- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER VI. ORA.
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MISS WARDELL'S Victoria, which, according to Tom Wells, had taken its way past the bank, during the progress of the inquest, and been driven down the Avenue in the direction of Lisle, did not continue in that direction; but, at the point where the Avenue merged itself into the Lisle road, to the right, and into another, commonly called the "ridge road," to the left, it was ordered to turn northward, and so took its way. softly rolling along the "ridge," which skirted the town at a considerable elevation, and led back into it, connecting at the northern extremity of the town with the very foot of Main Street, crossing it, and running on, in a north-easterly direction, out into the country once more.
When the Victoria had reached Main Street, Miss Wardell said to her driver:
"You may turn here, James, and drive in at the upper gate of Beechwood; drive to the side door."
Beechwood was the stately home of judge Deering, the uncle of Bruce Deering, and president of the Pomfret Bank. And even the fine home of Ora Wardell could not rival it for beauty, size, and perfection of appointment. Beechwood was the show place of Pomfret, and its master was accounted by far the wealthiest man in a wealthy county.
As Miss Wardell was driven through the upper or side gate and down the curving drive toward the side entrance, she noted that the great front windows were all closed and tightly shuttered; that the massive main entrance was shut and padlocked; and that an air of loneliness and desertion brooded over the place.
"It looks abandoned altogether," she thought as she drew up at the side entrance; and then she gave the order:
"Get down, James, and see if you can raise one of the servants; I wish to see the housekeeper."
But it was not the housekeeper who, after some moments, appeared in answer to repeated pulls at the loud ringing bell. Mrs. Merton, for many years the housekeeper at Beechwood, was a plump and comfortable looking matron of full sixty years, fresh faced, smiling, and never seen by mortal, be it by day or night, without her tidy apron, big and | | 35 white if it were morning; smaller and of shining black silk if it were later than high noon; and at all times her crinkling white hair was crowned with a black lace cap, more or less ornate, as the occasion demanded.
The person who peered out through the scarcely half-opened door, and then came forth and dropped a quaint curtsy upon the stone step at the top of the flight of five leading up from the neat gravel path, was a small and dark woman, with a decidedly foreign face and dark, restless eyes, that scanned the visitor with quick, keen glances, which lost nothing in their rapid survey.
"Miss Wardell?" said this person with a tone of inquiry, and in a foreign accent.
"Good-morning, Madam Sarita. I am glad that you have not for-gotten me," said Miss Wardell, affably. "Can I see Mrs. Merton for a moment?"
Madam Sarita came to the edge of the broad upper step before she answered.
"Mrs. Merton is not here, miss. She is visiting with her niece in Buffalo."
"Really! And will she belong away?"
"She went day before yesterday, and was to have two weeks' leave at the least."
"Indeed! Yes, I see. And you, of course, are left in charge?'' The young lady glanced about her. "Beechwood looks deserted; are you not lonely? Of course, though, you are not alone?"
"I might almost as well be. I have no one in the house except Jane, the laundress, who is deaf as the dead. Mrs. Deering thought fit to give the servants a holiday while they were all away, and every-one was glad enough to go. Of course the coachman is here, and the head gardener; but they stay, except for their meals, at the stable. I don't mind the quiet, miss. I stayed from choice, else the house-which is quite burglar proof, if house ever was-would have been closed for at least a month."
"Really?" Miss Wardell was silent a moment, then—
"And Miss Rodney? Did she go with her guardian and his wife after all?"
The woman's lips set themselves in a firm line. "Miss Rodney is in Baltimore," she said stiffly.
"With the Rextrews—of course! And when will she return?—soon, I hope."
"There's no telling. Mr. Deering does not think of coming back for some weeks yet; they've been away six already. And Miss Rodney won't be long behind them, I don't doubt."
"Ah! I'm so glad to hear it! We miss them all, I assure you. I wonder if I might leave a message with you—in case Mrs. Merton returns sooner than you expect?" She leaned toward the woman, who came slowly down the steps and stood beside the carriage.
"She won't come any sooner," she said then.
"Oh! Then I must wait." She was still leaning out, one little gloved hand resting upon the wheel-guard, and a dainty handkerchief fluttering from her fingers. "Then I won't detain you, Madam | | 36 Sarita. Oh, but I most ask—about Mr. Deering! Do you hear any. thing in regard to his health?"
"Mr. Bruce has told me that he has seen the two great doctors; they think he may do very well if he avoids all mental effort and over, excitement. It's a quiet life he must lead the rest of his days, they say."
