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 3 chapter 33 >>

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CHAPTER IV.
BEFORE THE INQUEST.

AFTER the clergyman's hasty departure, the four men who were left behind stood looking from one to another, all of them silent, until John Redding's voice broke the unpleasant stillness. As he stepped forward and stood directly in front of the stern-faced banker—

"Mr. Baird," he said firmly, "I was an idiot not to tell you the truth as it is! I might have known that, rather than seem to spare himself, Deering would put the very worst construction upon the words of that dying man. Joe Matchin's words were broken; and I do not believe that any two were meant to be connected; I could interpret his words in but one way."

"And that way?"

"As God hears me, I believe that Matchin made a last effort to utter two sentences; the first, a message, which, I think, was meant for Bruce. The last I think he meant to be a denunciation; and he called upon Bruce Deering for helps,—not to denounce him."

The banker's face had been very grave, and it did not relax its gravity, as, without uttering comment or reply, he turned to Charles Morse.

"Was that your idea?" he asked.

Morse came forward in his turn and stood where the full blaze of the drop light lit up his fine and delicate face. He was the direct opposite of big, bluff, outspoken John Redding, and he was, perhaps, for this very reason, his most intimate friend.

For a moment Morse stood thus, silent; and in the interval the banker spoke again.

"Mr. Redding is a loyal friend, and he might even be capable, in an emergency, of telling the truth in a partisan spirit; or of giving it a tone too favourable perhaps." Redding started forward, but the banker went on with his eyes upon the face of Morse, "But you, Morse, will, I believe, weigh your words, and when you reply you will speak conscientiously, however reluctantly it may be."

Morse bowed and his sensitive face bore a look of relief.

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"Then, Mr. Baird," he said, "if that is your opinion, I am glad answer you as I may. When I heard poor Matchin's dying words I did not interpret them as my friend did; I am slower witted than he although, hearing him now, and recalling the scene, I can see how very probable it is that he has interpreted them correctly. For myself, I could extract no meaning from them, farther than the thought that Matchin was dazed, and, perhaps, had recognised Deering, and was trying to tell him something—to speak to him. But this I can say, with conviction!—Bruce Deering is not an assassin!"

"Thank you, Morse," said Deering quickly; but he stood still in his place, a little removed from the others, and did not proffer his hand.

Mr. Baird resumed the chair he had at first occupied, and let his head rest upon his hand. Bruce motioned the others to seats, and himself began to pace to and fro the length of the room; then, for many minutes, all remained silent. Finally Mr. Baird lifted his head.

"Mr. Deering," he said, and his voice had lost its sternness, "I think that we will do very well to ignore this revelation you have made, at least for the present. I will speak to Mr. Arden at once—before the inquiry opens—and I will not speak of it to our coroner. We could not ask him to shirk a duty of so solemn a nature; and he would not if we did. I will tell you now why I sent my man after Carton by the upper road. I had written, in my room, immediately after hearing your brief story, and before I finished dressing, a telegram which Hicks was to hand to the night-operator; I have sent to the city for a detective."

"Jove!" broke out Redding, "you thought of everything."

"Not quite. The man cannot get here before ten o'clock if he starts without a moment of delay. He may not come until noon. Liscom understands this, but I have no idea of letting it become generally known. We shall put off our inquiry until he comes, and has had time to take a good look about the premises; now you may see why I was so emphatic about keeping people out. I only regret that so many got in; although, of course, that could not be helped as matters then were. Deering, the best thing you could possibly have done for yourself and for all concerned, was to ring that bell." He rose abruptly and held out his hand to Bruce Deering. "It will soon be morning," he said, and a smile lighted his severe old face. "There, my boy, accept those words as a prophecy; and take my hand. It will take more than I have heard to-night to make me doubt you. We must separate now, and let me recommend you all to try and rest if you do not sleep; keep John Redding with you, Deering, he is the king of optimists; and you, Morse, your walk is too long, come home with me."

. . . . . . .

