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 I.
"WOE IS ME!"

DING, dong! Boom, boom! Cling, clang, cling, clang!

Pomfret is by no means a noisy city, and when the great bell of St.Mark's peals out lustily between midnight and morning, it means trouble. It tells of fire or wreck, danger or death, and it appeals for help to all strong hands and generous hearts.

Clang, clang, clang! It is ringing wildly now, faster and faster, and already there are answering sounds in the dark, tree-shadowed streets, footsteps hastening from southward, voices faint, and then louder.

Ding, dong, ding, dong!

The appeal is loud but brief. Less than twenty rapid strokes of the bell; then a man emerges from the church, bounds down the broad steps, and calls out to the unseen comers,

"Quick, for God's sake!"

"What is it?" comes an answering voice.

"Murder!"

In another moment they are close together, peering at each other through the dark.

"You, Deering?"

"Morse! Redding! Thank heaven!" The ringer seizes an arm of each and fairly drags them back and towards a building which they have just passed. "It's Matchin," he says, while he urges them on." The bank," and now they note that their guide is trembling violently and that he speaks with evident effort.

The Church of St. Mark and the Pomfret Bank both stand upon Main Street, upon the same side, and with only the width of an intersecting street between them. But while the stately church opens its great entrance-doors upon Broadway, the bank faces the lower street, and, now that they have faced about, and are retracing their steps, the two first comers see that the door of the bank stands half open, and that there is a glimmering light from within.

The bank proper is in the rear of the building, and is approached by a wide hall of entrance, flanked on each side by spacious offices, and | | 2 the glimmering light comes from the bank itself. The door at the end of the hall stands half open, and the dim rays filter through.

"This way," says the man who has led them thither, and he puts out his hand to push the door wide open.

"Stop!" cries the man nearest him. "Look!" he points down ward, and they see, projecting just beyond the door, a human hand.

"My God!" cries Deering, "he has moved! I thought he was dead! Quick!" springing swiftly through the half opening. "He may be saved—perhaps."

The place is dimly lighted by a low burning lamp against the side wall, but it sheds all its glow upon the face of the man who lies almost beneath it, and close against the door, and the three bend together and peer into that bruised and blood-stained face.

"Lift his head," says one, and the two nearest the head raise it gently; at the movement there is a feeble stirring of the frame, a twitching of the lips, then they open, and there is a fluttering of the lids above the bruised and blood-blinded eyes.

"Tell—" They bend lower to catch the next syllable, but it is long in coming, and the breath is drawn in. painful gasps.

"Tell—curse him—tell—Bruce," a gasp and a horrible struggle.

"Tell—it—was—" the head falls back, another gasp, a sigh; "Bruce!" he whispers again, and is dead.

When they are sure that it is death, they lower the head gently, and rising, confront each other, standing about the body, the two men, Morse and Redding, at either side of the head, and Deering, the bell-ringer, near the feet.

It is a strange picture; the three men, gentlemen evidently, are in evening dress. Morse, tall and pale, his light topcoat buttoned across his shoulders, with the empty sleeves flapping as he moves; Redding wearing his loosely thrown back from his broad chest, where a big boutonnière still blooms unwithered. And Deering—Bruce Deering?—the man who was first to give the alarm, in the way long in use in Pomfret, he stood at the dead man's feet, hatless, and without the jaunty topcoat which had swung from his arm when he walked away from Captain Frazier's banquet, less than half-an-hour ago, bidding those who loitered behind a light and laughing good-morning, but the boutonnière hangs, a crushed fragment, from his coat lapel; there is blood upon the hand that falls open at his side, and smears of blood, like the print of fingers, across his handsome face. Both the others start at the sight: they are young men, all, and friends.

"Bruce!" cries Redding, and points to the ghastly stains.

Bruce Deering looks down at the splashes upon his white linen." Good heavens!" he cries, "that man has marked me!" He begin to look about him hastily. And, even as lie speaks, they hear the sound of fast approaching feet.

"Bruce," says Redding quickly, "you must cover that!" and he begins to draw off his topcoat.

But Morse is before him; in a flash he has loosed the button of his hanging otter covering, and is holding it out to his friend.

