On the morning of October 6, 1885, in the office of the Inspector of Police of the second division of S— District, there appeared a respectably dressed young man, who announced that his master, Marcus Ivanovitch Klausoff, a retired officer of the Horse Guards, separated from his wife, had been murdered. While making this announcement the young man was white and terribly agitated. His hands trembled and his eyes were full of terror.
Anton Chekov famously advised storytellers that a gun introduced in the first act should go off by the third. Here it’s a safety match, and it may be the clue that unravels a murder mystery.
This version of The Safety Match is from a collection of short detective stories called Masterpieces of Mystery in Four Volumes: Detective Stories, which is available at Project Gutenberg.
(Part 2 coming Monday!)
“Whom have I the honour of addressing?” asked the inspector.
“Psyekoff, Lieutenant Klausoff’s agent; agriculturist and mechanician!”
The inspector and his deputy, on visiting the scene of the occurrence in company with Psyekoff, found the following: Near the wing in which Klausoff had lived was gathered a dense crowd. The news of the murder had sped swift as lightning through the neighbourhood, and the peasantry, thanks to the fact that the day was a holiday, had hurried together from all the neighbouring villages. There was much commotion and talk. Here and there, pale, tear-stained faces were seen. The door of Klausoff’s bedroom was found locked. The key was inside.
“It is quite clear that the scoundrels got in by the window!” said Psyekoff as they examined the door.
They went to the garden, into which the bedroom window opened. The window looked dark and ominous. It was covered by a faded green curtain. One corner of the curtain was slightly turned up, which made it possible to look into the bedroom.
“Did any of you look into the window?” asked the inspector.
“Certainly not, your worship!” answered Ephraim, the gardener, a little gray-haired old man, who looked like a retired sergeant. “Who’s going to look in, if all their bones are shaking?”
“Ah, Marcus Ivanovitch, Marcus Ivanovitch!” sighed the inspector, looking at the window, “I told you you would come to a bad end! I told the dear man, but he wouldn’t listen! Dissipation doesn’t bring any good!”
“Thanks to Ephraim,” said Psyekoff; “but for him, we would never have guessed. He was the first to guess that something was wrong. He comes to me this morning, and says: ‘Why is the master so long getting up? He hasn’t left his bedroom for a whole week!’ The moment he said that, it was just as if someone had hit me with an axe. The thought flashed through my mind, ‘We haven’t had a sight of him since last Saturday, and to-day is Sunday’! Seven whole days—not a doubt of it!”
“Ay, poor fellow!” again sighed the inspector. “He was a clever fellow, finely educated, and kind-hearted at that! And in society, nobody could touch him! But he was a waster, God rest his soul! I was prepared for anything since he refused to live with Olga Petrovna. Poor thing, a good wife, but a sharp tongue! Stephen!” the inspector called to one of his deputies, “go over to my house this minute, and send Andrew to the captain to lodge an information with him! Tell him that Marcus Ivanovitch has been murdered. And run over to the orderly; why should he sit there, kicking his heels? Let him come here! And go as fast as you can to the examining magistrate, Nicholas Yermolaïyevitch. Tell him to come over here! Wait; I’ll write him a note!”
The inspector posted sentinels around the wing, wrote a letter to the examining magistrate, and then went over to the director’s for a glass of tea. Ten minutes later he was sitting on a stool, carefully nibbling a lump of sugar, and swallowing the scalding tea.
“There you are!” he was saying to Psyekoff; “there you are! A noble by birth! a rich man—a favourite of the gods, you may say, as Pushkin has it, and what did he come to? He drank and dissipated and—there you are—he’s murdered.”
After a couple of hours the examining magistrate drove up. Nicholas Yermolaïyevitch Chubikoff—for that was the magistrate’s name—was a tall, fleshy old man of sixty, who had been wrestling with the duties of his office for a quarter of a century. Everybody in the district knew him as an honest man, wise, energetic, and in love with his work. He was accompanied to the scene of the murder by his inveterate companion, fellow worker, and secretary, Dukovski, a tall young fellow of twenty-six.
“Is it possible, gentlemen?” cried Chubikoff, entering Psyekoff’s room, and quickly shaking hands with everyone. “Is it possible? Marcus Ivanovitch? Murdered? No! It is impossible! Im-poss-i-ble!”
