both for her safety, and to secure the inmates of the house against such a fright as I have had to-night."
But, a little to her surprise, Doctor Felix demurs. "It will not be | | 311 wise, just now, to give Santa a companion. It will be better not to let her dream that her secret is known. Such cases must be dealt with most delicately. Then—he is interested in watching her symptoms. In short, will Mrs. Deering trust Sarita's case to him, and be assured that she shall have no more cause for alarm?" etc., etc.
Of course he has his will. Brenda only stipulating that she shall be informed if Sarita's case becomes worse, and that she shall be given every possible medical aid and care.
"Santa," she says, in her sweet solicitude, "has been one of our household for half a lifetime, almost. She is devotedly attached to all of us, especially to Brook; who was, as you of course know, her nursling, and always to Mr. Deering, to whom she could never be grateful enough. And, indeed, my husband was a very good friend to her."
Something, a note in the last words caused Doctor Felix to lift his head, which had been resting upon his hand, and to ask quickly:
"May I ask—do you know—if she has any friends—in this country?"
"Here?" he was certain of a little movement of surprise upon her part, and then she glanced toward her maid. "I hardly know now: there was a circumstance—some years ago—but it's a bit of Sarita's family history—and will hardly interest you, or be à propos"
"Pardon me. Anything you can tell me of Madam Sarita's past, will aid me greatly just now!"
"It was some years since," Mrs. Deering resumed,
"ten, I should think—"
"Pardon me!" the maid broke in deprecatingly. "It is just nine years ago."
"Nine, thank you, Judith; if you can tell Doctor Ware anything more, pray do so. As I was saying, some nine years ago, Sarita came to my husband in great grief. She had found in a New York paper an account of one of those horrible saloon quarrels, that we read of so often—and among those who were hurt, was the name of a man who was, she was very sure, her brother. Her immediate family had been, even then, pretty well scattered, and she only knew, of this brother, that he had been for some years in London, and that, at her last account of him, he contemplated going to Canada. She has had but one correspondent from her own country in all the years she has lived with us, and that was a cousin, a woman of about her own age, I should think; her brothers, I believe she has several, never wrote to her, probably could not write."
"It is more than likely. And—about this newspaper matter?" he urged.
"Pardon me. I am as digressive as Mrs. Nickelby," she smiled faintly. "My husband, seeing her anxiety, took some pains to inquire into the matter, and found it to have been, in truth, Sarita's brother who was injured; it came out that the man was a rather disreputable character, and not altogether a victim in the affair; but, of course, Sarita's discovery of a brother's presence in this, to her, strange land, aroused her very much, so much that she made the one journey of her life, excepting, of course, the one across the ocean, and went to see him."| | 312
"Ah—and did he ever return that visit?" asked the doctor eagerly.
"Yes. He came once, not long after—in fact as soon as he was convalescent, I should fancy. I chanced to be absent at the time—so did not see him."
"Ah—then you can't tell me if he resembled his sister—or she him?"
"No;" she turned to her maid who sat a little in the background. "Perhaps Judith can."
"If you wish it, madam," murmured Judith.
"I—wish it," said the doctor quickly, "and Mrs. Deering permits it, I am sure."
"By all means," assented Brenda.
"What is it that you wish most to know?" asked Judith, as if in doubt.
"Tell me all you can recall of this brother. I have my especial reasons for wishing to know something of one of Sarita's family. Did you see much of him?"
"Very little, sir. He came only to the kitchen door, and would never enter. He was not too well dressed—though I know that Mr. Deering was most generous to Sarita, and that Sarita gave him money. He scarcely stayed two days, and all that I can tell is that he seemed to want Sarita to take him in, to get him a place. I know that she asked Mr. Deering to give him work about the garden or stables; but, after seeing the man, and talking with him a little, he called Sarita aside and told her, very kindly, I am sure, that her brother was evidently not fitted for either the garden or a groom's place, and he advised her to let him go elsewhere."
"He went that day.''
"Have you heard of him since?"
"No, sir. That is he never came back again—but he wrote to his sister after he went away."
"Ah—does he write to her still?"
"I cannot say, sir. I have not heard her speak of him for a long time; not in two years, I am sure."
Doctor Ware thanked her for this information, and put a few questions, thus getting a fragmentary description of this prodigal brother. And when he dropped the subject it was with the full intention of talking with Judith again—and alone.
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