- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XXIII. DISMISSED.
|<< chapter 22||< chapter 1||chapter 24 >||chapter 33 >>|
AFTER the departure of the detective, Mr. Baird pondered for a long half-hour, growing more and more perplexed as he recalled Murtagh's words, and mentally reviewed the circumstances and possibilities of the case. Somehow he found himself unable to banish the name of Ora Wardell from his thoughts, and in an effort to do this he at last turned to his letters again. A glance at the envelopes showed him upon one of them the handwriting of Lysander Deering. He read it at once.
"What can he have to say to Murtagh," he muttered uneasily, "that cannot wait until another day?" And after a moment he got up and rang the bell. "Whatever it may be," he thought, "it won't do to keep Deering waiting; the man's in no condition to withstand worry or suspense." He ordered Lady Jane and the light buggy to be in waiting at the door, and then sat down and prepared another note, like the one so lately prepared for Murtagh.| | 143
"Another pretext," he said to himself. "I must instruct him to wait for an answer,—yes, and to deliver in person. I don't understand all this—and—I don't like it. I wish this Matchin murder case was well ended."
Meantime the detective had found Bruce Deering at home, and just taking leave of John Redding; the two men had been discussing the one topic of paramount interest, and both faces were grave.
Murtagh stood respectfully aside until the visitor was half-way downstairs, and then he stepped briskly within the room, the door of which Bruce still held wide open.
Since their meeting at the bank, previous to the inquest, these two had not met face to face, although Bruce had readily guessed that the man who exercised Mr. Baird's horses, and sometimes drove the banker to and fro, was the detective in disguise, and seeing him now, he quite understood that something of moment to himself had brought Murtagh hither.
"I've no objections, if you haven't, to Mr. Deering's knowing who I am," Murtagh had said to Mr. Baird." But, of course, it won't do for us to meet, or confer together. So long as he stands toward me in the position of a person under suspicion, it wouldn't do. If you want me to prove him innocent, I must go at it precisely as if I were trying to prove him guilty; that is, without his help."
Knowing all this, Bruce met him with grave courtesy, and having proffered a seat, waited for him to take the initiative, which he was prompt to do.
"Mr. Deering," he began, "it was not my intention, as you know, to seek information at your hands, nor should I have done so, if circumstances had not drawn my attention toward another than yourself, in connection with the unfortunate affair of the bank. I am sure you will understand me, and appreciate my position, when I add that, while I cannot explain anything, I am acting solely in your interest, when I come to you with certain questions, which for your own sake and for the sake of truth and justice, I hope you will be willing to answer. Need I add that, in so replying, anything concerning yourself alone, will be to me as if it had never been said." He paused an instant and then added, "Of course, this interview must be brief. You understand that all which concerns you is noted; and it is important that I avoid suspicion."
"I understand," replied Bruce, half smiling. "Put your questions, then; I will answer, if possible; and truthfully, if at all."
"First, then—it did not occur to anyone to ask this question at the inquest, or after: Knowing what you do of this affair of the man Matchin, his position, and surroundings, is there any man whom you suspect as in any way connected with the murder?"
Murtagh had not seated himself, and the two stood scarce two feet apart, face to face, eye meeting eye. Bruce Deering's face never blanched, and his reply came promptly,
"I decline to answer."
"So! Is there, then, any woman whom you suspect, in any way?"
"Thank you! Now you have lately received two visitors: one—a | | 144 friend—was Tom Wells; the other—a snake in the grass—Jonas Wiggins—so-called"
The detective smiled. "That was a 'Lapsus;' I forgot that you were a lawyer. To proceed. Wells—he didn't tell me all this,—related to you the story of his adventure with Wiggins and the amethyst cuff button; am I right?"
"You are right."
"May I ask then—did he show you this button?"
"Just here let me say that I know the story of the button—not so well as does Wiggins.,—better than does Wells; I know that Wiggins tried to barter it with Mrs. Deering, and that his wife also made the attempt. Both failed. Now—did Wells tell you that the button was in his possession, or that he knew where it was?"
"Pardon me. If Wells has not informed you, I cannot."
The detective nodded, as one who would say, I expected as much. Then—
"Did you ever see such a button as Wells and Wiggins described to you?"
"And—pardon me the question; it is necessary: did this—have you reason to think that this button was ever your property? Remember, what you say never goes beyond these walls to your hurt."
"To my hurt?"
"I mean, I shall never use it except in your behalf. Was the button ever your property?"
"Ah! Do you possess the mate to that button, Mr. Deering?"
