- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER LXIII. AND PEACE AT LAST.
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AND PEACE AT LAST.
BROOK DEERING, or he who had borne that name all the years of his life, died at two o'clock in the morning.
During the earlier hours of the night, he had rested, and, after a time, slept under the spell of the powerful opiate; and he awoke, finally, from its influence, seemingly refreshed and strengthened; but the strength only served to prolong the struggle to come.
It was a hideous deathbed; there were no last words of repentance; evidently there was no desire to repent. As the last hour approached, horrible spasms of pain racked the shattered frame, a last manifestation of some internal injury, and the sufferer lay writhing and raving; beseeching them to shorten the agony, to "take his life," to "make an end of him," and then, between suffering and the fear of death, his courage forsook him utterly, and he was an abject, grovelling, pitiful thing.
Shortly before two o'clock, the pain seemed to lull, and then to leave him altogether, and he sank into a lethargy which looked like sleep from this, after a little, he awakened with a shriek which pierced the ears of those about him, and was heard in the corridors beyond. His eyes seemed starting from their sockets, his teeth chattered.
"Hear!—do you hear?" he screamed, "the footsteps—coming!" With an effort that seemed superhuman, he flung himself across the bed, uttering a second shriek, that ended in a gurgle. Wells and the doctor caught him, and laid him gently back upon the pillows. There was a purple stain upon his lips, and his eyes were staring horribly. Who can say what he had heard or seen in that moment of dissolution? Who can say, out of full knowledge, that the footsteps of his adopted father, treading, perhaps, some Elysian field, did not pierce to the ears of the murderer, sending his soul, terror-stricken and haunted still, over the border line?
Brook Deering's funeral was as quiet and as nearly private as was possible. There were numerous good reasons for this, as all Pomfret could see—with some delicately rendered assistance:—such as the quite recent death of the master of Beechwood; the ill-health of its mistress, for Brenda, now that all was over, was really prostrated; the recent trial in which the "cousin" of the dead young man had figured so strangely; and, last, the shocking manner of this death.
"Been in poor health all summer, poor feller!" related a knowing citizen on the morning of the funeral. "Sleep-walkin' run in the | | 418 blood,—'t seems, on the mother's side; but it hadn't cropped out for years. Sickness, and such a lot of worry, and excitement brought it out, you know, and he jest walked off of that balcony, before anybody could stop him. Sound asleep? Yes, sir! I know! fer I had it, every word, straight from Tom Wells, that was helping to nurse him!"
Somehow Tom Wells found occasion to visit the shops, saloons, and lounging places of Pomfret, often, at about this time, and he was always obligingly ready to relate the true story, "of the last Beechwood calamity." It is not surprising, therefore, that his version of the matter came to be the popular and accepted one.
It seemed strange, to some, that there were no ladies in the carriages that bore the "mourners" (?) to the grave in which they laid the man who, dead as well as living, was yet a lie. These mourners were—" Uncle Holly," representing Brenda, and with more propriety in the act than was known, or guessed, by the many; Doctor Ware, Bruce Deering, and Mr. Baird, for appearance sake. Brenda's illness was her sufficient excuse; and as for Valentine, not for the sake of all the proprieties together would she leave Brenda's bedside, to follow the body of "that double murderer" to his grave.
There was no mourning for Pierre Pinchon; the only heart that could now grieve for him, was pulsating in a senseless body, and beating time to the vagaries of a reasonless brain.
As for Ora Wardell, whatever she suffered—and such a woman must have suffered cruelly, in spite of her proud disclaimer—she hid within her strong heart, and, in a few days, she drove over to Beechwood to inquire after the welfare of its mistress, a trifle paler than usual, a little more subdued than of old, and not quite so quick and trenchant of speech as formerly; but a proud woman still; with never a word of the past, nor a sign that she had, in common with the inmates of that house, just passed through an ordeal as by fire. All that she had to say of Brook Deering, then or ever, was said to Valentine Rodney, at the time of the denouncement, when they were alone together, on the day of the trial, and no one ever heard her mention his name afterward.
Sarita Pinchon never recovered her reason. For weeks she lay under the care of Rosa, who could control her better than the professional nurse, who came to take charge of the case, but remained, simply as an assistant. Gradually it became known, through Pomfret, that "poor Sarita" had been so attached to Brook Deering that the shock of his death, coming, as it did, when she was already ill, had first prostrated her, and then, because of her already weakened state, deprived her of her reason.
