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ANONYMOUS

THE BLACK CAT

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover 2017



First published in Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, 20 February 1909
Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
Manawatu Times, New Zealand, 21 April 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-09-27
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.

WITH the exception of Mrs. Trevelyan and her son, and, possibly, the village constable—though he is doubtful—there was not a man, woman, or child in Penleven who did not believe that the outrages were the work of a particularly spiteful and malignant ghost. And, although one may laugh at the superstition of these simple Cornish fisher-folk, one is bound to confess that there were several features of the case which at first sight seemed incapable of any but a supernatural explanation.

James Ritchie, the local coast-guard, was the first victim of the "ghost." He was on night duty at the time, and was patrolling the cliffs on the north side of the bay. It was a pitch-dark night towards the end of January, and a strong and somewhat gusty breeze was blowing from the south-west. Snow had fallen earlier in the evening, and as Ritchie was the first to come this way since the snow had ceased, the path which ran along the edge of the cliffs was covered with a soft, white, fleecy carpet two inches thick, whose smooth and unbroken surface Ritchie's footprints were the first to mar.

He had reached a point about half a mile south-west of the village when suddenly he was startled to hear a wild, weird cry, which, in his own words, "froze his blood to the marrow of his bones." The cry appeared to come from some spot close behind him, but ere he could turn round he received a blow on the back of the head which caused him to stumble forwards and fall on his hands and knees.

The blow was so severe that Ritchie was partially stunned, and lay for several moments where he had fallen. When his scattered wits returned he scrambled to his feet and re-lit his lantern, which had been extinguished by his fall. And then came the mysterious part of the affair. Ritchie's assailant had disappeared; but, seeing that the ground, as already stated, was covered with a virgin mantle of fleecy snow, the coast-guard naturally expected to be able to give chase to his assailant by following his footprints in the snow. Imagine, therefore, his stupefied bewilderment when, though he examined the surface of the snow for fifty yards on each side of the spot where he had been struck, he failed to discover a single footprint except his own!

About the same time that Ritchie was assaulted in this mysterious fashion, the Rev. Mr. Trevelyan, the rector of Penleven, was returning to the rectory after visiting a sick parishioner in the village. A short-cut from the village to the rectory was across one of the glebe-fields, known as the Ten-Acre Pasture. In this field—which, of course, was carpeted with snow like the rest of the countryside—was an open shed, which served as a night-shelter for the rector's pony, which was always "turned out" for the winter.

Mr. Trevelyan had crossed this field on his way to the village to see his sick parishioner, and he crossed it again on his way back to the rectory. At least, he started to cross it; but, in consequence of something which happened when he was half-way across the field, he had not returned to the rectory when midnight struck.

When half-past twelve arrived and there was still no sign of the rector's return, his wife became uneasy. At one o'clock—by which time the moon had risen—she asked her son, Philip Trevelyan, to go down to the village and ascertain why his father was so long in coming back.

Philip Trevelyan, like his father, took the short-cut across the Ten-Acre Pasture. Half-way across the field he came upon the unconscious form of the rector lying face downwards in the snow, with an ugly wound on the back of his head. By his side stood the pony, shivering with pain and terror, and bleeding profusely from a horrible gash on the left side of its neck.

And again the only prints in the snow were those of the feet of the rector and his son and the hoofs of the pony!

Raising his father in his arms, Philip carried him up to the rectory. A doctor was sent for, and afterwards the village constable was communicated with. By that time Ritchie had also communicated with the constable; and by nine o'clock next morning the whole village knew that Ritchie had been assaulted, and the rector had been stunned, and his pony had been mutilated, by some mysterious assailant who was able to travel across the snow without leaving any footprints!

In view of these facts, and also considering that neither Ritchie nor tho rector had been robbed, the superstitious villagers had no hesitation in attributing the outrages to the machinations of a ghostly visitant. Needless to say, neither Mrs. Trevelyan nor Philip was content with this explanation; and when night came, and the investigations of the local police had failed to shed any light on the mystery, Mrs. Trevelyan wired for Sexton Blake.


II.

TRAVELLING by the night express, the detective arrived at Penleven about half-past one in the afternoon. By that time the pony had succumbed to its injuries; but the rector, though still unconscious, was, according to the doctor, progressing favourably, and likely to recover.

After listening attentively to Philip Trevelyan's story, the detective examined the dead pony, and afterwards, with the doctor's permission, examined the wound at the back of the rector's head. Then he asked to be taken to the field in which the outrage had been perpetrated.

The rector's son conducted him to the Ten-Acre Pasture, and showed him the exact spot where he had found his father.

