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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JAMES BAIRD was a man of authority, and prompt to act and think. He was the partner of Lysander Deering, the absent uncle of Bruce Deering, and the Vice-President of the Pomfret Bank. He had heard what was known of Joe Matchin's death before reaching the scene of the tragedy, and he had not been long upon the ground before the | | 9 bank was cleared of the superfluous onlookers, who went out promptly fat the word of command, because they knew James Baird; but went reluctantly, nevertheless, and lingered outside while the early morning hours wore away, breaking up into groups, and making up now for any restraint they had felt in the presence of death and authority.

Jonas Wiggins was one of the last to go, and the most unwilling. He believed himself to be a witness of value, and he did not pass through the doorway, which Stairs still guarded, without getting near enough to Coroner Liscom to let him know that he should not shrink from his plain duty as an important witness, "whatever some folks might say."

The crowd outside rapidly increased in numbers, but it kept its place, shrinking and swelling from time to time, and manufacturing a growing sentiment which, had mob law been the fashion in quiet and well-ordered Pomfret, might have made it unsafe for Bruce Deering to come out alone upon the now well-lit, terrace-like piazza, which ran across the entire front of the bank building.

Lysander Flood Deering was a man of mark in Pomfret: an old resident, a man of wealth, and reckoned more or less eccentric; and Bruce Deering, his nephew, who had grown to manhood beneath the banker's roof, reared and educated upon equal terms with the banker's only son, was, of necessity, being "one of the Deerings," a man of mark also, though somewhat less in degree. All Pomfret knew the Deerings; and Pomfret, though a town of wealth and weight in the county and the country around it, was not so large as to prevent personal matters, not of a strictly secret nature, from becoming common property, when these same matters concerned families and individuals of eminence, such as the Deerings assuredly were.

And now, as the crowd outside the bank conversed in groups, with growing interest and excitement, it was of the Deerings, quite as much as of dead Joe Matchin that they talked.

They were awed into momentary silence when the city marshal and the full corps of the Pomfret police came down Main Street at a double quick, and were at once admitted to the bank, where one of the offices at the front had been opened and lighted for their temporary occupation; and they were thoroughly surprised when the whole fire department, uniformed, but without their hose and ladders, followed soon. And they were somewhat chagrined when, less than ten minutes after the arrival of the last-named body of men, the side door, which led directly into the bank proper, opened silently, and police and firemen filed out quietly, and rapidly scattered in various directions, each man deaf to questions and salutations; and more than half of them were well away upon their mission before the groups that had placed themselves as near as possible to the front and the big portico were aware of their exit.

"Wal!"complained Jonas Wiggins, who was the centre of a goodly group of kindred spirits, "they're takin' a good deal of pains to fool each other, or us, or somebody! D'ye s'pose if one of us fellers u'd a made his appearance here to-night, with bloody hands and face, they'd a sent the perlice out scourin' the town, an' let us jest walk away as we pleased? No, sir! not any! It's all right for the dominie to preach | | 10 at a feller for jest speakin' his mind, as looked to him to be a plain out duty, but until Mr. Bruce Deering explains how he got that bloody face, I'll say, for one, Look to home for the man yer wantin', Mr. Baird and company!"

"That's so," chimed in the man Finch. "But Deering's an aristocrat, ye see, Jonas, and that makes a durn sight o'differ."

"Yer right; it does! but there's more than them blood marks that makes things point to Deering."

"How's that, Wiggins?" asks a voice from the rear of the group.

"Wal, ye must know, if ye're well acquainted around here. I s'pose ye remember Matchin's gal, Rose?—his niece she was."

"Yes, yes!" from one.

"That's so!" from another.

"Wal, I guess some of us kin recollect that when Rose run away from home, Matchin didn't make no bones of sayin' it was to Bruce Deering she had gone."

There was a chorus of exclamations, and then the voice that had last interrogated Wiggins spoke again.

"I thought that was a little mixed."

"No, sir I not any! Somebody tried to start that kind of talk—Bruce hisself most like; but it wouldn't go. Holbrook Deering hadn't no eyes for sech a girl as Rose Matchin, though she was a little beauty. Holbrook Deering has too much of the real old Deering stock in him to stoop for his company! Why, Moses and Aaron! It's well known that Joe Matchin has vowed to git square with Bruce Deering more than once; I've heard him myself."

"So have I!" cried two or three voices together.

"'Course!" cried Wiggins, his voice rising in malicious triumph;" and didn't Matchin vow that he'd leave the bank7#x2014;him that's been there nigh on to twenty years, an' trusted like one o' the firm, because old man Deering talked of puttin' in Bruce Deering cashier? They say," he added, "that that's why Deering wouldn't go in; that he didn't dare!"