Only the few who were in the upper hall at the moment when the two sleep-walkers were awakened, simultaneously, by the heavy thud caused by the door pushed so sharply inward, and against the wall, by Brook's unconscious hand,—knew how the man,—suddenly awakened while under the delusion that he was following to their source his victim's ghostly footsteps,—saw, standing in the light shed through the opposite dressing-room door, what, to him, seemed to be the spectral figure of Lysander Deering, clad, as he had so omen seen him, | | 419 in the flowered dressing-gown, which, indeed, was more distinctly visible than the face above it.
His shriek, and the mad blind rush, anywhere, away from the awful vision, followed, as it was, by a second shriek from Sarita,—who, flinging aside the loose gown, fled after him, to be caught back by re-straining hands at the very railing over which the form of Brook had just hurled itself to the stones below—was something not soon to be forgotten by the witnesses.
But these witnesses were discreet, even in the midst of so much excitement, and the true story of the scene in the wind-darkened main corridor never was known outside of the little group most interested, and which included, of course, Brenda and the friends who had stood by her so stanchly through all her heavy trial.
Taken from the balcony insensible, and waking reasonless, Sarita, too, was out of the hands of earthly justice and judgment. After weeks of feebleness, during which her thoughts had gone back to the early days in France, thereby throwing some light upon her life previous to her meeting with Mr. Deering; not a good light, by the way, but one which made it evident that the nurse Marie Pinchon had palmed off upon the Deerings, was not the widow of an accidentally killed cousin, but her own sister, Sarita Pinchon, and that sister's illegitimate child.
Sarita raved much of this bargain, and of "Baby Pierre," but she never uttered the other name, Brook. As she grew stronger she became quieter, save for periodical fits of the maddest raving; at such times it was necessary to use force to restrain her, and she was taken, finally, to a distant asylum, where she lived for some years, a mad-woman to the last.
It was supposed by the servants, and by Brenda also, that the woman, who had always been frugal, almost parsimonious, had saved from her liberal wages a considerable sum of money. But, in reality, she had nothing; and it was made apparent, through certain papers and memoranda found among her effects, that Brook had absorbed all her earnings; and so Brenda assumed the expense of her keeping, and saw to it that she was neither neglected nor ill-treated.
The unexpected conclusion of the Matchin trial was a great blow to Jonas Wiggins and his wife Jane. It came to him as a personal injury, and, after some fruitless raging, he went home to consult his shrewder half.
Out of the many new and surprising ideas brought away from the Pomfret court-house, Jane, after some time, evolved one, which, to both, seemed good, as an idea; and, possibly, of actual value.
"I tell ye what, Jone Wiggins!" she had said to him, "there's been jest one pint omitted in that there case! near's I can make out, there ain't been a word said about that button business! Now, fer some reason, that thing's been kept dark! I guess I'd see Mr. Bruce Deerin' himself this time; you may not be able to give him the button, fer it must a been his'n; but he may not want you to be airin' that little story over agin—anyway, Mis Deerin's actin's was pretty queer. Maybe they wouldn't like the button story to come to the ears of that judge or the lawyers!"| | 420
Now Jonas belonged to that foolish class who never know when they are defeated; and so, one day, he threw prudence to the winds, and bearded the lion, in the form of Bruce Deering, in his den.
But Murtagh, who had anticipated something of this sort, and who had seen the necessity for perfect silence upon this subject, or any other connected with the trial, that might serve to arouse gossip and curiosity—Murtagh was ready, and the weapon he had held in hand for many days, waiting for the right time to come, was brandished in Wiggins' astonished and affrighted face.
"I have a very good memory for faces, you see, Wiggins," he had said, among other pleasant things, to the startled man, "and, while I was keeping a weather eye upon you, for your face somehow had a familiar look, I managed to get a snap shot at you, with a little kodack I carry with me sometimes. Well, I was not mistaken; I had seen you, in a justice court, arrested as accomplice in the case of arson. Through the chicanery of the chief fire official, doubtless—it was an insurance fire, you remember—you obtained straw bail, and promptly disappeared. That case has never been settled, Wiggins; and, while I am not anxious to have any hand in the dirty affair, yet, being an officer, of course, duty is duty! I am not now employed upon the case, and I should not think of hunting you up; but, if after, well, say to-morrow night, I should find you or your family, still in or near Pomfret, I shall feel it my clear duty to telegraph to the parties most interested in finding you."
It was a case of "a word to the wise." Twenty-four hours after this interview, the haunts that had best known Jonas Wiggins, in Pomfret, knew him no more; and the fate, or the ownership, of the amethyst button ceased to be a matter of interest.
To the little circle who knew all the truth concerning Sarita Pinchon's son, and the two murders, there remained for many days questions to be asked and answered. Singular features of the affair to discuss; and mutual doubts and suspicions to compare and comment upon.
