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ANONYMOUS

A SLIP OF THE PEN

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover 2016©



First published in Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, December 26, 1908
Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
The Manawatu Times, New Zealand, February 24, 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version Date: 2016-12-08
Produced by Roy Glashan

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

Click here for more Sexton Blake stories



I.

IN a great many respects the case resembled that of Mr. Dyson, of Maida Vale, who, it may be remembered, was lured away from home by a bogus message, and compelled to perform an operation on a man who had nothing wrong with him. And it was, no doubt, the recollection of the brilliant triumph which Sexton Blake had achieved in Dr. Dyson's case which led Mrs. Banham, when all the efforts of the local police had failed to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearance, to wire for Sexton Blake. The facts of the case, briefly stated, were as follows:—

About half-past eleven on a certain Tuesday night in February, Dr. Banham, a country doctor, practising at Birkendale, in Shropshire, received a hastily-written note, which purported to come from one of his patients, named Arkwright, who lived at Longstones Farm, some three or four miles away. The note was terse and to the point. Mrs. Arkwright had been suddenly taken ill, and would the doctor please come at once! After tossing the note across to his wife, and advising her not to sit up for him, Dr. Banham donned his hat and overcoat, saddled his horse, and rode off in the direction of Longstones Farm. He was seen and spoken to by the village constable as he cantered past the church, but from that point all trace of him was lost.

When Mrs. Banham awoke next morning and found that her husband had not yet returned, she was mildly surprised but in no wise anxious. As the morning wore on, however, and there was still no sign of him, she began to feel uneasy. Still, she was not really alarmed until the constable arrived, about half-past one in the afternoon, leading the doctor's horse, which he had found grazing by the roadside on the outskirts of the village.

The natural conclusion to which everybody jumped was that the doctor had been thrown from his horse—or, at any rate, that some accident had happened. But the case assumed a more sinister aspect when, on enquiries being made at Longstones, it was ascertained that the note which Dr. Banham had received was a forgery. Nobody was ill at Longstones; nobody had sent for Dr. Banham; and, although the doctor had undoubtedly set out for the farm, he had never arrived there.

In view of these facts, the note assumed a vital importance, since the handwriting might furnish a clue to the identity of the writer. Fortunately, Mrs. Banham had preserved it; but when she produced it for the inspection of the superintendent of the local police, she discovered, to her dismay, that every scrap of writing had disappeared, and only a blank half-sheet of paper remained. To make matters worse, Dr. Banham himself had opened the door when the bearer of the note had rung the bell; so that neither Mrs. Banham nor the servants had seen the man, woman, or child who had brought the note.

Perhaps the local police would have paid more attention to the case if it had not been for the fact that they were then engaged on what was—in their eyes, at any rate—a much more important matter than the disappearance of a country doctor. In the small hours of Tuesday morning a daring robbery had been committed at Birkendale Hall, the country seat of Lord and Lady Easington, and family jewels and plate to the value of many thousands of pounds had been stolen.

In their highly commendable zeal to discover the authors of this sensational robbery, the local police—we propound the theory with all diffidence—did not, perhaps, devote as much attention as they might have done to the mystery of Dr. Banham's disappearance. Anyhow, at the-end of-ten days their investigations, whatever they may have been, had yielded no result. The fate of Dr. Banham—and, incidentally, the identity of the thieves who had broken into Birkendale Hall—still remained an insoluble enigma. And then, as previously, mentioned, Mrs. Banham wired for Sexton Blake.


II.

IT was half-past nine at night, and quite dark, of course, when Sexton Blake reached Birkendale.

"What has happened admits of little doubt," he said, when Mrs. Banham had told her story. "Somebody who knew that the Arkwrights were patients of your husband's forged that note asking him to go to Longstones Farm at once. On his way to Longstones your husband was accosted by this man, who enticed him into his house, made him a prisoner, and afterwards turned the horse adrift."

"But why should anybody wish to make a prisoner of my husband?" asked Mrs. Banham.

The detective shrugged his shoulders. "That remains to be seen," he said. "In the meantime, if you, still have that half-sheet of paper on which the note was written, I should very much like to see it."

Mrs. Banham still had it, and produced it for the detective's inspection.

"It is quite clear what has happened here, of course," he said, after examining the paper with his pocket-lens. "The note was written in what is known as sympathetic ink—ink that becomes invisible in the course of a few hours. Have the police made any experiments with this sheet of paper?"

Mrs. Banham looked puzzled.

"Experiments?" she said. "No. I showed it to them, of course; but, when they saw the writing had disappeared, they merely remarked, as you yourself remarked just now, that the note had been written in sympathetic ink."

"And that is all they said or did?"

"Yes."

Again the detective shrugged his shoulders.

"Your husband dispensed his own medicines?" he said.

"Yes."

"Would you mind taking me to his dispensary?"