"He was lying just here," he said, "with his right arm doubled under his head. He had apparently staggered forward a few paces before falling; but there were no signs of a struggle, and no footprints in the snow except his own. That red stain over there is where the pony was standing. She was bleeding profusely; but in her case, as in the ease of my father, the scoundrel who had attacked her had left no trace of his presence."

The snow in the neighborhood of the spot where the rector had been struck down had been trampled into slush by the feet of innumerable morbid sightseers. Beyond this trampled area, however, the field presented an unbroken surface of white and glistening snow. At least, the snow was white for the most part, but here and there, stretching in a line towards the north-east corner of the field, were several brownish-looking patches.

Sexton Blake walked over to one of these patches, and picked up a handful of discoloured snow. He examined it, rubbed it between his fingers, and nodded his head.

"Just what I expected," he muttered. "Le Chat Noir, without a doubt."

Philip Trevelyan caught the half-spoken words.

"Le Chat Noir?" he repeated, in a puzzled voice. "The Black Cat?"

"Yes," said Sexton Blake, with a smile. "The Black Cat— that's the explanation of the mystery. Now take me to see Ritchie."

They found the coast-guard at home, cleaning his accoutrements. He repeated the story he had told to the constable the night but one before, and readily consented to show the detective the spot where the "ghost" had assaulted him.

Here, again, the snow had been trampled into meaningless slush; and here again, not on the summit of the cliff, but on its sloping, snow-clad face, were several brownish patches similar to those which Sexton Blake had observed in the Ten-Acre Pasture.

"You were struck on the back of the head, I understand," said Sexton Blake to Ritchie. "Naturally, therefore, you did not see who struck you?"

"That's so," said Ritchie.

"Have you any idea what you were struck with?"

"It might have been a stick, or it might have been the butt-end of a revolver. Anyhow, it was something hard."

"Where were you when you were struck?"

"Just abreast of those bushes."

Sexton Blake strolled over to a clump of gorse-bushes growing on He very edge of the cliff. Drawing on his gloves, he groped amongst the bushes, and presently drew out a small mahogany, brass-bound box containing an aneroid barometer.

"This settles the matter, I think," he said quietly.

"Settles the matter?" gasped Philip Trevelyan. "Why I never! What do you mean?"

Before the detective had time to reply, a fisherman came running down the path, evidently in a state of great excitement.

"Please, Mr. Blake," he said, addressing the detective, "the doctor says will you please come to the Pollard Arms as quick as you can?"

"Why?" asked Sexton Blake.

"They've found another of 'em!" said the fisherman.

"They? Who?"

"Two of Sir John Pollard's gamekeepers, They was passing through Padley Wood about 'arf an hour ago when they came across the body of an unknown man lying in the snow. He was unconscious, an' one of his legs was broken, an' he was cut about' the 'ead something 'orrible. It must 'ave been the ghost what done it, because—"

He dropped his voice to an awed whisper.

"The keepers say," he said, "as there wasn't a single footprint in the snow for a hundred yards all round the man!"

"An unknown man, I think you said?" said Sexton Blake.

"Yes," replied the fisherman.

"A foreigner?"

"I don't know," said the fisherman. "But he's a big toff, anyhow, judgin' by his fur-lined coat, an' 'is diamond ring, an' 'is gold watch, an'—"

The detective turned to Philip Trevelyan.

"The owner of the Black Cat!" ho said, "Come along!"


III.

"MYSTERY?" said Sexton Blake; as he and Philip Trevelyan trudged through tho deepening dusk to the Pollard Arms. "There is no mystery. There never was. Surely what has happened is as clear as anything can be?"

"To you, perhaps," said Trevelyan. "To me, I confess, the whole affair is an inscrutable enigma."

The detective shrugged his shoulders.

"That is because you do not give your reason unfettered play," he said. "If you approached the problem in the same spirit as you would tackle a sum in arithmetic, the answer would suggest itself at once. You have only to exclude all those factors which fail to satisfy the conditions, and what remains, however improbable it may sound, is bound to be the true solution."

"Both Ritchie and your father," he continued, "were undoubtedly struck on the head by something, or somebody, which, or who was able to travel across the snow without leaving any footprint. Neither you nor I believe in ghosts, and a bird is out of the question. What, then, remains?"

Trevelyan shook his head.

"I don't know," he said.

"Yet you have heard of such things as balloons, I suppose?" said Sexton Blake.