"The thing that surprises me!" said Bruce, one day, "is, how you, Doctor Ware, came to suspect Brook, as it seems you did almost from the first. Now, for myself, knowing, as I did, something of his affair with Rose Matchin, and coming nearer, because of our lifelong propinquity, to a correct analysation of his character than most who knew him, I would still have been in the dark but for that amethyst button found by the fellow Wiggins. Of course I had to think of Brook in connection with the crime then; knowing, as I did, who held the duplicate of the button still in my possession at that time, I could not imagine, of course, how it was done, or how he came to be in Pomfret. And I never mentioned my doubt to a living soul. I looked upon him as my uncle's only child, and I could not denounce him! That was why I was so willing to let Mr. Murtagh withdraw, and cease his investigation. I feared he might learn the truth! And I think," he added with a sigh, "that Uncle Lys had some suspicion of the truth, too."
"His letter proves that," said Doctor Ware; "yet it must have been a suspicion which he dreaded and fought against. Doubtless he | | 421 meant that you should be cleared, at any cost; but he counted upon living to see an end of the matter, and, also, of course, upon his influence with Brook! As to me, I think, now, that my doubts began to stir at the moment when I was so sure that I saw a man's figure flit past Sarita, through the rear door, on the night of the railway accident. Sarita declared that I was mistaken, that no one had passed out. Now, I was not accustomed to doubt my senses, I knew that they seldom played me false, and I did not doubt them then. Besides, the woman's manner was excited and nervous; she lingered about the door when the others were busy preparing for the reception of the injured, and seemed loathe to leave it for some time. Then the lamp which had been burning brightly not long before had been mysteriously extinguished. You see I was already in a suspicious mood. When Brook came, he had, he said, been helping for a time to care for the injured, or to aid in some way, in the rain and the darkness; and yet I noted that his hands were not only white and clean, but quite dry! Then, later, you will remember, I was called to look after that lameness, which he declared to have been the result of the accident of that night; there was, indeed, some black and blue bruises, and a raw, irritated surface which was quite badly inflamed, and had evidently been freshly irritated. But, while dressing it, I examined it closely, and I knew it to be a hurt, at least ten days old. Then—you have heard me air my phrenological hobby? I can never come among a group of strangers of varied types without—beginning, at once, to notice the different developments of cranium. I had already noted a certain formation of skull in the woman Sarita, which was quite unusual; although no one not a phrenologist, would ever note so unobtrusive a peculiarity. When I first made this observation, I said to myself, there is a head that you may not see again in a long lifetime I And yet, sitting beside Brook Deering, on the morning after his arrival, I saw the very same cranial conformation, and was startled at the thought it suggested. That, Mr. Deering, was the beginning; the rest came, step by step; and when your uncle was found to have been poisoned, I knew that under this roof were two heads that bore all the characteristic bumps of the murderer."
With the relief which came with release from suspense, and a full knowledge of the truth, hideous as it was, Brenda Deering found herself rallying rapidly from the prostration which had overtaken her on the night of the murderer's mad leap. When she was able to travel, Beechwood was left for awhile to the care of Mrs. Merton; and Brenda, Bruce, and Valentine went in search of rest, and renewed health and strength for one of them, first, to New York, and, later, to the mountains.
In New York they were visited by Ferriss Murtagh, who was now enrolled as one of Brenda's stanchest friends, and claimed by Val, who was developing wondrous spirits in these days, as her partner and confidant, as of old—and, a little later, by Doctor Felix Ware, whose position, as friend of all three, was now firmly established.
The poor girl, who had been left to the tender mercies of the French adventuress, had been sought out by Murtagh and the doctor, at the | | 422 request of both Brenda and Valentine; and the detective was now able to tell them of the little good which had come out of so much evil.
He had not found it hard to force the French harpy to loose her hold upon her prey, and leave the city, for her own best good. And then Rose, withdrawn from her baneful influence, was made to comprehend the truth concerning her own position, her uncle's death, and her lover's villainy. At first, she seemed not to realise or not to believe; but, gradually, these two grave, stern men, so different from the weak flatterers she had known, brought her, through much repining, and, later, many self-upbraidings, to a more wholesome state of mind. And then they told her of Brenda's kind proposal, that she should return to the school from which she had been withdrawn, accepting the guidance and censorship of the teacher in whom Lysander Deering had manifested so much faith. Here she might complete the education which had hardly more than begun, and so fit herself for some honest and useful work in the world. And here we may leave her. From such experiences as hers, after true repentance and much striving after better things, have arisen some of those strong women whose live are a blessing to the sick in body and soul, and who are not afraid is take the hand of an erring, fallen sister and grasp it firmly to help her to rise again.
And what more is there to add that the reader cannot prophecy or, well—? Bruce and Valentine, with no baffting waves to distress or come between, were sailing now upon quiet seas.