"Quick," he says, "button it up to the chin! We'll see you out of this, old man! Reddy, give him your hat."

| | 3

Redding takes off the soft slouch hat he wears, and himself adjusts it upon Deering's head.

"There, Bruce," he says, "keep it so; keep in the shadow, and watch your chance to get at the water-cooler,or out to the trough at the corner. Hark!"

There are feet in the hall outside; and, in a moment more, John Redding is at the door, saying to the group outside,

"Gentlemen, neighbours, come in, slowly—carefully; a dead man lies close against this door. There has been murder done here this night."

Half-a-dozen men file in through the partly closed door with its ghastly obstruction behind it, and John Redding heaves a sigh of relief as he sees, among them, Stairs, Pomfret's solitary night watch-man. There is a chorus of horror-stricken exclamations, and then Redding makes himself heard.

"You can all see what has happened," he says sharply. "Someone has attacked the bank and killed Matchin. He has just breathed his last. We chanced to be the first here, on our way home from Captain Frazier's supper, and Deering rang the bell; there was no time to lose;—there, Wiggins, don't touch him; he must not be stirred until the coroner comes. And—Stairs, you must take charge here, and don't let another soul in until Liscom comes, and Mr. Baird!—someone must go after them!"

He turns quickly toward Deering. "Bruce," he says, "come with me; you are really the best man to go to Baird's, and I'll go with you. This place has given me a horror."

Bruce Deering starts from his place near a shuttered window like one aroused from a dream, as Redding comes toward him. He moves a step forward, then stops, and looks straight into the face of his friend.

"Someone must give chase," he says with sudden energy; "the assassin is not far away: he went out there;" pointing to a door at the side of the room.

One of the men, who had been bending over poor Joe Matchin's fast-stiffening body, comes suddenly to his feet.

"Which way?" he asks, hurriedly. "There'll be plenty here in half a minute—hear them! We'll run him down! Which way?"

"The Avenue." Deering raises his arm and points eastward.

Quick as thought, John Redding seizes the uplifted arm and pulls it through his own. "Come," he says, "Wells is right, we must act and to the purpose! We are for Liscom and Baird. Wells, get men and lights, and beat the Avenue and towards the woods. Stairs, if I were you, I would send a man with a horse after Sheriff Carton. Come, Deering."

As they pass through the narrow exit which Stairs is guarding with much care, a second group of men enter the outer hall, and the leader is the clergyman of St. Mark's. The place is in darkness, but for the faint light from behind the door, and the tall dominie comes into personal collision with Deering.

"Your pardon," he says, and then adds quickly, "What is it?'"

"Murder," cuts in John Redding. "We're after Baird and the | | 4 coroner. Go in, doctor, and help Stairs to keep order." Then as the clergyman passes in, he calls back as he catches again at Deering's arm, "Stairs, you had better light those hall lamps."

More men are coming up the short flight of steps, and as they come out from the entrance, someone just in front strikes a parlour match and flashes it directly in Bruce Deering's face; the next instant it is dashed from his hand, and something comes into violent collision with him.

"Oh! beg pahdon, I'm sure," says this person. "It's so deuced dark in there."

"That's Morse," whispers Redding to his companion as they hasten out to the street. And then he calls in a lower tone, "Morse."

"Yes—wait." Morse comes close and puts his hand upon Deering's arm. "Move on a pace, boys," he says, "we can't stop but a moment. Quick, tell me, what shall I say for—for all of us? There'll be a hundred questions asked before you get back."

They are silent a moment, then, "Say as little as possible," answers Redding. "Say we were coming home—Bruce a little in advance—Bruce heard a cry for help—eh, Bruce?"

"No, wrong. I heard a sound first like a heavy fall, and then looking toward the door, saw a glimmer of light, and went toward it. I heard the cry—"

"That's enough," breaks in Redding; "someone's coming. We can't confer here. See, Morse! Bruce, a little ahead, heard a cry, rushed in, caught a glimpse of a fleeing man, saw that door was open—we all rushed in, found Matchin breathing his last; Bruce ran to ring bell. Bruce, how—"

"Matchin was sexton," said Deering, a touch of coldness in his tone. "I took the—key. Redding, I think I had better go back."

"You are mad, man! Morse, go back; you can get through it."

