By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
THE town clock of Sibley had just struck twelve. Court had adjourned, and Judge Evans, with one or two of the leading lawyers of the county, stood in the door-way of the court-house discussing in a friendly way the eccentricities of criminals as developed in the case then before the court. Mr. Lord had just ventured the assertion that crime as a fine art was happily confined to France; to which District Attorney Ferris had replied:
“And why? Because atheism has not yet acquired such a hold upon our upper classes that gentlemen think it possible to meddle with such matters. It is only when a student, a doctor, a lawyer, determines to put aside from his path the secret stumbling-block to his desires or his ambition that the true intellectual crime is developed. That brute whom you see slouching along over the way is the type of the average criminal of the day.”
And he indicated with a nod a sturdy, ill-favored man, who, with pack on his back, was just emerging from a grassy lane that opened out from the street directly opposite the court-house.
“Such men are often seen in the dock,” remarked Mr. Orcutt, of more than local reputation as a criminal lawyer. “And often escape the penalty of their crimes,” he added, watching, with a curious glance, the lowering brow and furtive look of the man who, upon perceiving the attention he had attracted, increased his pace till he almost broke into a run.
“Looks as if he had been up to mischief,” observed Judge Evans.
“Rather as if he had heard the sentence which was passed upon the last tramp who paid his respects to this town,” corrected Mr. Lord.
“Revenons à nos moutons,” resumed the District Attorney. “Crime, as an investment, does not pay in this country. The regular burglar leads a dog’s life of it; and when you come to the murderer, how few escape suspicion if they do the gallows. I do not know of a case where a murder for money has been really successful in this region.”
“Then you must have some pretty cute detective work going on here,” remarked a young man who had not before spoken.
“No, no — nothing to brag of. But the brutes are so clumsy — that is the word, clumsy. They don’t know how to cover up their tracks.”
“The smart ones don’t make tracks,” interposed a rough voice near them, and a large, red-haired, slightly hump-backed man, who, from the looks of those about, was evidently a stranger in the place, shuffled forward from the pillar against which he had been leaning, and took up the thread of conversation.
“I tell you,” he continued, in a gruff tone somewhat out of keeping with the studied abstraction of his keen, gray eye, “that half the criminals are caught because they do make tracks and then resort to such extraordinary means to cover them up. The true secret of success in this line lies in striking your blow with a weapon picked up on the spot, and in choosing for the scene of your tragedy a thoroughfare where, in the natural course of events, other men will come and go and unconsciously tread out your traces, provided you have made any. This dissipates suspicion, or starts it in so many directions that justice is at once confused, if not ultimately baffled. Look at that house yonder,” the stranger pursued, pointing to a plain dwelling on the opposite corner. “While we have been standing here, several persons of one kind or another, and among them a pretty rough-looking tramp, have gone into the side gate and so around to the kitchen door and back. I don’t know who lives there, but say it is a solitary old woman above keeping help, and that an hour from now some one, not finding her in the house, searches through the garden and comes upon her lying dead behind the wood-pile, struck down by her own axe. On whom are you going to lay your hand in suspicion? On the stranger, of course — the rough-looking tramp that everybody thinks is ready for bloodshed at the least provocation. But suspicion is not conviction, and I would dare wager that no court, in face of a persistent denial on his part that he even saw the old woman when he went to her door, would bring in a verdict of murder against him, even though silver from her private drawer were found concealed upon his person. The chance that he spoke the truth, and that she was not in the house when he entered, and that his crime had been merely one of burglary or theft, would be enough to save him from the hangman.”
“That is true,” assented Mr. Lord, “unless all the other persons who had been seen to go into the yard were not only reputable men, but were willing to testify to having seen the woman alive up to the time he invaded her premises.”
But the hump-backed stranger had already lounged away.
“What do you think about this, Mr. Byrd?” inquired the District Attorney, turning to the young man before alluded to. “You are an expert in these matters, or ought to be. What would you give for the tramp’s chances if the detectives took him in hand?”
