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ANONYMOUS

THE PLASTER SAINT

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Ex Libris

First published in
Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, 20 March 1909

Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
Taranaki Daily News, New Zealand, 8 May 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-11-17
Produced by Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

Click here for more Sexton Blake stories


I.

IT was the same Father Benn who figured so prominently in the case of "The Blue Line." He had been called out, in the small hours of the morning, to administer the last rites of the Church to a dying member of his flock; and, at the time, he was on his way to the presbytery, situated on the outskirts of the little Yorkshire fishing village of Rocksby.

The time of year was mid-September, the hour a quarter to five. The night had been dark and sultry, without a breath of wind, and there had been a heavy shower of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, about half-past three. But it was gloriously fine now.

Suddenly, in a narrow, deserted lane, about half a mile from the presbytery, the priest perceived the body of a man lying, face downwards, in the middle of the roadway. There was a scorched wound on the left side of the head, and he had evidently been lying there an hour at least, for he was literally soaked to the skin, and there had been no rain since half-past three.

The man was an utter stranger to Father Benn. He appeared to be about twenty-right or thirty years of age, and was dressed in a rather shabby suit of dark-blue serge. A curious fact was that he had neither hat nor cap; and still more curious fact was that there was lying by his side—as if he had dropped it when he had fallen—a plaster-of-Paris image of St. Peter, roughly fashioned, and nine or ten inches long.

There was a farmhouse at the end of the lane. Procuring help from this farmhouse, Father Benn conveyed the unknown man and his plaster image to the presbytery. He then sent for the doctor and the police.

The doctor's verdict was that the man had been shot at close quarters, but the bullet had glanced off the bone, stunning the man, but otherwise inflicting no serious damage. He opined that several days would elapse before the man recovered consciousness, but that he would pull through in the end. The police failed to find any clue to his identity, and there, for two days, the matter rested.

II.

SHORTLY after midnight on the second day a nun whom Father Benn had engaged to nurse the man walked to the bedroom window, for no particular purpose, and drew aside the blind. No sooner bad she done so than, by the deceptive light of the stars, she saw the shadowy figure of a man in a howler hat climb over the fence which divided the presbytery ground from an adjoining field.

So suspicious were the movements of this man that the nun immediately hurried round to the door of Father Benn's bedroom, roused him from his slumbers, and told him what she had seen. And she had barely concluded her story when they heard a tinkle of broken glass.

Barefooted, and in his dressing-gown, the priest crept noiselessly downstairs. A feeble glimmer of light was streaming under the sitting-room door. Somebody was stealthily moving to and fro in the room. Scarcely daring to breath, the priest stole up to the outside of the door, then suddenly flung it open. A sturdy, thick-set man, the upper half of whose face was concealed by a black velvet mask, was standing in front of the fireplace, with an electric torch in his hand. He had evidently been searching for the plaster Image of St. Peter, which Father Benn had placed on the mantelpiece. He had just found it when the priest burst into the room.

With a stifled cry of alarm, the man spun round on his heel and sprang to the open window. Quick as thought. Father Benn leaped on him from behind and tried to drag him down. In the struggle which ensued, the man lost his howler hat and dropped the plaster image. Finally, with a vicious backward kick, he forced the priest to release his hold on him; then he vaulted through the window and was quickly out of sight.

At daybreak Father Benn telegraphed for Sexton Blake.

III.

THE doctor happened to be dressing the man's wound when Sexton Blake arrived. Being allowed to inspect the wound, the detective at once expressed his dissent from the doctor's theory.

"This is no bullet-wound," he said.

"Well, between you and me," said the doctor frankly, "I'm beginning to doubt it myself. Yet the hair all round the wound was singed, and the skin was scorched and blackened—exactly as if he had been shot at close quarters. If it isn't a bullet-wound, what is it?"

"The man," said Sexton Blake, "was struck by lightning and rendered unconscious."

The detective then examined the man's clothes—a blue surge suit, a cotton shirt, a pair of woollen pants, a vest, and a pair of socks. Although they had been hanging up to dry for three whole days, they were still quite damp, and the fabric had a distinctly "sticky" feel.

To the surprise of the doctor and the priest, the detective put a corner of the coat into his mouth as if to taste it.

"It wasn't rain that soaked him to the skin," he said. "It was sea-water. You can both taste and feel the salt in his clothes. He must have been in the sea—and for a considerable time, too, before you found him."

"But the spot where I found him was a good half-mile from the sea."

"Can't help that," said Sexton Blake. "There's no disputing facts. Now, may I see that plaster image and that bowler hat?"

The plaster image was soon disposed of. Although the detective examined it most carefully, he failed to derive any fresh information from his examination.

The hat was a rather battered howler and in the centre of the crown was a gilt-lettered label hearing the words "Best London Make."

"Not much clue about that," said Sexton Blake.

He turned down the leather band which ran round the inside of the hat and no sooner had he done so than a folded piece of paper fluttered out.

He unfolded the paper, and found it was the half of an old envelope. The envelope was addressed, but the upper half containing the name and stamp had been torn off. All that remained of the address was:

"s.s. Pimpernel,
Queen's Dock,
Capetown."


TEN minutes later a telegram was on its way to London asking for full particulars including the present whereabouts of all ships registered at Lloyd's in the name of Pimpernel.

The answer came in about an hour's time. There were three Pimpernels registered at Lloyd's. One was laid up at Hamburg; the second was on the way home from Rio de Janeiro; the third, which was owned by Messrs Marley and Co. of Newcastle had arrive at that port from Capetown on Tuesday morning!

