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

Table of Contents

<< chapter 21 chapter 33 >>

Display page layout


DETECTIVE MURTAGH had a long talk with Tom Wells on the day after his return to Pomfret. He had been assured by Mr. Baird, and had satisfied himself otherwise, that Wells was a man to be trusted; in fact, he confided to the banker, after his interview with the big huntsman, that, if there was a fault to be found in Wells, it was that he did not say enough.

"There's something left out," the detective affirmed with conviction. "I don't mean that he didn't report Wiggins and his doings in full, but he was too careful when it came to other names: for instance, while he made it clear to me that he was a friend to Mr. Bruce Deering, and a believer in his innocence, he avoided his name so pointedly that I'm forced to the conclusion that he could tell me more about Deering if he would."

This was quite true. Wells had detailed all of Wiggins' manœuvres from his visit to Beechwood up to the next day's call upon Bruce Deering. And he did not omit the burial of the button.

"I follered the feller," he had said, "until I see him begin to poke round under a big oak tree, an', first thing I knew, he took somethin' out of his pocket, all wrapped up in a dirty handkerchief, an' I swan, if he didn't jest up an' bury it right there."

"I suppose," Murtagh had ventured, "you don't know what it was that he buried?"

"I was tempted ter dig it up," had been the answer, "but I didn't want ter git into no trouble. I can go right to the spot where it is buried, though."

And the detective had smiled, and said:

"I'm told that Wiggins wants to talk with me, and I fancy he'll tell before I've done with him anything that you have not made quite clear."

Whereupon the two pair of shrewd eyes met, and both smiled broadly.

That same night, shortly after sundown, and while dusk was beginning her vague approach, Jonas Wiggins arose from his late | | 136 "supper," and walked to the window. He had been lounging at home since early noonday, awaiting a visit from "that city detective," who, Mr. Baird had assured him, would prefer to seek him in his own home, and would do so within the limits of the day. As Jonas gazed anxiously out, his ear caught the beat of slow falling hoofs, and in a moment, a tall horse, with piebald face and two very distinct white stockings upon its fore feet, halted beside the rickety fence, and a wiry and brisk-moving personage sprang from the saddle, tied the animal short and secure, and came straight toward the house. He was dressed in a rather loud suit of plaids, sported a glittering watch chain, looped across his chest, and carried a heavy hunting-crop, jauntily, in a yellow-gloved hand. A soft felt hat sat rakishly atop, and well back, upon a bushy head of light hair, and a big moustache drooped in long points below his chin, while pale, over-hanging eyebrows accentuated the tinge of a very florid face.

"Mr. Jonas Wiggins, I take it," he began in a brisk, abrupt fashion, as Jonas made haste to meet him upon the door-stone; and the latter having nodded, he went on, "Just clap on your hat and come out a bit, Wiggins; guess we've got a few words to say to each other."

He put a gloved hand upon the shoulder of the somewhat astonished Jonas, who, somehow, felt uncomfortably taken possession of, and, without in the least heeding Jane, who had made herself both visible and audible in the doorway, he escorted his host across the road to a, spot where, at the edge of the timber, a fallen tree afforded a seat at a safe distance from the cottage, and where no one could approach within hearing distance from other directions without being seen.

"This is a good place for a confab," declared the new-comer;" I've noted it when I've been this way, sort of looking to see how you was fixed down here." Jonas started. "Oh, you needn't jump! It's my business to look after people, you know; now, I've got to ride back to your county seat with that livery nag, and we must get down to business. You know who I am; and I know you; know you better than you think. 'Twould surprise you to hear how much I do know about you—first and last; but just now, I'm interested in this murder business, and you seem to be likewise—a little."

Now Murtagh, at first, had declared that he would not hold a personal interview with Jonas Wiggins; and he had planned to have Mr. Baird receive the fellow, and "get his story out of him," as Murtagh felt sure that he could, while he, concealed in the library, where the interview was to have occurred, should hear and see, himself unseen. But then he had not heard the experience of Tom Wells.

"After all I will talk with this fellow," he had said to the banker, "and what Wells didn't tell me he shall. But he must not guess that I am so handy. You may tell Wiggins, or, better, read him an extract from a note, which will tell you that I'll ride over from Saybrook sometime this afternoon. Then I'll fix me up a horse and rig myself, going through the timber, and come around to the shanty about dusk. He will grab at the notion that I keep headquarters at the county seat, see?" and Mr. Baird thought that he did, and carried out his part of the programme with ease and dispatch.