At eight o'clock in the morning, Mr. Baird was at his post in one of the private offices of the bank. The watchers, within and without, had been changed, and the large, and fast increasing crowd about the street corner was rigidly held at a distance by a dozen well-selected special police.

The Pomfret Bank, unlike most banks, stood aloof from other buildings, like a dwelling-house, with a neat, low, iron railing enclosing it | | 18 on three sides; its front, opening upon the Avenue, being crossed from corner to corner by a wide and well-shaded piazza, where, doubly screened by the row of fine old trees just outside the stone pavement, the occupants of this most homelike bank could take their summer ease at morning and evening.

There was clamour enough, and to spare, outside; but within, Mr. Baird, well-known as a martinet not to be gainsaid, sat and smoked a cigar in silence, the clergyman and the coroner opposite him.

At six o'clock, the erect old banker, after three hours' rest, had stopped his favourite fast-stepping horse before the clergyman's door, to find him alert and just finishing an early breakfast, prepared for him by loving hands in haste; and between his gate and the door of the bank, in spite of Lady Jane's swiftness, the banker had found time to tell him of the determination to suppress for the present Bruce Deering's account of Joe Matchin's dying words.

"It's a merciful thought, my brother," said the good man promptly. "We are apt to be too hasty in condemning under circumstantial evidence. There is time enough—time enough, to blacken the good name of an upright young man. Oh, the pity of it! What will Archibald Deering say if this story must be dragged out?"

"He will never believe it," said the banker, stepping from his waggonette as lightly as he could have done at twenty-five.

The crowd was clamorous about them, and Mr. Baird turned upon them with a few sharp, pointed words, and passed in, between the two guards at the portico entrance. But the clergyman stopped, and addressed them in the spirit of love, of understanding, of forbearance. He told them nothing that they had not already gathered from the guards and from each other, but he left them quieter, and, for a time, more thoughtful.

Then, for two hours they sat, and, from time to time, listened to the reports of the scouts who had been beating the streets and alleys, the woods and fields, the highways and byways about Pomfret, All brought the same report, go where they would, search never so carefully, there was no trace of the fugitive to be found.

"I tell ye what," said Tom Wells, the first to set out, and the last to come in, "I don't like the look of it! I warn't so much sirprised when we didn't find the cuss; but when I got back and seen how many had been on the hunt, though fur that matter we was runnin' into some of 'em every little while, I jest felt took back! I tell ye, Mr. Baird, there never was a town more thurrerly beaten up than this 'ere town was las' night; you wouldn't a thought a rabbit could a dodged all on us! Yet here we are; and here he ain't! I tell ye I don't like it! It don't look square!"

"What do you mean by that, Wells?"asked Mr. Baird.

"I guess you know what I mean, fast enough," said Wells, with a queer side glance at the banker. "You know I'm an old hunter, sir, and tolable on a trail."

"Capital, Wells, there's no one better."

"Wal, sir, if I ever tried, I tried last night; and I gin the others all the helps an' hints I could. There ain't a man knows the outer, the way tracks, an' paths, an' hidden places better than me. An' I tell | | 19 ye we ain't missed none of 'em! Consarn the feller! I don't want to insult old Pomfret, but—I m'fraid she's a hidden a black assassin!"

"What! you think he's in hiding in the town?"

"I can think nothin'else!"

"Well!" said the banker, "if he's still in Pomfret, I think we may find him."

"Um!" grunted Wells, getting up and shambling toward the door, "I ain't lookin'ter see ye bring him in terday."

"Wells," said the banker quickly, getting up and following him to the door, "my horse is outside, take it and go to my house, you and your men. Get your breakfast—they have orders there to feed all comers—then come back here. You are tired, I know, but you'll find plenty of blankets in the office across the hall, and you can rest there until we want you."

"What is it ye want next, boss?" asked the man unabashed.

"I want you to meet a man whom I expect on one of the trains from eastward. I may want you to help him."

"Umph. That's it! Who is yer man, boss? Is it—" he stopped and favoured the banker with a nod and a mysterious gesture.

