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 vault had been robbed; that much was revealed at the first glance; and now, while with the lamp held high, they look again within, they make yet another discovery.

In a shadowy corner, placed almost upright, is a hatchet, short but heavy. Its edge is bright and keen, clean too, as if newly sharpened; but the back and the handle are smeared with blood.

The detective pounces upon it at once; but the banker shrinks away with a gasp of horror.

"My hatchet!" he exclaims. "And it has killed poor Joe." "Yours?"

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"Yes. I gave it to Joe several days ago; he was a tinker, handy about such things. He always looked after our tools, and would have resented it if we had given such jobs to anyone else. It was ready, for he told me so yesterday. If I had only taken it away!"

The face of the detective was grave. He put the ugly weapon down, near the open door of the vault. "Make sure about your losses," he said peremptorily, "and let's get on; things are growing ugly." He turned away from the vault and seated himself by the table which the coroner had used earlier in the day.

In a few moments the banker, lamp in hand, came out from the vault, and placed the light upon the table.

"They have taken just thirty thousand dollars, in bank bills, that were made up in packages ready to go out at the call of Ransom & Sons, grain buyers, and also some small rolls of gold, probably three thousand more."

Murtagh got up, took up the blood-stained hatchet, and put it back as he had found it in the corner of the vault.

"You are sure there is nothing else?" he asked. "Quite so."

"Then close the vault."

He waited, standing near, while this was done; then, moving to the rear of the room and stopping beside a closed register, he said:

"Will you please bring the lamp here?"

Mr. Baird complied in silence.

"It's surprising," said the detective, "to see how blind people can be in times of excitement such as this has been." He bent over the register and opened the slide. He had brought with him, when entering, a slender twig, a little more than a foot long, plucked from an apple tree, and with a small prong setting out at its heaviest end like a hook; this he held in his hand, and he now bent down, and inserting the hooked end through the open work of the register, pushed it a little way down and drew up something which he caught between his finger and thumb, and pulled out gingerly. "This article," he said, "I saw through the iron open work this afternoon when Mr. Deering was here with me. I contrived to push it further down, and to close the register. It may be nothing; but, again, it may be a clue to the murderer. Ah!'' He had shaken out as he uttered the last word what seemed, at first glance, like an oblong piece of white cloth, soiled and blood-stained, but, upon closer view, proved to be the half of a fine linen handkerchief.

Holding the fragment as nearly as possible in the folds in which he had found it, he carried it to the table, and there the two men bent over it, while Murtagh opened it out slowly and at last spread it flat upon the table.

"Ah!" he again ejaculated suddenly, and the banker bent nearer to look. In one corner, which had escaped both grime and blood-stain, the two men saw, by the light which Murtagh now held close, two initials worked in an odd and fanciful pattern, in the tiniest of stitches, and these two initials were B. D.

Mr. Baird groaned aloud and dropped upon the nearest chair, and | | 43 leaving the hateful fragment still outspread between them, the detective seated himself opposite him.

For a long moment neither spoke; then the expert, bending toward his companion, with his elbows resting upon his knees, looked him full in the face.

"Mr. Baird,"he began, in low, firm tones, "let us settle this matter at once. You and I must understand each other."

"Yes?" replied the banker, without lifting his eyes from the thing upon the table. And then as the younger man was silent, and sat keenly scanning his troubled face, he added, as if the words were forced from him, "Go on."

"You sent for me, Mr. Baird, and at this present time I am under your orders." He paused.

"Yes?" said the banker once more.

"To-day, a few hours ago, you told me you wanted me to help you find the murderer of that old man."


"That you meant to leave no stone unturned, to omit nothing; to pass by no clue which might aid in the work."

"True." The eyes were still upon the ugly bit of linen.

"Is this still your wish?"

Suddenly the eyes were uplifted; the old man's white head reared itself. The clenched right hand came down, with unlooked for force, upon the corner of the table. "Yes!" he cried, "it is! I care nothing for the thirty thousand! I'd give that, doubled, to have poor Matchin alive among us again; I want his death avenged; but I'd rather lose all that this bank contains than to see this damnable chain of horrible circumstantial evidence coiling tighter and tighter about a man who has been almost like a son to me! whose father was my best friend, and who has lived in my sight for years, upright, truthful, industrious—a credit to himself and his friends. Lysander Deering will mourn sincerely for poor old Matchin, and will care not a whit for the loss of the money. But—this awful blow—this blot upon a proud old name!—it will break his heart! It will kill him!"

