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 63 >>

Display page layout

CHAPTER XXXIV.
A LUMP OF WAX.

ON the afternoon of the same day, and while Brenda Deering was making the first outlines of her plan of Beechwood, Tom Wells, sauntering along the side street which bounded the Baird stables, was not a little surprised to see the rear door of the carriage-house open, and the face of "Baird's new man" look out and smile a welcome, while the lips hailed a hearty "Hallo, Wells, come aboard, can't you?"

Accepting this free and easy invitation with pleased alacrity, Wells soon found himself following the detective, who was making his way upstairs, to the snug room which was as much at his disposal as ever.

"I'm glad you happened along, Wells," Murtagh said, as he closed the door and turned the key with a quick snap; "I was just about to sally out and look around a bit. Take that seat and be comfortable: I want to know how all is going in Pomfret. No more murders, I suppose?"

"No."Wells shook his head glumly. "But a mighty unfortunate death, all the same: Judge Deerin', Mr. Baird's pardner,—but of course you know all about it?"

Murtagh was wrestling with the knotted ribbon of a small cigar box, and he worked at it briskly, while he said, quite ignoring this last supposition,

"I've only just come, you know, and have not seen much of Baird." He turned, with the open box in his hand, to feel along a shelf for matches, and then proffered the box. "Have one, Wells, and light up, it's more social. And so—the great man of Pomfret is dead. Was it sudden?"

To make a confidant of Wells was no part of Murtagh's plan, but he meant to learn as much as he might concerning Lysander Deering from every source.

"Well! it was sudden; and it wasn't. He'd been ailin', ye see, but nobody thought the danger was so closte. I've heard't his widder takes it cool as a cucumber; and't his boy, young feller'd, jest got home from the old country, is nearly broke to pieces."

"So?" Murtagh seemed to meditate. "I wonder now if his death will affect the Matchin affair in any way?"

Wells grinned. "Well, if you can't tell that, I can't," he said.

This was Murtagh's opportunity, and he followed it up; but from privileged friend and humble admirer the tale was much the same. Wells was a natural news-gatherer, and, when he chose, an interesting, unprejudiced, and lucid gossip. But when he had expatiated long upon the career of Mr. Deering since the institution of the Pomfret Bank and up to the present time, | | 216 ability and noble-mindedness, the detective was forced to interject a question.

"Wells, do you mean to tell me that the man never made an enemy, to your knowledge? Why, it's beyond belief! And he a business man, and rich!"

"Well now!" Wells opened his eyes very wide, and paused to think. "I believe now't you bring it up to me, as 'twere, that there was a little talk once, quite a while ago, about some sort of coolness between Mr. Deerin' and Square Wardell 'bout some little matter of business. I never heard the rights of it; but Square Wardell was a closte man in deal, an' nobody doubted but that Deerin' had refused to help him pinch mor'n his share out of somethin' or somebody. Anyhow, they wasn't friendly no more like they was at first. Never was agin, I guess. Wardell died a couple of years afterwards. But the young folks never took part in the fallin' out; they 'peared to be pretty good friends all round."

"Naturally," assented the detective, and then he changed the subject. "What is gossip saying now about the Matchin affair, Wells? Does the interest continue?"

"You can trust Carton for that; every few days he sets some little story afloat, and the gulls fasten on to it tooth and nail. He don't mean to let folks git worryin' and wonderin' why somethin' ain't done. He's all'ys findin' a new clue or bein' mysterious over some 'nonymous letter He's been away from there twice to look at some tramp or suspect that was s'posed to a hailed from Pomfret some time or other. Once he heard of a woman over on the branch road that had talked to a stranger, a sort of genteel tramp, the night of the murder, and he went right off to see her." He paused a moment, glanced up at the other, as if to gauge his interest, and then added with a queer intonation: "He wa'n't the only one."

"Ah!" Murtagh saw his cue. "Who were the others, Wells? Yourself for one, I daresay?"

"Yes, me—and Ionas Wiggins."

"Together?"

Wells grinned. "Great minds flow in the same channels, ye know."

"Tell me about it, Wells."

"Ye see the woman, when she first heard of the murder, and for some time after, didn't know the date of it. Heard it wrong I s'pose. But one day she heard when it happened, and then she remembered how a young man had stopped to her house, and asked for some bread and milk. He said he was going to Rossdale, she said—you know that's only four miles from this; an' from the pint where this woman lives he would a had to cross the main road to Pomfret within half a mile from the town line—"

"One moment, Wells, when did this come out?—the woman's story?'

"Less than a week after you left, sir."

"I see! Go on."

