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 12 chapter 33 >>

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CHAPTER XIII.
A MUDDLE.

TWENTY minutes later Mr. Baird came briskly through the gate again and paused beside Lady Jane.

The sleek animal stood pawing the ground and nervously tossing her head. The reins, which he had seen last in the hands of his "new man," had been slipped under the spring at the side of the dashboard, and Murtagh was nowhere visible.

He had meant to send the horse back for the present,so that he might see a little more of his latest guest, who was a very welcome guest indeed. But as he was about to call Jerry, and put him in charge of the uneasy animal until Murtagh should choose to resume his post, he was accosted from the rear. Turning, he met Mr. Arden, his hand upon the gate.

"Arden!" he exclaimed, as they greeted each other with cordial hand-clasp, "I'm glad it's you! You're one of the very few men in Pomfret this morning whom our friend Deering will be really glad to see."

"Tell me about him," said the clergyman anxiously. "Is he able to talk freely? Is it safe—or allowed?"

"Allowed, yes. Up to a certain point. But you shall see. The young doctor is still with him, and Liscom has already been here."

"And gone?"

"And gone. Come in, man!"

"Yes, in one moment. Tell me, has he been told—everything?"

"Concerning Matchin's death—yes. And Bruce—they have met, you know. He would have it so. He has heard it all—all the facts. But there's one thing which we all tacitly ignore, and shall continue so to do—so long as it remains so baseless, so lacking a respectable voucher, even for its shadow."

"And that is—?"

"That is the miserable tale, which no one can trace home, about the quarrel with Matchin, and—about that girl."

"Eh—that! You have done well! Well indeed."

"Yes. So it seemed to me. And yet—" They had reached the broad piazza and were about to ascend the steps leading to the vestibule, when the banker turned, paused, and laid a hand upon his companion's arm. "How that story is being blown about! Arden, there's something uncanny in it! Why, it's been taken up everywhere, and has become so interwoven with the simple facts, and the circumstantial possibilities, that it's making out a case which, from the outside point of view, sounds horribly plausible."

"I know it," said the clergyman. "And how long do you fancy it can be kept from the ears of Mr. Deering, once he is out of your house?"

"Oh, it must come, of course! I wish I could understand it! It looks as if poor Bruce had an enemy somewhere."

"And so he has. I am sure of that. Oh—"

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Someone had stepped out from one of the big French windows lower down, and now came rapidly toward them from behind the screening vines that grew all about the piazza. It was Val Rodney, and she spoke hurriedly while she put out her hand in greeting.

"How do you do, Mr. Arden. Uncle Lys has seen you through the library window, and you must not let him think you are preparing anything you may have to say. He is very sensitive—I have seen that in ten minutes—about reservations." She looked wistfully from one to the other. "You understand—you will pardon me?"

"For being wiser than we—and more thoughtful?" queried the pastor gently, drawing her hand through his arm as they all three moved with some haste through the vestibule, and so into the presence of Lysander Deering, who was standing erect in the middle of the library, a look of strained expectancy upon his face. As it became apparent that there was nothing new concerning the one topic of interest to all, and that this visit of the good clergyman meant nothing more than friendly concern for himself, this strained look passed away, but his gaze was still earnest and anxious, and he at once plunged into the one all-absorbing topic.

In their anxiety for his welfare, these loyal and true friends had sought to keep from him this tale of trouble, with its menace of dishonour; but now that an unseen hand had thrust this thing upon him, for what sinister reason they could not guess; and seeing that he bore himself so gallantly, they willingly rehearsed each feature of the tragedy as they had seen it, and made all as clear to his mental vision as was possible.

When Mr. Baird had shut up the bloody hatchet found in the vault, and Murtagh had carried away the fragment of linen with its compromising initials, they had agreed that these two discoveries should not be made known—at least not yet. And so both hatchet and bit of linen had been spirited away, where no searching hand might chance upon them, to await developments.

"The moment we admit a third party to our confidence," Murtagh had said, "we make it impossible in case of trial to withhold these important witnesses. If it is to be young Deering's trial, heaven knows there are witnesses enough. If we should ever be forced to believe him guilty, or, if we find the other man, we can then produce our 'witnesses'; but we must know where and how they will fit first."

