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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THE murdered man had no near friends, and no relatives, whose whereabouts were known to anyone in Pomfret. Parents, brothers, and sisters, all were dead; and, the only living relative of whom he | | 26 had any knowledge was his pretty niece, Rose, who had left him, almost three years before, secretly, and by night; gone as so many young girls, who are pretty and ignorant, vain and ambitious, have gone, since the beginning of civilisation and sin.

The girl had been the legacy of a dying sister, an only sister; and, although Joe Matchin had been long known as a confirmed bachelor, who claimed to be a woman hater, and openly detested small children, he never thought of refusing the charge. He had placed her in the care of an honest woman, the wife of an honest artisan, who was one of his cronies, and there she had remained, while Matchin lived on as before, keeping his own house, cooking his own dinners, and plodding to and fro between his little cot and his snug corner in the bank building, summer and winter, through rain and shine, until Rose grew to young girlhood, and was thrown back upon his reluctant hands by the death of her protectress.

At first he demurred, when the young girl, laughingly, proposed to become his housekeeper; but the crust above a really warm heart was not deep, and time and a little development transformed grumpy Joe Matchin into a proud and self-satisfied householder; for "Niece Rose" was deft and dainty in her ways, and had been trained in the arts of housekeeping.

Then passed, beyond a doubt, three of the happiest years of the old bachelor's life. His world was bounded by all that lay outside his house, where "Niece Rose" reigned supreme, and his bank, where, in his own department, he reigned supreme also. Honest, faithful, one of the few contented ones of the earth, because he asked of it so little.

Then came an evening when "Niece Rose" left him, she said, "to spend the night with a girl friend," and a morning when she did not return. At first his faith in the girl could not be shaken, even when no plausible reason could be found for her absence. And then a letter found its way to him which shattered that faith. After that he refused to speak of her or hear her spoken of. He went back to his old life, living again as he had lived before her coming, only more secluded, less social, and seen less than ever away from the bank and the little cottage.

Joe Matchin was a model of faithfulness, and when on duty, which was by day and night, and week upon week, except upon Sundays and legal holidays, he was the most temperate of men. Sundays, too, he respected, after his own odd fashion; going to church, and promptly to sleep behind the great pillar which shut in and secluded his usual seat at the end of the back pew; fishing, perhaps, on fair afternoons, but temperate all through the day, and prompt at his post at six o'clock in the evening, making his nightly round, and snug in his bunk at seven o'clock, an hour earlier than his week-day time for retiring.

But when a legal holiday came, Joe Matchin emerged from his burr, and, arrayed in his best, drank with befitting dignity exactly two morning glasses of beer in honour of the day, and to demonstrate his freedom as an American citizen, after which he became the most affable of men and the most loquacious possible, but dignified still. At noon he always dined abroad. On these occasions he took two more glasses, and then, as the day waned, one might find him stilt | | 27 talkative, but less agreeable; prone, indeed, to disagree, and easily led on to talk upon the subject on which he was silent at all other times—of "Niece Rose;" and then, amid curses and muttered threats, he would utter a name, two names, and declare bitterly that, between these two, lay the guilt of robbing his home aid making of his sister's child an outcast.

These names were those of no commonplace personages, otherwise poor Matchin's holiday accusations might have been more widely spread about Pomfret. As it was, his words were repeated with bated breath, re-told with caution, and no retailer of the charge, roundly made, and devoid of detail, was willing to admit himself such.

And so, while there were many in Pomfret who knew, vaguely, that Joe Matchin had named two men and placed an accusation between them, there were also many who knew nothing of all this.

If Joe Matchin had few warm and intimate friends, he was not known to have one enemy; everyone knew him, everyone believed in and admired him for his honesty, and smiled indulgently at his oddities. And so the question which was upon every tongue on this day of the inquest was, "Who could have killed Joe Matchin? And for what?" And to this question there was no reply forthcoming.

. . . . . . .

When the hour for the inquest arrived, and the coroner and his friends were in their places with half-a-dozen policemen to keep the crowd back from the long table and act as barriers about it, the coroner directed Stairs to throw open the outer doors and admit as many as could decently crowd into the larger room and group themselves about the doors of the adjoining offices, which were thrown open, as well as all of the doors and windows, at each of which, however, a muscular guard was placed.