"Well—I guess I was about the first one to hear it. 'Twas told at the blacksmith's place down near the creek, by one of the woman's neighbours, and one of the men standin by says, right out, 'That's news to care to Sheriff Carton, an' I'm goin' to see him.'"

| | 217

"And—he went?"

"Yes. He went. Fact is we both left me forge 'bout the same time. I'm pretty brisk on the walk, and I got home in jest ten minits. I had shot a couple of birds that mornin' calculatin' to have 'em for dinner; but I jest took 'em an' stuck 'em into my game bag, shouldered my gun an' set off. I knew the man that told the yarn to the forge, an' where he lived, an' he had spoke the widder's name, so I jest cut acrost a lot of fields—'twas a good seven miles by the road—an' I found the widder's place easy enough. Ye see I had calculated that Carton—if he come at all, an' I reckoned he would—would not start for a seven mile trip until after dinner. An' I was right. I found the widder alone, come up with my best bow, asked for a drink of water, and made her a present of my two birds. She was mightily pleased, an' I got to talkin' with her real easy. Well, I guess you don't want to hear all we both said, though," with a broad smile, "'twas considerable interestin'. 'Twas most noon, an' I hung on till she said that she wasn't gittin' no dinner, bein' alone jest then, her children off to school, an' her hired man a changin' work with a neighbour; but wouldn't I like a drink of milk, or a piece of apple pie? Now, sir, I like apple pie, but I didn't yield to no such temptation. I jest thanked her kindly, and told her that pie didn't agree with me much, but, if she didn't mind the trouble, I'd be awfully obleeged for some bread and milk. Of course I got it, an' eatin' it in her kitchen give me the chance to draw her out about tramps an' the like, and pretty soon I had the whole story, about the last man that she had given bread and milk to, and how she feared that maybe she had helped a burglar, or worse, for it was that very night that Joe Matchin had been killed in the Pomfret Bank."

"Did she describe him?"

"As well as she could; he was young, she was sure, he was lame, and he wore glasses. His hair was light, and he wore light whiskers that almost covered his face. When I pressed her to know if there was anything about him that she remembered particular, she said, after some thinkin', that his voice was very soft and pleasant, and kind of slow spoken, and she believed she'd know it again anywhere."

"Ah! ejaculated the detective, then checked himself to let the narrator complete his story.

"By that time we had got quite sociable like, and I jest give her a little friendly advice. I told her that, like's not, if the sheriff found out that she'd had such a visitor he'd be a comin' to see her, and it might make her a lot of trouble if they caught the feller, and she went and testified agin him, and then it turned out, as it might, that he wa'n't the man, she'd jest make an enemy; and that these tramps was all kind a clanned together, and it might git her into trouble. I advised her, strong, not to recollect too much about the feller if anyone come pryin', 'because,' says I, `you're alone woman, an' it stan's you in hand not to make yourself no more enemies than you can help.' Well, she took the bait. Jone Wiggins was there closte after me, but he didn't learn much, and then, after dinner, Carton arrived. He must a pumped pretty hard, for she told me afterward that he hung on so long't she had to tell him something, so she jest told him that the feller was a big | | 218 black-eyed feller, with freckles on his face, and I s'pose Carton's looking for them black eyes and freckles yet."

"I hope you didn't scare the woman too badly, Wells; we might want to use her, you know."

"Oh! I'm keepin' up the acquaintance," smiled Wells; "she won't go back on me!"

"Good! We may never find the young man with the limp and the soft voice, and he may not be our man; but the spectacles and the whiskers do look like a disguise—and now, about Wiggins?"

"Well, I don't know what he expects to gain by it, but Wiggins is neglectin' his favourite grog-shops a good deal, and is dividin' his time 'twixt Carton's headquarters and spyin' about the Beechwood premises. He's tryin' to scrape acquaintance with some of the servants, and he looks pretty sharp after Bruce Deerin's goin's and comin's, too."

"He does! Well, Wells, I'm going to ask you to try a little of that game. If I could keep up this character a week or two longer, I would do the work myself, or at least start it for you; as it is, I want you to strike up a better acquaintance with some of the Wardell servants."

"The—Wardells!"Wells looked his surprise.

"Exactly—the Wardell servants. I can't go into details now, Wells,and I know you won't ask it, but you've offered your service to me—"

"To assist in the Matchin case,—yes, sir," broke in Wells suggestively.