Mr. Baird put a hand upon his shoulder. "I can trust you, Wells," he said, "but mum's the word. It's a detective."

"G—gash!" ejaculated Wells, and went out without a further word.

. . . . . . .

After the arrival of the coroner there was not much conversation in the closed and guarded room, where the three men waited for the coming of the first train from the east. The coroner from time to time jotted down items in a little black note-book, presumably memoranda to be used in the coming examination. The clergyman and Mr. Baird were not talkative. They did not care to open a discussion which might bring the name of Bruce Deering too prominently forward.

As ten o'clock approached there was no perceptible change in the crowd without, for the very good reason that they were not aware of the fact that so important an arrival was now momentarily looked for.

Only the three waiting within grew more alert and a trifle restless, as train time drew near.

"How will your man find his way?" asked the coroner looking at his watch.

"Easily," replied the banker, "I wired them to send one of their best men to Pomfret Bank."

But ten o'clock came and passed, and no stranger applied for admittance. Acting upon instruction, Deering, Redding, and Morse came shortly after ten o'clock, and were conducted through the crowd by Stairs, who was as alert as ever, though sleepless for so many hours.

After some conversation the coroner got up and went to the window.

"They're as numerous as ever," he said, nodding toward the crowd outside. "They look for the inquest to open at any moment, I daresay." He turned back and approached the banker. "We can't open now; at least, it will be as well to wait: I: I suppose until after the one o'clock | | 20 Train comes; and it's useless for us all to remain here. I'll see if I can't scatter that crowd, or, at least, thin it a bit."

He drew back the bolt and went out upon the piazza.

"My friends," he said," we find that we cannot begin our investigation until afternoon, owing to the absence of—of a person who may prove an important witness. We mean to do our utmost to find and punish poor Matchin's murderer. Have patience all of you; and whatever happens, remember that Pomfret has never yet been dis-graced by a mob, and must not be now. Fair play and swift justice, both may be looked for here." There was a chorus of exclamations, questions, and comments, but the coroner stood unconcernedly beside the tall column which helped to uphold the broad porch awning, and looked over the crowd with a cool keen eye.

"They are all here," he said to himself, "all of Pomfret." And then, turning his gaze in a new direction, he saw, somewhat aloof from the crowd, Jonas Wiggins talking volubly in the midst of a group, composed of those of his own sort.

"That fellow means dirt," said he to himself, and he ran his eye over the group around him, taking mental note of each person. "Toughs, all of them," was his comment; and then his eye fell upon a face he did not know. There were few faces in Pomfret unknown, at least by sight, to Pomfret's coroner, and this face was only interesting because of its strangeness. It was that of a man of more than medium height, with square shoulders and commonplace, expressionless features. His dress was ordinary, and a short pipe was stuck between his lips. He stood a little aloof from the group, but seemed to be listening to Wiggins.

"Wonder who he may be?" mused the coroner; "one of the new hands at the mills, probably." And he began to thread his way through the crowd, avoiding would-be questioners, and giving brief, curt answers when he could not avoid.

The man who had attracted the notice of the coroner watched him as he went; and, when he had vanished down the Avenue, drew nearer to Jonas Wiggins, and, standing there, dropped from time to time a careless question.

After a while he sauntered away from the group about Wiggins, and gradually drew nearer the bank building, passing the porticos slowly, and with indifferent, casual glances, but drawing closer to the iron fence which enclosed the sides and rear.

Close to the side door he stopped, and leaning across the low fence, looked at it as if it were an object of unusual interest; then he passed on until he had reached the corner of the small enclosure; there he paused, and, with his back to the bank, and his face turned toward the crowd, coolly braced himself against the iron post and refilled his pipe. One of the men who kept guard outside made a movement forward as if to warn him away, but seeing his attitude, and occupation, he turned back. The crowd had almost ceased to strive for an entrance to the little fenced-in bit of ground, and the watchman walked back whence he came, and resumed the conversation with the guard next him, which he had broken off to warn away the intruder.