“Go in there!” sighed the inspector.
“Lord, have mercy on us! Only last Friday I saw him at the fair in Farabankoff. I had a drink of vodka with him, save the mark!”
“Go in there!” again sighed the inspector.
They sighed, uttered exclamations of horror, drank a glass of tea each, and went to the wing.
“Get back!” the orderly cried to the peasants.
Going to the wing, the examining magistrate began his work by examining the bedroom door. The door proved to be of pine, painted yellow, and was uninjured. Nothing was found which could serve as a clue. They had to break in the door.
“Everyone not here on business is requested to keep away!” said the magistrate, when, after much hammering and shaking, the door yielded to axe and chisel. “I request this, in the interest of the investigation. Orderly, don’t let anyone in!”
Chubikoff, his assistant, and the inspector opened the door, and hesitatingly, one after the other, entered the room. Their eyes met the following sight: Beside the single window stood the big wooden bed with a huge feather mattress. On the crumpled feather bed lay a tumbled, crumpled quilt. The pillow, in a cotton pillow-case, also much crumpled, was dragging on the floor. On the table beside the bed lay a silver watch and a silver twenty-kopeck piece. Beside them lay some sulphur matches. Beside the bed, the little table, and the single chair, there was no furniture in the room. Looking under the bed, the inspector saw a couple of dozen empty bottles, an old straw hat, and a quart of vodka. Under the table lay one top boot, covered with dust. Casting a glance around the room, the magistrate frowned and grew red in the face.
“Scoundrels!” he muttered, clenching his fists.
“And where is Marcus Ivanovitch?” asked Dukovski in a low voice.
“Mind your own business!” Chubikoff answered roughly. “Be good enough to examine the floor! This is not the first case of the kind I have had to deal with! Eugraph Kuzmitch,” he said, turning to the inspector, and lowering his voice, “in 1870 I had another case like this. But you must remember it—the murder of the merchant Portraitoff. It was just the same there. The scoundrels murdered him, and dragged the corpse out through the window—”
Chubikoff went up to the window, pulled the curtain to one side, and carefully pushed the window. The window opened.
“It opens, you see! It wasn’t fastened. Hm! There are tracks under the window. Look! There is the track of a knee! Somebody got in there. We must examine the window thoroughly.”
“There is nothing special to be found on the floor,” said Dukovski. “No stains or scratches. The only thing I found was a struck safety match. Here it is! So far as I remember, Marcus Ivanovitch did not smoke. And he always used sulphur matches, never safety matches. Perhaps this safety match may serve as a clue!”
“Oh, do shut up!” cried the magistrate deprecatingly. “You go on about your match! I can’t abide these dreamers! Instead of chasing matches, you had better examine the bed!”
After a thorough examination of the bed, Dukovski reported:
“There are no spots, either of blood or of anything else. There are likewise no new torn places. On the pillow there are signs of teeth. The quilt is stained with something which looks like beer and smells like beer. The general aspect of the bed gives grounds for thinking that a struggle took place on it.”
“I know there was a struggle, without your telling me! You are not being asked about a struggle. Instead of looking for struggles, you had better—”
“Here is one top boot, but there is no sign of the other.”
“Well, and what of that?”
“It proves that they strangled him, while he was taking his boots off. He hadn’t time to take the second boot off when—”
“There you go!—and how do you know they strangled him?”
“There are marks of teeth on the pillow. The pillow itself is badly crumpled, and thrown a couple of yards from the bed.”
“Listen to his foolishness! Better come into the garden. You would be better employed examining the garden than digging around here. I can do that without you!”
When they reached the garden they began by examining the grass. The grass under the window was crushed and trampled. A bushy burdock growing under the window close to the wall was also trampled. Dukovski succeeded in finding on it some broken twigs and a piece of cotton wool. On the upper branches were found some fine hairs of dark blue wool.
“What colour was his last suit?” Dukovski asked Psyekoff.
“Excellent! You see they wore blue!”
A few twigs of the burdock were cut off, and carefully wrapped in paper by the investigators. At this point Police Captain Artsuybasheff Svistakovski and Dr. Tyutyeff arrived. The captain bade them “Good day!” and immediately began to satisfy his curiosity. The doctor, a tall, very lean man, with dull eyes, a long nose, and a pointed chin, without greeting anyone or asking about anything, sat down on a log, sighed, and began:
“The Servians are at war again! What in heaven’s name can they want now? Austria, it’s all your doing!”