The detective smiled. "Just so, Wells," he said amiably;" and I want you to take notice that I never have, and never shall ask, you to go outside of that case, without making all plain to you. It's the Matchin case that's at the bottom of all this. That case has been dragging on for weeks, with very little to show for the time that's passed. Up to this time, in one way and another, I've been hampered, and forced to move carefully, and sometimes to stand still; but I've got things fixed now to suit me; and I'm going to start in fresh! The fact is, I've had, all along, a theory that I didn't dare venture to propound to anyone until I had got my hand upon something tangible. It's a queer theory, but it hangs together; that is, it will if I can prove my first premises; and, if we ever work it out, it will amaze some of the knowing people who have `known all along' who killed Matchin, and who are only waiting to cry, ` I told you so!' at the finish. That's all I can tell you yet, Wells; and now, do you help me as aforesaid? or do I go it alone?"

"Oh, I'm with you all right! Only, I can't see how the Wardell—"

"Look here, Wells; do you remember what you told the coronet at the inquest?"

"About—"

"About your meeting Miss Wardell, or seeing her, in the grounds—?"

"Certain."

"She was listening to the disturbance, and stood near a small arbour, which, of course, was very dark?"

"Yes."

"And she spoke as if to a servant, who, you said, or intimated, was behind her in the arbour?"

| | 219

"That's so!"

"Did you see the servant?"

"'Course not!"

"Hear him—or her?"

"No, sir."

"Then you don't know that anyone was there?"

"Good lord, man! What are you driving at?"

"I want you, if possible, to learn what servant was in the arbour just back of Miss Wardell."

"Cæsar!" ejaculated Wells, "I'll be—" He checked himself suddenly. "I guess you'll think I'm more of an old woman than a detective," he finished with a sudden drop of his voice; "I'll do my best, captain, and begin right off. Anything else?"

"Yes. I don't expect to be here often, or for long; I'm supposed to be, just now, out on Mr. Baird's stock farm, and that, of course, will account for my occasional appearance in Pomfret in my present character. To-morrow morning, early, I leave, and I may not see you again for days, possibly weeks; meantime, anything you may find out you can safely put in writing, to be destroyed as soon as read, and place the paper in care of Mr. Baird, who is all the time in communication with me, or will be soon. One thing more. I want you to come here to-night at early dark, but not until dark, and we will take a little walk together. That's all, Wells! And now I must show myself about town for a bit." He turned toward the door, but Wells put out a detaining hand.

"One minit," the latter said, with something almost of dignity in his manner. "'Twon't be no hard task to find out what you want to know, I recken, and lest you should think I've been too uncommon smart, I may as well tell ye that the man that takes care of the Wardell gardens and grounds, and is sort of head man about the place, is an acquaintance of mine, and has been for years. We often smoke a pipe, and have a talk together, when he is off duty an' about town. So I guess I'll be able to find out somethin' before very long, maybe before to-night."

"So much the better," replied the detective, and the two risen promptly separated.

. . . . . . .

"Well," began Wells when they came together that evening, once more in the "den" above the carriage house, where they tarried, to come to a better understanding before setting out in company, whither, Tom Wells had not the faintest idea,—" Well, captain, it 'pears I counted my chickens afore they hatched—sort of. I've seen my man."

"Already?"

"Yes, met him slap, idle and with plenty of time for a chat."

"Well?"

"Well, I thought I managed the thing prime, but when I sprung my question, kind a offhand, as I thought would be best with him, he jest played bluff out and out!"

"Explain, Wells."

"Well, he didn't deny knowing, nor he didn't take no offence. He jest refused to answer!"

| | 220

"Refused!"

"Exactly! flat and square!"

"But how, man? Tell me what he said?"

"That's jest the queerest part of it. Mind ye, we're good friends—friends from 'way back, him and me; and I put my question plum, jest as if 'twas my curiosity. 'Hank,' says I—we had got on to the Matchin case you know, to sort of lead up to it—'Hank,' I says, 'ye know I saw Miss Wardell that night, and I thought 'twas sort of queer you didn't show yourself, 'stead of standin' back in that dark arbour, or, wasn't it you 'twas with her?' Well, sir, Hank looked up at me kind o' curious and he says, 'Wells,' he says, ` I don't want to 'pear blunt nor short with ye; but—I can't answer ye that.' ' Answer what?' says I, kind of surprised like. 'Whether I was in that arbour or wasn't,' he says, and then I let on to be sort of miffed, and he sort of come down, and says he, 'We're good friends, Tom, and I'll tell ye jest how it is. She asked me, and, I guess, all the rest, not to answer any questions about that night. And I promised.' Then I see my cue, and I says, 'Well, 'tain't surprisin', I s'pose she didn't want to run no risk of bein' called on to come into court, maybe, jest 'cause she happened to come out in her own yard, with one of her own folks; 'twa'n't as if she had anything really to tell;' and Hank tumbled right into the trap. 'That's jest what she said,' says he."

