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 55 chapter 63 >>

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IF the night had been eventful to some of the inmates of Beechwood, the morning following it was quiet enough; and until high noon, the | | 359 house itself seemed sleeping. Except in the servants' quarters, the great place appeared deserted. The detective and Doctor Ware were taking some much-needed rest. Brook Deering did not leave his bed at his usual breakfast hour, and refused to be disturbed. Sarita was sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, with Mrs. Merton to look in upon her from time to time; and only Tom Wells, who had kept himself as fresh as possible for just such an emergency, was on the alert in Deering's rooms, and up and down the west hall.

When Brenda appeared in the breakfast-room, Valentine was well on her way to Pomfret, and she breakfasted with Bruce a deux. They were a very silent and preoccupied couple, in spite of their spasmodic attempts at sociability, and, soon after, Bruce mounted his horse and rode to Pomfret; while Brenda, after tapping at the door of the "anty-room" to inquire after Brook, as usual, went to her own room, and did not appear again until luncheon-time. That Valentine had gone out for an early drive did not surprise her. Valentine was addicted to early hours, and, of late, both had been too self-absorbed to be good companions.

At Brook's door she had been met by Wells, who held the door slightly ajar and informed her, in an undertone, that "Mr. Deerin' was restin' now; but he'd had a baddish night, and the doctor had gi'n orders that no one was ter see him or come in until further notice." This same information was given to Bruce a few moments later, as well as to Mrs. Merton, who came to inquire on behalf of Sarita, who, she said, was quite ill.

At the turn of the hall, as Mrs. Deering was going from Brook's door to her own, she met William bearing a well-laden tray. He paused at sight of her, moved back a few paces, and, setting down his burden upon a small table, in order to free his hands, took from his waistcoat pocket a small folded note, and held it out to her.

"It's from Mr. Holly, ma'am. He was up quite early, and asked for a cup of coffee. He'd only jest come out to ask how was Mr. Brook, and he said I must give you his excuses for not 'pearin' at table. He was that broke off his rest last night, he says. He don't give up yet, ma'am, but there's rats in the walls."

"Mr. Holly's" note ran as follows:—

"Mrs. D.,—

I think S——may apply to you for the keys, and permission to enter the north attic; please find some pretext, if needful, for not giving her the entry there until afternoon. And—if you and Miss R——would make that little visit to Mrs. Baird shortly after luncheon, and remain until you hear from us—you might thus avoid—unpleasantness. Understand, this is not necessary to ourplans. Only a suggestion for your comfort.


After reading this note, Brenda pondered it with a look of doubt, and then, shaking her head with quick determination, she swept the doubt away, and rapidly penned a reply, carrying it herself, unobserved by any, to the detective's door. Stooping down, she pushed it, thinly folded as it was, beneath the door, and with a quick fillip of her fingers sent it out of sight on the other side, where it lay in full view, and was the first object upon which Murtagh's eyes fell when he arose, "a giant refreshed," from his nap.

He opened it at once, and read it, after the first words, with a smile upon his face.

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"My friend," so it ran, "since our talk I have reconsidered. If it is only to avoid a little (a even much) personal discomfort, and if my presence in the house will in no way affect of hinder your plans, I prefer not to leave my house. To me there seems something cowardly in such an act. I will confine myself to my own rooms entirely, if that is your wish. And you will have as full liberty as if I were absent. Indeed, I can truly plead 'indisposition' as a reason for my seclusion, which, I am sure, will be shared by Miss Rodney. Mrs. Merton will quite understand that all, in the meantime, is in your hands. B. D."

The position taken by Mrs. Deering when she had first discussed terms and conditions with Murtagh, she had strictly adhered to, and, while blindly assenting to his requests or following his instructions, she had at no time asked for, or received, information from him.

The determination, taken while under the smart of Brook Deering's half-frantic insinuation, had been strengthened by other causes, and—while she had ceased to see herself in the light of a possibly accused or suspected person, suspected as being one of the inmates of Beech-wood, with free access to the room of the victim of poison, and with a vaguely possible motive—she now saw always before her another horrible possibility, which, while leaving her free, might still bring a hateful stigma upon the house and the name of Deering.