He had risen to his feet in his excitement, and the detective put out his hand, as if to stem the flow of his words, and said:

"Pray resume your seat, Mr. Baird"—(when Ferriss Murtagh was polite, he was polite in the good, old-fashioned, if somewhat high-flown manner)—"I am glad you have said all this; very glad! You and I must understand each other; let us not beat about the bush. We are both thinking of the same man—of Mr. Bruce Deering. Is it not so?"

Yes!" The banker sank into his seat again.

"And do you wish to shield him—if it can be done—because he is the son of your old friend?—because you fear the effect of an exposure upon the life or health of your partner?"

"Yes, yes!"

"Or, do you believe he is not guilty? In short, why do you wish to screen him?"

"Great heavens! man, who said that I wished to screen him?"

The detective smiled.

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"This is folly, Mr. Baird. The whole aim of the afternoon was to keep back, to choke off any questions, any testimony which might reflect upon that young man. You all worked for it! The business of this afternoon was much more to shield Bruce Deering than to fix upon the destroyer of your old janitor! You all worked for that end—yourself, the coroner, the two young lawyers, even the parson! I did not need to be told this; and your sheriff, with the aid of that fellow Wiggins, very nearly upset your plans. Of course you can't expect to keep this up! Once more, did you send for me to find the murderer? or to help you to screen your young friend?"

"Help me to screen him I Man, do you believe Bruce Deering guilty?"

"Do you?"

"No! a thousand times no! If I did, I would not lift a hand to 'screen' him, though he were my own son!"

"And does the coroner share your belief in his innocence?"

"Yes! Doctor Liscom is a man of truth and honour."

"And the young lawyers?"

"They were Bruce Deering's classmates; they swear by him!"

Ferris Murtagh got up, and coming around the table, stood before him.

"Mr. Baird, to-night I am in your employ; to-morrow, unless we decide the question otherwise to-night, I may be thrown into contact with your sheriff. If this is the case, and if my services are claimed for the county, I must follow up the clues that are placed before me. And—I believe your sheriff means to hunt young Deering down."

"I know he does," groaned the banker.

"Then here is the question: do I work for you, and to save young Deering? or, do I join the hunt, which will surely be afoot to-morrow, for your janitor's murderer? or shall I go back to the city?"

"I—I don't understand you."

"It is simple! To-night I am here at your call. I am free to enter your individual service, in which case I should demand perfect freedom, and work for your young friend; seeking, in the meantime, for the truth concerning the murder. In this case I should not wish to be made known to the sheriff, your prosecuting attorney, or to anyone. If, as you at first intended, you make me known to your officers here, my hands are tied. I must work with them, for them, in a measure; do you understand me now?"

"I think so. In part at least. And how about those who have already met you?"

"They are Deering's friends, you say. Are they not to be trusted?"

"Oh, entirely!"

"Then take them into your confidence, or tell them I have withdrawn from the case, as you think best. Look here, Mr. Baird, I've only been in Pomfret a few hours, but, I've had my eyes and ears open! That's my business, and I tell you there's some dark days coming for Young Deering! Has he any enemies among folks of his own sort?"

"Do you mean among gentlemen?''


"Not one, I honestly believe. Bruce Deering is a little too re- | | 45 served, too attentive to his own business, too self-assertive, and—yes, too self-respecting, to be one of your downright popular fellows. I daresay you understand me. But he's one of the sort who grows upon you; the better you know him the better you like him. His best is not all on the surface. Enemies?—no. I can't think he has one!"

"And I'm sure he has! In any town like this there is always an element, made up, mostly, of a mixture of the ignorant, the unsuccessful, and the vicious, and when someone who stands socially above this class, meets with misfortune, these people, from being simply indifferent, or slightly envious, become actually inimical; not because of any personal reason, but because it pleases them to see one of their social superiors brought down. There are people who have been worked upon by this man Wiggins."

"Ah!" broke in the banker, "I remember. Wiggins was defeated not long ago in a trifling lawsuit, and Deering was the lawyer who won the case for his opponent: Wiggins is accounted a spiteful fellow, and a worthless one."

"Yes, yes! Now, about your sheriff. Is he a friend of Deering's?"

"Carton?" Mr. Baird looked perplexed. "Really, I don't know how to put it. Socially they are seldom thrown together. They're not men of the same sort. Carton's a man of business, and a good one. Deering—well, you see he's a man of business, and something more—" he broke off abruptly. The detective was smiling.

