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First published in Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, 7 August 1909

Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
The Taranaki Daily News, New Zealand, 18 September 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version Date: 2022-06-26
Produced by Roy Glashan
Proofread by Gordon Hobley and Mark Munro

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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IT was nearly midnight. The crescent of the moon hung low over the trees massed about Richmond. The stars seemed to hang suspended by filmy threads of gold from a heaven whose purple, slumbrous distances seemed to the man lying back in a lazily-drifting Canadian canoe to open out each second into more mysterious, intenser depths.

Suddenly there rang a shriek so startling that Sexton Blake sat abruptly erect, his hands clenching his paddle.

Right abreast of him, on the north bank, a garden ran down to the water's edge, and behind a fringe of trees rose the dark, lightless outline of a villa. Almost overhanging the water, a pavilion, shrouded in trees, rose up, the brass ball on its top glowing like fire beneath the moonlight. The shriek had come from that gloom-girdled pavilion, or from that villa all wrapped in darkness. Every pulse and nerve in Blake's body was tense and quivering.

Almost unconsciously, he drove his canoe with a couple of vigorous strokes towards the willows whose frondage trailed into the water a little to the left of the pavilion.

The current insetting by the bank, drew his canoe beneath the trailing frondage of the willows, towards the pool of moon-washed water directly beneath the window of the pavilion. He was yet under the willows when, suddenly, he was aware that the window of the pavilion had been furtively thrust outwards. He caught a glimpse of an arm—a long, bare, extraordinarily crooked and scraggy arm—hurling something in his direction. Before he could realise what the something was, it had smitten him in the centre of his forehead, hurling him backwards.

Then a red mist rushed in on him, and he lost all consciousness.

When he came back to himself, he found that his canoe was hooked on to a police-boat, and the white, gleaming face of an inspector was bending over him. He sat up, gazing a little wildly towards the bank, now fifty yards distant. Of villa, garden, pavilion, there was no trace.

"You seem to have had an accident, Mr. Blake," said the police inspector. "We found you adrift, with your paddle gone, and quite unconscious."

"And the garden with the pavilion, and that appalling shriek?" said Blake.

The inspector looked at him curiously.

"The only garden with a pavilion near here is a mile above Richmond," he said, "and we're a good mile below it. Take a drink out of this flask, and tell us what's happened."

Blake obeyed gratefully. He told of the cry, and the missile thrown at him, and as he did so his eyes wandered to the bottom of the canoe.

"By Jove," he cried, "and here the missile is! That's rummy! A little brown coffee-pot!"

"You'd recognise the place again, of, course?" said the inspector. "We'll take you in tow, and run you back to investigate, if you like."

Blake was regarding the inside of the little brown coffee-pot with a fascinated gaze. He shook his head slowly, and there was a curiously intent gleam in his eyes as they met the inspector's glance.

"I think that would be rather premature," he said; "but I'll be grateful if you'll run me into Chelsea. I'll sleep on this matter and look into it further in the morning."

On reaching Chelsea, Blake spent half an hour in gathering up, with infinite care, the scattered grains of sodden coffee-dregs that bespattered the bottom of the boat. He refrained with great scrupulousness from touching them with his hands, but gathered them up on the point of his knife, and placed them labouriously in an envelope, which he bestowed in a pocket-book.

It was not sleep that Blake sought on arriving at his rooms. He spent the remainder of the night in his laboratory, and when, at seven o'clock, he emerged from his bath, and sent his landlady for a cab, his face had a grim and stern expression on it that foreboded a disagreeable surprise for someone or other.

He searched his morning paper with much eagerness, and his teeth snapped together with a little click as his eyes encountered a headline reading:


"We regret," the report stated, "to announce the death of Mr. Fordham Baxter, the well-known explorer. Shortly after midnight the unfortunate gentleman was found lying lifeless on the terrace of his charming house above Richmond. The explanation of his death was only too obvious, for, lying near him, with its head crushed, was a coral snake, which, it can only be surmised, had escaped from the reptile house which it was one of the unhappy man's hobbies to stock with a collection of the most venomous snakes. His collection, indeed, was unique; and there can be no doubt that he met his death by the bite of the deadly coral snake found near him. A certain element of mystery is, however, not absent from the case; for, despite the doctor's assurance that the cause of death was snake-venom, no mark of a bite could be found on the dead man's body. His tragic end is the more sad as he was to be married next week. The body was found by his friend Professor Dudley, who was staying at the villa, and who immediately summoned medical aid."