From the first Murtagh had given some study to the personage now | | 137 sitting near him, with a look half-curious, half-apprehensive upon his face, and he now turned upon him sharply, aggressively:

"Wiggins, I've been told that you have something to say to me. Now, I've very little time to give you just now, there's too much business in hand, and I've another appointment at the court-house to-night. But—you know what my business is in these parts, and, if you've anything to say or show that'll help me to clinch this matter for Mr. Bruce Deering, why, out with it. I'm here to listen."

Wiggins started, and his countenance brightened. The rough, bluff, authoritative manner of the detective disarmed any suspicion he might have felt.

"Then YOU think he's the feller?" he exclaimed, eagerly.

"Umph! things look that way. If I didn't have some reason for it I wouldn't be likely to be hunting proof against him. But come, go on with your talk, time's passing."

Wiggins had studied his part, and he now began with the tale of the finding of the cuff button. He described it minutely, dwelling upon the point of the initials, and added, "Now, I don't want to hurt nobody, but I couldn't help but see that I must a picked up that sleeve button right on the very spot where Bruce Deerin', 'cordin' to his own account, must have passed when he run out o' the bank."

"Well, go on!"

Jonas hesitated.

"What did you do with the button, and why didn't you produce it at the inquest?"

"Wal, I felt kind of queer about it, ye see—" leering up into the detective's face, "them initials—they was Bruce Deerin's, all right—but—they was somebody else's too."

"They were. Whose?"

"Mrs. Deerin's. The old man's young gal wife. Mrs. Brenda D——"

"Oh!" Murtagh was growing impatient. "And so you went, like a good fellow, and offered to restore the amethyst to the lady if she could prove her property, eh? Oh, you needn't jump, Jonas! I know pretty much what's going on about Pomfret, and there's more than one detective about. What did the lady say? Didn't claim it? Of course not. And then you went and tried it on Bruce Deering, Esq., eh? And you couldn't deal with him somehow, and so you went and buried the thing. You see I'm posted. Now, look here, Jonas," suddenly changing his tone to one of conciliation, and his look to one at once confidential and cunning, "let's get right down to business! You and me, and most of us in this country, are working for money;" he drew out a plethoric pocket-book and slapped it down upon his knee; "business is business! Money talks! You just swear to keep all this mum, and to go away as quick as it's safe, clear out of this part of the country, and I'll give you just five thousand dollars down for that cuff button right here in my hand."

Jonas glared at his tempter, and fairly writhed. Not for a moment did he doubt the sincerity of all this, and the thought that he had been cheated of such a golden opportunity was maddening. More than once had he searched the woods near the place where he had con- | | 138 cealed the button, and, at last, had tried to console himself with the thought that, after all, since neither Bruce nor Brenda Deering would deal with him, he had lost but little, for, after all, the button in itself was not so exceedingly valuable. But now! oh! if he had not tried to cheat Jane! In his rage with himself and fate he got upon his feet, and kicking at the inoffensive to with savage force and spite, he snarled out his disappointment in a defiant—

"An' s'pose I won't do it, eh?"

Somehow the detective was on his feet also. The pocket-book had disappeared, and in its place was a very suggestive-looking pistol.

"If you refuse anything I require of you, sir, you'll have good reason for repentance, and plenty of time to repent in! Sit down there I've just brought this out to convince you that I mean business, and you had better! And now that our little farce is over, we'll begin in earnest. You'd best answer my questions truthfully. If you lie I shall know it. There, you need not argue; I don't suppose you've thought of me during the last few days; but I've had you on my mind, and I made a little trip to the city partly on your account. I've seen your phiz in the rogues' gallery, and I've got your record. LOOK OUT!"

The sun had set, and the dusk was heavy all about them; emboldened by this, and rendered reckless by rage and fear, Wiggins had thrust his hand behind him in a gesture too significant to be mistaken. The pistol was still in Murtagh's right hand, and the hunting-crop, since the beginning of the interview, had rested against his left knee. With the last words he had caught up this, and, before the menacing hand could be withdrawn, had dealt a blow upon the arm which caused it to drop, and its owner to utter a stifled howl of pain, terminating in a string of curses.

"Understand me, Jonas Wiggins!" said the detective sternly, "I have no time for trifling. I am here to get the truth out of you, and the truth I am going to have, or you'll find yourself in worse hands than mine."

But Wiggins, for the time, was conquered, and became as wax in the hands of his inquisitor.

. . . . . . .

An hour later, Murtagh, taking a circuitous route, found himself in a little sheltering clump of young trees and bush just outside the town, and near the foot of a street which would lead him straight to the alley upon which stood Banker Baird's stables. It was behind this leafy screen, one of the outposts of the timber belt, that he had effected the metamorphosis of himself and Mr. Baird's hack, which we have seen; and here he halted now, and after removing his wig and otherwise transforming himself again into "Mr. Baird's new man," he began, with a coarse sponge and vigorous rubbing, to remove the chalk stockings and the white forehead, which had so changed the appearance of good Brown Bess. His face was sombre, and he worked with haste, pondering the while.

