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 58 chapter 63 >>

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WHEN Mrs. Deering was once more in her place—or rather in the seat vacated by Valentine, who still sat very near to Ora Wardell, slightly leaning toward her, and with one little hand resting upon the arm of her chair, John Redding broke the anxious silence.

"Before going into anything else," he began, "it will be well, I think, to finish with the proofs against Brook Deering, as we have called him for so long. And this is Mr. Murtagh's business."

And then Ferriss Murtagh reviewed for them his work, from the beginning, and his reasoning thereupon.

"As I go over the ground, which is only too familiar to some of you, do not hesitate to question me. I want to make everything as clear as possible to each of you," he had said in beginning his review. But it seemed, at first, that it was to be a monologue, so silent were they all.

But when he had reached the point where, in company with Mr. Baird, they had discovered the half handkerchief, the hatchet and the fact of the burglary of the safes, Bruce himself broke in upon him with a quick gesture.

"I want to ask," he began as Murtagh paused, "why you did not make these discoveries known?"

Murtagh smiled. "We were at the very beginning of the case," he said, "and I already saw that we had to do with a clever rogue. To have made all our discoveries known at that point would have been unwise. As for the hatchet, that was the property of Mr. Baird, and of no use, therefore, as an aid to identification. It was simply an implement ready to the hand of the assassin. Knowing this, and seeing that it would be most disagreeable to Mr. Baird to have his hatchet given such ghostly prominence, we simply shut it up in the vault. It was not necessary to the case—in fact, it was worse than | | 390 useless. As to the handkerchief, that was my first actual clue, and I had no notion of proclaiming it upon the housetops."

"How do you mean—a first clue?"

Murtagh quickly produced from a capacious pocket a package, which he opened hastily, while he said: "It gave me a hint, which I hardly dared to accept—and use, at first. It set my thoughts galloping in the right direction. It had upon one corner the initials, B. D.," he took from the now open package a folded piece of linen, and held it up to view; "and, seeing them, I said to myself if Bruce Deering is innocent it behoves me to find out the other B. D.s in Pomfret."

The half-square of linen was stained and soiled, just as when it was taken from the register, and, after a moment's hesitation, Bruce reached across the table and took it in his hand.

"Let me!"he started at the words, hoarse and low uttered, just opposite him. Ora Wardell had lifted her head, for the first time since the truth had forced its way to her unwilling mind; and now, with a face that was death-like in its pallor, with white drawn lips, and eyes that were at once burning and woeful, she held out a hand with the prints of the clenched nails distinct in the soft palms.

Bruce leaned across the table, and, without a word, laid it before her.

It was the finest, the softest of linen, and the two initials might have been wrought into its softness with fairy fingers. Ora caught it up, held it smooth and straight between her fingers, bent her head over it, and, after a long look, let it drop from her hands, and once more bowed her face upon them.

The silence that followed was broken by Mr. Baird.

"As regards the robbery of the safe," he explained, "I confess that, at first, my only thought was that if this became known it would strengthen the case against Bruce, who might be supposed to know the combinations by which they were opened; when Mr. Murtagh agreed that we need not snake the robbery known, I felt much relieved. Of course, you understand why these things were afterwards withheld from the public?" He nodded to the detective, who at once resumed his subject.

"I fancied," he began once more, "that I could see how this scrap of linen, with those tell-tale initials, came where I found them. Matchin had been stunned by the blows, and left for dead, while the safes were attacked. The fellow must have secured his booty quite deliberately; and, while concealing it upon his person, observed the blood stains, and taking out his handkerchief, used it to remove some of them—then, as he is about to throw away the bloody thing, he thinks of the initials, and hastily tears it in two pieces. Now, while there is evidence that he began deliberately, there is also evidence that, at the last moment, he was alarmed, and fled hastily. The alarm came, perhaps, as he was about to thrust the blood-stained piece down the register; the other half he may have kept, or used for a mask, or to tie up" the rolls of gold taken from the vault,—if he meant to conceal the unmarked piece of linen, and he must, in his haste, have thrust in the wrong half. That is how I reasoned, then. Afterwards I pondered whether someone might not have put that marked piece of linen there purposely, to throw suspicion upon Mr. Bruce | | 391 Deering. That was after I had learned that one Jonas Wiggins had picked up a cuff button on the steps of the bank, just after the alarm was given, and that this button, also, bore the initials B. D."

Brenda looked up quickly.