"I understand, sir. People talk of democracy, and prate of freedom and equality. And they say that in America there's no aristocracy. But in every town and village in this blessed country there's at least two classes, and in most three. No aristocracy!—why, man, as long as there are college-bred men and men uneducated, well-bred men and boors, in the same community, each will cleave to his kind, and there'll be two classes. We may prate of freedom, and we're all equally free; but we're equal in nothing else. The man of culture instinctively seeks his own kind. And the man who has learned how to read the newspapers, and can keep his accounts, but has never turned the last leaf, even at the grammar school, knows and feels, if he does not admit, that there's a difference! Why, good heavens! there's aristocracy even among dogs and cats, horses and cattle! Do you place your fine roadster upon a par with your coloured brother's wrynecked, spavined, halting old nag? Or your fine hound with the mongrel at the street corner? Blood may be of value, or it may not; but breeding tells. Young Deering is a gentleman in trouble, and the men who are most likely to do him an injury, or least likely to come to his aid, will be the men who will not admit, but who recognise, the difference between them! I do not know your sheriff, but your face tells me that he has no desire to make things easy for young Deering."

The banker took a turn or two across the room, then—

"You talk as if the danger for Bruce Deering were not over," he said. "I thought the great risk for him was successfully tided over at the inquest."

"You are mistaken. He will be brought before your grand jury, I firmly believe. Why, man, look at the items already known to some, and at this moment in rapid circulation!" Checking them off upon | | 46 his fingers: First, he is the man who first discovers the murder—he gives the alarm? Very true, but there is blood upon his linen, upon his hand, upon his cheek. Enough there to cause a man's arrest; but that is not the worst. The dead man, struggling to make some statement, pronounces his name. And those who hear the evidence which those two young men must give before a grand jury will believe that it was not incoherent ravings—will certainly believe that they were trying to screen young Deering."

"Oh! but what do you think? What is your opinion? Do you believe Bruce Deering guilty?"


"And why?"

"For a simple reason. When I found that torn bit of linen you were in the room, but looking out of the window—"

"Because you had directed my attention outside! Ah, I under. Stand!"

"Precisely. I had seen a speck of something white through the lace-work of the grate, and wanted a chance to conceal it more effectually, which I did. Then I asked you to send me Mr. Bruce Deering."


"Well, he came; and, while talking with him, I stepped suddenly to the register and made a movement as if I had discovered something, at the same time exclaiming sharply. He looked surprised, came straight forward, and bent down with the manner of one who looks to see something new or interesting. When I drew back and turned away he asked what I had seen. `Nothing,' I answered him; `I had made a mistake—'"

"Well, I don't see how that—"

"Wait! That bit of linen was put where we found it by the murderer. If the murderer had seen me about to unearth it, he would not have worn that look. I have sprung many a trap upon suspected and guilty men. Not even a cool and hardened criminal could have looked like that."

"And that is your only reason for believing in his innocence?"

"For me that is enough."

They were both silent for a moment, then—

"What do you want to do?" asked the banker.

"What do you wish done?"

"I wish you to look after the interests of Deering, and to hunt for the guilty man, or men, in the way you think best."

"And the sheriff?"

"If what you say is true, he will take matters into his own hands to-morrow morning."

"Oh! you do know your man!"

"Have you any plans?"

"Listen. In the morning you will do well to take the initiative; don't let Carton look for you. Hunt him up bright and early, and tell him to take things into his own hands, stipulating only that you consult together. Let him see how much you rely upon his shrewdness, and, if no out else takes up the cry, try and persuade hint that he is | | 47 detective enough, that another might only disarrange his plans. He has plenty of faith in himself."

"Hum. You certainly know him!"

"In the meantime—don't you want a servant, gardener, coachman—general factotum?" The eyes of the two men met.

"I see!" murmured the banker, "I shall have a vacancy in my staff—to-morrow." Both men smiled.

"Very good. Explain matters to the parson and the two lawyers, and tell them never under any circumstances to approach me. That is all for to-night. Now let Carton do his worst, and I—"

"Will do your best," said the banker. "I am sure of it."

He put out his hand, and, over the spot where poor Joe Matchin had breathed his last sigh, they clasped hands. Then Murtagh turned to the table and took up the bit of linen. "What shall be done with this?" he asked. "It's a damning piece of circumstantial evidence."

"True! Understand yourself as in command, Mr. Murtagh. Do with it what you will."

The detective promptly folded it, and put it in his pocket. "It won't do to leave it with you," he said. "What about the robbery, Mr. Baird?"

"About that my mind is already made up. I shall not mention it. It lies between you and me; but the hatchet—that troubles me."

"It need not. It is worth little as a clue. It was your tool, found here on the premises; we all know how the victim was killed; let it remain where it is until you can remove it. You are right not to speak of the robbery yet. If Bruce Deering knew the combinations of that vault, there is an array of evidence against him which would hang him in spite of everything. Deering's life is literally in our hands."

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