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 LXI.
A HORRIBLE MOMENT.

THERE was little thought of sleep in the minds of the men who sat in the library at ten o'clock that night talking over the events of the day. Rather, Murtagh and Ware talked, for the most part, with, now and then, a word from John Redding, who had joined them at dinner at Brenda's request. Bruce was silent, and seemed restless.

A few moments after ten, Rosa came to the door and beckoned to the doctor, who bade her come in.

"Doctor," she began, "Sarita refuses to take her drops; I cannot manage her, this time."

"Really?" there was a shadowy smile upon the doctor's face. "Is she nervous?"

"Very, almost to the point of hysterics. She ought to sleep."

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"Does she take the bitter wine regularly?"

"Yes, because she knows its effect."

"Then, I will give you a couple of soluble tablets, which you must contrive to drop into that wine flask.

Can you manage it?"

"I think so."

"Very well, they will make her sleep, but not too soundly; and, Rosa, you may leave her door unlocked; and if she wakens, and seems too uneasy, you may feign sleep. I mean to let her visit her son again, if she makes the attempt. I have given instructions to Joe, who watches in the hall, and to Wells, inside. She will be admitted if she goes."

"Why not simplify matters by giving her permission?" ventured Redding.

"Because," it was Murtagh who answered, "she distrusts us! She would at once suspect a trap, and it would end in her not going."

"I see!"

"I fancy our other prisoner will not refuse his sleeping potion," the doctor said, returning to his chair. "For medical reasons I have stopped his allowance of tobacco, of late; cut it off almost entirely; and now he is wild to smoke, so I have given him some cigarettes, mildly flavoured with opium."

Bruce started. "Is there any chance of his smoking too many of them?" he asked, with evident anxiety.

"Not if he smokes them all. They are very mildly flavoured; I count upon the tobacco, quite as much as the drug, for the soothing effect. He will be permitted to smoke, as much as he will, to-night. It is necessary that he should be strengthened and stimulated for to-morrow."

Bruce was silent a moment. Then, "Have you left him any opiate, any drug of which an overdose might be dangerous?" he asked.

"Nothing; and he is well watched. We thought it best to withdraw Wells, before giving Sarita her first chance to enter his room. He would have suspected the trick if Wells had remained."

"I don't understand," urged Bruce, "why Sarita was not allowed more time at first!"

"That," interposed Murtagh, "is because we have not yet explained that point. If I had approached him and charged him with his crimes, he would doubtless have continued to feign insanity. We knew that Sarita had been watching for a chance to slip out and warn him, and we let her have it. It opened the way for us, and left him no room for the insanity dodge! If he had not struck her, we might have let them prolong their interview. What she wants now is opportunity to plead with him, that she may go with him or follow after. We want to give them both the chance, without seeming to relent. For my part, I confess I am curious to know if there is a spark of human feeling in him!"

"So am I," declared Doctor Ware.

But Bruce sighed, and was silent.

. . . . . . .

Shortly after midnight, Rosa, resting with closed eyes but alert ears, upon her couch, opposite she bed where her charge had, for | | 406 some time, been lying very quietly, opened her eyes stealthily. The light was burning dimly, and she could not clearly see Sarita's face, but, obeying her instructions, she lay very still, and watched with some surprise the woman's movements.

Sarita had risen, and, after standing for a moment as if irresolute, she went to the corner closet, and took from it the grey gown, which Rosa had persuaded her to remove early in the evening.

This she drew on over her white robe de nuit, and, going back to the bed, she stooped at its head as if about to take something in her extended hand.There was a moment of what seemed again like hesitation, and then she turned, and, passing close by the watcher upon the couch, approached a little bracket shelf, which Rosa had cleared of its contents—one or two boxes, a tiny clock, which never kept time, and two or three bottles—to make room for her own "bottles and glasses." Here there was another moment of hesitation, and then, taking in her hand a small bottle which was quite empty, Sarita again brushed past the surprised nurse, and moved with a peculiar, slow, even tread, toward the door. As she opened it and passed out, leaving it ajar, Rosa started to her feet.

"How stupid!" she muttered under her breath;" she's walking in her sleep, of course!"

What should she do in this unprepared-for emergency? Rosa pondered a moment, standing in the open doorway, and then murmured:

"I'll follow her, first!"

She had been told of Sarita's midnight visits to her dead master's chamber, and she was not surprised when Sarita, instead of going toward Brook's rooms, turned in the opposite direction.

As she came out from the cross hall into the main corridor, and saw the slow-moving grey figure, with one hand still outstretched before, she shuddered instinctively at the uncanny proceeding.

The day had been very warm, without the slightest breeze, and the long French windows, that filled the entire front of the broad, middle corridor, and that had been opened wide all day, were only partially closed now. As Sarita paused at the door of the room which she shunned waking, and sought sleeping, a newly-awakened breeze, through the open windows, caused the lamp at the corner to flicker and almost die out.