"Have you cleared up that mystery?" she asked eagerly.

"Entirely. You had given such a button to Brook Deering once on a time, and its mate to Bruce; they were made at Tiffany's?"

"Yes," said Brenda, "there was a full set, and Brook, who admired jewels like any woman, often teased me, half in jest I thought, to give him one of the buttons. When they were setting out for school, together, for their last year, Brook begged for keepsakes from all of us, and I then gave an amethyst cuff button to each."

"Thank you, Mrs. Deering," said Murtagh, and then he told them how, by introducing Rosa into the house in the character of Valentine's maid, he had not only been able to keep a closer watch upon Sarita, but had found that the jewels had been made at Tiffany's; and how they had learned, through Doctor Ware, that duplicates of the cuff buttons had been made for a person, who, doubtless, was Brook himself.

"By this time," lie went on, "I had learned a good deal about Brook Deering, and had included him among my possibilities. The fact that he was supposed to be abroad did not weigh so heavily with me as it naturally would with those less familiar with the tricks of criminals and crooks.

"My position, as you will see, was a peculiar one. Engaged by Mr. Baird to prove the innocence of Bruce Deering, I had reached the fixed conclusion that Joe Matchin's death lay at the door of one of these two cousins, who bore the salve name. Now, when I considered Brook's case, I had nothing—nothing, that is, but the handkerchief and the button, to charge against him. He was absent, and no motive could be imagined—except that rumour about Rose Matchin. But—on Bruce Deering's side, while the torn handkerchief, the button, and the rumour about the girl applied as well to him as the other, there was, also, all the circumstantial evidence brought forward at the inquest. The weight of proof, you see, was heavy on his side; while; on the other, the side of Brook Deering, there was so little, so mere a nothing, that I dared notventure to name my doubt of him, even to Mr. Baird here."

"It is true," interpolated the banker; "and when he did suggest such a possibility, I would not at first listen to it; and yet, looking back now, I am sure that you believed in Bruce, and doubted Brook from the first."

"True! but not until I had reasoned a way to my faith in the one, and had no alternative left but to doubt the other."

"I wish," besought Bruce, "that you would tell us what those reasonings were?"

"You will be surprised at their simplicity. First, if you were guilty, the man who, I was convinced, had been concealed in the church, must, of course, have been an accomplice; now, I never doubted your mental soundness; and an accomplice would indicate actual stupidity. Besides, experience and statistics have proved that | | 392 gentleman criminals never willingly encumber themselves in this way. Again, you would hardly have rung the bell, and called out the town, with an accomplice in hiding under their nose; you would have 'raised the alarm' by a slower method. And then—arithmetic often cuts a figure in these cases. Now it is said that you could not have been more than twelve minutes in advance of these other gentlemen here, in your return from the supper on the hill. Well, first I shut myself up in the room where the murder was done, and I worked out in pantomime the time it would take a man, or two men, to make an entrance, do the deed, secure the booty, and reach the threshold. Time, single-handed, twenty minutes; with accomplice, not five minutes less. Next, I walked from the house on the hill to the bank, fast, as Mr. Deering is supposed to have come; and then slow, as Messrs. Redding and Morse certainly came ten minutes after. Time, fast, eleven minutes; slow, sixteen minutes. You see it wouldn't work. Deering couldn't have done it. Granting that Deering ran and the others sauntered, Deering would be still within the bank when the others came up. Figures are great things, gentlemen."

"And why, with no proof against him, or almost none, did you suspect Brook?" persisted Bruce.

"Because I had studied his character—and found him to have been handsome, too handsome, idle, extravagant, fond of women's society, and one of those smooth, amiable, sweet-spoken, soft-handed, soft-mannered young men, such as I have met before, whose `ways,' under the smoothness, the velvet touch, the grace and charms, are as the ways of the panther! And because I had begun to suspect two women, who, on the day after the murder, met and exchanged mysterious messages; and who, I had found out, were, both of them, warm friends of Brook Deering; one—" turning his gaze, very kindly now, towards Ora Wardell—" because she was his mother, and knew all his crimes and his danger; the other, because, like the large-souled woman she was, she trusted him, believed in him as she did 'in herself, and because she saw in him a martyr, a hero of self-sacrifice. Such a woman has no cause to feel herself humiliated. She is a brave woman, whom I honour, whom all must honour and respect."