The examination of the window from the outside did not supply any conclusive data. The examination of the grass and the bushes nearest to the window yielded a series of useful clues. For example, Dukovski succeeded in discovering a long, dark streak, made up of spots, on the grass, which led some distance into the centre of the garden. The streak ended under one of the lilac bushes in a dark brown stain. Under this same lilac bush was found a top boot, which turned out to be the fellow of the boot already found in the bedroom.
“That is a blood stain made some time ago,” said Dukovski, examining the spot.
At the word “blood” the doctor rose, and going over lazily, looked at the spot.
“Yes, it is blood!” he muttered.
“That shows he wasn’t strangled, if there was blood,” said Chubikoff, looking sarcastically at Dukovski.
“They strangled him in the bedroom; and here, fearing he might come round again, they struck him a blow with some sharp-pointed instrument. The stain under the bush proves that he lay there a considerable time, while they were looking about for some way of carrying him out of the garden.”
“Well, and how about the boot?”
“The boot confirms completely my idea that they murdered him while he was taking his boots off before going to bed. He had already taken off one boot, and the other, this one here, he had only had time to take half off. The half-off boot came off of itself, while the body was dragged over, and fell—”
“There’s a lively imagination for you!” laughed Chubikoff. “He goes on and on like that! When will you learn enough to drop your deductions? Instead of arguing and deducing, it would be much better if you took some of the blood-stained grass for analysis!”
When they had finished their examination, and drawn a plan of the locality, the investigators went to the director’s office to write their report and have breakfast. While they were breakfasting they went on talking:
“The watch, the money, and so on—all untouched—” Chubikoff began, leading off the talk, “show as clearly as that two and two are four that the murder was not committed for the purpose of robbery.”
“The murder was committed by an educated man!” insisted Dukovski.
“What evidence have you of that?”
“The safety match proves that to me, for the peasants hereabouts are not yet acquainted with safety matches. Only the landowners use them, and by no means all of them. And it is evident that there was not one murderer, but at least three. Two held him, while one killed him. Klausoff was strong, and the murderers must have known it!”
“What good would his strength be, supposing he was asleep?”
“The murderers came on him while he was taking off his boots. If he was taking off his boots, that proves that he wasn’t asleep!”
“Stop inventing your deductions! Better eat!”
“In my opinion, your worship,” said the gardener Ephraim, setting the samovar on the table, “it was nobody but Nicholas who did this dirty trick!”
“Quite possible,” said Psyekoff.
“And who is Nicholas?”
“The master’s valet, your worship,” answered Ephraim. “Who else could it be? He’s a rascal, your worship! He’s a drunkard and a blackguard, the like of which Heaven should not permit! He always took the master his vodka and put the master to bed. Who else could it be? And I also venture to point out to your worship, he once boasted at the public house that he would kill the master! It happened on account of Aquilina, the woman, you know. He was making up to a soldier’s widow. She pleased the master; the master made friends with her himself, and Nicholas—naturally, he was mad! He is rolling about drunk in the kitchen now. He is crying, and telling lies, saying he is sorry for the master—”
The examining magistrate ordered Nicholas to be brought. Nicholas, a lanky young fellow, with a long, freckled nose, narrow-chested, and wearing an old jacket of his master’s, entered Psyekoff’s room, and bowed low before the magistrate. His face was sleepy and tear-stained. He was tipsy and could hardly keep his feet.
“Where is your master?” Chubikoff asked him.
“Murdered! your worship!”
As he said this, Nicholas blinked and began to weep.
“We know he was murdered. But where is he now? Where is his body?”
“They say he was dragged out of the window and buried in the garden!”
“Hum! The results of the investigation are known in the kitchen already!—That’s bad! Where were you, my good fellow, the night the master was murdered? Saturday night, that is.”
Nicholas raised his head, stretched his neck, and began to think.
“I don’t know, your worship,” he said. “I was drunk and don’t remember.”
“An alibi!” whispered Dukovski, smiling, and rubbing his hands.
“So-o! And why is there blood under the master’s window?”