Mr. Baird, the clergyman, and the three young men who were the principal witnesses, took refuge inside the steel-barred enclosure where the business of the bank was transacted, and the coroner's small table was drawn close to the largest of the "brass-latticed windows," which was open, and at which, for the most of the time, Mr. Baird stood, his face stern and inscrutable.

As for Detective Ferriss Murtagh, he had resumed his unornamental wig and whiskers, and had found for himself a snug place in the crowd, but yet not far from the coroner, and almost facing him.

To those who looked for disclosures and hungered for sensation, the inquest was certainly a disappointment at first. There was some display of impatience from the crowd when the inquest failed to begin promptly, and, to quiet the restless ones and gain time, the clergyman came out from behind the office partition, and, standing near the coroner, made a little speech, reminding them that no one desired delay; that there were men there present who had not slept for twenty-four hours, who were weary and anxious to be about their own affairs and to rest. But all were more anxious to see justice done and a wrong righted; and so they were waiting patiently now for the coming of the sheriff. The messenger sent for him hours before had not found him at home. He had spent the night at Rosedale; but Mr. Liscom had just received a telegram asking him to delay the inquest | | 28 a little. He, the sheriff, hoped to be present before three o'clock. At half-past two, therefore, Coroner Liscom would begin.

While this little speech was in progress, John Redding, who was seated near a window looking toward the Avenue, whispered to Morse, who sat next him:

"I don't like the looks of things. That scoundrel Wiggins is outside there vibrating between the two streets. Rest assured he has not remained outside for no purpose."

"What do you suspect is his game?" queried Morse.

"It's clear enough. He's waiting to waylay the sheriff. I don't like it. You know they call Carton a hard man, and quite merciless toward a suspected person."

"And you think Wiggins wants to drop him a `word in season'?"

"It looks like it." He turned back to the window, and the uneasy alertness of the man Wiggins, increasing as the moments passed, more than confirmed his first suspicion. Suddenly a thought caused him to start and take a little memorandum book from his pocket; in a moment he had scribbled a few words upon a leaf and torn the fragment from the book, folding it small and then letting it fall to the floor at his feet. A moment later he whispered again to his friend Morse," Pick up the note I have dropped between us and slip it, as soon as you can, into Mr. Baird's hand."

A moment later Mr. Baird was reading, under cover of a newspaper, these words, hastily scrawled, but legible:

"Wiggins is up to mischief. If the inquest could begin, and the evidence of Deering, Morse, and myself be got over, it will be better for the plans of your detective, as I understand them. Wiggins means to post the sheriff."

For a length of time, to be measured by seconds, the banker seemed to ponder, while he tore to tatters the tiny note. Then he went to the door of the enclosure and beckoned the coroner to come closer. He whispered a few words, the coroner nodded and went back to his place, and for two or three moments there was partial quiet in the room, while the people whispered or talked with those nearest them in low tones. Then Doctor Liscom looked at his watch and arose, turning toward Stairs who was posted at the outer door.

"Stairs," he asked, "do you see any sign of Sheriff Carton?"

Stairs spoke to someone outside, and, after a moment of waiting, turned back and answered,

"He is not here yet. And he is not in sight upon either road."

"It is half-past two," said the coroner, resuming his seat. "We can wait no longer."

Bruce Deering was the first witness called. He came forward with quiet dignity and told the story of the previous night. The coroner listened like one who hears and accepts, perforce, unimpeachable testimony; and when the point was reached where the three young men tried to lift the fallen man, and heard his last strange words, he did a very unusual and a very daring thing.

"You say, Mr. Deering, that the man, whom you at first thought to be dead, moved slightly and moaned. Do you think that he was conscious, that is to say rational? Did he recognise you—any of you?"

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"He could hardly have done that, sir, at least not by sight, for his eyes were covered with blood, and the bruises about them must have blinded him."

"Ah! and he tried to speak, I think you have said. Was it rationally—coherently?"

