- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER LIV. SCIENTIFICALLY PROVED.
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To quit Ora Wardell's house noiselessly, and to return the horse and wagon, leaving it, as Ora had suggested, at the corner nearest the livery barn, was easy enough for Ferriss Murtagh. He rang the hell at the barn door, crossed the street swiftly, and was soon making his way northward, choosing to take the route over which he had been driven by Ora.
Beechwood was now virtually in the hands of the detective and his helpers; and he knew that he should find the door, opening upon the private stairway, on one hand, and the library on the other, open, or, at least, unlocked, with Tom Wells on guard, close at hand.
And he was right. The door was ajar, and while he was closing it gently, Tom Wells, with a tiny pocket lantern, came softly down the stairs.
Everything was quiet, Wells assured him and Murtagh seated him self upon one—of the lower stairs, and began to remove his shoes.| | 347
"Anything happened, Tom?" he whispered; "sit down here and tell me, while I breathe once or twice."
"Wal, sir—for once, the young feller got the drop on Doc; and he done it slick, too."
"We can't 'magin' jest how he contrived—I'd a swore he took down the dose Doc gave him, an' jest as willin' as a lamb, too—I give him the glass myself. Doc says, he must a held it in his mouth, and then got rid of it without swallerin'; anyhow he got enough to put him to sleep for most two hours, but then he woke up, and—jimmenetty! if he didn't more'n hop round! so William says. He was in the bed-room; Doc was in the anty-room playin' asleep, and I was outside."
"Well?" whispered Murtagh impatiently. "What did he do?"
"Do! why, he went to the winder, and sort of listened; looked at the clock on the mantel, took a look at William—he was playin'snooze, too, ye know, and then he grabs a long cape out of a closet, and slides past Doc on tiptoe; an'—what do you think he done?"
"How should I know?—go on!"
"Well, I allus knew these crazy fellers was smart; he turns around, when, he gits outside, an' locks the door."
"What!—locked Ware in?"
"Eggsackly! You see the hall wa'n't quite so light as usual, an' me sittin' in the big winder to the front end; so when he gits around the corner, I whips out an' lets Doc out, all right; an' we finds Mr. Brook a tryin' Sarita's door, an' makin' all the noise he darst. Wal—mebbe you think it was easy for us to git him back to his room agin! An'—say, what d'ye s'pose he played on us?"
How do I know? Wells, hurry up, I want to see Ware! I've got a story to tell that will beat yours."
"Well, sir, if he didn't make quite a rumpus tryin' to git to this door; and then he turns round an' wakes up."
"Yes, sir. Lets on that he's been walkin' in his sleep."
"Gad!"Murtagh gets up quickly, and Wells, grinning from ear to ear in the darkness, follows his example. "Quick, Wells, where is Ware now?"
"Anty-room. Young feller makin' believe sleep, or is sleepin'', one or t'other."
"Then go and take Ware's place; I must see him at once."
The doctor joined him promptly; and no sooner had he shut the door than the detective caught him by the arm.
"Ware—Wells has told me,—is that fellow asleep, or shamming?"
The doctor smiled grimly. "He's asleep this time beyond doubt; even the small quantity of the opiate that he had taken would, I knew, cause considerable thirst, and, when he began to pace the floor, after we got him back, I contrived to drop a white powder into the bottom of his drinking-glass, which stood as usual upon the tray near the head of the bed; the pitcher was about half full of iced water, and before long he motioned to William to pour him out a glass; the powder was tasteless, and dissolved at once—he drank it, and is fast asleep and likely to remain so for hours."| | 348
"And—the other—the sleep-walking?"
"Shammed, of course. He was anything but asleep."
"But how strange—that he should sham."
"While the other indulges in the real thing? Yes, and that reminds me. Have you the keys of that inner room of the mansard at hand?"
"What! Did your dose fail there too?"
"It has not failed as yet. Of course one can not be sure in these cases; consider the unnatural, overwrought condition of the patient. Upon nerves in a normal state one might count with absolute certainty in using that drug. But one can never calculate, you know, upon a machine once it is out of balance; and both these human machines are out of balance just now. So I shall not be surprised if the drug fails to hold her for the usual length of time; but it will soon be morning. Now about those keys,—something happened here, about an hour before you left the house, which I very much wanted to communicate to you if there had been a chance; I was in Brook's room, and Sarita had gone to hers, as I knew, supposably to follow my advice and retire. I found that she had failed to take the draught I had put, for her, into liquid form, as I had directed. You know I had advised her to go to her room early, and to lie down even if she was not sleepy, knowing, of course, that slumber would soon overtake her. So at about eight o'clock, being told by Miss Rodney that she was in her room, I went to her door and rapped boldly. A little to my surprise, she opened the door at once, and I saw the vial untouched upon the table. I took it up and was about to remonstrate, when what do you suppose she said, by way of excuse?"