“I, sir?” was the response. “I am so comparatively young and inexperienced in such affairs, that I scarcely dare presume to express an opinion. But I have heard it said by Mr. Gryce, who you know stands foremost among the detectives of New York, that the only case of murder in which he utterly failed to get any clue to work upon, was that of a Jew who was knocked down in his own shop in broad daylight. But this will not appear so strange when you learn the full particulars. The store was situated between two alley-ways in Harlem. It had an entrance back and an entrance front. Both were in constant use. The man was found behind his counter, having evidently been hit on the head by a slung-shot while reaching for a box of hosiery. But though a succession of people were constantly passing by both doors, there was for that very reason no one to tell which of all the men who were observed to enter the shop, came out again with blood upon his conscience. Nor were the circumstances of the Jew’s life such as to assist justice. The most careful investigation failed to disclose the existence of any enemy, nor was he found to possess in this country, at least, any relative who could have hoped to be benefited by the few dollars he had saved from a late bankruptcy. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the man was secretly in the way of some one and was as secretly put out of it, but for what purpose or by whose hand, time has never disclosed.”
“There is one, however, who knows both,” affirmed Judge Evans, impressively.
“The man himself?”
The solemnity with which this was uttered caused a silence, during which Mr. Orcutt looked at his watch.
“I must go to dinner,” he announced, withdrawing, with a slight nod, across the street.
The rest stood for a few minutes abstractedly contemplating his retreating figure, as with an energetic pace all his own he passed down the little street that opened opposite to where they stood, and entered the unpretending cottage of a widow lady, with whom he was in the habit of taking his mid-day meal whenever he had a case before the court.
A lull was over the whole village, and the few remaining persons on the court-house steps were about to separate, when Mr. Lord uttered an exclamation and pointed to the cottage into which they had just seen Mr. Orcutt disappear. Immediately all eyes looked that way and saw the lawyer standing on the stoop, having evidently issued with the utmost precipitation from the house.
“He is making signs,” cried Mr. Lord to Mr. Ferris; and scarcely knowing what they feared, both gentlemen crossed the way and hurried down the street toward their friend, who, with unusual tokens of disturbance in his manner, ran forward to meet them.
“A murder!” he excitedly exclaimed, as soon as he came within speaking distance. “A strange and startling coincidence. Mrs. Clemmens has been struck on the head, and is lying covered with blood at the foot of her dining-room table.”
Mr. Lord and the District Attorney stared at each other in a maze of surprise and horror easily to be comprehended, and then they rushed forward.
“Wait a moment,” the latter suddenly cried, stopping short and looking back. “Where is the fellow who talked so learnedly about murder and the best way of making a success of it. He must be found at once. I don’t believe in coincidences.” And he beckoned to the person they had called Byrd, who with very pardonable curiosity was hurrying their way. “Go find Hunt, the constable,” he cried; “tell him to stop and retain the humpback. A woman here has been found murdered, and that fellow must have known something about it.”
The young man stared, flushed with sudden intelligence, and darted off. Mr. Ferris turned, found Mr. Orcutt still at his side, and drew him forward to rejoin Mr. Lord, who by this time was at the door of the cottage.
They all went in together, Mr. Ferris, who was of an adventurous disposition, leading the way. The room into which they first stepped was empty. It was evidently the widow’s sitting-room, and was in perfect order, with the exception of Mr. Orcutt’s hat, which lay on the centre-table where he had laid it on entering. Neat, without being prim, the entire aspect of the place was one of comfort, ease, and modest luxury. For, though the Widow Clemmens lived alone and without help, she was by no means an indigent person, as a single glance at her house would show. The door leading into the farther room was open, and toward this they hastened, led by the glitter of the fine old china service which loaded the dining-table.
“She is there,” said Mr. Orcutt, pointing to the other side of the room.
They immediately passed behind the table, and there, sure enough, lay the prostrate figure of the widow, her head bleeding, her arms extended, one hand grasping her watch, which she had loosened from her belt, the other stretched toward a stick of firewood, that, from the mark of blood upon its side, had evidently been used to fell her to the floor. She was motionless as stone, and was, to all appearance, dead.
“Sickening, sickening! — horrible!” exclaimed Mr. Lord, recoiling upon the District Attorney with a gesture, as if he would put the frightful object out of his sight. “What motive could any one have for killing such an inoffensive woman? The deviltry of man is beyond belief!”
“And after what we have heard, inexplicable,” asserted Mr. Ferris. “To be told of a supposable case of murder one minute, and then to see it exemplified in this dreadful way the next, is an experience of no common order. I own I am overcome by it.” And he flung open a door that communicated with the lane and let the outside air sweep in.
