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.

ANONYMOUS

A BACK-ROOM MYSTERY

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover 2016



First published in Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, January 15, 1910
Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
The Daily News, Perth, Australia, March 4, 1910 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version Date: 2016-12-05
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.

"WELL, dear?"

"Hopeless!" It's as I said. "He won't even hear of It."

The two—man and girl—for, despite her nineteen years, she was little more—looked at each other, dismay and revolt in the girl's face, something very like despair in the man's.

It was nearly mid-day on a clear January morning. A hard, black frost made the ground like iron, and the sun—a sullen crimson disc in a leaden sky—looked down on the frost-bound landscape almost with an air of derision.

The girl—Professor Harkoff's niece—was dressed for walking, and her golden hair, bright blue eyes, and dazzlingly fair skin took a touch of added radiance from the severe toque and tight-fitting jacket of astrachan she was wearing. She had been waiting in the porch for nearly half an hour, while Geoffrey Hampden—secretary to her uncle—had been interviewing that formidable personage on the very important question of marrying his niece Norma, who was also the heiress to his extravagantly large fortune.

"He'll have to hear of it from me," said Norma, after a minute's mutinous silence. "I'm not going to be disposed of as he likes."

"You'll lose your time, Norma," said Hampden despondently. "He's adamant on the subject. He has given me a month's wages in lieu of notice, and I'm to clear out at once, and I believe he intends to send you to your aunt in Switzerland. He says you'll be one of the richest women in the world, and that I'm an impudent adventurer. I can tell you he's in a fine simmer. I wouldn't go near him now."

"We'll walk up and down the drive and talk it over," said Norma. "He'll never send you away," she went on, as they paced up and down the tree-raftered avenue that lay between the professor's villa and the high-road linking London and Hastings. "He has too much need of you. No new man could help him with those plans like you can."

"As to that," said Hampden gloomily, "he has no further need of me. The plans and specifications are finished. There is not a doubt that they make him master of the world. The country to whom he sells his aeroplane will be supreme."

"I wonder if he has ever reflected," said Norma, with bitter emphasis, "that you could have sold his plans ten times over?"

"We'll hardly discuss that," said the young man, rather stiffly.

"Dear! As if I don't know!" cried the girl, swaying to him, her eyes aglow with pride and tenderness. "But all the same he is an old brute, and I hate him, and what's more, I won't wait another minute. I'll go straight In now, and have it out with him. And if he won't consent I'll wait till I'm twenty-one, and marry you then whether he consents or not. And I'll let him know it."

"It's no use, Norma," cried Hampden, throwing out a restraining hand. But the girl evaded his grasp, threw back a merry laugh at him, and sped into the house.

Her face grew a little more sober as she reached the hall and gazed at the library door, behind which her uncle would be absorbed in his work. It was a door that in the mornings was shut on all the world save the professor's secretary, and even Norma had never dared till now to contemplate an intrusion on the student's labours.

But to-day she was primed for heroic efforts, and without so much as knocking she opened the door, and with chin tilted high, and eyes a-sparkle, marched into the room.

It was a long room, running practically the whole length of the villa, save for a small room at tho southern end, shut off by a glass door, and known promiscuously as "The professor's bedroom," or "the back-room." For here, near his beloved inventions, it was the professor's wont to pitch his bed. On the one hand, the room overlooked his treasures, while on the other it gave into a garden close whore he could wander at his will undisturbed, swinging his long arms, and muttering through his maze of abstruse calculations. His work-room itself had no windows, and was lit entirely, by electricity, so that once ensconced within it, he knew that he was shut off from the world and the myriad eyes of an inquisitive Press.

The girl, dazed a little by the brilliant glare of a hundred lights, paused some feet within the door, a little astonished withal that her entry, so brusque and unannounced, had not provoked a storm of anger from, her excitable relation.

The silence of the room seemed suddenly to invade her, and hold her nervous, fearful of she knew not what. The garishness of the light grew derisive, and she felt that if she did not do something quickly she must scream.

She took a step forward, then paused, with a gasp that hung strangled in her throat.

Her movement had brought her into the line of view of her uncle's desk and safe. The safe door was swinging wide open, and lying between it and the desk was her uncle's body, and the haft of a knife standing out from between the shoulder-blades.

The character of the girl rose to the emergency like a tired host to a bugle call.

She walked up to the body, and lifted the head. A glance sufficed to show even her inexperienced eye that the professor was dead. Her eyes wandered frozenly towards the safe. The shelf where he kept his plans was empty. A drawer in which he kept a large sum of money in notes and gold was lying upside down on the floor, among various despatch-boxes, likewise rifled. A sickly odor of oranges pervaded the atmosphere.