This hideous possibility, which had entered her brain and pierced her heart on the day of Jonas Wiggins' first visit, and which was never absent from her mind, had grown as the days went by she had done what she could, what she must have done; she had spoken those words, which might have been words of warning—to both—Bruce and Brook Deering, and, come what might, both had been made aware that an amethyst button, such as had been once owned by both of them, and by herself, had been found upon the scene of Joe Matchin's murder, and that it was believed to be in the hands of the enemy, to be used—as an aid to fasten the crime upon—the guilty one.

How shocked she had been, and how terrified, when the detective had approached her upon this subject how she had tried to avoid or evade his questions And to what little purpose Well—at least, she had not wavered in her refusal to supply him with a duplicate jewel and she had put it out of his reach She did not know how futile all this had been made by just a few words between her long-tried and faithful Judith and Val Rodney's new maid,—and she had declined to listen to any details concerning it reminding him that she was to know the results—when the time came—not the processes.

And then—her husband's strange fate!—Why had they asked her to open and read that paper left to her in trust, and not to be opened, yet And what had that to do with her husband's death And so on and on ran her thoughts.

At ten o'clock the morning train from the east went rumbling over the east embankment, in full sight of her windows and, half an hour later, she heard the sound of an arrival, and footsteps and voices in the direction of Miss Rodney's room. She rang for Judith, who informed her that Miss Valentine's "new maid" had come back.

An hour later, she learned, through the same source, that Master Bruce and Miss Valentine had arrived together; and, shortly before the luncheon hour, while Judith was dressing her hair, Sarita applied for an audience and was, of course, admitted.

She was pale, haggard almost; and she owned that she had not | | 361 been well, "because of a bad head and 'nerves,'" but she declared herself quite strong now, and anxious to be occupied. "Could madam give her some sewing?"

Madam could not, at that moment; and then came the request.

Might she trouble madam then for the keys of the new attic? In some way one of her trunks had got in there, and in it was fine linen, and patterns, and some unfinished needle-work. If it would not be too great trouble, might she go and search for those things in her trunk up there?

"Madam," of course, had no objection, but she must ask Sarita to wait—she would send Judith with the keys soon after her toilet; of course there was no haste?"None whatever," Sarita declared, but she left the room, nevertheless, with a look of keen disappointment—much too keen to attribute to so inadequate a cause—upon her thin, nervous face.

. . . . . . .

It was long past the luncheon-hour when Judith came to Sarita's door with the keys of the new mansard, or attic, murmuring some light excuse for the delay; and, ten minutes later, Sarita came cautiously out from her room, locking her door, and, after a sharp glance up and down the hall, flitting up the attic stairs, noiseless, and swift.

From her window she had seen Valentine and Bruce Deering sitting under the great trees in Val's favourite place. She knew that Brenda had retired to her room at once, after luncheon; and she had overheard Mr. Holly and Doctor Ware arranging for a drive into Pomfret, as they stood in the hall near her door.

She had made an effort to see Brook after leaving Brenda's room that morning, but Cerebus, in the form of Tom Wells, was still on guard; and he had not failed to note her quick look of disappointment and chagrin as she turned away.

As she mounted the stairs, and opened the door at the landing, her strained and anxious features relaxed a little, and when she had passed through the second doorway, and turned and locked it behind her, she breathed a great sigh of relief and paused to look about her.

Everything was as she had last seen it. The low window over the front porch let in enough light to render visible the piles of boxes, packing cases, and discarded furniture pushed back against the wall, and under the eaves, in the orderly fashion which the detective had observed, leaving the central and inner portion of the long attic quite clear, so that the line of light coming in through half-shuttered front windows, traversed a straight course to the rear, where it lost itself in a promiscuous pile of old chairs, discarded mattresses, boxes, trunks, and folded bedding.