And to all of this Mr. Baird had agreed.

"What I would give much to know," ventured Valentine, who had been a silent listener while they were filling up for her guardian, as best they could, the gaps he had found here and there in their by no means complete narrative, "and it seems to me quite important, too, is this: who is the enemy, the snake in the grass, who sent Uncle Lys that letter? It was never a friend, although it was so signed."

"No," agreed Mr. Deering, "it was never a friend."

Mr. Arden looked from one to another. He had not seen his friend Baird for two days, except for a passing word upon the street, and the fact of the anonymous letter had been kept between the two families and Murtagh: "I do not understand," he said, and suddenly checked himself.

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"No—of course not." Mr, Deering drew from a breast-pocket a yellow envelope, and extended it to the minister. "We have thought it best not to make it public property," he said, "but it was an anonymous letter that informed me of—of matters in Pomfret. Baird, here, had simply let me know that Matchin was dead. It was this that brought me home."

The letter was written in a cramped and uneven hand, evidently disguised, and it ran thus:

"MR. DEERING,—

I believe you are bein' deceived for some reason. You will know best when I tell you that Joe Matchin was murdered, and that they say it was your nefew that done it. Knowin' him likely to be arrested most any day, and without friends to see him through, I write to let you know the truth. Thar's strong proofs against your nefew and you ort to be informed. If you ain't already, I ain't got anything against him nor you, so I write this.

"A FRIEND."

As Mr. Arden looked up from the perusal of this missive, a housemaid appeared at the door.

"Mr. Tom Wells, sir," she began, with a little half curtsey. "He says he will not disturb you but a minute, sir."

The banker started up, glanced at the others, and sat down again.

"Bring him in, Alice," he said; then glancing again at his two friends, "Wells can hardly have a secret that we may not all hear. Eh, Wells?" for the new-comer was already in the doorway, and had heard his last words.

"No, sir," replied Wells, quite unabashed, as he bowed comprehensively to all, and then brought his glance back to his host. "What I came to say, sir, is not much; maybe it's hardly worth troubling you about at all: but you told me to report if I caught on to anything—"

"Yes, yes," broke in the banker, "and have you found anything, Wells?"

"Well, that's as may be," drawled Wells, with a quizzical half smile. "Maybe I've come with an old story. You see I ain't been let very fur into the ring." He glanced from face to face once more. "I'm takin' it for granted that your fine detective that ye sent for has come, and been here among us right along. And, maybe, he's had an eye upon Jonas Wiggins?"

Valentine Rodney had left the room with the maid, when Wells had entered it, and, of the three men who listened to these words, Mr. Arden seemed most startled—most impressed.

"Wiggins!" he exclaimed, "ah, I thought so." Then he checked himself, and it was Mr. Deering who took up the word.

"Wiggins? It's a new name to me, Wells. What does it mean?" But Wells still glanced from the others back to the face of Mr. Baird; evidently he would take his orders from him.

"We have heard nothing of Jonas Wiggins, either through our detective, or in any other way, Wells," said Mr. Baird. "Tell us your story."

"It's no great of a story," began Wells, apparently satisfied that he was now properly launched. "Maybe you remember, Mr. Arden, how Wiggins hung about that night—the night we found poor Matchin, I mean; and that he wasn't none too willin' to leave when Mr. Baird | | 82 give the word to clear the place of all but such as he had picked to stay I noticed it then, and I see that he was sulkin.'" He turned toward Mr. Deering who had moved uneasily in his big chair, "I'm tellin' this because I want to explain how I come to take such a sort of interest in the feller and his doin's, since—"

"Go on, Wells," broke in Mr. Baird, "tell it in your own way. We are all interested."

"By all means!" corroborated Mr. Deering; and Wells resumed:

"I've seen a good deal of Jonas Wiggins, off and on for a good while; we've been neighbours, in fact, though we ain't now; and I never had much of an opinion of the skunk, beg yer pardon, sirs; but I should have forgot all about him this time—for I was pretty busy beatin' the bushes with the boys, tryin' to git a trace of the man that we're still wantin' to find—if I hadn't heard some remarks in the crowd, the mornin' of the inquest, that set me to watchin' Wiggins a little. Now, gentlemen, you're wantin' me to come to the point—and here it is. Jone Wiggins is up to some sort of mischief; either he knows somethin' that he hasn't told, somethin' that he means to use when the time comes, or else he is playin' a big game of bluff. One thing is certain, he is no friend to Mr. Bruce Deering."