For answer, Bruce Deering walked to his desk, opened a drawer with a key which he took from a breast pocket, and came back with a tiny leather box in his hand.
"To prove to you, sir," he said, "how thoroughly I am convinced of your sincerity and good faith, I show you—this." He pressed a tiny spring, and held out to Murtagh the open box, wherein lay the counterpart of the amethyst button, with the golden initials engraved upon the stone.
Murtagh took the box, examined its contents, and looked up in surprise; then, suddenly, his face darkened.
"Is this your property, Mr. Deering?"
"It is my property," calmly.
"Have you, I ask it once more, ever owned its mate?"
"I have not."
"Mr. Deering—is this the button buried by Wiggins and found by Wells?"
"Because," went on the detective, slowly, "if this is the buried button, as an important bit of evidence in the case—I shall claim it." He moved as if to put the box in his pocket, watching the other narrowly the while.
Deering folded his arms, and looked at him haughtily.| | 145
"I," he said, quietly, "have been speaking—up to this moment—as one gentleman to another."
The detective's face cleared. He held out the closed jewel box:
"And so," said he, "have I! Take it, Mr. Deering. I have yet another question to ask you."
"Ask it. I hope it maybe within my power to answer."
"It is this: Do you know whether Joe Matchin had, here or elsewhere, an enemy?"
Deering threw back his head, and a sigh of absolute relief broke from his lips, unhindered."No," he declared almost with vehemence, "I know of no enemy. I do not believe such a man as Joe Matchin could have a real enemy."
"Ah!" murmured Murtagh, as if half to himself, "if that is so. it strengthens my theory materially."
"May I ask what that theory is?"
Murtagh's eyes came back to his face. "My theory, almost from the beginning," he said, "has been, that Matchin was killed not by an active enemy, but by one who could not breathe safely while he continued to live."
Bruce Deering turned quickly and went and replaced the little box in its drawer in the desk. The detective's keen eyes followed him.
"I have added to my theory," he went on, "a conclusion, backed—well, by some slight evidence."
"Well?" spoke Deering, half turning toward him.
"My conclusion, I don't mind confiding to you, is simply that—there's a woman in the case."
The keys, with which he had just locked the small drawer, slid from Deering's hand to the desk, and thence to the floor. He caught them up, and turned toward Murtagh, coming nearer as he spoke.
"Have you any more to add to that?" he asked with sharp sarcasm, "for if you have not, allow me to say that, while I do not in the least doubt your word, I yet feel that you have been sounding and sifting me in all possible ways. Now, since you seem to have done, may I ask you one or two questions?"
"You are a shrewd man. You form your conclusions quickly. Tell me, frankly, what is your opinion of me? Did I kill Joe Matchin? or did I not?" He came closer, and they eyed each other straight, each silent for a long moment. Then—
"I don't know why I should not give you my opinion. And first, let me tell you that I've been a detective too long to believe that the man who kills another is always a black villain. Many a man has been murdered who richly deserved his fate. My opinion, sir, is this. Either you killed Joe Matchin or else you are trying to screen the one who did! And now, Mr. Deering, I have done; but let me say this. If I have tried to sift and sound you, it has been in no unkindly spirit; and I have seen enough of you, sir, to assure me that, if I ever do convince myself that you are guilty, that day I shall hate myself for being in the case!"
"Do you mean that?" cried Bruce Deering, with a sudden and violent start.| | 146
"And—if I should tell you—if you were convinced that I had dons this thing, not to save myself—but because it was the only way to save another from heartbreak, from misery; if it was done, in short, to save the life, or reason, of another, one—whose life was of more value than a hundred Matchins, faithful and good, according to his light, though he was;—if you knew all this, would you, if you saw the way to do it, withdraw from the case, and—keep the secret?"
"And—if I would—what then?"
"Stop—wait! Let us suppose this is done, that confession is made, yourself withdrawn; what would be the possible result? Would another take your place, or—would Carton take command?"
"Evidently," said the detective, his face growing exceedingly grave, "you do not fear much from Carton, and you think, as I do also, that he would never share the glory such a chance as this would seem to him to hold. Let us state the case differently: I am here, called by Mr. Baird, in behalf of himself and your uncle. If these gentlemen should choose to drop this case, two things would be left to me. I might withdraw in silence, or I might turn over such clues and information as I had gathered, to Sheriff Carton."
"And—would you do this?"