"Rationally—of that I cannot say, sir. I could only utter my judgment.

Coherent—entirely so—I do not think it was. His efforts to speak were made between gasps. I think he was choking."

"Ah! internal hemorrhage—of course." He seemed to ponder a moment, looked into a big book which lay near his hard, made a brave show of writing some minutes, and then said, still with that air of being taken with some strange new thought which must be made fast but must not be uttered, he said, abstractedly, and without looking up from his minutes,

"That will—do. Call Mr.—Mr.—ah—Mr. John Redding."

Redding came out from the cage with the unconcern of an unimportant witness, who has nothing whatever at stake, and repeated Deering's story, all but the first of it, and was questioned by the coroner, as if that worthy man were bent upon finding any least atone of difference therein.

When again they had reached the point where the three had essayed1 to lift the dying man, Liscom asked—

"You say he spoke but incoherently. Now, could you repeat those words?"

"Not as he uttered them," replied Redding promptly. "They were so broken. It seemed to me that he was confused and perhaps wandering—or that he was trying to tell somebody something—and broke off to curse his destroyer. It was as if he began one thing, and, after repeated choking and gasping, finished by trying to utter something else."

"Then you do not think he was rational?"

"How could I?" The witness threw back his head, and the two men eyed each other squarely. "The words, the few that I caught, were—wild!"

"That will do."

In the momentary silence which followed, while Redding was making his slow progress back to his place inside the cage, the sound of wheels was distinctly heard outside, even while the coroner was saying,

"The next witness in order is Mr.—Morse." And then, through the sounds of the stir occasioned by the arriving wheels, faint, but distinct and sibilant to the ears for which it was intended, came the whisper,

"Skip him."

With no sign that he heard the rapidly rolling wheels, and without lifting his eyes from his helpful note-book, the coroner said slowly,

"Mr. Morse, do not come forward; just rise and answer one question. Can you take the stand to add anything to the story we have already heard twice?"

"I can only repeat," replied a Morse; "all has been told better than can tell it."

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"Then I shall not trouble you, at least, not now."

There was a stir about the door and then Stairs opened it wide and admitted the sheriff. Behind him came Jonas Wiggins.

The coroner arose to greet his brother official, and seemed to be explaining, briefly, what had been done since the inquest began; and Redding seized the opportunity to say to Mr. Baird, in a cautious whisper,

"It is as I thought; Wiggins was the first man to buttonhole Carton, before he was out of his buggy. I think he has made an impression."

Sheriff Carton conferred for some moments with the coroner. He seemed to be urging some point with much earnestness, and when he finally seated himself near Liscom, his brow wore a frown.

"As it seems to follow naturally the statements made by Messrs. Deering and Redding," resumed Doctor Liscom, "I will now myself take the witness stand and give my opinion, my decision, as regards the cause of this death we are seeking to investigate."

The coroner of Pomfret could be didactic upon occasion; and he chose to be didactic now. His learned and minute discourse held the majority of his audience, and, when he resumed his place at the small table, only an interested few realised that he had taken up full half-an-hour of the fast-waning afternoon.

Briefly related, this was his testimony:—

Being called to this place not long after midnight, etc., etc., he had found deceased lying just inside the door giving entrance to the bank-, precisely as had been stated by previous witnesses. He was dead—had been dead not less than one hour, not more than one hour and one half. And he had been killed by blows upon the head from some blunt and heavy weapon, probably of hard wood, or iron. These blows were at least eight in number, all upon and about the head and face. Some of them had bled outwardly and profusely, but those which had caused almost immediate death had bled inwardly, and thus the death, which was certain in any case, had been hastened by strangulation.

"Do you mean," broke in the sheriff sharply, "that the villains had finished their work with their hands?"

"I was about to say," calmly concluded the coroner, "that strangulation, caused by the internal hemorrhage, had hastened the end by—possibly—half-an-hour."