Nicholas jerked his head up and considered.
“Hurry up!” said the Captain of Police.
“Right away! That blood doesn’t amount to anything, your worship! I was cutting a chicken’s throat. I was doing it quite simply, in the usual way, when all of a sudden it broke away and started to run. That is where the blood came from.”
Ephraim declared that Nicholas did kill a chicken every evening, and always in some new place, but that nobody ever heard of a half-killed chicken running about the garden, though of course it wasn’t impossible.
“An alibi,” sneered Dukovski; “and what an asinine alibi!”
“Did you know Aquilina?”
“Yes, your worship, I know her.”
“And the master cut you out with her?”
“Not at all. He cut me out—Mr. Psyekoff there, Ivan Mikhailovitch; and the master cut Ivan Mikhailovitch out. That is how it was.”
Psyekoff grew confused and began to scratch his left eye. Dukovski looked at him attentively, noted his confusion, and started. He noticed that the director had dark blue trousers, which he had not observed before. The trousers reminded him of the dark blue threads found on the burdock. Chubikoff in his turn glanced suspiciously at Psyekoff.
“Go!” he said to Nicholas. “And now permit me to put a question to you, Mr. Psyekoff. Of course you were here last Saturday evening?”
“Yes! I had supper with Marcus Ivanovitch about ten o’clock.”
“Afterward—afterward—Really, I do not remember,” stammered Psyekoff. “I had a good deal to drink at supper. I don’t remember when or where I went to sleep. Why are you all looking at me like that, as if I was the murderer?”
“Where were you when you woke up?”
“I was in the servants’ kitchen, lying behind the stove! They can all confirm it. How I got behind the stove I don’t know—”
“Do not get agitated. Did you know Aquilina?”
“There’s nothing extraordinary about that—”
“She first liked you and then preferred Klausoff?”
“Yes. Ephraim, give us some more mushrooms! Do you want some more tea, Eugraph Kuzmitch?”
A heavy, oppressive silence began and lasted fully five minutes. Dukovski silently kept his piercing eyes fixed on Psyekoff’s pale face. The silence was finally broken by the examining magistrate:
“We must go to the house and talk with Maria Ivanovna, the sister of the deceased. Perhaps she may be able to supply some clues.”
Chubikoff and his assistant expressed their thanks for the breakfast, and went toward the house. They found Klausoff’s sister, Maria Ivanovna, an old maid of forty-five, at prayer before the big case of family icons. When she saw the portfolios in her guests’ hands, and their official caps, she grew pale.
“Let me begin by apologizing for disturbing, so to speak, your devotions,” began the gallant Chubikoff, bowing and scraping. “We have come to you with a request. Of course, you have heard already. There is a suspicion that your dear brother, in some way or other, has been murdered. The will of God, you know. No one can escape death, neither czar nor ploughman. Could you not help us with some clew, some explanation—?”
“Oh, don’t ask me!” said Maria Ivanovna, growing still paler, and covering her face with her hands. “I can tell you nothing. Nothing! I beg you! I know nothing—What can I do? Oh, no! no!—not a word about my brother! If I die, I won’t say anything!”
Maria Ivanovna began to weep, and left the room. The investigators looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and beat a retreat.
“Confound the woman!” scolded Dukovski, going out of the house. “It is clear she knows something, and is concealing it! And the chambermaid has a queer expression too! Wait, you wretches! We’ll ferret it all out!”
In the evening Chubikoff and his deputy, lit on their road by the pale moon, wended their way homeward. They sat in their carriage and thought over the results of the day. Both were tired and kept silent. Chubikoff was always unwilling to talk while travelling, and the talkative Dukovski remained silent, to fall in with the elder man’s humour. But at the end of their journey the deputy could hold in no longer, and said:
“It is quite certain,” he said, “that Nicholas had something to do with the matter. Non dubitandum est! You can see by his face what sort of a case he is! His alibi betrays him, body and bones. But it is also certain that he did not set the thing going. He was only the stupid hired tool. You agree? And the humble Psyekoff was not without some slight share in the matter. His dark blue breeches, his agitation, his lying behind the stove in terror after the murder, his alibi and—Aquilina—”
“‘Grind away, Emilian; it’s your week!’ So, according to you, whoever knew Aquilina is the murderer! Hothead! You ought to be sucking a bottle, and not handling affairs! You were one of Aquilina’s admirers yourself—does it follow that you are implicated too?”