"Bah!" spoke a new voice. "I guess Bruce Deering don't scare worth much, whatever he's done. There ain't much white feather in him." The speaker came nearer as he continued, his speech. "I ain't sayin' that Bruce Deering ain't guilty, and I ain't sayin' he is. But I don't go in fur kickin' at a man jest because he's down, and I don't happen ter like him. An' this I do say, Deering's as sharp as a brier, he's a lawyer, and a good one. And he ain't the chap to kill a man, and then go sailin' out in public with blood all over him; as fur's that blood's concerned, it wouldn't go as fur as from here to the meetin' house with me, if I was on a jury to try him!"

"I guess you won't be on no jury, Tom Wells, after sich a rigmarole as that," retorted Wiggins with a vicious snarl.

"Wal," drawled his opponent, "they'll be most sure to want to make a foreman out of you, Jonas; they allus look sharp after a man that 'ud ruther hang a poor feller than not, to set on a jury in these 'ere law courts;" and the speaker uttered a short laugh, and sauntered away from the group.

Meantime, in the room where poor Joe Matchin lay upon his hard | | 11 death-couch, Mr. Baird and Coroner Liscom were holding an informal inquiry.

After the exodus of the throng, which had quite filled the room, and threatened soon to overflow it, as well as the hall beyond, there remained only ten men. Mr. Baird had been quick to name those whom he wished to stay.

"This place must be cleared at once," he had said, as soon as he had exchanged a word with the clergyman, and bent, for a silent moment, over the dead. "Stairs, you will see to it. Doctor Arden, we want the support of your presence—your advice, too, perhaps. Liscom, of course; Messrs. Redding, Morse, and Deering, too, can give us some information." He glanced about him, his keen, grey eyes passing swiftly from face to face, and, after a moment, named three others. "Krouse—Hennis—Bagwell, will you three oblige me by staying? I may need your assistance." The three men manifested their willingness by coming forward and taking a position near Coroner Liscom, and Mr. Baird swept the room with another quick glance."That will be enough," he said. "Gentlemen, oblige me by passing out as quickly, and as quietly as possible; only one at a time,—and mind there is no crowding about that door. Stairs, look to it. Don't move it; not an inch; they must go out as they came in,—but quicker." To make all sure, he advanced and took up a position beside Stairs. "Now, gentlemen," he said, "be quick; our time is passing." They began to file out quietly for the most part, just a few uttering some half-smothered complaint, or making a last effort to get a nearer view of the dead man behind the screening door, until only half-a-dozen men remained, and these, grouped about Jonas Wiggins, seemed not inclined to move.

"My friends," said Mr. Baird's stein voice, "either you will go out now, at once, or you will stay here and be put out, and, perhaps, cared for, afterwards, by the police. I am master here; understand that!"

The men slunk away, muttering anathemas that were not distinguishable, nor meant to be; and when Stairs had shut the door and secured it, Mr. Baird began, like the born commander that he was, addressing himself to the clergyman and coroner especially.

"Now, gentlemen, let me inform you at once, that you may be at ease upon these points, that my first act, upon hearing from these two friends," nodding toward Redding and Deering, "that Matchin had been killed, was, to send my own man, with a swift horse, after Sheriff Carton. It is just possible, the night being so clear and still, that he may have heard the bell our friend, Deering, was so thoughtful as to ring. I had heard it, and was prepared to set out with them at once. But Carton lives so far, and he might not hasten, even if he heard the alarm, and thought it meant fire, as he would, if he knew it meant murder I think we may count upon seeing him soon."

"That was a wise forethought," said Doctor Arden.

"So it seemed to me. Next, as it was but little out of our way, we stopped long enough to tell the fire lads, who were getting ready to set out, while waiting to learn their destination; and they volunteered, to a man, to turn out and join in the search for the assassin. Then we | | 12 roused up the marshal, who had not so much as heard the bell, and he will be here with almost the entire force very soon, thanks to our liberal telephone system."

"I call that very expeditious," commented young Morse, who had drawn on his topcoat and buttoned it up to the neck in imitation of his two friends. "It is not an easy task to search for a fugitive, escaping, or in hiding, on a dark night like this; but it would be harder yet, if we wait for morning with all the advantage of time that gives him. The marshal is arranging for a dozen good saddle horses at this moment, and as many men will be mounted and sent out in various directions as fast as possible. If the fellow drives or is on horseback, he must keep to the highways; if he is on foot he may elude the night search, but daylight ought to find him so well surrounded that escape will not be easy. Though, to guide this search, we only know that the assassin went east on the Avenue, taking to the middle of the street. He has more than half-an-hour's start."