"My dear sir, to put that man in possession of my material, meagre though it may be, would be to turn Pomfret into Pandemonium, and punish the innocent more than the guilty! But enough of this; we are touching dangerous ground, Mr. Deering. Let me beg you to say no more of this sort, and advise you never to let another into your confidence as you have me this night; you have told me more than you think. You might have answered everyone of my questions, and still have told me less. And now I must go; give me something, an envelope will, do, to carry in my hand past the chance observers. I have been here too long—quite."
"One moment." Bruce Deering's face flushed as he put the question. "Are you a married man?"
The detective turned with his hand upon the door, and the eyes of the two men met. "I have no wife, no child, neither parents, brothers, nor sisters. And—I am so rich that money has neither weight nor charm for me. Good-night, Mr. Deering."
Out upon the street, Detective Murtagh turned his face toward a star-gemmed sky, and muttered as he hurried away,
"Curse the case! It is becoming more and more a hideous, hateful enigma!"
Half-an-hour later he stood in the presence of Lysander Deering, who arose to receive him, and, without a preliminary word of any sort, began,
"Mr. Murtagh, you have been, as you, of course, are aware, employed by my partner, Mr. Baird, acting for himself and for me, jointly, as interested in the tragedy at our bank. And if I rightly understand, you come from a private bureau, and are in no way connected with the regular police, or city detective force. Am I right?"
"Quite right, sir."| | 147
"Ah! This being the case then, is the business of this engagement transacted by yourself alone, or through your bureau? I have not informed myself."
"In most cases, sir, the 'business' of the bureau is done by its officers. In my own case, it is left to myself altogether; I am, what might be called, an agent at large, answerable only to my employers."
"Thank you. I am aware that what I am about to propose may seem strange, unusual; even beyond all precedent; but you are doubtless accustomed to strange things. I have been informed by my partner and friend, that you have, as yet, no definite data, nothing beyond clues, doubts, suspicions; you are not prepared to denounce anyone?"
"No." The old man had been speaking like one who hastens through a difficult matter, with failing strength, and now his voice trembled perceptibly. "No, you say? Then, sir, will you name a sum sufficient to compensate you for all that you have done, as well as for the disappointment and probable loss you may experience, in the dropping of this case? And let it end, so far as we are concerned, now; from this very moment."
"You wish to drop the case altogether?"
"So far as I and my partner are concerned. Of course I am aware that our sheriff will endeavour to carry it on. I owe it to you to explain; but, first, are you willing to let it drop?"
Murtagh was silent a long moment; then—" I came here," he said quietly, "solely to serve, or assist, Mr. Baird and yourself. I await your orders—and his."
"Mr. Baird will be one with me in this. My good sir, I believe you to be a man capable of solving this riddle; and, ten years ago, I might have said 'Go on,' let who must be sacrificed. Even a week ago I vowed that I would spend my last dollar to see Joe Matchin avenged. A week ago! To-day, I say to you, I would give my last dollar rather than see this case go on. If you had reached a certainty, and could tell me that, to drop your work now, would be simply to let the wrongdoer escape, I should not dare to withdraw; it would then be too late. If I knew the truth, I should neither dare stifle my voice, nor stay your hand, but I have only belief and fear. I believe firmly in the integrity of Bruce Deering, nothing can shake that! But I have a doubt, and a fear, which would turn into horror unutterable, if I let you go on, and found, too late, my fear realised. I am an old man, sir, and I cannot bear to see the trouble, the shame and sorrow, which would fall upon the innocent, if—if what I fear should come to pass."
"Mr. Deering," broke out the detective, "I wish we could understand each other—because I—" he stopped short, a look of perplexity upon his face—"the fact is I—I have been following up a clue which may lead quite away from—Mr. Bruce Deering."
"Ah! Then I have spoken none too soon! But I must not question you; I have too little doubt of your sagacity! Let others unearth the destroyer of faithful, honest old Matchin if they can! It must not, it must NOT be through me that it is done. Tell me, will you give up the case?"| | 148
"Mr. Deering, like yourself, a week ago, yes, twenty-four hours ago, I should have taken it hard if this had been asked of me, and should have yielded reluctantly. It is no common case this; and there's more behind it all than Pomfret has ever dreamed of. But—you are not the first who has sought to stay my hand. And, if Mr. Baird adds his word to yours—I am done with the Matchin murder case.".
Lysander Deering dropped into a chair, and a heavy sigh told the relief of his heart. "One moment," he said, and took up a pen.
A few moments there was stillness in the room save for the nervous scratching of the swift-moving pen. Then Mr. Deering came to Murtagh's side and put an envelope and a slip of paper into his hand.