There was a low murmur about the table; Valentine's eyes were swimming in tears, and Brenda drew her chair closer to that of Ora's, whose head now rested upon the table before her, and who was shaken with noiseless weeping.

"Let me finish," went on Murtagh, "as briefly as I can; at another time you may ask me for details. Brook Deering was smuggled from the church of St. Mark's, where he had been concealed for days, to the attic of Beechwood, and there he lay hidden until, on the night of the storm and railway wreck, he found his opportunity, and crept out, to come back half an hour later, storm-soaked and limping. He had arrived in New York under cover of a false name; and a woman who came by the same boat, a French adventuress, was enlisted in his service; just what his plans were in reference to Rose Matchin we do not yet know. That they were evil plans is quite certain. I have had this woman and the girl, who had been removed from school as soon as they landed almost,—watched—ever since. By following Brook's | | 393 messenger to the city, upon an errand which she little understood, I first learned their whereabouts. Later, I sent Rosa, Miss Rodney's new maid, to approach them if possible. From the very first the girl has called Brook by his cousin's name, and written to him as Bruce Deering. In default of promised funds, or if Brook fails to appear, the result might be a raid for blackmail upon Bruce Deering, backed up by letters in a hand closely imitating his, and signed by his name. It has all been planned diabolically, and I see in it frequent traces of the wily French mother, who for all these years has lived under the same roof with her son, and who deceived Lysander Deering from first to last—"

He paused suddenly. At the foot of the table there was a movement and a sudden sharp exclamation; Ora Wardell had lifted her face, and, after an effort to rise, had sunk, trembling, back into her chair. She was still pallid, to ghostliness, and her face was livid with traces of her mental sufferings; but it was softer and humble, almost appealing, when she lifted it to glance quickly about her. She leaned back in her chair, and, after a moment, in which she seemed to gather strength, and command herself, she said:

"Mr. Murtagh, Mrs. Deering, all of you, will you let me say what I must say, now and once for all? While you, Mr. Murtagh, can vouch for so much as you know."

She spoke slowly, and was evidently holding herself under powerful restraint; and Valentine leaned over her and said, gently, appealingly:

"Miss Wardell, Ora, are you strong enough? There is no need—!"She gave Valentine's friendly hand a quick, answering pressure, but she shook her head.

"I must speak now," she insisted. "There can never be a better time You are all very kind; and Mr. Murtagh has tried to spare me. He has spared me; and at another time I shall try to thank him. Just now I want to tell my story, once and for all. What Mrs. Deering's letter says was quite true. Brook Deering and I had parted in coldness here, but abroad we became reconciled; we became engaged for the second time; and, very soon, I became his confidante.

"His greatest trouble, he assured me, was the liaison of his cousin and 'old Matchin's pretty niece.' He 'was devoted to his cousin,' and wanted to help him. He `meant to stick by him.' One day he came to me laughing gaily, and exhibiting a pawnbroker's ticket. He had pawned his watch; and, after making merry over it for a time, he con-fessed that, two hours after receiving his regular remittance from his father's New York bankers, he had sent it all back again to Bruce, who `was in New York, and in desperate need of a little help.' He made very light of it all, and declared his intention to go through the month as a bohemian. Of course I would not hear of this, and, after some pretence of reluctance, he accepted a loan from me. This was not long before my return in the spring; and he was, even then, growing anxious about his father's ill-health, and planning to come home and surprise them."

She paused, and a long sigh escaped her lips. Then nerving herself anew, she resumed, telling next of Brook's return by stealth, "that | | 394 he might see and warn his cousin;" and so on with the story as she had told it to Murtagh, only with more detail and less mercy for herself. How she had concealed him in the church; how she had lied to Tom Wells to throw him off the scent, which, she feared, was coming too close; how she had carried that first message to Sarita, never dreaming that she was holding communication with Brook's mother; how they had plotted to delay the home-coming of the Deerings by "mislaying" the telegram, and how she had gotten Valentine into her own house, because Brook so dreaded her keen eyes; how to make it seem that he was even then in Europe, Sarita had arranged the letter with the foreign postmark, which Val's dog had "torn to bits," and how, still later and in person, she had delivered another "made-up" letter, which was supposed to have been sent to her by mistake.

And here Bruce interposed.

"One moment, please. It's best to clean the ground as we go." While he spoke he was taking a paper from a pocket-book, and opening it he held it out to her. "Did you ever see that before, Miss Wardell?"

It was only a sheet of note-paper, and not more than half written over.