"Great Cæsar! How can I guess? Something foxy and French no doubt!"
"She said she had been 'hesitating,' fearing that the liquid might be 'too stimulant,' and was thinking to ask me, 'if I would not give her something very strong to make the sleep come.'"
"The artful dodger! She suspected the opiate!"
"Of course I saw the trap in this—;and told her I did not want to give her an opiate, but, if she would take the liquid and try to sleep, I would give an opiate if she failed. I said that I would leave her door unlocked, and if she was awake at ten o'clock she might set the door ajar; I would then give her the opiate, and turn the key upon her, and as I left her I added, ' I will look in at you once or twice, meantime, just to see if you are obeying orders and lying down.' You comprehend?"
"Yes. You counted on her going to sleep, before she had lain there half an hour. Did she?"
"This is what she did. I had put Wells in my room, where with no light, and the door ajar, he could watch her door and see her if she came out and went toward either of the lower stairways. Half an hour after she had swallowed the medicine, I tapped at her door, waited a moment, with my ear close to the panel, and then looked in, | | 349 She was half way on, or off the bed, and I knew that she had but that moment thrown herself upon it. She had put on the loose grey gown, and on her feet were soft knit slippers. She declared that she was getting quite drowsy, and I left her. Ten minutes later, Miss Rodney made some pretext to enter her room, suddenly, without warning. She found Sarita pacing the floor swiftly; the lamp was burning its brightest, and the windows were opened wide. Miss Rodney says that she seemed both angry and embarrassed at her abrupt entrance, but declared herself upon the point of retiring, and as sleepy, 'so sleepy as not to hold her head straight' Miss Rodney, of course, excused herself and withdrew, going toward her own room, but turned back a moment later to tell me the result of her visit, as it seemed quite safe for her to do. As she was about to step out from the little hall, she paused a moment and peeped around the corner, thinking, she said, that I might be visible somewhere near Brook's door, my own, or, possibly, Santa's. She did not see me, but she saw Sarita coming cautiously out of her room with a candle in her hand. Miss Rodney drew back and waited a little, thinking it better to interrupt her if she came that way; and then it seemed to her that she would better go boldly forward, as if about to go to Brook's door, it being yet early; accordingly she moved forward, but instead of seeing Sarita face to face, or hurrying toward the little stairways, she saw at first nothing; and then, at second glance, just a fold of grey woollen and one slippered foot going up the attic stairs."
"Ah! up there!"
"Miss Rodney went softly to the foot of the stairway and peeped up. She saw Sarita with a bunch of keys in her hand, and she watched her until, after some effort, she fitted a key and opened the door leading into the first attic—the old attic; and then when Sarita closed the door and disappeared, she came to me. Of course I knew that Sarita was not asleep then, and I also knew that whatever sent her up there she would not remain long; she would fear a visit from me, and would make haste. I felt that we must know, if possible, why she was there, and said so, and Miss Rodney at once took in the situation. She glanced down at my feet, ' You can't go up in those shoes, light as they are, Dr. Ware,' said she, and then she put out her own little slippered foot. 'Can you trust me?' she asked; ' I am sure I can go silently—and safely.' We were already at the foot of the stairs. I nodded, and, without another word, she bent down, pulled off her little slippers, and went up the stairs like a lapwing. She must have remained fully ten minutes, kneeling upon the landing with her eye at the keyhole, and then she made a quick spring and came downstairs almost dying; the first turn being in this direction, she turned this way, and, a moment after, we were both crouching upon the little stairway, half-way down. We listened, and then I went back to reconnoitre. Sarita was in her room once more. I went to the door and fumbled at the knob for a moment, then I opened the door, slowly, that she might have ample time. Of course she lay upon the bed, her eyes fast shut, and I closed her door and turned the key."
"Umph! regular game of cross purposes! muttered the detective.| | 350
"I went back to Miss Rodney and she told me that Sarita had spent everyone of the ten or more minutes of her watch, in trying, with a big bunch of keys, to open the inner door, that she had worked fast, and seemed in desperate earnest, clenching her hands, rolling her eyes, and moving her lips as if almost beside herself when, one after another, all the keys failed her. Now, Murtagh, there is something of value to her, and possibly to us, hidden in that attic; and the sooner the door is opened to her the better."
"What! do you want her to go there alone, and—awake?"
"Assuredly not! Without a doubt the woman is sleeping now. From what Miss Rodney tells me, sleep overtook her in a state of great mental disquietude; I did not intend to let the draught hold her until morning, and before this time the secondary effect of the drug will have taken hold, the mental faculties will waken while the physical are still asleep, then she will walk, and—if it is open—she will enter the new attic."
"Have you unlocked her door?"
"An hour ago."
"Then I'll get the keys and—"
There was a faint scratching sound at the door, and Ware opened it to admit Wells.
"Hist!" Wells whispered, close to his ear, and without closing the door. "She's movin' agin! She's gone over to the other hall."