"The letter is for Baird," he said, "and the other for yourself. When Baird has read the letter, you may tell him what I have said to you, word for word, then—you will decide."
"I have already decided; I am sure of Mr. Baird's decision in advance." He looked down at the cheque in his hand, and, turning, laid it upon the desk.
"Allow me to settle with Mr. Baird," he said with respectful firmness; "I cannot take that. You have not meant it so, I am sure, Mr. Deering, but—I should feel as if I had taken a bribe if I accepted that."
To say that Mr. Baird was surprised—upon hearing from Murtagh the result of his conference with Lysander Deering—would be saying too little. But, amazed as he might be, he was loyal to his friend. That this sudden change troubled him was evident, and he pondered long, and with a very grave face before he spoke. At last he said:
"I can't in the least understand Deering's motive or meaning. I am utterly at a loss! But I have full faith in him, and in all that he does, and shall of course carry out his wishes. I appreciate your willingness to drop this case, Mr. Murtagh; it is one that might easily end for you with success and honour, and not every man would give up such a case without protest. As for myself, while I shall watch over Bruce Deering's interests as closely as before, I shall reel, unless another man, as shrewd as yourself, is brought into the business against us, that, so far as Bruce is concerned, there is little, except mere annoyance, to look forward to. But Carton will never call in a detective, and thus admit a doubt of his own ability and—I—shall not make it known to all Pomfret that Deering and I, with yourself understood, are no longer seeking the murderers of Joe Matchin. As to that cheque, my friend, you might as well accept it. Deering will always look upon it as yours, and, in some way, it will be pretty sure to come back to you."
Murtagh smiled. "As to that," he said, "now that we are no longer employer and employed, but may speak as man to man, I will say, not wishing to 'ape a virtue and have it not,' that I do not need this cheque; I am a detective from choice, rather than necessity. I shall notify my chief of my withdrawal from the case, and, in due time; you will doubtless receive a statement from headquarters, dating from my arrival in Pomfret to the present hour. How many others will be taken into your confidence? Young Deering, of course?"
"Of course; and Arden. John Redding, you know, intends to act | | 149 as counsel for Bruce, if counsel is ever needed; so I daresay we shall also confide in him."
"A good thing to do. Necessary, in fact, if, as you say, his services are ever needed; and this suggests—if you care to hear my opinion, Mr. Baird—"
"Your opinion! What modesty!" Between the suddenness of the change just made, its seriousness, and his own anxiety, the banker had become nervous, and almost petulant. "As if your candid opinion, just now, is not the very thing I want most."
"Then I will say on. First, the case: I believe it will come to trial, and am glad to know that Mr. Redding is to be Deering's attorney. I liked the man from the first; he is shrewd, clear-headed, and cool. I mean to leave with you, Mr. Baird, an address which will always reach me; and if this affair does come to a crisis, and I can serve yourself or—Mr. Redding, let me hear from you. I think I could give Mr. Redding some points which might be of service to him. And another word of advice—in case of an emergency, remember that Tom Wells is a friend to Deering. In case of trouble or—treachery, remember that Jonas Wiggins is an enemy." He pushed back his chair and arose. "It is late," he said; "I will retain my position, as 'John Ross,' by your leave, until I make my exit, which will have to be soon."
"One moment!" exclaimed the banker eagerly. "Sit down again. You are no longer ex-officio. Will you not tell me now, just how this matter stands—in your eyes? Hitherto I have kept silence, and forebore to comment or question. From time to time you have put me through a singular catechism; may I now ask the meaning of some of your queries? And, above all, you came to us, aware that we were the friends of Bruce Deering, and working in his interest, I have wondered if you have given me your real opinion—your last opinion? Since you have been among us, have you learned anything which could serve to turn a neutral judgment for, or against? In short, what is your opinion of Bruce Deering now?"'
"You mean of his guilt or innocence?"
"I will tell you. My opinions or my theories have not been changed since the first day, except relatively. When I had been here forty-eight hours, I said, either of three things is possible. First, Bruce Deering may be guilty; next, Bruce Deering may have knowledge of this murder and a strong reason for screening the assassin, even at his own peril; or, Bruce Deering may have no atom of knowledge concerning said murder, but may be instead the victim of a plot."
"And now? Your opinion now?"
"The same; with this difference,—to-day the theory of his guilt looks—just possible; that of victim of unknown enemies, probable; and his possible knowledge and self-sacrifice, likely."
"Ah! Then you do connect him in some way with the affair?"
