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ANONYMOUS

THE TORTOISESHELL COMB

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Ex Libris

First published in
Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, 25 September 1909

Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
The Taranaki Daily News, New Zealand, 11 February 1910
(this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-12-10
Produced by Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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I.

"I WISH, you wouldn't wear that hideous thing, Marjory," said Stafford Alliston.

"Hideous? Why, it's exquisite," replied Marjory, his wife. The two had just risen from dinner, and were standing in front of the fireplace. They had only been married three months, and the gentle ways of the honeymoon had glided into the more strenuous postures of will-clash. By nature, each was vehement, eager, sure of self. If the man had not been masterful, vivid, and with something of the thundercloud in his great store of sheer force, he would not nave won Marjory Deordan, the beautiful daughter of old Mike Deordan, one-time moonlighter, and more lately millionaire, of Chicago.

The thing in question was a tortoiseshell hair-comb. It was liquid with color as an opal; it was about the size of a man's hand, and the top of it was entwined with a supple little viper, worked out in a scheme of gold links, enamel, and jewels. The head of the viper was composed of a single emerald, with eyes of rubies, and a mouth enamelled round a ruby-sheathed fang ready to strike, and it was so poised that the neck curved over the top bar of the comb, as if the head were in the act of darting down on the gracious crown of red-gold hair beneath it.

It was a weird, an unique ornament, and it had been very expensive. Old Mike had bought it at Christie's for something like twenty thousand pounds, and his daughter's affection for it was increased by the fact that it had been the property of Catherine de Medici.

"You are dreadfully fussy, Stafford," said Marjory. "If I gave way to all your whims, I should dress like a Puritan. But at present we have to go to Lady Ross's reception, and I'm going just as I am. Besides, you forget that your cousin is coming for us, and he particularly wanted to see this comb."

"Then he can see it better off your head," said Alliston stubbornly. "I hate the thing! It's sinister and unholy. Take it out, Marjory!"

"Certainly not!" said Marjory. "My hair is dressed specially for it. I am going to wear it!"

"I think not," said Alliston, careless that the butler had entered the room. "I shall lock the thing up. I don't believe it's safe."

"That's half the charm of it," said Marjory. "It's got a secret spring in it. One little touch, and the fangs dart out to kill. I think it's just lovely."

At a glance from his master's eye, the butler discreetly withdrew, and as discreetly left the door just ajar, so that he might miss nothing of the conversation.

"I hope you will be reasonable, dear," said Stafford, standing opposite his wife. "I mean to have my way in this matter."

"But your cousin wants to see it, and I promised to wear it," said Marjory.

"Let him want," said Alliston. "I'm not living up to my cousin's caprices. He may be a remarkably clever toxicologist, and I'll admit he knows Something of mediaeval times; but I'm not going to have my domestic affairs governed by his caprices. Take that comb out, and give it to me!" He held out his hand.

"I—will—not!" she said, tilting her chin at him to an angle that made her lips most disconcerting.

Rut Stafford Alliston was not a man to give way to sensations, however bewildering they might be. With a swift gesture, be passed one arm round his wife's waist, swayed her from her feet, plucked the comb deftly from her hair, and kissed her on the mutinous lips.

"You look charming," he laughed victoriously, as she faced him with her red-gold hair tumbling about her shoulders.

"You—you bully!" she cried.

Stafford Alliston dropped the comb into his pocket. "You'd better do your hair," he said coolly, "or we shall be late."

"Dr. Fordyce Alliston!" announced the butler.

"Gracious!" cried Marjory, and with a wild grab at her hair, and an indescribable glance at her husband, she fled from the room by a door at the further end.

II.

"IT'S a desperate kind of business, Mr. Blake." The speaker was Mr. Finn, the famous criminal lawyer, and he was seated in a chair facing Sexton Blake. He had arrived at the abnormally early hour of 7.30, and he had brought with him a copy of the morning paper, which contained an account of the "startling crime in Berkeley Square."

As he spoke, Mr. Finn unfolded the copy, and pointed to the article.

"I've seen it," said Blake impatiently. "It is useless for investigation purposes. You have the facts. Kindly state them."

"It's all so simple," said the lawyer. "Alliston is a very wealthy man. His wife is wealthy, too. He made his will yesterday, leaving everything he possessed to his wife. There was only one reservation. He left to his cousin, Dr. Fordyce Alliston, the sum of sixpence to pay for a telegram. I drew up the will myself, and you may imagine that that codicil puzzled me.