"I thought that fellow meant to try and get over," he said to his | | 21 comrade, "but he don't seem very anxious," and he went on with the talk in which he had grown interested.

"Yes, sir," he said, "I tell you it does look a bad case for Deering. I hate to think it! I ain't a thing against the fellow, and I wouldn't say a word to his hurt. But it looks black! I'm bound to admit that!"

For some moments the two conversed or argued, for they did not agree, and the man who was standing champion for Bruce Deering was becoming excited, when, chancing to look up and shift his position, he broke off sharply, saying—

"Look out! that fellow's in!"

The other turned swiftly.

"Look here, you!" he cried; "can't you see the signs on this here fence? and don't you see these boards laid around this lot to cover footmarks or any signs that's been left? You git out of this, an' don't make any more tracks than you need to neither!"

The stranger had been some moments inside the rails, and he had already crossed the lot from the side next the street almost to the inner fence which separated the place from a large piece of ground with well-cut sward and tastefully grouped shrubbery and trees.

"Excuse me," said the intruder quite meekly; "I didn't notice. I jest stepped in here to ask you two what was the rights of this talk about somebody being killed. You can't get anything rational out o' that crowd," jerking the pipe which he had taken from his mouth toward the throng outside.

But the man whose duty it had been to keep him out was not in a good humour.

"I guess you'll hear your share outside; and you don't want to be slow in going out neither," he said gruffly.

"Jest as you say, of course." The stranger replaced his pipe, drew a strong whiff to assure himself that it was still "alive," and began a careful retreat. The careless guardian had motioned him toward the point whence he came, but the man coolly turned in the opposite direction and went, with slow, conscious steps, along the inner wall of the bank, and so out at the front, springing over the small section of railing which ran from the front of the bank to the corner of the adjoining lot.

The little encounter had not lacked its observers, and some of them greeted his appearance upon the street with jocular or sarcastic comments, uttered loud enough to be heard by him. But they drew forth no sort of recognition. The man seemed in no way discomfited, and as it was nearing noon, and the guardian of the south-west corner came forth relieved from duty and out of temper, he saw the free-and-easy stranger still sauntering about among the various groups which, constantly changing, only increased in numbers as the day wore on.

. . . . . . .

When twelve strokes sounded from the town clock upon the court-house tower, not far away, Mr. Baird consulted his own time-piece, from sheer force of habit, and said,

"The next train is due a few minutes after one. It is time we adjourn, and, by all means, be here, all of you, at a quarter before one." He arose and took up his hat.

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The corener had not returned after his brief harangue to the crowd outside, and the few men who were left in the office with the banker got up promptly.

At that moment a rap, not loud, but distinct, was heard at the office door.

It was Stairs in person, who, having taken a look about the building outside, had returned to the vestibule, to take the place of the man on guard over the two rooms whose doors were opposite each other. He had been sitting upon a high stool, brought away from one of the desks within, and he did not trouble himself to rise when a quiet, inoffensive-seeming stranger came in, and, after looking about him, asked with much respectfulness,—

"Which room is Mr—Mr. Baird in?"

Stairs jerked his thumb toward the door at his right, and then nullified this piece of condescension by saying," You can't see him though."

For answer, the man tapped upon the door indicated by the thumb.

"Hold on!" Stairs slipped off the stool and put a detaining hand on the intruder's arm. "What do you want? You can't go in there, I tell you!"

The man drew from a loose side pocket an envelope bearing the stamp of the telegraph office. "Got a message for him," he said quite deferentially.

"Well, I'll 'tend to that. Give it to me."

"Against orders," said the man, and was about to apply his knuckles a second time, when the door opened and Mr. Baird stood before them.

"What is it?" he asked.

The man put the envelope in his hand in silence. It was unsealed, and after an instant's glance at the contents, merely a card upon which a name and a few words were written, he threw the door wide open. "Come in," he said briskly, "come in at once!" Then sharply, to the astonished watchman, "It's all right, Stairs. Don't let anyone come near the door now, mind; and don't leave it your-self."