"No. 3 is our ship," said Sexton Blake, showing the telegram to Father Benn. "Now I must run up to Newcastle am interview Messrs. Marley and Co. And if you have no objection," he added, "I'll take this plaster image with me."

"Have you formed any theory?" asked Father Benn.

"I have," said Sexton Blake. "If the Pimpernel arrived at Newcastle on Tuesday morning, she must have passed this place on Monday night. That's clear, isn't it?"

"Quite," said Father Benn.

"Very well," said Sexton Blake, "I believe this man and this plaster image were both on board the Pimpernel on Monday night. I believe that, for some reason, this man was bent on stealing the image; and I believe that, with this object in view, he quietly dropped overboard whilst the vessel was passing Rocksby, swam ashore, and was walking down that lane, carrying the plaster image, when he was struck by lightning and rendered unconscious.

"I further believe," he continued, "that another man on board the Pimpernel was equally anxious to secure possession of the image. I believe the second man—the man in the bowler hat—saw an account of your discovery in the papers on Wednesday morning, and thus learned that the man who had stolen the image was lying unconscious at your house. I believe this second man came down to Rocksby on Wednesday night, broke into the presbytery and was in the act of making off with the image when you disturbed him.

"Such is my theory," he concluded; "but why these two men should be desperately anxious to get possession of a plaster image which isn't worth more than a few pence, I must confess I can't imagine. Possibly Messrs. Marley and Co. may be able to enlighten me."

A quarter of an hour later he was in the train, on his way to Newcastle.

IV.

"I UNDERSTAND that one of your steamers, the Pimpernel, arrived here from Capetown last Tuesday morning," said Sexton Blake to Mr. Marley, the senior partner of the firm. "Was anybody reported missing?"

"Yes," said Mr. Marley, in obvious surprise. "When the ship arrived, Captain Winspear reported that the chief mate, Mr. Hancock, had mysteriously disappeared some time during Monday night. Have you any news of him?"

"I rather think so," said Sexton Blake. And he described the man who was then lying unconscious at Father Benn's.

"That's the man!" cried Mr. Marley excitedly. "That's Hancock! Poor follow! He must have fallen overboard, swum ashore, and afterwards been struck by lightning."

"I hardly think he fell overboard," said Sexton Blake. And he told Mr. Marley of the plaster saint, and the attempt which had been made to steal it.

"The burglar, you say, was a sturdy, thick-set man?" said Mr. Marley. "He wore a bowler hat, inside which was part of an envelope addressed to him at Capetown. Do you know, I'm afraid—in fact, I'm almost sure—the burglar must have been Captain Winspear. Your description exactly fits him; and I know for a fact that he left Newcastle on Wednesday evening, and didn't return until yesterday afternoon. However, He's coming here to-day, so you'll be able to question him for yourself."

"In the meantime," said Sexton Blake, "you can throw no light on the mystery of this saint?"

"I can't," said Mr. Marley. "At least—"

He hesitated, and wrinkled his brow.

"About six weeks ago." he continued, "a Kaffir working in one of the mines near Barkley West, in South Africa, stole a very large uncut diamond, and made off with it. He tried to sell it in Capetown, but the man to whom he offered it detained him and sent for the police. Before the police arrived, however, the Kaffir managed to escape, and signed on as a fireman on the Pimpernel.

"The Pimpernel had sailed for Newcastle when the police made this discovery, and as she was not to call at any intermediary port, there was no way of communicating with her. Accordingly, the South African police cabled to Scotland Yard, and when the Pimpernel arrived here on Tuesday morning, a couple of detectives went aboard to arrest the Kaffir.

"But, it appears that the Kaffir died a few days after the steamer left Capetown, and was buried at sea."

"And the stolen diamond?"

"Nobody on board, of course, knew anything about the diamond; and, although the detectives searched every nook and cranny of the ship, they failed to find any trace of it."

The detective pondered for a moment, then he startled Mr. Marley by picking up the plaster saint and dashing it to the ground.

Needless to say, the image broke into a score of fragments. Embedded in one the fragments was a small metal box, such as sailors use for matches. Opening this box, the detective draw out a wad of cotton-wool. He unrolled the wool, and then, with a smile and a bow, he handed Mr. Marley a large uncut diamond.

The next moment the clerk announced: "Captain Winspear!"

At the sight of the broken image on the floor, at the sight of the stone in Mr. Marley's hand, at the sight of Sexton Blake, Captain Winspear staggered back, with the low, despairing cry of a hunted animal at bay. Then his hand flew to his pocket: but, even as he drew the revolver out—with intent, do doubt, to turn it on himself—the detective seized his wrist in a vice-like grip and wrenched the weapon from his grasp.

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

And Captain Winspear told them:

"The Kaffir accosted Hancock and me on the wharf one night," he said. "He told us about the stolen diamond, showed it to us, and offered to share the plunder with us if we'd give him a berth aboard the Pimpernel and take him to England.

"We accepted his offer, and next day he was signed on as a fireman. He gave me the diamond to take care of until we reached England. A week later he died, and was burled at sea.

"Hancock and I agreed to keep the secret to ourselves and to share the proceeds of the sale of the stone between us. It was Hancock's idea to hide it in that plaster image.

"Just after we had passed Rocksby on Tuesday morning I missed the image. Hancock had mysteriously disappeared. Then I knew what had happened. The scoundrel had stolen the image, dropped overboard, and swum ashore.

"On Wednesday morning I saw in the papers that an unknown man had been found unconscious near Rocksby, and that a plaster image had been found lying in the road by his side. As soon as I read this, of course, I knew that the man was Hancock, and so—and so—But need I continue?"

"No," said Sexton Blake; "we know the rest. And we will hand this stone to the police for the present."


THE END


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.