"'He'll understand it, Finn,' said my client, 'and there's no reason why anyone else should.'

"Last night, Alliston and his wife were due at a reception given by Lady Ross. They dined at their town house in Berkeley Square. After dinner, according to the evidence of the butler, there was a discussion between husband and wife as to whether she ought to wear a peculiar comb."

"The Medici death-comb!" interposed Blake. "I have some acquaintance with it. Pray proceed."

"I'd like to know what subject you haven't got some acquaintance with," growled Finn. "Anyhow, there it was, in madame's hair. An eccentric present of her father's. Alliston didn't like it. Told his wife she mustn't wear it. He took it, evidently by force, for when the butler announced Dr. Fordyce he saw Alliston tucking the comb into his pocket, and Mrs. Alliston bolting through a door at the far end of the dining-room, with her hair all disordered. Alliston and Fordyce adjourned to the library. Mrs. Alliston came downstairs ten minutes later, and took her brougham to the Ross's. She gave no explanation for going alone, and left no message.

"Alliston and Fordyce remained together, so far as the butler knows, for about an hour. Then Fordyce came out and called to Rinton—Rinton is the butler's name—that his master was ill. Rinton ran into the library. Alliston was stretched on a sofa, to all appearances lifeless. His own doctor was brought round, and declared life to be extinct.

"Mrs. Alliston returned from the Ross's about 11.30. When she heard the news she swooned. When she recovered from her swoon, her first enquiry was for her tortoiseshell hair-comb.

"It was at this juncture that Rinton virtually accused her of the murder of her husband. He said to her squarely, 'I heard what you said this evening, madam. You told the master that that beastly thing had a secret spring, and that if you gave a little touch the fangs would dart out and kill!'"

"That is very interesting," said Blake. "Of course, when they searched Mr. Alliston they found no trace of the comb?"

"That's just it," said Finn. "The comb wasn't on him. And we have only Mrs. Alliston's word that he ever took it. You see the point. There was evidently a violent quarrel. The butler overhears what, in light of subsequent events, must be interpreted as a menace. The wife goes out almost surreptitiously, and Alliston dies within the hour."

"And the comb disappears," said Blake softly.

"Ans there we are," said Finn, in a tragic tone. "And on the top of it there's that confounded will, which gives the widow everything. It's my personal opinion that Marjory Alliston worshipped her husband. But you know what juries are, Mr. Blake. I don't see how we are to get out of it."

"She is under arrest, I suppose?" said Blake.

"In her own house, virtually, yes," admitted Finn.

"Quite an interesting case," said Blake, rising.

"Let us go to Berkeley Square at once."

III.

ON arriving at the Allistons' house in Berkeley Square, the detective, introduced by the lawyer, was shown at once into the library, where the master of the house still lay. The police were in charge, and they eyed Blake with a supercilious derision. The butler showed the lawyer and the detective in, and Dr. Fordyce Alliston, the nearest relative of the stricken man, was present in the room.

It was a long, low room, oak-panelled, and relieved from the general tone of gloom by two or three silver mirrors, which occupied niches between bookcases. One of these mirrors was above the sofa whereon lay the body of Stafford Alliston.

Blake, bending over the body, happened to glance in it. The mirror showed him his own reflection, and above his head the heads of Dr. Fordyce and of Rinton, leaning towards each other in a moment's conference. It was but a second's glance; but to the skilled physiognomist it was very illuminative. For each face was graven with the same shadow of fear.

Blake stored up the impression and examined the man lying beneath him. He lifted an eyelid, and with a deft movement of the hand—invisible to all the others—he sprayed the eyeball from a syringe. There was a sensible quiver. Blake's eyes glowed as he turned towards Finn.

"I should like to see Mrs. Alliston," he said.

"I am afraid that is impossible," said Dr. Fordyce. "She is quite prostrated."

"That makes no difference," said Blake. "I must see her. Mr. Finn will oblige me by remaining here till I return. I'll be glad, Rinton, if you'll show me to Mrs. Alliston's room at once."

"Yes, sir," said Rinton.

"I'll wait with Finn," said Fordyce.

"Pray do," said Blake, with a glance at Finn that made the lawyer tremble. The detective followed the butler from the room and up the stairs into a pretty little boudoir.

"I will ascertain if madame can see you," said Rinton.

He turned, and was about to quit the room, when a sharp exclamation of alarm from Blake arrested him.