Lysander Deering started and turned toward his partner. His face wore a flush, and his eyes were burning.

"Baird," he began briskly, "perhaps Wells has found out one of those enemies of whom we were speaking only a short time ago! This Wiggins—can it be the man who was found in my grape arbour a couple of years ago, and who gave Brenda such a fright?"

"Oh!" cried Baird, "I had forgotten that circumstance! It's the same man."

Mr. Deering turned back to Wells.

"What do you know of this man?" he asked, "and how long have you known him?"

"About three years." Wells seemed to be weighing his answers. "He has not been in Pomfret longer than that. He's a loafer by perfesion; only works now and then, and not long at a time. Big talker, and a deal of swagger. Drinks more or less every day, and has an occasional spree, when it's all more and no less. And that's one reason why I think there may be something behind all this big talk. When he's sober he talks large about Matchin's case; and he don't hesitate to say that he thinks Mr. Bruce Deering's the man. But he's careful not to show no spite, and talks big about justice and fair play and all that. But, in his cups, he sings another tune; and now and then he drops a word that sets me to thinkin' he may know something that ought to be got out of him before—" He paused, and glanced askance at Lysander Deering.

"Go on," said the latter sharply. "Before the case comes to trial, you mean?"

"That's it, sir; and I just made up my mind I'd not let Wiggins have too long a string. I thought your detective ought to try and get some sort of a grip on the feller."

Mr. Arden had been a silent but very attentive listener, and now he leaned forward and fixed a keen gaze upon Wells.

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"What do you mean by that, Wells?" he asked. "Can you give the detective a clue?"

"Umph!" replied the interrogated, "I might give him a hint."

Banker Baird got suddenly upon his feet.

"Since we have gone thus far, Wells," he said, "I may as well tell you that 'my detective,' as you call him, is here, and quite near at hand; furthermore, he has expressed a wish to see you personally, and soon. I believe he thought you might help him if you would. I am by no means in his full confidence. I know no more of his plans than the merest outline; but he means to make himself known to you, so—wait here while I go and tell him you are at hand."

When their host had closed the door behind him, the three men left in the library were silent for some moments, each seemingly occupied with his own thoughts. Then, suddenly, Mr. Arden, that usually bland and serene personage, arose and began to pace to and fro in front of the long windows, silent still.

A moment later, Lysander Deering lifted his head from the hand upon which it had been resting, and drew his chair nearer to Tom Wells.

"Wells," he began, "if you think you have a hold, a clue, upon this man Wiggins, I wish you could tell us what it is. No man can have a stronger interest in this hideous business than I. No one will do more to help solve the mystery which hangs about it."

"I only said the truth, sir, when I said I might give a hint. At one time they lived pretty close to us, Wiggins and his wife. You know the place, the old mill property, and the cottage just behind it. Wiggins lived six months in that cottage, and they used to quarrel like brute beasts. Sometimes she would let fly a speech that we would catch a'most word for word. Her voice was one of the carryin' kind. If her flings an' taunts meant anything, the feller has seen the inside of jail at some time, an' he hasn't always sailed under the name of Wiggins."

Mr. Arden had stopped his promenade, and now he made a quick stride and placed himself before the two men.

"Wells," he broke in, "you are a shrewd man. And since this person has been brought before us for discussion, and we can all trust each other, I've a story to tell."

"What's that?" The door had opened silently behind the clergyman's broad back, and Mr. Baird stood before them, a crumpled paper in his hand.

"We are not done with surprises, it seems," he said, holding up the bit of paper. "I found this in the room which our detective has occupied for a week or more, and in which I expected to find him. Listen:—

"'DEAR SIR,—

Am suddenly called away by first train. If am not back in three days will communicate.

—M.'