It was toward this darkest portion of the attic that Sarita took her way, after a moment of listening and looking about her. The piles of odds and ends here would have seemed, even to a sharp-eyed observer in this dim light, to be a dense mass piled high and packed close. From the wall to the north at this point was outlined a sort of alcove, indicating an extension a little more than half the width of the mansard, and forming, as one would at once guess, a part of the long dining-room below, with between a large guest chamber.

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From the opening of this alcove to the wall in the rear, a space of some 16 feet, there seemed to be no vacant space; but when Sarita had taken from her pocket a candle, a stubby small bottle with a large mouth, and half-a-dozen matches, all of which she placed upon a broken chair, she put out her two hands, and taking hold of a thick mattress, which stood up sidewise against the seeming mass behind, and, pulling it toward her, glided in behind it, and so through a narrow lane, neatly left open, between the heaps on either side.

Near the wall, and directly beneath the window, which in the rear was high and narrow, was a small open space; and when Sarita had mounted upon a box to peep through the shutters, and feel along the window-frames, she got down and went back for her candle, bottle, and matches.

The candle she lighted carefully, and stuck it into the mouth of the stubby bottle, and with this to guide her, she went back to the open space beneath the window.

"Peste!" she muttered to herself as she put the candle down. "I was wrong not to leave just a little more light! No one has seen."

She took a half-worn quilt from one of the heaps, and, mounting the box once more, hung it over the window by sharp little nails placed there by her own careful hands, and, getting down, put the candle upon the box where it was farthest removed from the inflammables.

And now her movements were full of feverish energy. She approached a pile of cushions, carpets, quilts, and rugs, heaped in a corner nearest the window, and began pulling them away, flinging them down hurriedly anyhow; and, from beneath and among them, at last she drew forth a small trunk, old and evidently of foreign make.

When she had drawn this close to the box holding the candle, she put a hand to her throat, and loosening her bodice at the neck, drew forth a black cord, at the end of which hung a couple of keys. Selecting one of these, she unlocked the trunk, with some difficulty apparently, because of a rusty lock, and put back the lid.

For a moment she peered into the open trunk, and then she removed a shallow tray without so much as a glance at its contents, and began to take out folded garments, parcels securely tied, boxes, and queer shaped objects wrapped in paper and tied with faded ribbons. These last she fingered as if they were living, and she loved them, and put them down slowly one by one.

They were children's toys, tattered and broken for the most part, and after them came a bundle of infant's clothes, which she pressed to her lips with tear-dimmed eyes.

And now she has lifted in her hand a box of dark wood, small, and shaped like a portable writing-case, and as she holds it she starts nervously, glances around, and seems to listen. She even starts as if tempted to make sure that the door is fast locked—knowing all the while that it is quite secure, and, finally, she places the box in her lap, and, with the second of her two keys, opens it. And now a | | 363 watcher could have seen that the long thin fingers clutched at the edge of the box nervously, and that her hand trembled, and her thin lips twitched.

From the box she takes out some old and faded pictures, a number of yellow and crumpled newspaper clippings, a small bundle of old letters, and—last—a cushion-like something, which might have belonged upon some ancient toilet-table, a pin-cushion doubtless—but one having lost its plumpness—flabby and faded.

And now she takes from her pocket a tiny knife, and with a slim blade cuts remorselessly into the dingy silk, lays the cushion open in two sections, and from its centre takes out an envelope of the long legal sort. It is folded double, to fit its place between the layers of cotton, and when she smoothes it out upon her knee, a name, written in a strong, bold hand, is displayed upon one side, with some words below; and on the reverse side is a heavy seal. The seal is broken, and the packet, which is quite thick, has been opened.

The woman looks at it for a moment as it were almost an object of hatred, and then, with sudden energy, she drops the envelope in her lap and begins to replace the things, first in the box, and then in the trunk.

And now all are replaced, and she must rise to reach and put back the tray.

She turns half around in the narrow space in which she sits, puts the long envelope upon the projecting edge of a box, almost at her side, and bends over to reach the tray.