Never for a moment had she doubted him; but her woman's intuition, made keen by love, had told her that he knew or guessed the truth, and could have cleared himself if he would. And her anxiety for him had made her so impatient and unreasonable at times, as if his reticence were not the sore trial which it had been to himself as well as to her.
Long before, Lysander Deering had discovered the open secret of Bruce's love for his piquant little ward, and had approved of it, only bidding Bruce wait until school-days were over, and Val could find time to know herself. And, later, he had seen that her choice was also made, and wisely made. Then had come Brook's infatuation, which drew from his adopted father a warning and reprimand, caused Valentine to look upon him at first with coldness, and then, as he sought every opportunity to pay her clandestine court, with aversion, which gradually grew into distrust and an instinctive recognition of his hostility to Bruce, concealed as it might be. From distrust to suspicion was an easy step, and, when the denouncement came, Val's face gave evidence that to her, at least, the truth had never looked impossible.
It was not until the meeting in Mr. Baird's library, with its happy results, that she learned how Brook, by an appeal to his sympathies and a challenge to his honour, had extracted from Bruce a promise not to offer himself until he, Brook, had returned from abroad, and could have his "equal chance."
How he had thought to rid himself of Rose, to say nothing of Ora | | 423 Wardell, in case he had succeeded with Valentine, was an open question. But, doubtless, he had counted upon Ora's pride, the French-woman's cunning, and the fair fortune, which, until he had dipped his hands in blood, had, from his earliest days, attended the nameless waif.
Brenda Deering never forgot or ceased to honour the memory of the husband whose love had so softened and shielded her life, and whose own life, short though it must have been, because of the slowly failing heart, had been so ruthlessly and suddenly snapped by the hand of an ingrate, indebted to him for his very existence. But she was young and beautiful, and peculiarly alone; and if Fate, or Providence, does interest itself in the loves of mortals, surely Doctor Felix Ware must have been guided to the place where he was destined to play no small part in a tragedy, and its after results; and when, after many moons had come and gone, he came again and yet again—first, to stand with John Redding and young Morse, beside Bruce Deering, when he claimed Valentine Rodney as his wife; and next, when the name of Brook Deering and the murder of Joe Matchin had ceased to be often mentioned, crowded out of memory almost by later events—when he came to stand beside Brenda Deering in the stately drawing-room, not sombre now, and claim her as Brenda Ware.
Ora Wardell was not present when Val was married; she had gone a few weeks previous—not without kindly farewells and good wishes, however, for both Valentine and Bruce—to pay a long promised visit to her father's half-sister in distant California.
"I am not in tune for a wedding, dear Val," she had said to her friend, for they were firm friends now; "not because I grieve, don't think that! or because I envy your happiness, for I wish you a long life without a shadow. Perhaps it is pride! you may call it that; at any rate, I can't be a bridesmaid at Beechwood yet! You'll forgive me, I know!"
But at Brenda's marriage, months later, Mrs. Bruce Deering being ineligible, Ora Wardell and John Redding stood beside the bridal couple.
It was not a large party. Just those few relatives whose visits, though few and brief, had been welcome—the Bairds, the Liscoms, the Ardens, the Ingrams, and at the last moment, in hot haste, Murtagh, who came from "the thick of an interesting case," to see his friend Ware "safely married." He was warmly welcomed, and when the ceremony was over and he stood beside Valentine, she said to him:
"Will it take another wedding to bring you again to Pomfret, Mr. Murtagh? and, if so, whose?"
"There is one," he said, "which I would come far to see," and he glanced across the room to where Ora Wardell sat, with John Redding standing beside her, his eyes upon her face.
"Is it possible," cried Valentine, "that you do see everything?"
"I saw that," he replied, "at least on his side, on the day of the trial when she showed herself the brave woman she really is—and he is the very man for her—strong, firm, intellectual; she need never be ashamed of him, nor he of her."
"I believe he has cared for her since they were lad and lass in the | | 424 old Pomfret Academy. But, until lately, she has been blinded by a false glitter."
"She is not blind now," Murtagh said, and both smiled their agreement.
Before leaving home, Brenda and her new husband drove to the quiet spot where Lysander Deering slept restfully.
"It is a peaceful spot," she said softly, "and I am thankful that no hint of the truth has ever, or will ever disturb his rest. Since no one knows how he died, his grave will never be troubled by sensation seekers, or pointed out as connected with a shameful tragedy. He rests in peace, and now all things are clear to him."
And so they turned away, slowly, but without one glance in the direction of that other grave, not far away, where lay the man who, sleeping well or ill, had gone by a road of shame and sin, to the death of the assassin and coward—literally driven to his grave by the haunting echo of a dead man's step.THE END
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