Mrs. Banham conducted him to a small room at the Lack of the house. On the shelves which lined one end of the room were dozens of bottles of drugs and chemicals. After scanning the labels, the detective poured a few drops out of one of the bottles into a measure-glass, diluted them with water, and added a few crystals from another bottle. When the crystals had dissolved, he poured the solution over the half-sheet of paper, and in less time almost than it takes to tell the original writing reappeared in brownish-purple characters.

"Wonderful!" ejaculated Mrs. Banham. "You're a magician!"

The detective laughed.

"Any schoolboy could have done as much," he said. "My only surprise ut that the police never thought of adopting such a simple expedient."

He dried the note between two sheets of blotting-paper, and attentively perused it. It was written in a sprawling hand, and ran as follows:—


Longstones, Fev. 21,1907.

Dear Mr. Banham

My wife has been suddenly taken ill. Please come at once,

Yours truly,

J.T. Arkwright.


Once, twice, Sexton Blake read the note. At the second time of reading he discovered something which brought a gleam of triumph into his eyes.

"Here's a clue which a one-eyed man couldn't miss!" he exclaimed.

"Clue?" said Mrs. Banham, who was looking over his shoulder. "I don't see any clue."

"You have read the note?" asked Sexton Blake.

"Yes."

"What do you notice peculiar about it?"

"Nothing."

"Read it again. Notice the date."

"Well? I see nothing peculiar about the date. It only indicates that the note was written on February the twenty-first, which was the day my husband received the note."

"February? Look at that date again."

"Oh, yes! I see what you mean. The writer of the note has written F-e-v. instead of F-e-b."

"What do you infer from that?"

"That the writer of the note was either a bad or a careless speller."

The detective shook his head. "The worst or most careless speller in Great Britain would never spell February with a V," he said. "The V in this note is neither the result of faulty education nor carelessness, it is a slip of the pen—a fatal slip of the pen— which has given us a most important clue to the nationality of the writer. You look surprised. Surely the conclusion is obvious! What is the French for February?"

"Février."

"And how would a Frenchman abbreviate that?"

"He would shorten it, I suppose, to F-e-v."

"Of course he would! And if he had been in the habit all his life of writing F-e-v. as an abbreviation for February, what could be more natural than that he should make a slip of the pen when writing in English, and write F-e-v. instead of F-e-b."

"Now, if it is clear, as it is, that the writer of this note is a Frenchman," he continued, "it is equally clear that he must have been living in this neighborhood for some time, otherwise he would not have known that the Arkwrights were patients of your husband's. Again, if, as I believe, he waylaid your husband on his way to Longstones, and inveigled him into his house, it follows, as a matter of course, that his house is on the way from here to Longstones. You are doubtless acquainted with everybody in this neighborhood; do you know of any Frenchman who lives, and has been living for some time, in a house which stands between here and Longstones Farm?"

"Yes!" said Mrs. Banham excitedly. "About three weeks ago a Frenchman named Monceau came to live at Ridge House. He's an artist—at least, he says he is—of rather eccentric habits, and his only servants are two Englishmen, about the same age as himself."

"And where is Ridge House?" asked Sexton Blake.

"About, two miles from here, on the road to Longstones. It was formerly the residence of Lord Easington's agent, but at the beginning of this year the agent removed to Birkendale Lodge, and Ridge House was advertised to be let."

"Furnished?"

"Yes."

"And Monsieur Monceau took it, and came to live, there, three weeks ago, with his two English servants?"

"Yes."

"Then I haven't the slightest doubt," said Sexton Blake, "that it was Monceau who wrote this note, and that Ridge House was the house into which your husband was lured."

"But with what object?" asked Mrs. Banham.

"I don't know," said the detective frankly. "Before I can answer that question I must transfer my enquiries to Ridge House. Tell me exactly where it is."

Mrs. Banham told him, and a few minutes later the detective was on his way to Ridge House.


III.

THE house had originally been built for a private lunatic asylum, and the acre and a half of grounds in which it stood were surrounded by a high stone wall, on the top of which was a chevaux-de-frise of iron spikes. From the front door of the house a broad drive led to a pair of gates which opened on to the road.

It was eleven o'clock when Sexton Blake pulled up outside these gates, They were closed and padlocked, and the front of the house was in darkness. The sides and back of the house he could not see, on account of the high stone wall.

Having satisfied himself that the gates were unclimbable, he made a tour of exploration round the outside of the walls which enclosed the ground, only to find that the wall was as unclimbable as the gates. Five minutes later he had picked the lock, and stood inside the grounds.

The north side of the house, like the front, was in total darkness. So was the back of the house. On the south side, however, there was a single lighted window on the first floor. It was uncurtained and unshuttered, and was apparently the window of one of the bedrooms. It was provided with a blind, but the blind was not drawn down.