“Aquilina was cook in your house for a month. I am saying nothing about that! The night before that Saturday I was playing cards with you, and saw you, otherwise I should be after you too! It isn’t the woman that matters, old chap! It is the mean, nasty, low spirit of jealousy that matters. The retiring young man was not pleased when they got the better of him, you see! His vanity, don’t you see? He wanted revenge. Then, those thick lips of his suggest passion. So there you have it: wounded self-love and passion. That is quite enough motive for a murder. We have two of them in our hands; but who is the third? Nicholas and Psyekoff held him, but who smothered him? Psyekoff is shy, timid, an all-round coward. And Nicholas would not know how to smother with a pillow. His sort use an axe or a club. Some third person did the smothering; but who was it?”
Dukovski crammed his hat down over his eyes and pondered. He remained silent until the carriage rolled up to the magistrate’s door.
“Eureka!” he said, entering the little house and throwing off his overcoat. “Eureka, Nicholas Yermolaïyevitch! The only thing I can’t understand is, how it did not occur to me sooner! Do you know who the third person was?”
“Oh, for goodness sake, shut up! There is supper! Sit down to your evening meal!”
The magistrate and Dukovski sat down to supper. Dukovski poured himself out a glass of vodka, rose, drew himself up, and said, with sparkling eyes:
“Well, learn that the third person, who acted in concert with that scoundrel Psyekoff, and did the smothering, was a woman! Yes-s! I mean—the murdered man’s sister, Maria Ivanovna!”
Chubikoff choked over his vodka, and fixed his eyes on Dukovski.
“You aren’t—what’s-its-name? Your head isn’t what-do-you-call-it? You haven’t a pain in it?”
“I am perfectly well! Very well, let us say that I am crazy; but how do you explain her confusion when we appeared? How do you explain her unwillingness to give us any information? Let us admit that these are trifles. Very well! All right! But remember their relations. She detested her brother. She never forgave him for living apart from his wife. She of the Old Faith, while in her eyes he is a godless profligate. There is where the germ of her hate was hatched. They say he succeeded in making her believe that he was an angel of Satan. He even went in for spiritualism in her presence!”
“Well, what of that?”
“You don’t understand? She, as a member of the Old Faith, murdered him through fanaticism. It was not only that she was putting to death a weed, a profligate—she was freeing the world of an anti-Christ!—and there, in her opinion, was her service, her religious achievement! Oh, you don’t know those old maids of the Old Faith. Read Dostoyevsky! And what does Lyeskoff say about them, or Petcherski? It was she, and nobody else, even if you cut me open. She smothered him! O treacherous woman! wasn’t that the reason why she was kneeling before the icons, when we came in, just to take our attention away? ‘Let me kneel down and pray,’ she said to herself, ‘and they will think I am tranquil and did not expect them!’ That is the plan of all novices in crime, Nicholas Yermolaïyevitch, old pal! My dear old man, won’t you entrust this business to me? Let me personally bring it through! Friend, I began it and I will finish it!”
Chubikoff shook his head and frowned.
“We know how to manage difficult matters ourselves,” he said; “and your business is not to push yourself in where you don’t belong. Write from dictation when you are dictated to; that is your job!”
Dukovski flared up, banged the door, and disappeared.
“Clever rascal!” muttered Chubikoff, glancing after him. “Awfully clever! But too much of a hothead. I must buy him a cigar case at the fair as a present.”
The next day, early in the morning, a young man with a big head and a pursed-up mouth, who came from Klausoff’s place, was introduced to the magistrate’s office. He said he was the shepherd Daniel, and brought a very interesting piece of information.
“I was a bit drunk,” he said. “I was with my pal til midnight. On my way home, as I was drunk, I went into the river for a bath. I was taking a bath, when I looked up. Two men were walking along the dam, carrying something black. ‘Shoo!’ I cried at them. They got scared, and went off like the wind toward Makareff’s cabbage garden. Strike me dead, if they weren’t carrying away the master!”
That same day, toward evening, Psyekoff and Nicholas were arrested and brought under guard to the district town. In the town they were committed to the cells of the prison.