"I'll try," says Morse, and just as two more come breathlessly up, he dashes out, joins them, and, before they can so much as peer through the darkness at the two retreating figures, he is telling them the meaning of the midnight alarm, and hurrying them toward the bank.

"Now, Bruce," says Redding gently, with almost a tremor in his tone, "we must have a word together; come over to the church, we can talk there—behind the pillars."

They cross the street in silence, and standing back in the blackness of the deep porch, Bruce Deering puts out his hand, and touching his friend, draws close beside him, speaking in a low tone.

"John," he says, "I see my position, and know how much worse it might be, but for you and Morse. As God hears me, this is all I can say of this horrible affair: I was walking slowly, and something brought my uncle before my mind; I began thinking of him and his journey. You know he has gone to New York?"

"Yes," murmured Redding.

"But you may not know that he went to consult a physician. Whether he ever returns to business, as an active agent, will depend upon the verdict of this man. I was thinking of the blow it would be to him if he were ordered to give up his active life; and, thinking | | 5 thus, I came to a halt, just at the little bridge, and sat a few moments upon the rail pondering; then I went on, slowly, and stopped again at the bank, thinking how he had built the place and made it prosperous. If I had not been standing still I don't think I could have heard a sound from inside; but, standing there in the perfect silence, it seemed to me that I heard something like a fall, and then a groan. I started forward, and reached the corner, where I saw, as you saw when you came up, that little gleam of light. What followed was like a flash. I sprang toward the door and was instantly in contact with a man. Grappling with him, his open hand struck my face, in the dark, and I felt the moisture on my cheek; I think I might have held him, but I heard a second groan, and a faint cry, and let go my hold upon the fellow to rush in. Joe lay upon the floor, not where we found him, but near the cage, or rather between it and the vault. It flashed upon me then that the sound I had heard outside was not a fall, but the heavy closing of the vault door. Matchin was breathing short and quick, and seemed insensible; I tried to rouse him to speak, but it seemed useless, and suddenly it struck me that the quickest way to bring help would be the old way of rousing the town—to ring the bell. I knew where Matchin always kept the key of the church, and look it. If I had guessed that you two were to follow me so quickly, I should hardly have ventured upon so general an alarm."

"I see! I see it all I and now—Bruce, first of all, we must remove those blood stains, and—where did you leave your coat?"

"In the church, I think. In fact, I'm sure."

"We must get it. There must be no sign of confusion. Someone may find your coat, or recognise Morse's garment upon you; besides, it's not a fit. I have matches, although I have not seen fit to use them before. Let's go inside."

They are close to the heavy door, and Deering essays to open it.

"Strange," he says. "I am sure—almost, that I did not lock—did not even close that door."

"Is it locked?''

"Yes."

"And the key?"

"Not here."

"Think, man, you are a methodical fellow, even in great excitement—it would be like you to stop and make secure a door which you had opened; you must have locked it, and, in the flurry of meeting us, have dropped the key from your hand."

"Perhaps," Deering says doubtfully, "but I can't recall it. I flung my coat down recklessly, I can't say where, or into what. But the key—"He breaks off, and Redding stands for a moment listening.

"I don't hear anyone stirring outside," he says finally." They are all hovering over that poor piece of clay, I suppose! I'm going to strike a match." He strikes it at the word, and paces to and fro across the broad portico, with the little light held out before him.

"Ah!" he says suddenly, and throws down his expiring match as he stands beside the hand-rail upon the lowest step. In a moment he is back at Deering's side.

"Here is your coat, old man," he says; "you must have been | | 6 muddled to fancy you had dropped it inside." He pressed the light, soft garment into hands that were almost nerveless." Come now," he says, "let us get on. You'll get straight after a little brisk pacing. This sort of thing is apt to turn a man around, and mix up his ideas; you'll come out all right enough; but it will be bad for the fellow that killed poor Matchin, if he's caught by Wells and his mob to-night! Now for Coroner Liscom. I would not have taken even this brief moment to hear your story, if there had been the glimmer of a hope for Matchin; but I'm doctor enough, myself, to know that he drew his last breath with your name upon his lips."

"True," sighed Deering, "and woe is me! I wish it had been some other name than mine!"