"Oh! I'm so sorry! I fear that will be a little hard for poor Mrs. Deering."
"Mrs. Deering does not seem to mind being quiet; for a young woman she's wonderfully still in her ways. She'll bear him company fast enough."
Miss Wardell smiled down at her. "I see that you understand your household," she said, still smiling. "But I must not detain you longer. My errand was from my housekeeper to Mrs. Merton, but it will have to wait; you know they often exchange those wonderful recipes of theirs, and Mrs. Gray fancied that Mrs. Merton had been left in charge here. I had no idea what a general flitting had taken place. And you will still be alone for two weeks to come? Well," with another gleaming smile and a little wave of the hand holding the dainty handkerchief, "good-day, Madam Sarita. Now, James—home."
As the carriage swung round, and while the coachman's back was still toward her, Sarita took a step forward, and so covered, with her small, neat boot, something which lay directly under the place where the gloved hand had rested over the wheel.
When the carriage had turned and was rolling down Main Street townward, she cast a quick glance all about her, and then, stooping, picked up the small object, sitting down upon the lowest step with her hand closed tightly over it.
"Queer!" she muttered. "How came she to be so careless, I wonder?" She opened her hand, laid a small square of paper many times folded upon her lap, looked at it for a moment, and then deliberately began to unfold it. The inner side was almost covered with writing, and when she had given it one glance, she clutched at it with both hands and gasped, as once more, and with an affrighted air, she looked about her. "Holy saints!" she muttered, as she bent her head above the scrawled lines. "How came this—horror? Oh! what shall I do!"
Meanwhile, as the Victoria drove away from Beechwood and back toward the heart of Pomfret, the smile died upon the lips of Ora Wardell, and she leaned wearily back in her elegant carriage, seemingly lost in thought.
It was barely a mile from the Pomfret Bank to Beechwood, and they were half-way down the straight and well-graded road when the hand-some brunette face was lifted, and the slender graceful figure, reclining against the springy cushions, drew itself erect, as she glanced about her with some new purpose revealing itself in the determined curves of her fine red mouth.
"James,' she said, "turn at the next cross street; drive over to the Avenue, and drive slower." As the Victoria swung round the next corner she shifted her position and leaned back once more in an attitude of careless ease, with her well-gloved hands crossed lightly upon her lap. Beechwood stood in solitary grandeur at the end of | | 37 Main Street, and for a quarter of a mile, looking townward, there was no other residence, nothing, indeed, upon the Beechwood side but the enclosed stretch of woodland, well trimmed and laid out with rustic paths, which was called Beechwood Park.
But the carriage was now passing through populated Pomfret, and Miss Wardell bowed easily now and then as she passed a face that she knew. It was a friendly nod always, and the face beneath the picturesque carriage hat was as serene as possible. But the hall closed eyes were very alert, nothing escaped them, and presently, as the victoria rolled easily down Oak Avenue, she said:—
"Drive up to Doctor Liscom's gate, James. That is the doctor upon the terrace, is it not?"
Doctor Liscom and the sheriff had adjourned to the open air, and were regaling themselves with a couple of fragrant cigars, when Miss Wardell's victoria came into view. They were still discussing the inquest, and had lately had her name upon their lips. They were discussing the propriety of hailing her carriage, when it drew out of the highway, and approached the gate.
Doctor Liscom went briskly to meet it, and, after a moment, the sheriff followed, as rapidly as official dignity would permit.
Miss Wardell was bending from her carriage, her great dark eyes fixed upon the coroner's face with a look of serious concern.
"I am very glad to tell you anything that I can," she was saying as the sheriff joined them. "Yes, it was as Wells has told you. I had a visitor earlier in the evening, and when I was at last alone I took up a book and began reading. You know poor papa kept late hours, Doctor Liscom, and I have fallen into his habit through keeping him company so much. When I heard the passing feet, I only thought of it as being some late merrymaker, and I knew too of the supper at Brian Lodge. And then—I heard the horse. I had but just put aside my book, and I suppose I was stupid from drowsiness, without really being aware of it; certainly I did not connect the horse and the hurrying footsteps at first. Then I heard the bell, and went outside."
She had barely glanced at the sheriff, who was now standing near the doctor, and only a step in the rear, and had addressed herself to the latter without pausing, when the sheriff approached. But now she bent her fine eyes upon him, and said, with a little hesitating smile and gesture, "I think—this must be Mr.—Carton—our sheriff—is it not?" And then, as he bowed and drew a step nearer, she went on, speaking rapidly.