As he approached the mouth of the alley, he espied a tall figure lounging lazily townward, and at once a signal was exchanged, | | 139 Before Bess was in her stall, Tom Wells had entered the stable by way of the alley.

"Go right up to my loft, Wells," Murtagh said; "I'll reconnoitre a bit, and then be with you."

"Now, Wells," he began, when the two were at last together in Murtagh's "den," "let us sum up. I've seen Wiggins, and I've got the whole story out of him. He thinks you dug up the button, and I know you did. So come now, tell me all about it, and why you visited Mr. Bruce Deering so soon after your discovery?" The detective knew his man, or thought he did, and spoke with him upon equal terms as man to man. But the answer surprised him nevertheless.

Wells got upon his feet, and gazed down at him, with a face at once grave and kindly.

"Cap'n," he began, "I'd do anything to oblige ye that I could do, honestly, and without hurtin' anybody else; and, since you've as good as found it out, anyhow, I'll own that I did dig up that plague-nationed button, and that I buried it again. And—yes, I went to see Mr. Bruce Deering; and thar's an end! That's all I kin tell ye; what I said to Mr. Deering, and what he said to me, and what it all come to I can't say; I'm a man of my word, cap'n. An' leavin' this business out, I'm ready to help ye in anythings but—"

"Why! But, Wells, look here—"

"Hold on jest a minit! I s'pose you're goin' to say that if this comes into court, I'll have to tell all I know, and I'll have to perduce that button. But I won't! If I see it's my best lay I'll destroy the thing, or otherways git red of it; an' as for tellin', why, I'll sarve my time out for contemptin' court 'ithout a grumble; but I'll keep my word, sir!"

Murtagh got up and slapped him upon the shoulder with perfect good-humour.

"So be it, Wells," he said; "it's about what I looked for. But, of course, I've got to make my point, and so—"

"And so what?"

"And so I just needs must go to see Mr. Bruce Deering himself. I tell you what, friend, I begin to feel too well known in Pomfret. I was willing to be known by you, and Mr. Baird, and by the doctor and old Mr. Deering, but I declined to be an open secret to the suspected party; and now you've driven me to it. I tell you, Wells," in a suddenly serious tone, "this case is growing so queer that it's harrowing to study on it! I don't think I ever said it of a case before, but I tell you I'd as lief be out of this as not."

. . . . . . .

A half hour later, the detective entered the library where Mr. Baird, who had spent the latter half of the day at his farm, had but just seated himself, having despatched his early dinner, ready to attack a little pile of letters that had arrived by the afternoon mail.

"Well, Murtagh," he began, as the other advanced, "am I to hear the news from Wiggins and company at first hand?"

"Not just now, sir. I only wish to disturb you a moment, or, at least, a few of them. I want to pay a short visit to Mr. Bruce Deering, and I wish you could find it convenient to send some sort of a message by me."

| | 140

"A genuine message, do you mean?"

"No, just a sham. Something that will admit me—a blank envelope will do."

"At once?"

"Almost; but, first," he pulled up a chair and sat down near the banker and exactly facing him, "will you tell me a little more about Miss Wardell?"

Mr. Baird's face was one huge interrogation point.

"Oh, I expected to surprise you," Murtagh added, smiling oddly, "and it's only right that I explain, as much as I can. But I would like to put my questions first."

"Ora Wardell!" ejaculated Mr. Baird, and then he settled back in his armchair. "Go on, then," he said; "of course, I know you must have a good reason."

The detective took a note-book from his pocket and consulted it. Then—"You have told me a few things about Miss Wardell," he began; "who she is, who her father was, and her position and rank in Pomfret. Now, do you know her well enough to be able to tell me anything about her character, her capabilities, her temper or temperament, eh? For instance, from your knowledge of her, would you call her one to rely upon in case she were your friend?"

"That means, I suppose, has she a strong nature?"


"I think she has. I should think that in the case of a true friend, one whom she regarded beyond the ordinary, she could be a very strong friend indeed."

"Even in adversity?"

"If the friendship on her part were strong enough—even in adversity."

"Do you think—is there a chance, that she might be such a friend to—Bruce Deering?"

Strange as these queries sounded to Mr. Baird, he betrayed no further surprise, but answered the detective as if he were in the witness-box.

"I have no reason to think them more than ordinary neighbourhood friends."

"And Mrs. Deering, were they in the least intimate?"