"Halt, man!" cried Blake. "You have a viper crawling on you!"

"A viper!" gasped Rinton. He stood stock-still, his hands splaying out in front of him, his eyes glassy in terror, his mouth wobbling loosely.

"'E's gone and done it!"

"Don't move!" said Blake. "I'll scotch it!"

He stepped forward gently, and with a rapid movement enlaced Rinton's wrists in a pair of handcuffs.

At the click of steel the butler was galvanised into sudden life. His terror dropped off him, and with a roar he flung himself on the detective. He was a powerful man, and, despite the fact that he was manacled, his iron fingers had curled round Blake's throat, and swayed him like a reed to and fro. Slowly the detective was pressed back against a table. He felt his brain bursting, the blood drumming in his ears.

Then Marjory Alliston stepped into the scene, and he saw her press a revolver on Rinton's neck, and heard her voice saying very softly: "Hands off, or I fire!"

The drumming and the suffocation and the torment melted away, and Sexton Blake rose to his feet.

"Hold him there!" said Blake. "There is no time to lose. We must get the other."

He bolted from the room and down the stairs. In another minute he had burst into the library. Lawyer Finn was in a deadly grip with Dr. Fordyce Alliston. The doctor had the lawyer by the throat with one hand, and with the other was scraping at his prisoner's face with the emerald head of the snake-girdled comb.

Blake measured his blow and gave it—a clear, clean right-hand swing on to the temple. And the doctor reeled to the floor, senseless.

Blake picked up the tortoiseshell comb gingerly, laid it on the table, then manacled the doctor's wrists, and slipped a running noose tightly round I his ankles.

"Got 'em both!" he said laconically. "Run upstairs, Finn, and bind Rinton. He's in Mrs. Alliston's boudoir. She's got him covered with a revolver. I'll be up in a minute. But I've something to do here first."

He bent over Stafford Alliston, and, drawing a hypodermic syringe from his pocket, he injected its contents into the neck of the senseless man. Then he stood and watched. His divination proved correct. In two minutes Stafford Alliston moved, muttered, and spasmodically sat up.

"We shall be infernally late, Marjory," he said, and then, staggering to his feet, stared at Blake, and stared sill harder at the comb on the table and his cousin on the floor.

"What the—" he began.

"A little family history," said Blake smoothly. "If you are well enough, we will take this"—he lifted up the comb with extreme care—"and join your wife upstairs, when I will explain."

"But Fordyce!" spluttered Stanford Alliston. "And who are you?"/p>

"I'm Sexton Blake," said the detective. "And your cousin tried to kill you, by the aid of your man Rinton. I've got Rinton upstairs."

They went up, leaving the doctor writhing. Finn had done his work well, and Mrs. Alliston was sitting on a sofa frankly sobbing.

She started up at the sight of her husband, gave a curious little cry, and tottered into his arms.


"HOW the dickens did you divine it, Blake?" asked Finn, when emotions had cooled down a little.

"Deduction," said Blake laconically. "I'd read the account before you came. As soon as I heard your story, I was convinced of the innocence of Mrs. Alliston. You gave me the tip in the codicil to Mr. Alliston's will.

"Fordyce and Rinton had been accomplices in the forging of a cheque purporting to be signed by Mr. Alliston. That sixpenny telegram that lost him a heritage was sent by Fordyce to his accomplice to tell him to attempt to pass the cheque. Evidently Mr. Alliston got hold of the telegram, but, for some reason—probably to avoid a scandal—chose to honor the cheque. But when he came to make his will, he cut his cousin out, only leaving him sixpence for the telegram, as an intimation that he knew all. Rinton was one of the witnesses to the will, and he evidently communicated the state of affairs to Fordyce before announcing him. In revengeful fury, Fordyce determined that his cousin should die, and only his miscalculation of the ; potency of the comb's poison frustrated his evil design.

"From that onwards it was all clear. Mr. Alliston thought he put the comb in his pocket. It slipped to the floor. Rinton picked it up and used it. And they intended to keep the 20,000 comb. Of course, I had to separate them, to grab them separately. That's why I went upstairs. Happily the poison was never meant to kill. It was a sleep poison, as I knew from my studies, and I came prepared with the antidote."

"How can I thank you, Mr. Blake?" murmured Mrs. Alliston.

Blake pointed to the sinister comb.

"Stamp on it!" he said.

She flung it to the ground and stamped on it.

"I was right after all," said Stafford Alliston.


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.