Murtagh and Ware exchanged glances of intelligence.
"Go to Deering, Wells," directed the detective, in a sharp whisper, and, a moment later, he was creeping up the attic stairs, with matches and a dark lantern in his pocket, and a single key in his hand.
Lysander Deering's room was now in the care of Murtagh and Ware; and, every night, after the servants and family had retired, the key was turned in the lock, and Sarita permitted to go through with her strange pantomime whenever the spirit of sleep so moved her. To-night, as usual, it was repeated, but briefly, and as if from force of habit.
"It's more like self-hypnotism than somnambulism," thought the doctor as he watched her. "A purely muscular function, the mental faculty is not yet in the ascendant; she's a mere machine at this moment."
It looked as if he were right. She came out from the chamber and went with stiff slow movement back to her own room, and a full half-hour passed before she again came forth. Ware, sitting in the cushioned window-seat at the end of the hall opposite her door, watched her with interest, never stirring until she had passed out of sight and up the attic stairs, armed, as on her waking visit, with candle and keys.
He followed her slowly. He knew that Murtagh was awaiting her up there, and that, from some dusky nook or corner, he would make mental record of her every movement.
But he had not placed his uplifted foot upon the first stair when the door of the "anty-room" was opened with a quick jerk, and he turned back hastily with a hand uplifted, and with half-a-dozen quick strides was at the half-open door, where William stood anxious-faced and | | 351 eager. Brook Deering lay raving upon the floor of his dressing-room.
"He's been roused from his sleep,"William declared, "by that ghostly step, sir, and he's worse than ever, sir. He's awful this time''
It was quite true. The usually quiet "lunatic" was now a raving one his eyes seemed starting from their sockets, and pulse and heart were beating a danger tattoo. But beyond the fever and nerve collapse, for this it was, there was but one indication of mania, and this was his old cry. He had heard his father's footsteps, and he could hear them still
For half an hour the doctor had no thought for anything outside that room. At the end of that time Brook, weak and exhausted, lay still upon his bed, his nerves controlled by a strong bromide, and William, weary but watchful, sitting beside him. And then Wells, with eyes wide open and wondering, beckoned the doctor out into the hall.
There was no sign there of either Sarita or the detective, and Ware, after going to the door of the woman's room, and satisfying himself that she was still in the mansard, came back to the low window and sat down. The window, a shallow bow, projected over the side piazza underneath, and was surrounded by a broad balcony with a low railing. The sash was open to the top, and Wells had stepped across the cushions and now sat with his feet resting upon the balcony. It was very still, and the cool air, which foretold the coming dawn, was grateful to each.
"Doc," whispered Wells," I've been spiling to ask one or two questions. That sleep-walkin' was a sham, Iknow, and I'd some doubts about the crazy! But—was there any make-believe about this spell? Was that shammin'"
"No. It was only too real—as complete a collapse of the nervous system as I want to see. A few such would make him—not the mild `lung' you have seen him, but a raging maniac."
Jimmenetty and you think he really believes that he hears them footsteps"
"He not only believes it, but he does hear them—hush"
Silently, stealthily, Sarita was coming down the three steps visible at the foot of the attic stairway, and they watched with breathless interest while she pushed wide open the already unlatched door of her room and entered. A moment later, the detective appeared at the foot of the stairway coming to the turn leading to his own door, he beckoned to Ware.
"Go back to Deering, Wells," the doctor whispered, "and don't call me unless he becomes violent again, which is not likely to happen. The woman I shall lock in once more."
"An' high time, too," muttered the huntsman as he stepped back into the hall "it's the crack o' day, an' there goes a rooster a crowin' this minute."
The rooster had crowed many times, and the sun was above the horizon before the detective and his colleague separated. The story of Murtagh's encounter with Ora Wardell was yet to be told, and it was important that Ware should hear it in all its details. But Murtagh's first words were not of this.| | 352
When Ware had followed him into his own room, and they stood face to face behind the locked door, Murtagh, his eyes gleaming, and his voice fairly thrilling with suppressed excitement, brought both muscular hands down upon the doctor's shoulders and said:
"Ware, we've made the home run As I live, I believe we've found the missing link Yes, sir the key to the whole situation"
"Thank Heaven for that for I fear that we must force the crisis in any case. In forty-eight hours from now these two might be beyond our possible control."
"Then we won't wait! we'll strike at once! Sit down, man, I've a great deal to tell you."
Ware seated himself promptly. "I am quite ready to listen," he said, "but, first, let me tell you that I have settled one vexed question. The ghostly footsteps are real enough. I don't fully understand it, but the fact is clear enough—Brook Deering fully believes that he is—haunted by his father's footsteps, and—if he is ever thoroughly insane it will be because of this very large bump of superstition which he hag inherited, no doubt, from some foreign ancestry."
"Ah Then you still think—"
"I do not think now. It is scientifically proved."
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