While Mr. Baird had been speaking, the coroner had been kneeling beside the dead man, examining the body with great care. When he ceased, the other looked up and said,

"He has not been dead an hour." He arose from his knees and turned toward the others. "As nearly as I can judge, from so brief an examination, he was killed by blows upon the head; heavy blows, dealt by some blunt instrument; an iron bar, probably. He could not have lived many moments after those blows were dealt." He turned toward the three young men. "Did not I understand that you young gentlemen heard his last groans? How was it?"

As Deering was about to reply, Mr. Baird interposed.

"I was about to suggest," he said," that we briefly review events, so far as they are known. We shall not, of course, hold anything like a formal examination before to-morrow." He turned and addressed young Deering. "Mr. Deering, will you tell us your experience once again? To some it will be for the first time."

If Bruce Deering had been agitated at first, he was calm enough now. He repeated his story very much as he had told it to his friend under the porch of St. Mark's. When he had finished, the coroner asked:—

"And had you no glimpse of the man? No hint of his identity"

"We were in total darkness," replied Deering. "We met at the foot of the steps; I think the fellow must have unbolted the side door, fearing to go out at the other, it being the more exposed of the two; the glimmer of light shining through, it might have betrayed him. Of course, once he was outside, the Avenue was his safest way of retreat; the trees make a dense shade, increasing the darkness, and affording shelter should he encounter any late passers, like ourselves, for in-stance," nodding towards his two friends. "I must have turned the corner just before he came out from the door. He only left one mark by which to identify him."

"And that?" queried the coroner.

Deering unbuttoned his topcoat and threw it back so that all might see. "He left his finger-marks upon my linen," he said, "and upon my face and hands. He first touched my hand. I think it was his | | 13 first intimation that anyone was near him; and, almost instantly, I felt his hand upon my breast and face. I held my topcoat upon one arm, and grappled with him with the other; but, at that instant, I heard the groan from the bank, and I ran up the steps, conscious, through all my haste, of his running footsteps upon the flags outside. The fellow made no attempt to grapple with me. He was writhing out of my grasp when I heard Matchin groan and released him."

"Do you think," asked Mr. Baird, "that he tried, purposely, to mark you with his bloody hand?"

"That was not my idea then, nor is it now; I think he was trying to identify me by touch."

"Ah!" the coroner looked up quickly. He had again bent over the body upon the floor, but he now moved toward Deering with a new look of interest upon his face. "To identify you!" he repeated. "Mr. Deering, have you any idea who the man was?"

"That was impossible, he did not speak, and I grasped him by the shoulder for only an instant. He was not quite so tall as myself, I should think; and his coat was fine and soft to the touch. I can say no more."

"And you? Did you speak? Did he hear your voice?"

Deering was silent a moment.

"I think it likely. I think I uttered some exclamation. I can't remember just what; or if it were a word at all. Yes, I think he heard my voice."

Coroner Liscom came closer.

"Allow me," he said, and he bent forward to scrutinise the stains upon the young man's white shirt-front; "they are finger-marks," he said, "without a doubt. And the marks upon your face, Mr. Deering?"

"I washed them off at the corner," replied Deering, "from my face and from my hands; I could hardly be required to retain such stains upon my person?"

"And this?" the coroner touched the stained shirt-front.

"That I could not spare time to change."

"When you do change it, do not let it be washed, if you please. It may be useful."

"It shall be turned over to you, sir, at once." There was a hint of constraint in question and answer, and John Redding, an anxious listener, drew a sigh of relief when he heard footsteps without, and Marshal Way and his forces were admitted, one by one, by Stairs.

When they were inside, and standing in orderly ranks, the coroner turned to Mr. Baird.

"This body has lain here long enough," he said. "I have examined it sufficiently as it lies; let some of these men bring a table from the office there, and we will place it more suitably, so that it need not be disturbed until after the inquest, which will be early to-morrow."

The change was promptly made, and then, for a short time, the coroner and Mr. Baird were busy giving orders to the police, and afterwards to the newly-arrived firemen.

When this had been arranged to the satisfaction of all, Mr. Baird turned to the three men who had so far been silent lookers-on.

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"Krouse," he said, "I am going to ask you, and Bagwell, and Hennis, to stay here and guard this body until you shall be relieved, which shall be in time for your breakfasts, all. It's useless to try to do more here now than has been done; but, at the first gleam of day-light, I want you inside, and Stairs without, to redouble your vigilance. There has been no search made about the premises, and it is better so. I am well satisfied that no inquiring mind was awakened to the propriety of examining things, with a promiscuous crowd at hand. Stairs, I want you to patrol this building outside, unceasingly, and with a good light at every corner. You will utilise the lamps, all, or any of them, from all the rooms; and, if you choose, take Bagwell out with you. Be sure that no one approaches the building, no one! and that no one enters. Do not disturb things inside; and, as daylight comes, note well the appearance of the floor, and walls, especially about the vault door. I trust you—all of you; and I think you understand me."