“That door was unlocked,” remarked Mr. Lord, glancing at Mr. Orcutt, who stood with severe, set face, looking down at the outstretched form which, for several years now, had so often sat opposite to him at his noonday meal.
With a start the latter looked up. “What did you say? The door unlocked? There is nothing strange in that. She never locked her doors, though she was so very deaf I often advised her to.” And he allowed his eyes to run over the wide stretch of low, uncultivated ground before him, that, in the opinion of many persons, was such a decided blot upon the town. “There is no one in sight,” he reluctantly admitted.
“No,” responded the other. “The ground is unfavorable for escape. It is marshy and covered with snake grass. A man could make his way, however, between the hillocks into those woods yonder, if he were driven by fear or understood the path well. What is the matter, Orcutt?”
“Nothing,” affirmed the latter — “nothing, I thought I heard a groan.”
“You heard me make an exclamation,” spoke up Mr. Ferris, who by this time had sufficiently overcome his emotion to lift the head of the prostrate woman and look in her face. “This woman is not dead.”
“What!” they both cried, bounding forward.
“See, she breathes,” continued the former, pointing to her slowly laboring chest. “The villain, whoever he was, did not do his work well; she may be able to tell us something yet.”
“I do not think so,” murmured Mr. Orcutt. “Such a blow as that must have destroyed her faculties, if not her life. It was of cruel force.”
“However that may be, she ought to be taken care of now,” cried Mr. Ferris. “I wish Dr. Tredwell was here.”
“I will go for him,” signified the other.
But it was not necessary. Scarcely had the lawyer turned to execute this mission, when a sudden murmur was heard at the door, and a dozen or so citizens burst into the house, among them the very person named. Being coroner as well as physician, he at once assumed authority. The widow was carried into her room, which was on the same floor, and a brother practitioner sent for, who took his place at her head and waited for any sign of returning consciousness. The crowd, remanded to the yard, spent their time alternately in furtive questionings of each other’s countenances, and in eager look-out for the expected return of the strange young man who had been sent after the incomprehensible humpback of whom all had heard. The coroner, closeted with the District Attorney in the dining-room, busied himself in noting certain evident facts.
“I am, perhaps, forestalling my duties in interfering before the woman is dead,” intimated the former. “But it is only a matter of a few hours, and any facts we can glean in the interim must be of value to a proper conduct of the inquiry I shall be called upon to hold. I shall therefore make the same note of the position of affairs as I would do if she were dead; and to begin with, I wish you to observe that she was hit while setting the clock.” And he pointed to the open door of the huge old-fashioned timepiece which occupied that corner of the room in which she had been found. “She had not even finished her task,” he next remarked, “for the clock is still ten minutes slow, while her watch is just right, as you will see by comparing it with your own. She was attacked from behind, and to all appearances unexpectedly. Had she turned, her forehead would have been struck, while, as all can see, it is the back of her head that has suffered, and that from a right-hand blow. Her deafness was undoubtedly the cause of her immobility under the approach of such an assailant. She did not hear his step, and, being so busily engaged, saw nothing of the cruel hand uplifted to destroy her. I doubt if she even knew what happened. The mystery is that any one could have sufficiently desired her death to engage in such a cold-blooded butchery. If plunder were wanted, why was not her watch taken from her? And see, here is a pile of small change lying beside her plate on the table — a thing a tramp would make for at once.”
“It was not a thief that struck her.”
“Well, well, we don’t know. I have my own theory,” admitted the coroner; “but, of course, it will not do for me to mention it here. The stick was taken from that pile laid ready on the hearth,” he went on. “Odd, significantly odd, that in all its essential details this affair should tally so completely with the supposable case of crime given a moment before by the deformed wretch you tell me about.”
“Not if that man was a madman and the assailant,” suggested the District Attorney.
“True, but I do not think he was mad — not from what you have told me. But let us see what the commotion is. Some one has evidently arrived.”
It was Mr. Byrd, who had entered by the front door, and deaf to the low murmur of the impatient crowd without, stood waiting in silent patience for an opportunity to report to the District Attorney the results of his efforts.
Mr. Ferris at once welcomed him.
“What have you done? Did you find the constable or succeed in laying hands on that scamp of a humpback?”
