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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TOM WELLS was the ideal "nurse," for the word "keeper" was carefully banished from the apartment where Brook Deering now wandered by the hour from room to room, going sometimes about the upper halls, as well as through the grounds, in the cool of the early morning. He was very tractable, for the most part—only now and then developing a fit of stubbornness,—and he continued to fancy himself in his schoolboy days. At first he had not seemed to heed Sarita, save now and then, when he would address her as Bruce, or by the name of someone of his old tutors; but, of late, he had turned against her, and, instead of allowing her to sit in his room, and wait on him, in his languid moods, he now manifested a distaste for her presence, and, in his worst moods, would not have her in the room; always bestowing upon her the name of some obnoxious personage. At his best he simply ignored her; and Sarita made moan in the kitchen because her Master Brook, whom she had "nursed and tended since his baby-hood," had forgotten her utterly; and she went about with a woeful countenance, and was almost as restless as Brook himself.

But for the doctor's watchful care, combined with certain sleeping draughts, she would have been a nightly visitor to the attic above, and the tenantless room on the bedroom floor, during these nights of unrest and mental disquiet; for it was no small trouble that was dimming the | | 329 brightness of Sarita's small, keen eyes, and making hollow in cheeks already sufficiently thin. If her young master's condition was not the cause of her anxiety, then, surely, there was another cause; sufficient if unknown.

But now Sarita's anxieties were but as a drop in the sea of trouble encompassing the household at Beechwood.

Above stairs, and below, the inmates moved about with grave, sorrowful, or abstracted faces; for the weeks had run their length, and now there were only a few days to intervene before the opening of Court, and the calling, upon the second day, of the "Matchin Murder Case."

As the time drew so near, popular interest, which had cooled somewhat, but had never died out, came up to fever heat again; and Brenda and Valentine returned from a Saturday morning drive through Pomfret, fully convinced that the most irksome solitude was better than running that gauntlet of staring eyes, pointing fingers, and half-heard comments—not to mention the loud-mouthed and open attentions of a running cavalcade of small boys,—and determined that nothing should take them again outside their own gates, until Bruce Deering's "case"—with its unguessed and unguessable results, had passed out of the public mind.

As for Bruce himself, he went and came as usual; and the stern dignity of his face and bearing was never once relaxed in passing to and fro, and more than one word of comment, or coarse jeer, was held in check by the single brief, cold glance of the eyes which met every gaze with the same keen, momentary challenge. At home he was, as usual, grave, reticent, and less and less inclined to linger among the others in morning-room, dining or drawing-room. One thing noted by more than one of the observant, was, that he seemed to shun any meeting with Valentine Rodney, and to do it, as the time for his trial drew daily nearer, almost openly.

Not that the high-spirited girl sought him, at any time; she, too, seemed preoccupied, and at first, did not seem to realise that he tried to avoid her; when at last this became apparent, however, he found all further effort unnecessary. Not only did Valentine avoid him, but she did it so deftly that it could not seem a slight, and quite put his cruder masculine methods to shame.

On one of these occasions—when she had cleverly avoided an encounter upon the stairs by turning quickly into the west hall, with the intention of gaining the little stairway near Murtagh's door, and so reaching the lower floor—she encountered Doctor Ware, face to face, and was called to a halt by him.

"One moment, Miss Rodney," he said, smiling, yet evidently in earnest. "Thus far you have escaped me, but I have had my eye upon you for some time, and I see that this high pressure, under which we are all living, is having its effect upon you. Tell me, please, do you sleep well?"

He was gazing intently down into the mignonne face, which had lost some of its rich colouring; at the small mouth, with the pathetic droop at the corners, which was so often there of late, and at the dusky shadows beneath the big, dark eyes; which, in spite of their | | 330 brilliancy, of late often looked as if they were keeping back the tears.

"You know," he went on gently, "how much Mrs. Deering relies upon you for comfort and cheer. We cannot have you breaking down; and you have had much, too much, to shock, and torture, sensitive nerves. Believe me, if I did not see 'symptoms,' which should not be ignored, I would not have troubled you now."