When the door had closed upon the astonished Stairs, Mr. Baird turned toward his friends. "Gentlemen, this could not be better," he said. "It is what I wished, but feared would be impossible—that we that are here,—and no others,—should first discuss this matter with a practical detective. This card,"holding out the card he had just drawn from the telegraph envelope, "is from the Chief of R——s Detective Bureau, and it introduces and commends to us, as 'the man we want,' Mr. Ferriss Murtagh." He made a slight gesture toward the stranger, who bowed his acknowledgments and stood silently waiting.

"Resume your places, gentlemen," said the banker briskly, "and you, Mr. Murtagh, sit here; we have looked for you anxiously. How did you contrive to appear at this particular moment?"

"I arrived in Pomfret," said Mr. Murtagh easily, "by the ten o'clock mail."

The man who sat among them, looking from one to another with clear and quiet glance, was the same who had listened to the harangue of Jonas Wiggins, had bearded the sentries of the "back yards," and | | 23 lounged, with wooden face and slouching manner, among the Pomfret idlers and groups. The same, yet not the same. The garments were the same, but the form they clad no longer lounged or slouched, or bore itself with awkwardness. The face was no longer wooden; the dull eye, with its lifeless stare, was no longer either dull or lifeless. This was a man of fine figure and goodly height, with erect square shoulders, small, well-shaped hands, that looked strong, and never belied their look by a useless or purposeless movement; with a strong face capable of many expressions, and, like the eyes, able to beam with mirthful good-humour, to awe by its sternness, or to drop in a moment into expressionless insipidity according to his mood or will. The fine mouth and firm under jaw were concealed by bushy whiskers of the same lifeless, yellowy-brown colour as the hair that clung about his neck and ears; but the eyebrows, which his hat had entirely shaded, now showed themselves quite dark.

"You see," Mr. Murtagh went on easily, "I like, when I can do so, to look over my ground quite by myself, unbiased by any report, any story from witness or participator, friend or foe. I have often found it worth a bushel of explanations; and this case of yours afforded an especially good chance. Would you like me to tell you what I know of this affair?"

He turned his questioning eyes toward Mr. Baird; the banker nodded, with a look of surprise upon his face.

"I have been," began the detective, "something less than two hours here, 'upon the scene,' as they say in the stories. It appears that a man, Joseph Matchin by name, a bachelor, and more or less eccentric, who has been caretaker of this bank for a good many years, was killed last night, probably near midnight. He was killed by persons, or a person, unknown. Am I right thus far?"

Mr. Baird nodded.

"The crime was discovered by a party of gentlemen returning from a late supper. There has been a great search, as thorough a search as could be made in the nature of things, but the murderer has escaped. Is that correct?"

"Almost," said the clergyman.

"I might amuse you with dozens of droll ideas, theories, suspicions, conjectures, but not now. The majority of the mob are making all manner of wild guesses at the possible murderers, and are all at sea. But there is a faction," here he withdrew his gaze from the face of the banker, and let it pass easily from face to face as he went on," one faction which has fixed upon the guilty man, and I believe they mean mischief, at least the ringleader does. His name is Wiggins."

"Yes," said Mr. Baird, quickly, "we have heard of Wiggins and his talk."

"I presumed as much. Now, sir, I am ready to hear your story. If I had not already heard so much, I would ask you to let me go over the ground first, the scene of the murder I mean; as it is, let me hear what you can tell me—unless—" smiling slightly, "you are doubtful about trusting me with your case."

Mr. Baird took from the table at his elbow the card he had deposited there, and for answer read these words:

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"I send you Ferriss Murtagh. I could not send a better man. He can be trusted under all circumstances."

"There, Mr. Murtagh," he said, as he put the card down, "that, coming from the head of your Bureau, should be answer enough."

"Very well. Now, do you assure me that I can trust each one of you here present?"

"Yes," said the banker with emphasis.