It was nearly nine o'clock when Blake rang the bell at Rosebank, the residence of Mr. Baxter. A grave-faced butler opened the door and curtly asked his business. Blake slipped half-a-sovereign into his hand.

"I want a little information from you," he said. "I am no stranger to the distress you are all naturally feeling; but Mr. Baxter was almost a public man, and the Press is naturally anxious for details."

"Oh, if you are a newspaper-man," said the butler, opening the door wider to admit him, "my hinstructions are to give hevery information."

Blake threw a cautious glance round the hall.

"There ain't no one 'ere," said the butler, in a patronising tone. "Professor Dudley's gorn out to make arrangements with my poor master's solicitors about the funeral. There's only me in the 'ouse."

"Mr. Baxter had no other servants, then?" asked Blake.

"Only me," replied the butler. "I did for 'im and valeted 'im, and the charwoman came of the mornings. He was a very independent gentleman and often as not 'e'd cook 'is own meal when 'e wasn't going to town."

"At what time did you last see him alive?" asked Blake.

"Eight o'clock of the hevenin'," said the butler. "After I'd served 'im and his friend Professor Dudley with dinner, I went hout for the night to visit my brother, who's lyin' sick in Camberwell, and I didn't get back till this mornin'."

"Then you don't know how Mr. Baxter spent the evening?" asked Blake.

"No, sir, I don't," replied the butler. "But, hordinarily, he and the professor would go to the pavilion in the garden and play chess; and it's certain they was there last night, for the chessmen are out on the board, and the ash-trays are full of cigarette-ends."

"I suppose he took his coffee there after dinner?" said Slake.

The Sutler looked at him curiously.

"Now, it's funny you should ask that, sir," he said. "My master was a great coffee-drinker. Six or seven cups a night he'd take, reg'lar. I've never known him miss. He'd make it himself on a little stove down in the pavilion, or sometimes the professor would make it. But last night they couldn't 'ave 'ad it, for the cups ain't used; and what's puzzled me is that the little brown coffee-pot the master set such store by isn't to be found anywhere, though I've looked for it 'igh and low."

"About these snakes, now," said Blake. "Have you any idea how they could get out?"

"I've been puzzlin' my 'ead over that the last four hours," said the butler. "The master must 'ave taken one out. The glass over their cages is all right, and so is the wire nettin' over the glass. They couldn't 'ave got out of themselves."

"You say 'they,'" said Blake, with a keen glance. "Was more than one snake found?"

"No; there wasn't," said the butler. "But there's two missin' from the cage; and, though I've searched all around the garden, I'm blest if I can find the other."

Blake's eyes gleamed.

"I should like to see the snake that was found," he said. "And I should like to see Mr. Baxter's body."

Blake examined the dead reptile carefully. The head was crushed out of all shape: but he laid it open with a knife, and his face betrayed extraordinary excitement as he pointed with the tip of the knife to the empty maw.

"You will observe," he said drily, "why no mark of a puncture was found on the body of your dead master. The snake's tongue and gall-bag have both been removed."

The butler turned pale.

"What ever does it mean, sir?" he whispered hoarsely.

"It means," said Blake quietly, "that your master was murdered, and that you have got to help me find his murderer. Now, lead me to the room where his body lies."

Blake spent but a couple of minutes there. But his action was significant. The dead man's face was contorted, and his mouth gaped awry. Blake bent over it, sniffed at the lips, and examined the strong, rather discolored teeth through a powerful lens. With the point of his forceps he removed several small brown grains from between the front teeth, and laid them on a sheet of paper.

"Your master took his coffee in the Turkish fashion?" he said.

"That's correct, sir," said the butler. "He'd let it boil up three times, till the grains was all afloat in the coffee."

"You see," said Blake, pointing to the grains on the paper, "that he did take coffee last night, and that, for some reason the coffee-pot has been suppressed and the coffee-cups washed."

"What are we gettin' at?" muttered the butler, through chattering teeth.

"Mr. Baxter was reputed a wealthy man," said Blake. "Do you know how he left his fortune, or who would benefit by his death?"