Exactly opposite this window, and a few yards only from the side of the house, grew a sturdy elm, one of whose leafless branches, projecting towards the house, almost touched the top of the window.

"If I were to get up this tree," mused Sexton Blake, "I could see into that room, and I might see something worthwhile. Shall I? Yes; here goes!"

Suiting the action to the word, he climbed up the tree, and the moment his head came on a level with the window he saw that which converted his previous suspicions into certainties.

There were two beds in the room. In the larger of the two lay a man who was apparently unconscious. He had an ice-bag on his head, and on the table beside the bed were several bottles of medicine.

On the smaller bed—not in it, but on it—lay a fully-dressed man, whose hands were tied behind his hack. From Mrs. Banham's description, the detective recognised him instantly as Dr. Banham.

There were two other men in the room, one of whom was obviously a foreigner. They were seated at another little table, at the foot of the larger bed, playing cards.

Scarcely had the detective taken in these facts, when a crackling of the bushes fell on his ears, and the next instant, to his horror and dismay, a dog dashed to the foot of the tree, barking furiously. It was evidently a dog which had been turned loose in the grounds to guard against the intrusion of strangers, and it had only just discovered the presence of Sexton Blake.

At the first bark of the dog the two men who were playing cards sprang to their feet. The foreigner said something to his companion, which, of course, Sexton Blake could not hear; then the two men darted to the bedroom door and rushed downstairs.

For an instant, but only for an instant, the detective hesitated how to act. Then, swiftly crawling to the end of the projecting branch, which drooped beneath his weight, he swung himself off on to the window-sill, forced back the catch with the blade of his knife, threw up the sash, and leaped into the room.

By that time Dr. Banham had scrambled off the bed, and was staring at Sexton Blake in stupefied bewilderment. By that time, too, the foreigner and his companion had heard the detective open the window and leap into the room; and even as Sexton Blake, with one slash of his knife, severed the cords by which the doctor's wrists were fettered, he heard the two men running upstairs.

Quick as thought, the detective whipped out two revolvers, one of-which he thrust into the bewildered doctor's hand.

"I'm Sexton Blake!" he said hurriedly. "I'll explain things later. Cover them the instant they appear."

The words had scarcely crossed his lips ere the two men dashed into the room. Both were armed, but before they had time to grasp the situation they found themselves covered by the revolvers of Sexton Blake and Dr. Banham, whilst at the same moment the stern command rang in their ears:

"Hands up!"

Never was a surprise more dramatic or more complete. Up went the two men's hands, and in little more time than it takes to tell they were both disarmed and bound. Then Sexton Blake turned to Dr. Banham.

"Now, tell me all about it," he said quietly.


IV.

THERE is no need to give Dr. Banham's statement in detail.

"Monsieur Monceau" and his "two English servants" were the burglars who had committed the robbery at Birkendale Hall. All three were well-known criminals—well-known, that is, to the London police—and their real names were Lerouge, Smithson, and Calvert.

Having decided to burgle Birkendale Hall, they had taken Ridge House, partly in order to be on the spot whilst maturing their plans, and partly to have a convenient place to which to convey their plunder. Unfortunately—or, rather, fortunately—a few hours after the burglary, Calvert had taken an apoplectic fit, and had thereby upset his confederates' plans for leaving next morning, with their booty, for London. To make matters worse, Calvert had been seen at the time of the robbery by one of the servants at the Hall, and a more or less accurate description of him was in the hands of the local police.

In these circumstances, what were Lerouge and Smithson to do? They could not go away, leaving Calvert in an unconscious condition in the house. On the other hand, they dared not call in a doctor in the ordinary way, for fear lest he should recognise Calvert from the published police description.

What they did may be guessed from what has been narrated above. Lerouge wrote a note in "sympathetic ink," purporting to come from Mr. Arkwright, asking Dr. Banham to come to Longstones Farm at once. Smithson delivered the note; then he and Lerouge lay in wait for Dr. Banham, dragged him off his horse, and carried him into the house..

"No harm will befall you if you act sensibly," said Lerouge. "All we require of you is that you should act as if you were a resident physician in attendance to Calvert. Treat him as you would treat any other patient; tell, us what to do for him, and, if he requires medicine, write a prescription, which I'll copy out and take to Highfleld and get dispensed.

"In the meantime," he said, "except that you will be kept a close prisoner here, you will receive every consideration. When Calvert is well, you will be paid an adequate fee, and within an hour of our reaching London your wife will receive a telegram informing her that you are lying, bound and gagged, but otherwise unharmed, at Ridge House."

How Dr. Banham accepted these terms; and how the plot was brought to naught by Sexton Blake, is now a matter of history. For the rest, it only remains to add that the whole of the proceeds of the robbery at Birkendale Hall were found at Ridge House, and that Lerouge, Smithson, and Calvert—who eventually recovered-are at present enjoying His Majesty's hospitality at Dartmoor.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.