"I ventured to stop and ask about the inquest. Of course I have heard very little, except what I could not avoid hearing from the servants; not a reliable source, you know. Poor Matchin! such a faithful person! I knew him quite well; "turning her eyes upon the sheriff. "You know he was in charge of St. Mark's, and kept the keys, and I, for some time, have been the organist there; the organ is an especially fine one, and he was always so kind about opening the church for me whenever the whim seized me to go over and play for an hour. Has anything been discovered? Have they found any clue to the—the robbers?"| | 38
"Nothing definite," replied the coroner quickly. "There has hardy been time as yet. Mr. Carton here has but just entered into the case, and he will make good use of his time."
"Pardon me," Carton broke in, with his gaze upon the lady, "you speak of robbers. Is the idea afloat that there has been a robbery as well as murder?"
"Has there not?" her face expressive of keenest astonishment. "Why, really, I don't know how I got the idea! Was it not a bank robbery, then? Why else should that poor man have been struck down while guarding the bank?"
"As yet we cannot even guess at the motive," Liscom breaks quickly in. "We have no evidence of robbery—as yet."
"Why, Mr. Liscom, I feel like a traducer! How one's ideas can run away with one! Now, look at it: I hardly thought of the footsteps or the galloping horse, until I was told that someone had entered the bank and attacked the watchman, and then, straightway, I must recall those things, and fancy that I had really discovered something which might prove a help to you. What could be more natural than for one man to make the attack, a confederate being at the corner, say, with a swift horse?" She threw herself back upon her cushions and uttered a low mellow laugh, then turned toward them again. "Gentlemen, really I can't quite give up my little ready-made theory. I thought it was almost a clue." She made a forward movement as if to address her coachman, then turned again. "Since there is nothing to corroborate this fancy of mine, Air. Carton, please promise me not to use my name, or this bit of meaningless information; at least, not until you find something more, some connecting link; and if that should happen," she turned a flashing glance now full upon the admiring sheriff, "please let me hear; that is—"
As she paused, Carton said quickly:
"You would not refuse to aid us with your testimony if it were needed, would you, Miss Wardell?"
"I! That is what I was trying to say. It would not be pleasant, but I could not refuse, if justice demands it. Only, Mr. Carton, should this happen, do not let them take me unawares. You understand me. What is it they do with unwilling witnesses? I shall not be an unwilling witness, you know. Give me some sort of personal notice, will you not?"
The eyes, the smile, and the words, were all directed towards Sheriff Carton, and—while he was bowing, and promising that she should not be annoyed, and, if it came to a subpoena, that it should be served by his own hands—she drew back in her seat, pulled the light carriage duster about her, and said, in an undertone:
In another moment she had murmured her thanks, bowed, first to Liscom and then to the sheriff, while the handsome horses, slyly "touched up" by the ready coachman, were prancing and pawing, and before either of the two men could detain her by a word, she was being whirled away, the dust from the carriage wheels blown back and about them as they turned toward the terrace.
"Well," said Doctor Liscom, a smile lurking beneath his grey mou- | | 39 stache, "you have had your wish; you have seen Miss Wardell, and have heard her story."
"Yes," glancing askance at his companion; "a deuced fine woman."
"But," added the doctor, "it's rather a pity you didn't embrace so good an opportunity and put those 'leading questions' you thought it so important to ask."
The sheriff stole another quick side glance at his host, and shot out from between his teeth one word:
For some moments, Miss Wardell wore the smile which she had worn in parting from the two officers of the law. Then, as it faded, she murmured to herself:
"That was very well. I fancy it may save me some annoyance."
As she turned into the Avenue and drove eastward, dusk was falling, and showing dimly the outlines of the bank upon the one hand, and the church opposite. And now, the eyes which she turned from the one to the other were sombre, and the lips unsmiling. The crowd, which all day had lingered about the bank, was now dispersed; only the men on guard remaining. They were putting up the heavy shutters at the windows of the room where the inquest had been held, and she could see, by the fitful glimmer within, that someone was lighting the lamps.
"I wish I dared go in there," she whispered, and then shuddered and turned her gaze for a moment upon the stately church, only to shudder again, and turn away a face that showed pallid in the growing dusk.
"Drive on, James," she said petulantly. "Drive to the front."
At the front entrance, Miss Wardell sprang lightly from her victoria, and paused for a moment to bow blithely to a lady and gentleman who were passing, mounted, and at a slow trot. Her big St. Bernard came forward to meet her in stately fashion, and she paused again to caress his huge head, and speak to him in playful tones.