She had started and flushed at his first words, but she listened quietly to the rest, and answered quickly:

"Doctor, you are very good! I think that I am somewhat nervous, as you say; so much has happened—and is happening!" She turned her glance toward Brook's door. "I do not sleep very well, and I think I have had one or two very little chills. Do you think I have made out a case for you?"

He put out his finger, and touched her wrist, where the pulse was throbbing unsteadily. "I will be entirely candid," he said. "If you keep on like this, you will find that you have 'nerves,' a great many of them. In your present condition it would take very little to break down your self-poise utterly; even your strong will—for you have a strong will—could not sustain you through much—now. May I come to your boudoir in, say, half an hour, and ask you a few more questions, before prescribing for you?"

Someone was coming down the long hall, and she murmured an assent, and flitted away. The doctor stood still a moment, and then, following in her footstep, opened the door of Murtagh's room, and entered.

The detective had given him the now familiar signal at the breakfast table, half an hour since, and was waiting for him, sitting at an open window, behind half-drawn fluttering curtains.

"Good," Murtagh began as the other pulled up a chair, just opposite, and close to him. "I couldn't have waited long! I've been bursting with impatience. Did you hear anything uncanny last night?"

"Nothing—unless you count Brook Deering's ravings uncanny! He was very talkative last night."

"No. It was not that. She was here—in the grounds, I mean!"


"Miss Wardell. My boy reported at daybreak. I found him at the end of the park. Miss W——was in the grounds last night, and she gave the signal. It was about eleven o'clock, and you might have heard it, and thought it one of the grooms, whistling just half-a-dozen notes of a popular song. A good many windows were open about the house, and—she was answered promptly."

"Ah!" Ware started, but restrained himself, only saying: "Do you know the meaning of the calls?"

"I can guess. She will be here again to-night"

"And—shall you permit the interview?"

"No. I shall attend at the trysting-place in person; and I shall leave it to you—and Wells, to see that no one else leaves the house to-night."

. . . . . . .
| | 331

The doctor's visit to Valentine in her boudoir was very brief and business-like; and, when he was about to leave, he gave a swift glance about him, and lowered his voice.

"Is anyone within hearing?"

She flushed slightly. "Mrs. Merton is in my dressing-room," she said.

He smiled. Mrs. Merton's partial deafness was very convenient to him, but he still spoke in a half-whisper:

"I am charged with a message from 'Mr. Holly.' Of course you know that I, also, am a confederate of his?"

"Yes," with a touch of reserve.

"He thinks it important that Madam Sarita should not leave the house after dark to-night, and asks that you will aid him, in any way you best can, in keeping her in view, or, at least, making it difficult for her to leave the house unnoticed."

"Is that all?"

"That is all." Something like a look of relief crossed her face, and she lifted her head and smiled slightly.

"I will do my best—but—if it were possible—I should advise that you lock her in her room the first time she is seen to enter it,—or, give her a sleeping draught. I have great faith in Sarita's cunning. If she wishes to get out—to-night, nothing short of detention by force will keep her in."

The doctor's eyes lighted up, and his mobile face expressed a sudden determination.

"Miss Rodney, you are wiser than the two of us! We had intended to rely upon surveillance; but your advice is too good—your method too easy to be abandoned."

At the first opportunity he was again in conference with Murtagh.

"It would simplify matters!" the detective mused, when he had heard Ware's report, and Miss Rodney's suggestion. "It would make things easy for us. And, if I succeed, the other proof will not be needed. "He considered a moment." I must succeed!" he exclaimed with energy, "everything hinges upon to-night. And—if I should fail, the other proof will be of little value after all—now."

"Precisely," agreed Ware, laconically.

"But the doses—can you manage them?"

"Easily! I shall exchange Santa's medicine this afternoon."

"And the other?"

"Trust me, the other will make no effort to go abroad to-night."

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