Trevelyan started. "By Jove!" he said. "You think—"

"I don't think—I'm sure!" said Sexton Blake. "As soon as I had heard your story, I realised that a balloon was the only possible explanation. When I examined those brownish patches in the Ten-Acre Pasture, and found they were due to the presence of sand, my theory was confirmed. When I found that aneroid barometer, my theory ceased to be a theory, and became a certainty.

"Without a doubt, what happened the night before last was this," he went on. "Somebody in a balloon, which was probably partly deflated, was drifting across the English Channel. Suddenly he found himself in danger of being dashed against the face of the cliffs to the south-west of this village. Uttering that cry of alarm which Ritchie heard, he threw out some ballast and thereby caused those brownish patches on the snow-clad face of the cliff.

"In consequence of this manoeuvre, the balloon shot upwards, and cleared the edge of the cliff. As it did so it evidently lurched to one side, and that mahogany case containing the barometer, was thrown out. The case struck Ritchie on the back of the head, and afterward rolled into that clump of bushes. The balloon then drifted inland and floated over the Ten-Acre Pasture.

"What happened next," continued Sexton Blake, "is only conjecture, but conjecture, I think, which is founded on sound reasoning. The aeronaut's grapnel, I opine, was dangling from the car, and it was one of the flukes of the grapnel which caught the pony and inflicted that wound in her neck, and which afterwards struck your father and stunned him.

"Owing to the darkness," concluded the detective, "the occupant of the balloon did not see what happened. He only knew that his grapnel had caught on something which had failed to hold it. At the same time, probably, he saw the lights of the rectory in front of him, and, not wishing to be dashed against the walls of the house, he threw out the contents of another sandbag. Hence the line of brownish patches which we saw, stretching away towards the north-east corner of the field."

Trevelyan gazed at him admiringly.

"You have solved the mystery, without a doubt," he said. "But what was the meaning of your mysterious allusion to the Black Cat, and who is the unknown man who was found in Padley Wood?"

By way of reply the detective drew from his pocket a copy of that day's Daily Mail.

"Read that, and then you will understand," he said, handing the paper and his pocket electric lamp to Trevelyan, and pointing to a paragraph on the fifth page, which was headed:


The Fate of the Comte de Passy.
His Balloon Found near Exeter


There is no need to reproduce the paragraph in full. Suffice to say that it recounted how the Comte de Passy, a well-known Parisian aeronaut, had ascended in his balloon, which he had christened "Le Chat Noir"-i.e., "The Black Cat"—with the intention of attempting to cross the English' Channel; how the wind had backed to the east shortly after the ascent, with the result that the Comte had been blown out to sea; how the wind had afterwards veered round to the south-west, and had thereby given rise to a hope that the intrepid Comte might land somewhere in England, after all.


"Such hope, however, must now be abandoned," the paragraph concluded. "Early yesterday morning a derelict balloon was observed to be floating over Exeter. It eventually collapsed and fell into a field on the outskirts of the city. From papers and other evidence found in the car, no doubt remains that the balloon is Le Chat Noir."


"I read that in the train on my way down here," said Sexton Blake; "and after I had heard your story, and had satisfied myself that a balloon was responsible for the alleged attack on your father and the coast-guard, I had little hesitation in deciding that the balloon must have been that of the unfortunate Comte de Passy—especially as I knew that Penleven is due south-west of Exeter, so that a balloon drifting with the wind that was blowing the night before last would, after passing over Penleven, eventually reach Exeter."

"And the unknown man who was found in Padley Wood this afternoon?" asked Trevelyan.

"Is the Comte de Passy, no doubt," said Sexton Blake, "His balloon was apparently unmanageable when he reached the English coast, and after drifting over the Ten-Acre Pasture it must have lurched to one side again and thrown the Comte out, just as it had previously thrown the barometer out. Then, lightened by the loss of the Comte de Passy's weight, it bounded up into the air, drifted with the wind towards the north-east, and eventually settled down near Exeter."

"All of which sounds very plausible," said Trevelyan, "and is, no doubt, the truth, At any rate, we shall soon know whether you are right or not, for here is the Pollard Arms."

They turned into the only public-house which Penleven possessed. The doctor was coming downstairs and met them in the sanded front passage.

"Great news!" he said to Sexton Blake. "From papers found in my patient's pocket, we have discovered his identity. And who do you think he is?"

"The Comte de Passy," said Sexton Blake.

The doctor gasped.

"You—you must be a wizard!" he exclaimed. "How on earth did you know?"

How the detective knew, the reader already knows. For the rest, it is only necessary to say that both the rector and the Comte de Passy eventually recovered from their injuries, when Sexton Blake's theory of what had happened was proved to be as correct as if he had been an actual eye-witness of the whole affair.


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.