"One moment." It was Bruce Deering who spoke. "Before we go further, let me say, Mr. Murtagh, that I am the man who has been picked out for the assassin."

"Oh, I am quite aware of that, Mr. Deering," replied the cool detective. "Gentlemen, permit me to make myself more comfortable," and he put up his hand and with two or three dexterous movements relieved himself of the yellow-brown wig and the bushy whiskers, and sat before them clean-shaven, and with short, black locks thickly streaked with grey.

Thus bared to their view it was a strong, firm face, and the hopes of each, and their confidence as well, grew apace as they gazed.

"Now," he said, nodding to Mr. Baird, "will you let me begin as I will?"

"Assuredly."

"Then-first, who was the very first one to discover this murder?"

Bruce Deering answered at once, "I believe it to have been myself."

"Is there a possibility that there may have been another?"

"I do not think so. I think—I am sure that I grappled with the escaping assassin. Shall I give you the particulars?"

"Yes—and carefully."

He did give them carefully; so carefully that the astute detective scarcely needed to interrupt the narrative from first to last. It was only when they had reached the point where the three young men, essaying to lift the dying man, had heard those strange last words, that he broke in upon the narrator.

"One question, Mr. Deering, if you are willing to answer it; of course it is not compulsory—here. When you heard these words, with your name so strangely intermingled, what were your first thoughts?"

Deering was silent a moment, then he said,

"My first thoughts, I hardly can say. My first feeling was certainly one of horror at the idea, the accusation those words seemed to convey. The thing stunned me."

"And well it might. Thank you, Mr. Deering, and one more question. Was there anyone else? Do you think it possible that the man might have meant some person other than you, of the same name?"

"Frankly, no. I think, when he spoke my name, he meant me."

"Oh!" The detective now turned to Mr. Morse, and this time, he interrupted often, and asked many questions. When each in turn had told all he knew, and had been very keenly and closely questioned, the detective arose. "It is almost one o'clock," he said, "and I would be glad to look at the room where the thing occurred now, at once!" He went to the door, and then turned back. "Remain | | 25 here, all of you, please. I think I need not detain you long. Now, show me the way, Mr. Baird."

When the detective and the banker were outside, and about to enter the room where Joseph Matchin lay upon the long table, the former paused.

"One question," he said briskly." Is your coroner shrewd, intelligent, the right sort?"

"Doctor Liscom? He is—exceptionally so."

"A man who will not obstruct; one who has tact?"

"I think so. Besides, he is one of my oldest friends."

"Good!" said the detective with fervent emphasis. "That's all." Five minutes later, Mr. Baird re-entered the room where the four waiting men sat, alone.

"Mr. Deering," he announced, "you are wanted out there by Mr Murtagh."

. . . . . . .

When the two men came back, twenty minutes later, they found Mr. Liscom with the others, and the detective was promptly presented. The two men shook hands, and before the two hands fell apart, the detective began.

"Mr. Coroner, this afternoon's inquiry can be nothing more than preliminary, and I am going to ask you to conduct it in such a manner as to leave me out of it entirely. It would spoil my usefulness were I to appear now, and it can do no good. If I might advise, I should say, do not look too far for witnesses, let them present themselves." The eyes of the two men met, and challenged each other for a moment. "It is useful sometimes," went on Murtagh after a full pause, "to know whether our witnesses are reluctant, willing, or actually anxious to be called upon" Another pause. "Do we understand each other?"

"Quite," said Doctor Liscom.

"Then," finished Murtagh, "let the inquiry begin as soon as you please."

Mr. Baird, who for some moments had been watching the window, suddenly approached the door, and opened it to admit a man bearing a monster hamper.

"I had, Mr. Murtagh, just such a possibility as this in mind," he declared, "when I ordered luncheon here for half-a-dozen. I would never have done to send down luncheon for one."

The coroner put on his hat.

"Dispatch it at once," he commanded, "while I go to hunt up my jury. The inquest will open as soon as this is accomplished."

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