Owing, in part, to the absence of the only occupants of that hall-Brenda and Valentine, and, in part, to the open windows at either end; for, in the rear, the upper part of the great windows that lighted the staircase was also open—there was but this one light upon the corridor. It illuminated sufficiently the stairs, and that portion of the hall to be traversed by the occupants of the west corridor—which, tonight, was especially well-lighted; so well, indeed, that Tom Wells, lounging there upon the cushions, by the open window at the front, and vigorously agitating a big palm-leaf, could scarcely keep off the winged insects of the night that buzzed eagerly toward the brightness beyond the fluttering curtains.

His request that he might be relieved because of weariness, and the exchanging of watchers in Brook's room in consequence, had been, of | | 407 course, but a part of the plan by which Sarita was to be permitted, once again, to attempt an interview with her thankless son. And it was hoped that the question—whether the poison had been given the master of Beechwood by Brook or his mother—might be settled. For. it would go hard with the dull-looking "new man"—in reality, a very clever fellow—if he did not contrive to overhear the greater part of whatever they might say. Meantime, Wells was beginning to yawn in his window, when the new man came hastily out.

"He's acting very queer," he whispered; "I think you'd better come in!"

"That so?" getting up lazily. "Well—I guess things ain't runnin' quite 'cordin' to order to-night!" and he followed Joe, leaving his outlook at the window just a moment before the two women emerged from Sarita's room, one after the other, and vanished down the cross hall.

Brook had risen and was dressing, muttering brokenly the while. He paid no heed to the two men, and Joe whispered behind his hand:

"Shamming—think?"

Wells shook his head and watched every movement with wrinkling brows—then without noise he made a quick stride forward just as Brook lifted his face after stooping to draw on his slippers. The light shone full upon it, and Wells saw that it was pale and set.

Without a glance toward him, or so much as the quiver of an eyelid, Brook turned away as if looking for something. Instantly Wells moved back to the farther side of the room, and away from the outer door, beckoning Joe to follow him. Joe glanced toward the door.

"It is not locked," he whispered.

"Never mind, let him go!"

"Wh—at?"

"You heard Doc's orders, didn't you?—we are not to watch him too sharp, you know. If he goes out, let him—we'll follow!" He moved toward the door. "He ain't goin' to levant in his stockin' feet."

Brook, who had been looking about him, or seeming to, as if for something mislaid, now came out from the bedroom and began to fumble with the lamp upon the reading-table; turning it down quite low at last, and muttering:

"I must know, I must!"

His eyes were opened wide, and stared strangely; and he walked past the two men, now standing close against the wall, opened the door, and, seeming to look and listen, ventured out—leaving the door, as had Sarita, "upon the latch."

He moved quite swiftly until he had reached the turn, and then, instead of going, as Wells had expected, straight to Sarita's door, he paused once more, listened, peered this way and that, and then turned toward the main corridor, walking now with halting steps, and stopping often as if startled; listening, muttering, and moving on again, while, close behind him, his two watchers followed, one on either side.

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And now his murmured words grew more distinct and more frequent.

"Hear them!" stopping with a backward start. "Ugh! getting closer!" lie moves forward quickly. "Why does he do it?" listening again. "I must find out!—I must go in!—yes—ugh!—hear that!"

The wind is rising, and now they can hear it rustling among the trees; a strong breeze comes in at the open window, and causes the lamp to flare wildly.

Wells stops long enough to turn it a little higher, then they go on.

And now Brook has paused at the door from whence have issued those ghostly footsteps which have haunted him sleeping and waking. He stands before it, and again seems to listen. With a sinuous creeping movement he draws close to the door and bends his head with his ear to the panel.

Again a strong breeze rustles in the branches without, blows a strong breath down the long corridor, and causes the lights to flare again wildly.

Brook does not heed the wind, but when all is still he starts again.

"Oh, there!—It is there!" he draws back and presses his two palms upon the door.

Yes," he mutters, "I must face it! I will!" He utters the words slowly, in a hollow monotone, draws back, and suddenly thrusts out his two hands—then—

A third time the wind roars through the tree tops, seeming to shriek in at the open windows. Wells and his companion are barely six feet from Brook and that awful door—and yet—

They have seen his shoulders heave and thrust themselves forward, and heard—simultaneously—the wind—a sudden dull crash—and a shriek, so shrill that it is heard through the house, and close upon that, another, not a shriek this, a howl rather, strident, gutteral, like the death scream of some fierce animal.

All this in a moment, and in the same moment total darkness, the wind wailing down the corridor, and, heard in spite of all, a sound of flying feet, a crash of breaking glass,—then, other sounds, following one another in swift succession,—and last, and most hideous of all, a dull sickening thud upon the white stones of the paved entrance—a hollow, awful moan—and darkness all about.

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