Mr. Baird followed the coroner, and was permitted to tell his story in his own way, until, at the last, the sheriff, after a moment's conference with Doctor Liscom, said:

"Mr. Baird, I am permitted to ask a question; it can be briefly answered." He leaned forward, and fixed a keen and meaning look upon the witness: "Do you suspect anyone? Have you seen or heard here to-day, or at any moment since the discovery of the murder, anything—anything whatever—to cause you to suspect anyone?"

Mr. Baird returned the sheriffs gaze with a serenely open glance.

"No one," he said concisely. "No one, and nothing."

There was a small stir and some unintelligible muttering in the corner where Jonas Wiggins had found a place, and the sheriff bit his thin underlip, and dropped his eyes.

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Mr. Baird resumed his seat, and then followed half -a-dozen of the men who had been beating the woods, and fields, and highways and by-ways about the town. It was the same story from all. No discoveries, no clues—nothing to awaken a suspicion anywhere.

Tom Wells was the seventh of these witnesses. He had an alert look, and he answered the questions of the coroner with a knowing promptness. The answers were the same at first as those of the six scouts who had preceded him, but they were given with a difference, which prompted the coroner to ask at the last:

"You say, Wells, that you found no traces of a possible murderer, and that you encountered only two persons upon your way, and saw lights in but two houses. Where were these lights?"

"The first," began Wells, "was at Wardell Place. There was light at the big, south-east window, and one on the floor above." There was a quick turning of heads among the men who had aided in the search, and an exchange of whispers. "Then," Wells went on, "there was a bright light at Sam Rand's, jest acrost the creek."

"A bright light, you say; did you learn the cause?"

"The doctor's gig was at the gate. The baby was sick."

There was a giggle from Jonas Wiggins' party in the far corner.

"And the two persons whom you saw—was the doctor one of them?"

"Yes, sir, it was Doctor Bates."

"Yes. And the other person, who was that?"

Wells moved forward a step.

"The other was a lady," he said, in a hesitating manner.

"A lady! Name her."

"It was Miss Ora Wardell."

The coroner bit his lip. Ora Wardell was the orphan daughter of one of Pomfret's wealthiest citizens, but lately deceased; the only daughter, and the mistress of Wardell Place, which stood upon the Avenue, directly east of St. Mark's Church, and upon the same side of the street. The front of the stately residence faced the east upon Laurel Place, the side entrance and a spacious lawn looking upon the Avenue, and the rear wall of the garden separating the Wardell grounds from those surrounding and enclosing the church.

"It seems hardly needful to bring Miss Wardell's name into this affair, Wells," the coroner admonished. "But since it is done, you may state, briefly, how you chanced to encounter Miss Wardell at such an hour,—and where?"

"There were three of us that set out from here together, sir, as you may remember. And when we had got ourselves a lantern apiece we divided up, and I happened to take the north side of the Avenue, with Holt on the other side. When we came to the fence about Wardell Place, I noticed the lights inside and sort of halted, and without thinking, lifted up my lantern so that it shone right through that little arch that stands a little ways from the palings, and it shone full upon Miss Wardell."

"Well! go on," commanded the coroner crisply. "Miss Wardel had heard the noise, I suppose, through her open library window, and had come out to see what had happened, eh?"

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"Yes, sir. That's jest what she said She had one of the men servants with her, and she told him to wait fur her there, and then she come down to the palings quick as soon as she knew who it was standin' there; she said she had been settin' up late readin', and had heard noises down here, and finally had ventured out to see what was up."

"Yes, yes; I see. Quite natural; but if that is all, Wells, no more need be said. I am sorry that Miss Wardell has been shocked by this sad affair, as she must have been. Have you anything more that bears upon our case?"

"Yes, sir; though, if Miss Wardell hadn't a come down to speak to me, I shouldn't a had."

"What do you mean, Wells?"

"I mean that Miss Wardell give me the only clue I've caught on to yet."

Liscom started; and all through the room there was a general stir of interest.

"What was that clue?" demanded the coroner.