She shook her head, and her pale face flushed, to pale the next moment, as she glanced at it and gave it back to him.

"Never!" she said, "although I suspect its source."

"Thank you." He placed the letter upon the table within the reach of any, or all, and went on: "That letter was fished out from my waste-basket by Sarita, and brought to my uncle by her. It purports to be a warning letter from Brook to me." His lip curled as he pushed the paper away from him.

"Then," declared Ora, "I daresay mine was the hand which brought it to Sarita, under cover, and addressed to her." And then, while the others exchanged glances of intelligence, she went on: "It is not an easy task to admit, as I must do, my own folly and weakness! Already I am recalling numerous little things which should have warned me and aroused my suspicion. But—for years—Brook Deering has been in my eyes a man without a fault. Not to own it would be folly, and worse! There is but one reason why a woman who respects herself ventures beyond all the bounds of propriety as I have done! If I implicated myself in a murder, condone a crime, it was for the sake of the man who was one day to be my husband, and in whom my faith was only too strong! I am not the first woman who has been cheated, deluded, used as a cat's-paw, by the man upon whom she had staked her faith. But that does not make the disillusion less terrible!" Her voice hoarsened and broke. She put a hand to her throat as if she were choking, and her eyelids quivered and fell.

But Ora Wardell was as strong in defeat as she had been in her proudest moments. She lifted her head again, but not haughtily now, and went on, controlling herself by sheer mental force.

"When Mr. Murtagh came to me, and I knew that trouble was coming, I began to realise what I had done and was doing. But I did not regret it; and I made a last effort to communicate with Brook, | | 395 and to warn Bruce. As God is my judge, I never for one moment doubted the honour of the man we have called Brook Deering! and I believed Bruce a guilty man! Deeply as I am humbled, intensely as I feel my humiliation, I should be in worse despair if I thought there was one, among you who are here, who could think for one moment that it was possible for me to aid or abet crime! or to feel one spark of tenderness, of regard, for a man whom I knew to be a liar and libertine, a robber and assassin!"

She was beginning to speak rapidly now, and a crimson wave was coming and going in her cheek.

"There are women, I know, gentle, meek, long-suffering souls, who can love through evil report, as through good, and can forgive scripturally. I am not such a woman; and I thank Heaven for it! If, yesterday, with my faith unshaken, I could have risked my life for Brook Deering, or broken my heart over his dead body—to-day, with the mask torn from him, he is a criminal! only a thousandfold more hateful to me than other criminals, as he has injured me a thousand-fold more than others; and over his dead body I could say—thank God!"

She pushed back her chair and arose.

"Bruce Deering," she faltered; "if I have been deceived and injured, you have been wronged beyond the telling! As one who has aided in this wrong, I ask you to forgive me! It is much to ask, much to grant, for I have nursed my wrath against not you, but the man I believed you to be. But yet I do ask, in all humility, your pardon!—I dare not say your friendship."

"But you have both!" cried Bruce, springing up and extending his hand across the table, "and my sympathy as well! Friendship—loyalty, is not the less noble for being misplaced!"

She put her hand in his in silence; and then, withdrawing it quickly, turned to Murtagh:

"Sir, detective, you have shown me how a man may do his duty and still be a gentleman! You have given me consideration beyond my deserts! I thank you! I thank you all for making this hour of my downfall as easy as might be; but—it has not been easy, for all that, and, with your permission, I will go.—No!"—as John Redding and Bruce Deering both moved to follow her; "I beg of you—let me go—quietly—alone!"

The last word was a mere whisper, and she swayed slightly, and caught at the back of the chair beside her; then drawing herself suddenly erect, she moved back a pace, bowed, and walked quickly to the door, which Mr. Baird held open for her egress.

She did not see that, as she passed out, Valentine Rodney was close behind her; but, in the hall, she felt a hand upon her arm, and started almost hysterically; Valentine had caught her arm with both hands.

"Ora! Do not go away alone! Stay, or let me go with you! You must not be alone now! Do you think I don't know? Ah! you have been wonderfully brave and strong! But—you are not strong now! Don't shut yourself un in your pride and suffer alone! Don't—Ora!"

| | 396

After her start, and that first wild glance, there was a look in Ora's eyes like anger, sudden and fierce; but it died out, and, before Val had ceased to speak, her lips were quivering, and she caught the girl's arm, and made a movement toward the door.

"Come!"—she said brokenly; "I should die—if I were left alone—now!"

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