Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

The Last Stroke, an electronic edition

by Lawrence L. Lynch [Van Deventer, Emma Murdoch]

date: [189-]
source publisher: Ward, Lock & Co., Limited
collection: Genre Fiction

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AS was quite natural, the three men, thrown so strangely and unexpectedly together at the doctor's cottage, sat up late after the inquest, and discussed the strange death of Charles Brierly in all its bearings. As a result of this they slept somewhat late, except the detective, who let himself out of the house at sunrise, and lighting a cigar, set off for a short walk, up one certain street, and down another. He walked slowly, and looked indolently absorbed in his cigar. But it was a very observant eye that noted, from under the peak of his English cap, the streets, the houses, and the very few stray people whom he passed. It was not the people, though, in whom he was chiefly interested. Ferrars was intently studying the topography of the town, at least of that portion of it which he was then traversing with such seeming aimlessness.

| | 91

From the doctor's cottage he had sauntered north for several blocks, crossed over, until he reached the upper or terraced street, and followed it until he had reached the southern edge of the village and was in sight of the school-house not far beyond. Turning here he crossed a street or two, and was nearing the house where the dead school teacher had lived, when he saw the front door of the house open, and a woman come out and hasten away in the direction in which he was moving. She hurried on like one intent upon some absorbing errand, and, knowing the house as the late home of Charles Brierly, and the woman as its mistress, Ferrars quickened his steps that he might keep her in sight, and when she turned the corner leading directly to the doctor's cottage he further increased his speed, feeling instinctively that her errand, whatever its nature, would take her there.

He was not far behind her now, and he saw the doctor standing alone upon the side porch, saw the woman enter at the side gate, and the meeting of the two.

Mrs. Fry, with her back towards him, was making excited gestures, and the face of the doctor, visible above her head, changed from a look of mild wonder to such sudden anxiety and amazement that the detective halted at the gate, hesitating, and was seen at that instant by the doctor, who beckoned him on with a look of relief.

"Look here, Ferrars," he began, and then turned to | | 92 assure himself that Brierly had not arisen, and was not observing them from the office window. "Come this way a few steps," moving away from the porch and halting where the shadow of the wing hid them from view from within the main dwelling. "And now, Mrs. Fry, please tell Mr. Grant what you had begun to tell me. I want his opinion on it. He's not a bad lawyer."

"A good detective'd be the right thing, I think," declared the woman. "It's about Mr. Brierly's room, sir. He had a small bedroom, and another opening out from it, where he used to read and study. You know how they were, doctor!"

The doctor nodded silently.

"Well, last night, you remember, when you brought this gentleman and his brother to my place to look at the rooms. You or he decided not to go up then, but told me to close the rooms, and he would come to-morrow--to-day--that would be."

"Yes, yes! " said the doctor, impatiently, "we remember all that, Mrs. Fry."

"Well, I'd had the rooms locked ever since I heard that he was dead." Mrs. Fry was growing somewhat hazy as to her pronouns. "And I had the key in my pocket. Then, well, after a while I lit the lamp in the sittin' room so's it wouldn't seem so gloomy in the | | 93 house, and went out and sat on my side stoop, and after a little my neighbour on that side, Mrs. Robson, came acrost the lawn--there aint no fence between, ye know--and we talked for some time, and my little girl fell asleep with her head in my lap."

"Don't be too long with the story," broke in the doctor. "I don't want it to spoil Mr. Brierly's breakfast, for he needs it badly."

"Yes, sir. Well, just about that time--it must have been half-past eight, I guess--and there was plenty of folks all along the street, a boy came running across the lawn and right up to me.

"'If you please,' he says, 'touching his hat rim, 'Mr. Brierly, down to the doctor's, forgot to get the key to his brother's room, and he sent me to get it for him.' I s'pose I was foolish. I felt hurt, thinkin' he couldn't trust me with his brother's things, an' so I jest hands out the key and no questions asked."

A look of sudden alertness shot from the eyes of the detective, and he arrested the doctor's evident impatience a quick shake of the head unperceived by the woman, who was addressing her narrative to the doctor, as was natural.

"I s'pose," she went on, "that I shouldn't a' done it, didn't scent anything wrong then. Mrs. Robson went home in a few minutes, and then I roused my little | | 94 girl up and took her in and put her to bed. She was asleep again a'most as soon as her head touched the pillow, and the night was so pleasant-like that I threw my shawl on my shoulders and went out onto the front stoop. I felt sort o' lonesome in the house all alone."

"Of course," commented Ferrars, seeing the dread of their criticism or displeasure that was manifest in her face as she paused and looked from one to the other. "One naturally would in your place."

"Yes, I suppose so," she went on, reassured. "Well, I hadn't been out there two minutes when that same boy came running up the walk, all out of breath, and says, sort of panting between words, 'Ma'am, the lady that lives next the engine-house by the corner stopped me just now an' asked me to come back here an' beg you to come down there quick! Her little boy's got himself burned awful!'"

"Ah! I see!" Ferrars spoke low, as if to himself, and his face wore the look of one who is beginning to understand a riddle. "You went, of course?"

"Yes, I went."

"Go on with the story, please. Tell it all as you have begun. Let us have the details," and he again nodded toward the doctor, who was regarding him with profound surprise, and put a finger to his lip.