"He made no secret of that, sir," said the butler. "The day after he was engaged to Miss Stirling—and a nicer young lady never breathed—he made 'is will, and left 'er everything. I 'eard 'im with my own ears tellin' Mr. Dudley so."

"The professor was a very close friend of his, then?" asked Blake.

"The closest," said the butler. "They was like brothers."

Blake eyed the man narrowly. There was a certain reserve in his tone that seemed to contradict his words. But he did not pursue the matter.

"I would like to see the pavilion and the garden," he said.

The visit, however, was barren of result. The butler had tidied and swept out the pavilion, and any history it might have told was effaced. The gravelled pathway beneath the avenue of trees running from the pavilion to the tesselated terrace in front of the house was hard as flags, and revealed to his close search no trace of footprints. He was nonplussed. But his suspicions of foul play were confirmed by the discovery of the mutilated maw of the snake, and clinched by the evidence of the coffee in the dead man's mouth; and he had not a doubt that the analysis of these grains would betray the same traces of venomous poison which he had demonstrated during the early hours of the morning to be present in the coffee-pot which had been so mysteriously flung into the night by that bared, crooked arm.

"You had better keep your mouth shut on what I have told you," he said to the butler, as he paused at the door, on the point of taking his departure. "By the way, what time will the professor be back?"

"I don't expect him back, sir," said the butler. "He took his bag away with him, and he said he was going on to the museum after he had seen the solicitors. And I shouldn't be surprised if he went down to Hastings to break the news to Miss Stirling, as the young lady's staying there with her mother."

"He is a friend of hers, then, too?" asked Blake, in a negligent tone.

"In my hopinion," said the butler, in a tone startlingly vindictive, "he's always been a sight too friendly to 'er, seein' as she was engaged to my poor master. 'E could never keep 'is eyes off 'er, not for a minit. And the master was none too pleased, either; though Miss Stirling just laughed about it when 'e spoke to 'er one day about 'er encouragin' 'im. 'The poor thing,' sez she. 'E's so crooked and wizened and kind, 'ow could I 'elp bein' nice to 'im?'"

"Is he deformed, then?" asked Blake, in a voice so curiously vibrant that the butler gaped at him.

"'Unchbacked," he said, recovering himself beneath Blake's steely glance, "with one foot twisted and one arm crooked as a dog's hind leg."

"That is very unfortunate for him," said Blake, and, rejoining his cab, he was driven to the station.

An hour later, with a neat parcel under his arm, he entered the South Kensington Museum, and asked for Professor Dudley.

"You're just in time, Mr. Blake," said the porter, "for he's sent for a cab to take 'im to Charing Cross, on 'is way to Hastings, and 'ere 'e comes now?"

"Good-morning, professor!" said Blake, accosting him. "My name is Blake—Sexton Blake, detective—and I desire a few minutes' conversation with you in private on a matter of most urgent importance."

Professor Dudley gave him a sharp glance, and Blake noted that his figure grew suddenly tense, and that his misshapen, knotty hand gripped on the bag he was carrying till the knuckles showed white as chalk. But his voice was even and emotionless as he replied a little testily:

"I'm sure I don't know what business you can have with me. I have just time to catch my train, so—"

"With your permission, I will accompany you in your cab," said Blake.

He strode along by the professor's side, and climbed into the hansom after him.

"Well, what is it?" snapped the professor, in a distinctly disagreeable tone.

"I have come to return you this," said Blake menacingly, and with a swift gesture he tore the wrapper off the parcel he was carrying and held up before the professor's eyes the little brown coffee-pot.

"You fool!" he snarled, turning on Blake the furious gaze of a trapped lynx. "You can prove nothing! Nothing!"

"You mistake, professor," said Blake composedly. "I saw your bared arm throw that coffee-pot out of the pavilion window a few minutes after Baxter gave his death shriek. You, unfortunately for you, left among the dregs in the coffee-pot the end of one of the fangs of the coral snake, whose venom-sac you removed, and administered to the betrothed of the woman you coveted. I have not the slightest doubt that I shall find in your bag, or on your person, such corroborative evidence as—shall we say—the gall-bag and fangs of the other snake you removed from the cage. Ah. I see from your face that I am right!"

He put up his hand and opened the trap.

"Go to Bow Street Police Station, cabbie!" he said.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
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.