"I do. All the evidence, for or against him, fits into one or the other of these three presumable cases."
The banker sighed. "I should like to know how you reasoned upon these three possible cases."
"I will try and show you, briefly. First, then, the guilt theory | | 150 Here is the suspected man, young, strong, keen-witted, a lawyer in fine. Take the evidence, a string of circumstances leading straight to him. It is an injustice to his intelligence! There is too much of it. Again, there is but one reason brought forward for the murder; all is based upon this reason. Now, if it were true that Matchin had a hold upon this young man, and was killed because of this, don't you see that this murder must have been premeditated? Now, who would believe that a clever young man ever set out in evening dress, knowing that his friends were close at his heels, to commit a murder? Yet this is what they would claim. No, sir. If Deering did the deed, it was unpremeditated. And for that you must find a new motive! The Rose Matchin theory won't fit. If they try him upon that theory, they can't make things hang together, and he'll be safe enough."
"Ah! I see you don't believe in your first theory."
"Not too fast. I say if he did it, it was not premeditated; and if not, there must be found, and proved, a new reason for the deed!"
"And your next theory?"
"That he may have been made a victim of circumstances, of enemies. Why, man, that long string of circumstantial evidence never 'came to pass' by accident; somebody planned, at least, a part of it!"
"What! Do you imagine anyone could know that he would pass the bank alone at that especial hour?"
"By no means! But somebody, unaware of the Frazier supper party, and counting upon Deering's regular habits, might easily have counted upon his being safe in bed, with no witness to prove the fact. However, there's a flaw in this theory."
"How is that?"
"In the coincidence of Deering passing the bank at the very moment of the murder; it's too dramatic to be true to Nature."
"Sometimes," mused Mr. Baird, "Nature furnishes us with the strangest of dramas. But this brings us to your last theoretical case?"
Yes. That Deering knows, and is seeking to screen, the culprit. This looks the most plausible. This would explain almost everything."
"Take the fact of his presence, unpremeditated, of course. He is coming home, sees the light, hears the sounds, enters, as he has said, meets the assassin, and grapples with him. May he not have recognised him, or her, perhaps?"
"Her! Good Heavens! Man, are you thinking of Ora Wardell?"
"I wish I knew what to think of Miss Wardell!"
The banker was silent for a moment. Then he sighed.
"I wish I could feel certain that my friend Deering has not made a mistake. It puzzles me. He proposes to believe in his nephew's innocence, and one would think he would wish to move heaven and earth to see that innocence proved. Bruce may not be convicted, but, will he be acquitted? In the face of the circumstantial evidence, his innocence should be made clear as daylight, and for that we need you."
"Mr. Deering and his nephew seem to understand each other. Perhaps—I only suggest this—perhaps they agree in this. As to young Deering's chances, I think the elder Deering feels confident that the grand jury will extort no more damaging evidence than did | | 151 the coroners; and, clearly, he sees no enemies in ambush, and does not fear Carton."
"But why is he willing to risk a verdict not of acquittal, but of 'not proven,'—dismissed for lack of evidence?"
"I can only suggest as before, Bruce Deering may have been more frank with his uncle than with you or me."
"And that means that both would sooner risk a doubtful verdict than let you go on and ferret out the truth! Murtagh, if that is so, then you must have come dangerously near it! Ah, well," he sighed heavily, and taking up Deering's letter, ran his eyes over certain paragraphs. "Well, I suppose I must give up the problem. Deering appeals to my friendship, my confidence, and declares that he cannot, and must not, let this investigation go on. I submit, but I don't like it, and I fear the consequences."
"If you feel like this, how will it be with Arden, Redding, and Liscom?"
"Like myself, they will defer to Deering, every one; and the more readily, because of his broken health and the danger of his condition. You see Lysander Deering is really the one who, had he been in Pomfret at the time of the murder, would have been at the head of affairs, instead of myself. He is the bank's president, its largest stockholder, and, besides, was the one who put Joe Matchin in his place three years ago, before I ever knew the man. What is it?"
For the detective, as the banker uttered his last sentence, had struck himself upon the knee suddenly, and with a quick accompanying look of annoyance—
"It's—well, it's really nothing now," responded Murtagh. "Only it's surprising how one will let these little points slip, and the little points sometimes develop wonderfully. Here, for instance, it never once occurred to ask, at the right time,who put Joe Matchin in his place at the bank? And yet—who knows—" He stopped, and uttered a short laugh. "That's a point for my successor," he added, "or—for Sheriff Carton."
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