"Good!" Murtagh struck a hand upon his thigh to emphasise time exclamation. "Good! Wells, you couldn't have done better!"

"Couldn't, hey!" Wells stared in surprise.

"Well, that beats me!" apostrophising all space about him. "Asks me to find out a thing, and when I fail flat, he hollers good!"

"But you have not failed, man! You've succeeded! You've put the first link into my hand! But there, I can't explain—come along, man, I want to go over the 'scene of the tragedy,' as they say in the news-papers, and then I want you to show me the route you took, the place where you stood when you talked with Miss Wardell, and some other little landmarks."

They did not tarry long about the bank building, but, starting from the front, as Wells had done on the night of the murder, they approached the Wardell mansion. The front of the house was brightly lighted, but in the library all was darkness, and the grounds upon the south side of the house were black with shadows in spite of the moon, visible but obscure.

"Can you see the arbour?" whispered Wells.

"Of course. Now, Wells, let's go back to the bank; you say there was no moon that night?"

"Not a moon."

"And but faint starlight?"

"That's it."

"Now let's begin at the steps of the bank and suppose that we have just rushed out and are making for a place of concealment. Look around you, Wells (we must run eastward for some reason), look sharp, and tell me how would you go from here across the street, if you would not be seen?"

Wells caught his breath sharply. He was beginning to understand | | 221 Cæsar!" he muttered, and stepped quickly to a tall, old maple tree which reared itself to the top of the stone steps, and threw a sombre shadow all the way across the street, and even beyond the low iron railing enclosing the Wardell grounds on that side.

"I see what you're driving at," he whispered, excitedly. "Jiminy! Why, he'd run right acrost in the shade of this big maple, and, if he wanted to, he'd jump that little fence, and keep right on in the shade of that row of trees, right up to the arbour! What's to hinder?"

"What, indeed?" responded the detective, dryly. "I've said the same to myself more than once. Let's cross."

They crossed the street again and stood together beside the low railing. They were between the great house and the church; the one facing the east, and the other looking westward, and after a moment, in which they took note of the quiet and absence of life all about them the detective said scarcely above his breath,

"Wells, suppose you were concealed in that arbour, and I outside, as you were that night, and that you knew instant concealment to be your only safety; now, leaving locks and bolts out of the question, where would you most naturally look for shelter, knowing every moment precious?"

"Man!" Wells made a sudden movement of recoil, and then caught him by the arm. "Man alive!" he sibilated, "I see what you mean! The Church!"

"The church!" replied the other, "to be sure! And you never thought of it before! Why, 'man alive,' every day since that murder this big pile has stood here saying to every passer-by who ever thought or wondered over Joe Matchin's fate,—'Ask me! ASK ME!'"

"Oh, it has!"Wells recovered himself, and his aplomb rapidly.

"And how long since it began making that remark to you then?"

"From the first moment, when, having heard of the killing, and the escape, and of the ringing of the alarm bell, I looked out from that window over there and saw this big, empty, silent place. I wonder, yes, marvel, that it didn't occur to every man in that room!"

"Jiminy!" It was all Wells had to offer.

"Come this way." The detective took his arm and led him down the street until they had turned the corner, and stood before the broad stone steps. "Let's sit here," he said.

They seated themselves upon one of the broad flags midway up the flight, and, for a few moments, Murtagh spoke low and rapidly, Wells responding with an interjectional word here and there. Finally, there came a moment of silence, and both seemed listening intently.

"There's no one coming, at least," said Murtagh; "wait here one moment, Wells." He arose and seemed to fumble for a moment in his pocket, then he ascended the steps above him, and groped in the darkness about the great door of entrance. His movements were silent, and he was soon back beside his companion, who had kept his place upon the step, not so much as turning his head.

"Come," said Murtagh, "I've got what I came for; let's go back to my den."

When they were again in the "den," and a light was flickering upon the table, the detective carefully unwrapped from his handkerchief a | | 222 lump of soft wax, and laid it gently upon a sheet of paper as tar at possible from the lamp.

"There!" he said, with a gesture toward it, "that, I suppose, I might call my first active move in the game!"

Wells came a step nearer the table and scrutinised the queer object.

"Might one ask what that 'move,' as you call it," nodding toward the lump of wax, "might be?"

"That! Why, don't you see, man? That is an impression, and a very good impression, considering, of the key-hole of the lock upon the door of St. Mark's Church."

chapter 63 >>