But once within and the door closed behind her, she fled up the stairway like one pursued, and, entering her own room, closed and locked the door with nervous haste; her hands were trembling, her face wore a look that was close akin to terror, and she flung off her picturesque hat, and threw herself face downward across her lace-draped bed, muttering between short, quick breaths
"Thank Heaven! oh, how horrible it has been! I could not have endured it another moment! I could not!"
Meantime the shutters had been tightly closed in Pomfret Bank, and the place was brightly lighted. The body of poor Joe Matchin had been carried to one of the lesser offices, the doors had been barred against all intruders, and Detective Ferriss Murtagh was standing before Mr. Baird, hands in pockets, wig and beard laid aside, and a look of satisfaction upon his face.
"At last," he said, spreading his feet wide apart, "the decks are cleared, thanks to that coroner of yours, and we are ready for business, The circumlocution office is closed. New, sir, fire away."| | 40
The banker met his eye and smiled grimly. "I presume you had an object in asking me to shut everybody out and give you your fling here; suppose you make that object plainer."
"Oh, very well." Murtagh swung himself about briskly. "You see I didn't have any too much time here this afternoon before the inquest, and might have overlooked something. I believe you said that there were no evidences of robbery, that nothing had been disturbed?"
Murtagh placed his hand upon the iron lattice which formed the door of the cashier's railed enclosure.
"Will you please unlock this?" he said.
The banker complied in silence, the surprise deepening upon his face. There was a lamp burning in a wall bracket near them. The detective took it from its place, and passed inside the railing.
"Come in," he said, approaching the square safe at the back, and holding the light so that its rays streamed upon the steel doors.
"What is kept in here, Mr. Baird?"
"Very little, save papers of value, ours and others—papers which we did not care to keep in the vault, which was opened every day."
"And no money?"
"Very little money."
"And you say it has not been tampered with?"
"No; it is just as I left it yesterday at four o'clock."
"Are you sure?" The detective held the light closer, and bent toward the lock. "It has not been opened, I grant you, but tried—yes. Look here, and here, and here; look closely—they are tiny scratches, but they are there, and recently made. The lock has been tampered with, you see! Besides—" he touched his finger gingerly upon the steel surface, "they have used wax; you can feel it. Yes, sir; the combination has been tried, and very systematically, too." He turned from the safe and went out and across the room swiftly.
"Come here," he said, before the banker could utter comment or question; "let's take a look at this."
He paused and held the lamp close to the door of the vault built into the inner wall.
"Have you opened this since the murder?" he asked suddenly.
"Wait. And you think you have not been robbed? Well—at any rate, this vault has been opened."
"Good heavens, man! How can you say that?" cried the amazed and alarmed banker. "The combination—"
"The combination is one that could not be opened by anyone who does not know the magic words? This safe is a Sphinx, eh?"
"And, of course, you and your partners selected the ten words by which alone it can be opened?"
"To how many are these words known?"
"To myself, the cashier who is and has been ill, almost at death's | | 41 door, in fact, for ten days; to Mr. Deering, who is the president, and absent now because of ill health; to Deering's son and to Deering's nephew."
"Ah! And that is all?"
"That is all."
"Still, the safe has been opened. When was it opened last by way of business?"
"It was not opened after noon of yesterday; all books and papers are kept in the smaller safe."
"And when was the place last swept out?"
Mr. Baird's face expressed his surprise, but he answered promptly:
"Matchin always swept out as soon as we left the bank; he was not fond of early morning labours."
"Just so. He swept out, then, early last evening; but he did not dust the ironwork; and when the assassin came he found these little knobs and plates lightly coated with dust. My eyes are trained to see small things, Mr. Baird. This afternoon the traces were quite distinct. The shoulders of the crowd have removed much of the dust; but still, high up, too high for the shoulders, see, the plates and the buttons have been well cleaned by the fingers that pressed upon them in searching for the combination. Will you open your vault, Mr. Baird?"
The banker stood for a moment startled and silent; then he made a forward movement.
"Why not?" he said almost harshly.
When the massive door swung slowly open, and the key had been fitted into the lock of the inner door of tight steel plates, Mr. Baird turned to look at his companion. The detective had drawn noiselessly back, until he stood leaning against the iron cage on the opposite side of the room. He smiled, but did not speak.
Then came a sharp click, the creak of the opening inner door, and, after a moment of utter silence, a quick exclamation from Mr. Baird.
"What is it?" asked the detective without moving.
"You were right. There has been robbery."
"Ah!" cried the other, coming quickly forward, "I was sure of it."
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