"Short and sweet, you see. And evidently written in haste. Half-an-hour ago he had no thought of leaving town, I know. Something has occurred within that time."

In the momentary silence following upon this reading, Mr. Deering, | | 84 who sat directly before his partner, leaned toward him and held out his hand, which gesture Mr. Baird interpreted by placing in it the half-sheet of paper.

"I did not mean—" began Deering, and then stopped short, and they saw that he was reading something scrawled across the lower end, at the back of the note. There were four or five written lines, and as he read the last words they saw a shade of surprise and anxiety cross his face; then quickly he was upon his feet, thrusting the paper into the hands of Mr. Arden who stood nearest him.

"Read it," he said, sharply.

The clergyman glanced inquiringly at Mr. Baird."

"Read it," nodded the latter.

"Some one," read Mr. Arden, "ought to keep near Mr. Bruce D——for the next twenty-four hourshe must not understand—but there must be no chance for an interview between him and that man Wiggins. Explain when I see you."

The clergyman let the hand holding the paper drop at his side.

"This seems strange," he ventured.

"Strange!" echoed Mr. Deering.

"Very strange!" came from the banker; but Tom Wells spoke to the purpose, turning toward the "Parson."

"Wasn't you a-going to say something or nuther about Jonas Wiggins a minute ago here?" he questioned.

"Yes," assented Mr. Arden, "and I'll say it now, at once." He moved back as he spoke, and looked at Mr. Deering." Won't you sit again, sir?" he suggested.

"Yes, yes!" said the old man, hastily seating himself. "Sit down, sit down all! Now, parson, out with it," nervously watching Wells return to his former seat. "This plot seems thickening rapidly out of nothing."

"The man Wiggins seems to come out strong at least. Now, here's my contribution to the general muddle. I suppose, brother Baird, you have, in telling Bruce's story, mentioned my sudden exit from the young man's room on the night—"

"Of the discovery?" broke in Mr. Deering. "Yes, he did—he did!"

"We're all human, brother Arden," smiled Mr. Baird. "If you had not requested me afterward, not to question you about your sudden bolt, I might have thought it of less importance."

"Of its possible importance I am not prepared to speak," returned Mr. Arden; "but this is what I was about to relate: as we approached young Deering's rooms, you," nodding toward Mr. Baird, "were in advance with our host. The two young men—"

"What young men?" broke in Mr. Deering, almost querulously.

"Mr. Morse and John Redding."

"Surely—surely—my memory is slippery. Go on, sir."

"In following I had fallen a little, perhaps eight or ten feet, behind the others, and anyone seeing us might easily have supposed I was not of the party. As Deering and the others passed into the shadows of the outer entrance, I fancied that I saw something—a shadow—behind the tall tree not far from the door. I had hastened my steps | | 85 seeing you so much in advance of me, and was by no means certain that I had not fancied the movement; but as I entered behind the others, I was almost sure that I heard a low, quickly-drawn breath, as of one who breathes hard after haste or exertion, and strives to suppress all sound of it. At the time it seemed scarcely worth speaking of. It might be some person wishing to avoid strangers. At any rate, if there were a presence near, I did not for a moment connect it with our party then."

"Then! Ah!" Mr. Deering could scarcely control his impatience. "After that?"

"After!" Mr. Arden again looked toward Mr. Baird. "You may recall that my seat, I being the last to enter, or by other chance, was quite near the door?"

The banker nodded.

"And while Mr. Redding was speaking, I distinctly heard a faint sound in the hall without; it was a step; I was near enough to hear a step without, even if it were a light one. And, a few moments later, I changed my position, moving my chair yet nearer the door. I was sure that nothing said in the room could be heard outside, for all spoke in guarded tones; and when I had changed my position nothing within could be seen through the keyhole; but all at once I became conscious of a strong desire to open that door and to spring out. I felt that I must know who it was that, as I was now certain, had dogged us up the stairs, and was now playing the eavesdropper. It could scarcely be a friend, and, suddenly, the thought, 'if not a friend, then an enemy,' determined me to see that enemy's face. Just then came a sound which convinced me that the listener was about to go away, and I rushed after him. The spy was in full retreat, and almost down the stairs; but he tripped, or stumbled, and in a trice I had him so tight that I almost choked him, and so disqualified him for a witness to his own misdeeds. It was Jonas Wiggins, and he was very nearly drunk." He paused a moment, and again came the sharp questioning voice:

"What did you get out of him?"