And then—there is a slight clicking noise close beside her,—a ray of light flashes across her shoulder. Gasping, she turns, her hand stretched out toward the precious paper, and sees—standing close behind her, one hand holding a dark lantern, open now, and with its light turned upon the envelope held in the other hand—"Uncle Holly."

Even as she turns, his keen eyes have read the name upon the big envelope, and now he fixes them full upon her—without the spectacles—keen, and stern.

"Don't scream, madam! You'll get along best with me if you take matters quietly."

The woman's face is grey with terror. She could not utter a sound if she would. Her eyes dilate; her teeth chatter; she reels, stumbles, and clutches with both hands at her throat.

Only for a moment, however. Then the staring orbs suddenly contract and narrow; the mouth closes, with a literal gnashing of teeth, and settles into thin cruel lines. The face, still pallid, is the face of a fury; lithe, noiseless, quick as a cat, she springs upon him; one hand with claw-like fingers outstretched toward him; the other thrust into the bosom of her gown, from whence she has withdrawn the two keys.

But she has not counted upon the strength and agility of "Uncle Holly," while the swiftness of the sudden transfer of the envelope to a side-pocket, and the careless dropping of the little safety lantern, are totally unexpected. Like a flash the two hands—one outstretched to clutch, and the other grasping a slim gleaming stiletto, half in, half out of her bosom—are caught and held, lightly, but so firmly that, after the first momentary and instinctive writhing effect to release her- | | 364 self, she ceases to struggle, and stands before him, her eyes blazing and defiant, and her white teeth almost meeting through her thin underlip. There is no sign of surrender in her gaze; hatred and defiance look out of her eyes as she stands glaring at him with closed lips.

She does not dream of the truth, and her thoughts are working swiftly. She has been followed, she thinks, by this prying old man, out of curiosity, or, perhaps, distrust; and he believes himself to have captured her in the act of theft. But she is soon to be undeceived; though Murtagh is not unwilling to test the mettle of this strange fire-brand of a woman.

For a moment they stood silent, both, and motionless; then, with a quick movement, too quick to comprehend, much less resist, he has drawn her two wrists together, and, holding them with one hand, with the other forces open the fingers grasping the stiletto, which he catches as it falls, and drops into the pocket alongside the big envelope.

"Now, Madam Sarita," he says, still holding her hands, "in order to save you further waste of strength, let me tell you that the door of this attic is locked, and the key in my possession, and that you will only injure yourself by resisting me further! I am not here simply to discover you in the act of secreting, or, perhaps, destroying, the document stolen from Mrs. Deering some weeks ago; I have wanted just such an opportunity as this gives me to talk with you, alone. I am not your enemy; I have no wish to do you injury; and, when we have finished our interview, it will be your own fault if you do not go back to your room, as you came, unmolested." He released her hands, and, stooping, picked up the still burning dark lantern. "Sit down upon that trunk," shutting the lid of the trunk which stood beside them, "and hear what I have to say to you."

She looked down at the closed trunk, and up at the man who was coolly seating himself upon a pile of carpet, opposite, and very near, as well as between herself and the narrow avenue through the piled. up débris, and sat down in sullen silence.

"Now," began Murtagh, "not to waste time, I will begin by telling you who I am, and why you are cornered here in this manner. Did you ever suspect that I might not be the genuine uncle of Mrs. Deering?"

The woman started violently, and a look of terror came into her face.

"In fact, I am not, madam; I am a detective, and I came here to discover the person, or persons, who first murdered old Joe Matchin, and afterwards, Mr. Deering of Beechwood. It looked, at first, like a very difficult task, but I am happy to say that it is very nearly completed."

He paused here to see if she would speak, but she only sat clutching the sides of the trunk with both hands, and trembling, in spite of her visible effort at self-control, in every limb. Murtagh watched her keenly through narrowed lids.