"My sister-in-law lives in the house by the engine- | | 95 house," Mrs. Fry hurried on, "and knowing how careless she is about keepin' things in the house against such times, I ran back into my bedroom and got a bottle of camphor and a roll of cotton batt. 'Run ahead, boy,' I says to the boy, 'an' tell her I am coming; I must lock my doors and winders.' 'She's in an awful hurry,' he says, 'cryin' fit to kill. I'll set right down here and watch your house, ma'am; I can do no good there.' The boy spoke so honest, and Mary's boy is such a dear little fellow, that I jest lost my head complete, and ran off down the sidewalk. At the corner I looked back. The boy was sittin' on the doorstep, an' I heard him whistlin'; someway it made me feel quite easy. But when I got to the house and found them all in the sitting-room, and Neddy not hurt at all, but sound asleep on the floor, I was so took back that I just dropped down on a chair and acted like a wild woman. Instead of rushin' back that very minute, I sat there and told them how I had been tricked, and scolded about that boy, an' vowed I'd have him well punished, and so on, until Mary reminded me that I'd better get back home and see if the house was all right, or if 'twas only a boy's trick."

"It looked like one, surely," was the detective's easy comment.

"That's what Mr. Jones said. He's my neighbour. | | 96 He was just going home, and we overtook him. Mary told him about the boy and he laughed and said that some boys had played that sort of trick last summer two or three times, sending people running across the town on some such fool's errand. He thought maybe 'twas some boy that I had offended some way; and then I thought about how crisp I was about givin' the boy Mr. Brierly's key, and it made me feel sort of easier. But Mr. Jones went in with us when we got to my house. We looked all around downstairs and everything was all right. Nellie was fast asleep still, and not a thing had been disturbed. Then we went upstairs, 'just for form's sake,' Mr. Jones said, and looked in all the bedrooms, and even tried Mr. Brierly's door. Everything seemed right, and so Mr. Jones and Mary went away, and I went to bed. But someway I couldn't sleep sound. I felt provoked and angry about that boy, and the more I thought of him, of his being a stranger and all, the uneasier I got. Then I began to imagine I heard queer sounds, and creaking doors, and, right on the heels of all that, came a loud slam that waked Nellie, and made me skip right out of bed."

"A shutter, of course," said the doctor, as she paused for breath.

"Yes, a shutter, and I knew well that every shutter on my house was either shut tight or locked open. I look | | 97 to that every night, as soon as it's lamp-lighting time; them downstairs I shut, them upstairs I open, sometimes. I knew where that slammin' shutter was by the sound, and it set me to dressing quick. I had opened the shutters on Mr. Brierly's windows that very afternoon, thinking the rooms would not seem quite so dreary and lonesome when his brother came to look through 'em, and they was locked open, I knew well! All the same, it was them shutters, or one of 'em, that was clattering then, and I knew it."

"Were you alone in the house, you and your little girl?" asked Ferrars.

"All alone, yes, sir; and I took Nellie with me and went out into the hall--"

"You mean downstairs?"

"Yes, sir. We sleep downstairs. Now, I thought I had seen that everything was right when Mr. Jones and Mary was with me, but when we went into that hall--Doctor--" turning again toward that gentlemen, for she had addressed her later remarks to Ferrars,--"I guess you may remember a shelf just at the foot of the stairs. It's right behind the door, when it stands open, and that's why we hadn't seen it, or I hadn't before. Well, I always set the lamp for Mr. Brierly's room--his bedroom lamp, that is--on that shelf for him every morning, as soon as it had been filled for the night's burning; and the | | 98 morning he was killed I had put it there as usual, and it had been there ever since. It was there when Mr. Brierly and you two gentlemen called, after the inquest"

A queer little sound escaped the detective's throat, and again he checked the doctor's impatience with that slight movement of the head.

"I don't call myself brave," the woman went on, "but I caught Nellie by the hand--I was carrying my bedroom lamp--and ran up the stairs and straight to Mr. Brierly's door. I don't know what made me do it, but I stooped down to look through the keyhole, and there in the door was the very key I had given to that boy to take to Mr. Brierly's brother."

"What did you do?" asked the doctor, breathlessly.

"I set down my lamp very softly, told Nellie in a whisper not to make a noise, and then very carefully tried the key. It turned in the lock. I didn't dare go in, but I locked the door, left the key in it, and went downstairs and out at the front door. I went around the house and stood under the window of that room. The side window shutter that I had fastened back was swinging loose. I went back to the sitting-room, locking the front door and the doors from the hall into the front room and sitting-room, taking out the key of the front door, and leaving the other keys in the locks, on | | 99 my side. Then I lit the big lamp, pulled down the curtains, fixed the side door so I could open it quick, and set the big dinner bell close by it. I made Nellie lie down on the lounge with her clothes on, and there I sat till morning. Before daylight I went into the kitchen and moved about very softly to get myself a cup of coffee, and a bite of breakfast for Nellie. I had been careful not to let her see how I was scared, and she went sound asleep right away. As soon as I thought you would be up I awoke my little girl, and left her sitting upon the side stoop, while I came here to you. Mr. Brierly's brother ought to be first to enter that room, and--if there was anyone there last night--they're there yet."

"What room is that which I ought to enter, Mrs. Fry?" said a voice behind them, and turning, all together, they saw Robert Brierly standing at the edge of the porch where it joined the wall of the doctor's room.

"I was afraid of this," muttered Doctor Barnes. But the detective seemed in nowise disconcerted. Neither did he seem inclined to listen, or allow Brierly to listen to a repetition of Mrs. Fry's story.

"You are here just in time, Mr. Brierly," he said, briskly. "Mrs. Fry believes that someone has paid a visit to your brother's room during the night, and as she says, you are the one who should investigate, and | | 100 I think it ought to be done at once, if you feel up to it."

"I'll be with you in a moment," replied Brierly, promptly, and he went indoors by way of the French windows which had given him egress.

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