Mr. Byrd, who, to explain at once, was a young and intelligent detective, who had been brought from New York for purposes connected with the case then before the court, glanced carefully in the direction of the coroner and quietly replied:
“The hump-backed scamp, as you call him, has disappeared. Whether he will be found or not I cannot say. Hunt is on his track, and will report to you in an hour. The tramp whom you saw slinking out of this street while we stood on the court-house steps is doubtless the man whom you most want, and him we have captured.”
“You have?” repeated Mr. Ferris, eying, with good-natured irony, the young man’s gentlemanly but rather indifferent face. “And what makes you think it is the tramp who is the guilty one in this case? Because that ingenious stranger saw fit to make him such a prominent figure in his suppositions?”
“No, sir,” replied the detective, flushing with a momentary embarrassment he however speedily overcame; “I do not found my opinions upon any man’s remarks. I only —— Excuse me,” said he, with a quiet air of self-control that was not without its effect upon the sensible man he was addressing. “If you will tell me how, where, and under what circumstances this poor murdered woman was found, perhaps I shall be better able to explain my reasons for believing in the tramp as the guilty party; though the belief, even of a detective, goes for but little in matters of this kind, as you and these other gentlemen very well know.”
“Step here, then,” signified Mr. Ferris, who, accompanied by the coroner, had already passed around the table. “Do you see that clock? She was winding it when she was struck, and fell almost at its foot. The weapon which did the execution lies over there; it is a stick of firewood, as you see, and was caught up from that pile on the hearth. Now recall what that humpback said about choosing a thoroughfare for a murder (and this house is a thoroughfare), and the peculiar stress which he laid upon the choice of a weapon, and tell me why you think he is innocent of this immediate and most remarkable exemplification of his revolting theory?”
“Let me first ask,” ventured the other, with a remaining tinge of embarrassment coloring his cheek, “if you have reason to think this woman had been lying long where she was found, or was she struck soon before the discovery?”
“Soon. The dinner was still smoking in the kitchen, where it had been dished up ready for serving.”
“Then,” declared the detective with sudden confidence, “a single word will satisfy you that the humpback was not the man who delivered this stroke. To lay that woman low at the foot of this clock would require the presence of the assailant in the room. Now, the humpback was not here this morning, but in the court-room. I know this, for I saw him there.”
“You did? You are sure of that?” cried, in a breath, both his hearers, somewhat taken aback by this revelation.
“Yes. He sat down by the door. I noticed him particularly.”
“Humph! that is odd,” quoth Mr. Ferris, with the testiness of an irritable man who sees himself contradicted in a publicly expressed theory.
“Very odd,” repeated the coroner; “so odd, I am inclined to think he did not sit there every moment of the time. It is but a step from the court-house here; he might well have taken the trip and returned while you wiped your eye-glasses or was otherwise engaged.”
Mr. Byrd did not see fit to answer this.
“The tramp is an ugly-looking customer,” he remarked, in what was almost a careless tone of voice.
Mr. Ferris covered with his hand the pile of loose change that was yet lying on the table, and shortly observed:
“A tramp to commit such a crime must be actuated either by rage or cupidity; that you will acknowledge. Now the fellow who struck this woman could not have been excited by any sudden anger, for the whole position of her body when found proves that she had not even turned to face the intruder, much less engaged in an altercation with him. Yet how could it have been money he was after, when a tempting bit like this remained undisturbed upon the table?”
And Mr. Ferris, with a sudden gesture, disclosed to view the pile of silver coin he had been concealing.
The young detective shook his head but lost none of his seeming indifference. “That is one of the little anomalies of criminal experience that we were talking about this morning,” he remarked. “Perhaps the fellow was frightened and lost his head, or perhaps he really heard some one at the door, and was obliged to escape without reaping any of the fruits of his crime.”
“Perhaps and perhaps,” retorted Mr. Ferris, who was a quick man, and who, once settled in a belief, was not to be easily shaken out of it.
“However that may be,” continued Mr. Byrd, without seeming to notice the irritating interruption, “I still think that the tramp, rather than the humpback, will be the man to occupy your future attention.”
And with a deprecatory bow to both gentlemen, he drew back and quietly left the room.
Mr. Ferris at once recovered from his momentary loss of temper.
“I suppose the young man is right,” he acknowledged; “but, if so, what an encouragement we have received this morning to a belief in clairvoyance.” And with less irony and more conviction, he added: “The humpback must have known something about the murder.”
And the coroner bowed; common-sense undoubtedly agreeing with this assumption.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55