"I am on the point of denouncing the guilty parties," he resumed, with increasing sternness; "and it will depend upon you, Madam Sarita, whether the assassin is given over bodily to the sheriff, and | | 365 later, to the hangman, or whether he is given a chance to escape some of the consequences of his crimes."

The woman had ceased to tremble, and her eyes had grown foxy and keen. At last she opened her lips.

"You are speaking to me in riddles," she said, with well-simulated calmness; "and I think you must be insane! I do not believe you to be a detective, and even so, I have nothing to say about these things. I am not afraid of you, and you had better let me pass and leave this place before Doctor Ware misses me, and comes to search for me. I came here by Mrs. Deering's order, and she will not thank you for taking from me a paper which she has seen fit to conceal for long weeks, to keep it from such as you, perhaps—"

Murtagh arose with an impatient gesture.

"We won't waste time for the sake of indulging in useless dramatics, madam, although you do them well! I promise to put this important and well-concealed document into the hands of its lawful owner very soon. As for Doctor Ware, since you rely upon him, you shall have the opportunity to appeal to him. He is on the other side of this heap of rubbish, and if it had occurred to you to look behind the furniture piled so loosely against that north wall when you entered this attic, you might have seen us both waiting there quite comfortably for your coming; for we knew you were coming. Doctor, you may as well come in, and look after your patient."

In spite of herself, the woman uttered a quick cry when Doctor Ware came slowly toward them through the narrow opening, and, with grave, unreadable face, took his place just behind the detective, standing there without a word, and with only a glance in her direction.

"Now," resumed the detective, "to show you how much we are in earnest, and how little it will avail you to deny, or refuse what we shall ask of you, let me tell you that, from the moment when Brook peering landed in New York, left his `young friend' in charge of the Frenchwoman whom he had picked up on the other side, and set out for Pomfret, we have traced his every movement, from the time when he dropped from the train at the curve and crossed the meadows,—and, by the way, he did a very unwise thing when he stopped to ask for a glass of milk at Widow Hunt's farm; for even his disguise failed to conceal his dainty feet and hands, his height, and, above all, the limp which he got in jumping from the moving train. Besides, he forgot to change his voice, which, you know, would be remembered without fail. Then there was his visit to Miss Wardell, his encounter with Bruce Deering, who was on his way home from a social evening at the hill, directly after the killing of Joe Matchin, his escape, and Miss Wardell's prompt aid.—His hiding in the church, of which I have proofs, as well as of Miss Wardell's visits to you, with notes and messages from Brook. He was concealed here, in this attic, where he slept by that front window in the cosy nook under the eaves, and was fed and ministered unto by you—until, on the night of the railway mishap, you contrived to smuggle him out, under Doctor Ware's very nose, too, so that he might return a few moments later, and pose as a victim of the accident on his way home. We know it all, madam, and we know the motives behind it all! Why it seemed | | 366 necessary that Joe Matchin and Lysander Deering must be put out of the world in order to screen a scamp, a spendthrift, forger, and libertine, who saw no other way to save himself from exposure, and to succeed in his scheme of marrying an heiress! Which heiress he would marry, would depend on the success of all his complicated schemes."

"Ah! mon enfant! mon Dieu!"She flung out her hands, and ground her teeth in impotent rage and fear; but the foxy look still lurked in her burning eyes, and, filled as she was with terror unutterable, she yet fought her way inch by inch. "Dieu! Von Dieu! What is all this? You accuse another, and all the while you threaten me! as if it were my guilt! I know nothing of this I nothing! I have never believed Bruce Deering was a murderer, but even so, say he is, say you can prove him so, what is this to me? Why should I help or screen Bruce Deering, who never cared for or helped me? Why, I say, do you threaten me, and—accuse?"

"Because we know you, woman! If we have traced Brook Deering, we have also traced you; and in your case it has been backward. Look back to the time when you agreed, for a royal sum of money, to come to America as nurse to the child of a sick lady, and to keep inviolate a certain secret concerning that mother and child."