"When I told her what had happened, she sort of caught her breath, and she said, 'Then I heard him!—I must have heard him!' and she went on to tell that a little while before, while she sat readin' not far from the open window, she heard someone come runnin' down the road, and not on the walk, as would seem natural; she said she kind of laid down her book and sat listenin', thinkin' how queer it was that the person did not go on the walk; and just then she heard the sound of a horse's feet goin' along on Laurel Place. Then, just when she began to read again, all at once the bell began to ring; and then she began to wonder where the fire could be. And after a bit she called one of her servin' men and came outside, as anyone naturally would."

Wells turned away as if there was no more to be said; and the coroner asked sharply:

"Is that all, Wells?"

"Yes, sir; that's all."

Sheriff Carton leaned forward.

"I think Miss Wardell should be called," he said.

Wells, who was just about to resume his seat, drew himself erect again.

"It won't be worth your while," he said, with a grin. "Miss Wardell went down the Avenue in her carriage, not half-an-hour ago, drivin' to'rds Lisle."

As he once more lowered himself into his chair, his eye encountered that of the coroner, and a glance of intelligence passed between them.

There were other witnesses called, but the interest in the inquest upon the body of Joe Matchin flagged perceptibly. No one could tell dust what he had really looked for, but, whatever it might have been, the general verdict was that, as an investigation, it was a flat and emphatic failure

There had been no revelations, no accusations, no sensation worthy of the occasion. And the verdict of the jury had been "Murdered, killed by the hand of some person or persons unknown."

When the verdict was announced, and the inquiry adjourned, the | | 33 coroner ordered an immediate clearing of the bank and the building; and Stairs, with his stalwart helpers, were prompt in carrying out this order. The crowd was hurried out, willing or not, and only the few most interested were left in possession.

While they were yet numerous in the room, each outgoing sensation-lover crowding his neighbour in a vain endeavour to get close to the body lying stiff beneath the concealing pall, the man with the dingy whiskers had made his way close to the railing which separated Mr. Baird from the crowd on the outer side, and had contrived to whisper

"Clear this place as quickly as possible, I want to see you here alone."

The banker nodded, and turned at once toward Bruce Deering, who had laid a hand upon his arm.

"What is it, Deering?"

"You have telegraphed to my uncle, have you not?"

"No. In his last letter he told me not to communicate with him until he wired me. They were going up the river, he said."

"Oh! Then let me ask you—you know my uncle's condition?"


"Let me ask you, then, not to speak of me, whatever happens, when you do wire or write him. Whatever comes let this news wait, if it is possible, until he is here among us. I ask it for his sake, not for my own."

"You are most considerate, Deering. I understand, and it shall be as you wish—if possible."

"Thank you. I can ask no more."

In the meantime the sheriff had caught at Coroner Liscom's arm.

"I must have a talk with you," he said—" with you and with Baird." His brow wore a frown, and his voice was surly. "I don't like the way things have gone. Clear this place. Let's have it out here."

But when this wish, uttered like a command, was made known to Mr. Baird, that gentleman shook his head. "Take him to your office, Liscom," he said, "and give him plenty of rope. Tell him I'll join you soon, and that this place must be cleared, for a time, to all but the undertakers."

. . . . . . .

"Liscom," broke out the stalwart sheriff, when the two men were at last seated in Doctor Liscom's cosy private office, a good quarter of a mile from the scene of the bank tragedy—" Liscom, I can't, for the life of me, see why you made that inquiry so tame, so flat, so useless, as a beginning, a means toward an end! unless you want to blind justice—!"

The coroner turned and looked the sheriff square in the eye.

Look here, Carton, you and I will play with cards upon the table. We, Mr. Baird, myself, and others, mean to have justice!—to see justice done! and we don't mean to make any deplorable mistakes through over-haste in taking up and making much of purely circumstantial evidence; more than all, we do not mean to be urged on to unwise measures because of the malevolent harping of a man whose testimony upon oath would be, to say the least, doubted."

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"But—why man! you have no right to withhold evidence!"

"Nor did we—we simply did not press certain witnesses so far as we might. That is all."

"Well," declared Carton, by no means appeased, "I mean to see through this matter—with your help or without it!"

"Very good. Only, Carton, remember this: an officer of the law can't hold himself too severely aloof from any contact with the mob element. For the rest, make yourself easy, or as easy as you can, until you have seen Baird."

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