Each of the four assured him of their willingness to carry out his instructions, and the banker then turned toward the others.

"Gentlemen," he said, "we can do no good by remaining here and discussing this matter further; we might do harm; until after the in quest it is better that there be no semblance of private investigation or discussion; afterwards," he glanced from one to the other until his eyes rested upon Bruce Deering, "if it is needful we will confer together again." He approached the table, and, for a moment, stood with head reverently bowed above the dead face; then turning, "We can do nothing more for poor Matchin now," he said, "and we leave him in safe and kindly hands. Gentlemen, come; we will meet here in the morning; at what hour, Liscom?"

"At nine o'clock," said the coroner promptly. "And, Mr. Deering,—remember—your evidence will be most valuable."

Doctor Liscom lived upon the Avenue down which the murderer had disappeared, but near its western end; and he parted from the others at the bank's entrance, going his homeward way alone; while the others went together, northward, upon Main Street, passing the church, and walking in silence, Mr. Baird and the clergyman together, the three young men close behind them.

When they arrived at the second cross street, Bruce Deering paused, and said in a low tone—

"Gentlemen, will you stop here for a word?" They halted promptly, and came close around him.

"Will you all come up to my room for ten minutes?" Deering asked; "there is something I wish you, each, to hear; and I do not care to trust the darkness of this street. Since my uncle's departure I have occupied rooms in our office building; it is only a block from here. Will you come?" There was a strong note of appeal in his voice, and Mr. Arden answered for them all.

"By all means!" he said cordially, "that is—will we not, friends?"

"Lead on," said the banker, and they silently turned into Laurel Street, and were soon in a large and comfortable bachelor apartment, where, in the outer room, a drop light upon a large table was burning dimly.

The clergyman was prompt to seat himself near the table, and the | | 15 other guests silently followed his example, but Deering, after he had turned on the light, and removed his hat from a fine and ample forehead, moved away from the others, and stood facing them.

"Gentlemen," he began, "you are all, I sincerely believe, my friends; you have known me from boyhood. I do not feel like separating from you to-night, without telling you what was omitted by my friends, here, out of kindness to me; and by myself, from—from cowardice perhaps."

"No!" broke in John Redding, over whose countenance a look of understanding had suddenly spread. "Out of consideration for us, gentlemen! because the course we took would make speech on his part seem ungrateful."

"I appreciated your motives, be sure of that," said Deering. "But it must rest with these other friends, whether we did right in keeping back anything. Mr. Arden, Mr. Baird, when we three entered the hank we found Joe Matchin lying by the door, just where you saw him; he was not dead when we tried to lift him, but he was breathing his last. We saw him die; and, we heard his dying words. Before God, l believe that he tried to tell us who was his slayer."

"What!" Mr. Baird sprang to his feet. "And you did not tell us!"

"One moment, please. I do not believe I can trust myself to speak the words he uttered; I am not sure that I should not make them even more damning than they were meant to be!" He turned toward John Redding.

"Redding, tell them Matchin's last words."

John Redding arose in his turn, and raised his hand as if to take an path.

"Before God," he said, solemnly, "I do not believe that Joe Matchin meant to accuse! His words were disjointed fragments of, not one sentence, but, it would seem, of several! I will not repeat them."

The two young men faced each other silently for a long moment; all were now upon their feet.

Deering turned towards Morse.

"Charlie," he said, and the one word was an appeal.

But Morse shook his head.

"I'd sooner cut off my hand," he groaned, and turned away his face.

Bruce Deering drew himself suddenly erect.

"Then I must," he said firmly, but with no sign of anger." Gentlemen, when we lifted Joe Matchin he was gasping, and his words were uttered at intervals, between tortured efforts to say more—to say ether words, or so it seemed; but the words he said were these:

Tell,'—a gasp—'curse him,'—another gasp—' Bruce.' Then after a moment of struggling, 'Tellit wasBruce.'"

John Redding groaned aloud; and Mr. Baird sank back in his seat.

"Merciful Heavens!" he cried. "Bruce Deering! He has accused you!"

Even as he spoke, Mr. Arden seized his hat from the table, sprang toward Deering, and caught his hand in both his own.

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"Stand steadfast," he whispered. "I will see you again soon. I must leave you now in haste." And with a bound, agile, graceful, and swift, plainly indicating some strong and sudden excitement, he flung open the door, and they heard him running down the stairs.

"What does it mean?" cried Mr. Baird, suddenly coming to his feet again.

"I think I can tell." It was Redding who spoke.

"I fancied when we left the bank that someone followed us. Probably Mr. Arden has heard the eavesdropper outside."

"Then let us follow him!" cried Morse. But the banker threw up his hand, saying, as he went and closed the still half open door:

"By no means! Arden knows what he is doing, depend upon it."

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