"No; they exchanged calls and visits, but Mrs. Deering has no intimates, in the sense you mean, except in her own home."

"And—in her own home?"

"Brenda Deering and Valentine Rodney, I have already assured you, have been always like sisters."

"You say have been?"

"I mean are."

"To return to Miss Wardell. In a town like this, all people, women especially, soon establish for themselves a sort of personality. Of course, the characters which are attached to people by those among whom they live are, nearly always, surface characters. Sometimes a strong personality may be hidden utterly beneath an overlay of habits and manners, which fit more or less well, like our clothes. These are the people who, in emergencies, in some strong crisis, astonish us Should you think Miss Wardell such an one?"

| | 141

The witness seemed to consider.

"I see what you mean," he said finally; "and now that you have stirred up my ideas upon a subject which might never otherwise have presented itself to me, I think I may say that, in a crisis, a case demanding action, energy, finesse, I think Ora Wardell might come out rather strong. Is that what you want?"

"Perfectly—now listen while I recall to your mind a few simple facts; and the first is that of Joe Matchin's murder. Said murder occurs in the bank, and, except for the church, Miss Wardell's house is nearer the bank than any other. Now, that house—when I saw how completely the murderer vanished, and how quickly—was, naturally, the first thing to come under my—observation; and I said to myself, if I could find in that house, someone who, for any secret reason, was an enemy to Joe Matchin, I could account for the very prompt disappearance of the assassin; for that he—or she—did disappear at once I am convinced."

"What! Do you think that the murderer was concealed anywhere in Pomfret?"

"I think that he was and is, and all the time has been close by. I believe that he was in hiding five minutes after striking the blow, or else—he was never in hiding at all. I'm not, by any means, in love with your sheriff; he's a brutal fellow, with a natural bloodhound bent, but he has done well! He has made as thorough a search, aided by the citizens, as anyone could have organised out of the same material. No, sir! I saw at once that 'twas no use to look for a 'hide out.' But I did not come here to advise with your sheriff, as I understood my instructions; and so he is going on, looking with all his might for something he'll never find; and, all the time, he fully expects that in the end he will have the pleasure of putting Mr. Bruce Deering behind the bars; and that's what this business is coming to, in spite of money and influence, if some new development does not turn his attention elsewhere before the grand jury assembles."

"You think so?"

"I am sure of it! and I'm morally convinced that there's a big sensation behind this business for whoever sees the thing cleared up. At present the town is divided, and those who do not think Deering the guilty man, believe it to have been the work of a burglar; but—it never was!"

"Then, in Heaven's name, what was it?"

"Ah! don't I wish I knew!"

"And how do you reconcile your idea with that stolen money?"

"Oh, that! If the little theory I have evolved is right, that was done, in part, at least, for a blind; the money may have been acceptable enough, but if the theory I've been trying to work out is the right one, Matchin was killed because he was dangerous to somebody."


"Yes; when I advised you to say nothing to Carton, or others, about the money taken, and the hatchet, it was because I feared it would lead poor Carton even further astray than he is now, and I don't mean to work against him, if I don't see fit to come to his aid. But," pushing back his chair, and rising briskly; "to go back to Miss | | 142 Wardell: was Matchin ever, at any time, in the family, in any capacity?"


"But he had been in the service of the bank for years?"


"During which time the Wardells have lived in this same place?" Mr. Baird nodded. "This house is the only inhabited building within Matchin's range of vision, from the bank windows, on two sides; he could see the Wardell place, and a part of the grounds, also a wing of the stables, and the carriage way out to the street. Every day, for years, he has been able to note much that went on at the Wardells. Now—may it not be possible that someone under that roof has a secret which Matchin may have found out? Let us even suppose that it is Miss Wardell's secret. Is she, or is she not a woman capable of defending herself, and stopping, let us say, the tongue of a gossip, in the only effectual way?"

Mr. Baird sprang to his feet.

"Good God, man!" he cried, "do you mean to accuse Ora Wardell?"

"I mean to accuse no one! But, among all whom I have seen since I have been upon this case, Miss Ora Wardell is the one individual who has displayed, upon more than one occasion, more interest in Joe Matchin's murder than I can see a reason for."

"Then you do suspect her? Man, what reason can you have?"

"I suspected from the very first an unusual interest upon her part in the proceedings at the bank; I also suspect that she has some knowledge, or suspicion, concerning the murder; I can tell you nothing more, except this, now, and you may be certain that, until I have good reason for so doing, no hint of this suspicion upon my part will go beyond the present limit, between us two. And now—the note to Mr. Deering, if you will."

<< chapter 21 chapter 33 >>