"Very little, but the fellow convinced me that he was playing a part, intoxicated as he surely was. At first he attempted to explain or seemed trying to, and I led him to the tree where I had first seen his shadow, stood him up with his back against it, and asked him why he was prying there. He began with a maudlin whine, he 'was doing no harm, meant it all for good, wanted to see Mr. Bruce Deering, wanted to tell something—had something; meant to be a friend, wanted to tell—' And here the fellow suddenly broke off, and was evidently making an effort to pull himself together. From that moment, drunk though he undoubtedly was, the fellow was playing a part, and grew more tipsy every moment. I have had some experience of drunken men, and Wiggins, I became assured, was not too drunk to be crafty; he had let himself utter a word too much, and he began a long, wandering, senseless tale, to drive from my mind, I suppose, all thought of his first utterances. I saw that it was useless to try to draw from him that which he was now bent upon concealing, so I marched him a goodly distance from young Deering's door, gave | | 86 him some good, and more or less threatening, advice, and left him to go home, as he could very well do, I knew—"

"And you got no hint of his meaning?" queried the elder Deering.

"No hint at that time. A few days after, he approached me with great pretence of shamefacedness, and made a very amusing effort to draw from me such idea as I might have formed of his visit to Deering's quarters, and his purpose. He assured me that he didn't remember in the least why he went there; and only had a faint remembrance of so going, through my last admonishing words, which, he declared, clung to him and fairly sobered him. When we parted, after that second and last interview, I was more than ever convinced that he went to Deering's rooms for a purpose, and that not a friendly one; beyond this I cannot go."

When he had ceased speaking there was a long silence in the library, and four grave faces interchanged anxious, inquiring glances.

Then Mr. Arden spoke again.

"I may as well add," concluded he, "that, at the time, I was both puzzled and uneasy. I could not forget the man, his appearance, his strange, maundering words, and his drunken efforts to take them back when too late. I believed the man meant mischief, and, from the first, hoped that I might see my way to something more definite, something which would enable me to guess, at least—and to tell this story, which, naked and alone, amounted, after all, to nothing more than my own half-formed interpretation of a drunken man's meaning."

"Wal," put in Wells, rising and giving himself a shake, "you've found something to encourage ye to tell it out, parson. Three times an' out, they say. First my yarn—then the detective chap's leettle word of warnin', n'now comes your leettle adventer." He turned sharply to Mr. Baird, "Kin ye make any use of me jest now?" he asked.

"One moment," interposed Lysander Deering. "Let us first consider my nephew. I mean to go to him at once, and, Baird, I rely upon yourself and Mr. Arden here, to help me keep the boy in sight; as for this fellow Wiggins, if he is kept away from Bruce until your detective returns, what matters the rest?"

Mr. Baird seemed to ponder; then he rejoined, "I think you may be right; and was considering whether Murtagh might not be hindered, rather than helped, if, in our zeal, we followed up Wiggins so closely as to let him see that we were dogging him. What do you think, Wells?"

"Wal," assented Wells, "I think ye may be most likely right; so long's you keep Mr. Bruce Deering out of his way, I sh'd say 'twould be quite enough for keep an eye on Wiggins, so's to know where he spends his time, and be able to report it, without makin' any attemp' to interfere with him in any way. That is, if you'll keep Deering out of his way, I'll keep track of his goin's an' doin's, and guarantee 't he won't never suspect me of runnin' on his beat. What d'ye ye say? I'll haf ter be goin'."

They were soon agreed, and quickly separated, each man having his part to play.

"I really think," said Mr. Baird when they were about to separate, | | 87 "that Murtagh will feel quite satisfied with our little bit of amateur work." And he set out at once to do his share, in arranging for Mr. Detective Murtagh—when he should return and be made acquainted with their forty-eight hours' campaign—what that astute officer would not, and did not, hesitate to pronounce a "confounded—unmitigated—muddle!"

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