"Ah!" It was just a hiss, or catching of the breath, accompanied by a start that must have brought every tense nerve into play.

"That secret you have kept," went on the detective remorselessly, "and, that it might still be kept, the poison cup was put to the lips of the man who for long years has been a princely benefactor to you andYours! We know your secret, Madam Sarita; and now shall the law take its course? shall the unworthy man you have struggled, cheated, and sinned for, be given up to the law? or, will you take the steps that may save him from the worst? Him—and—yourself? Wait—" for her lips were parted, and the foxy look was still in her eyes. "You cannot parley with us! Denial is useless. You will comply with our wishes, or you will go from this room to prison. I will not allow you to trifle, or absorb our time with either falsehood or argument! All is in our hands! Ask Doctor Ware how much chance you have, if you refuse the only terms we can offer you."

For a moment she sits with her eyes fixed, her teeth set, and her fingers clenched until they cut into the flesh. But she is fairly trapped, and she knows it well. She is a woman whose love is as strong as her hate, as deep as her wickedness; and more than her life rests now in the hands of this terrible, inexorable man. She lifts her eyes, no longer crafty, but full of desperate appeal, to Doctor Ware's face.

Until now he has not spoken. But in response to her look, he moves to the side of the detective, and says, gravely and slowly:

"Every word that my friend has said is true. Young Deering's fate rests in your hands."

But she is not yet fully conquered. She makes one last, frantic throw.

"But, the proof! You cannot do it! How can you?" and her eyes glitter with the triumph of a sudden and welcome thought | | 367 "You cannot drag a poor, sick, insane young man into court! He could not be a witness—"

The doctor checks her with a swift and imperative gesture.

"Cease! Let us end this! I may as well tell you that I shall be one of the many witnesses against you, if you persist in this folly of denial and resistance. You have betrayed yourself, in your sleep, night after night. We have left your door ajar, and you have gone more than once to Mr. Deering's rooms, and there enacted a pantomime which convinces me that it was you who crept to his bedside in the night—and dropped the deadly poison into his medicine! It was through your somnambulism that we, following you to this attic, have found proof of Brook Deering's stay here. And as for him, I have known from the first that his insanity was all a sham. Give up that thought. His sanity can be proved too easily—besides—" he checked himself and glanced inquiringly towards Murtagh.

"Besides," interposed Murtagh, "Miss Wardell has confessed everything."


Both men smiled.

"She was wiser than you—that's all," said Murtagh. "Come, madam, your decision—quick."

For the first time she turned upon him a look of appeal. "Give me time," she said; "let me think—for ten minutes, no me*"


"Of course."

She lowered her head upon her hand, and Murtagh, turning toward the doctor, took the captured envelope from his pocket, and held it before his eyes.

"The stolen packet?" murmured the doctor.

"The last link," whispered the detective.

They waited patiently until Sarita lifted her head.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked hoarsely.

"Make a confession to be written down and witnessed; a confession that will clear Bruce Deering of all complicity in both crimes.'

"I will never do that!" she cried excitedly.

"What, not to save Brook?" questioned Murtagh."

To save!—but how can that be?"

"If I show you how it can be done, will you agree?"

"Shall he escape—go free?"

"He shall be permitted to leave Beechwood, and his name shall never be connected with the crime."

"And—and I?"

"Are you willing to undergo imprisonment to save—Brook?"

"Yes—yes! So that he goes free; but the name, how can it be? I will write the confession! I will go to prison; only show me how it can be done, and his name be saved from disgrace!"

"I promise you that the names of Bruce and Brook Deering shall stand clear in the sight of all men."

"But how?—how, How?" she clutched her trembling hands; she was quivering again with suspense and excitement.

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"This must end," Doctor Ware whispered to Murtagh, "or she will break down before we have done with her."

"How?" she again demanded. "Who then shall be called the guilty one?"

Murtagh looked her full in the eager eyes.

"Your son," he said.

There is a sudden gasp, she throws up her hands, and the doctor springs forward and catches her as she falls forward. She has fainted.

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