Suddenly a shudder ran through the girl, and she stood rigid, staring at the knife. The haft was of Milanese workmanship, and a silver plate in it bore tho name of Geoffrey Hampden.

Her heart went sick within her, and her tongue flickered over dry, shaking lips.

"Oh, heavens!" she moaned. "It can't be that!"

Her eyes fell on the glass door leading to the bedroom six feet away. She sprang at it, and looked at the lock. The key was on the inside, and turned. Then tho murderer must have come and gone by the front way, and she had been there ever since her lover had gone in to speak to the professor.

She looked around her swiftly, and with a furtive gesture stretched her hand out to withdraw the key.

Then she straightened herself, and her face grew-radiant.

"It is Impossible," she said. "He couldn't do such a thing. I will not disturb the truth, and the truth shall save us."


II.

SEXTON BLAKE had been at Hastings when the telegram summoned him to Professor Harkoff's house, half-way between Battle and the old fishing town.

The Rookery, as the professor's house was called, was in the Hastings district, and Inspector Jarkins, of that, force, found, on his arrival on tho scene, that Blake had already been there half an hour, had heard the story Miss Harkoff repeated to himself, and had gone, not ten minutes ago, to make his investigations in the fatal room.

Jarkins found Blake squatted on the floor before the safe, examining, through a lens, a japanned tin box, which he held gingerly by its extreme edge, and from time to time sniffled at, his brow wrinkled the while in a puzzled frown.

The inspector watched him pick up another despatch box and the cash drawer, and, subject them to the same process.

Blake rose from the ground and examined the safe and desk, sniffing at them in the same peculiar way he had practised with the despatch boxes. Then he bent over the dead man's mouth and sniffed at that, and there was a curiously eager light in his eyes as he advanced on Geoffrey Hampden, and seizing his hands, examined them inch by inch under his lens.

He gave a grunt of satisfaction, dropped the secretary's hand, and looked hard at Miss Harkoff.

"I wonder if you could tell me," he said, "exactly how many oranges were sent to your uncle's room this morning, and at what time?"

"Certainly!" said Miss Harkoff. "I prepared them myself. There were five on the plate, and the professor's own man, Bayliss, took them in at a quarter-past eleven exactly."

"Thank you!" said Blake. "One more question. For how long has your uncle been suffering from earache?"

"He complained of it last night for the first time," said the girl. "He said, he would see Dr. Bernstein this morning about it."

"Dr. Bernstein was the gentleman who was leaving as I came?" queried Blake.

"The same," replied the girl. "As I told you, he looked in in answer to uncle's 'phone message to him this morning, and—-"

"Agreed with you," interposed Blake, "that in view of the clear case of death, he saw no necessity for a post mortem?"

"Yes," said the girl, flushing slightly.

Blake nodded, and turning to the Inspector shook hands, as if he had that moment seen him for the first time.

"Uncommonly interesting case this, Jarkins," he said pleasantly. "There are one or two points about it that make it really quite out of the common."

"Seems to me about the simplest thing I've ever come across," said the inspector bluntly, with a glance at Hampden, the significance of which he made the attempt to veil.

Blake drew mm aside.

"That's the wrong track, Jarkins," he said solemnly. "I give you my word for it. If you arrest that man now, you'll be ready to bite your tongue off for it by dinner-time, You know me well, enough to understand that I do not speak lightly, or without evidence."

"I'll take my chance of that," said the Inspector stubbornly. "If he's not the man, I'd like you to tell me who is."

"I'll tell you that in a few hours' time," said Blake slowly. "Meanwhile, all I can tell you of him is this. He is probably about five foot four; his finger ends and, very likely, the coat cuff of his right sleeve are stained with orange juice. Underneath the thumbnail of his right hand there are—or were two hours ago—particles of dark green paint, and on the cushion of his right thumb-tip there is a small triangular scar or recent scratch, such as might be made by a fall against barbed wire."

Tho inspector stared at him for a moment, then guffawed:

"Gammon!" he said rudely. "Gammon and moonshine!"

For a moment Blake's eyes blazed at him, then he swung quietly on his heel, saying drily:

"Have it your own way, then!"

But he had counted without Norma Harkoff, who abruptly stepped in front of him, her cheeks burning, and her eyes blazing with excitement and indignation.

"No!" she cried passionately. "He shall not have it his own way. You are here to find out the truth, Mr. Blake, and not to give way to that man's overweening vanity. If you can prove what you say, even he dare not arrest my betrothed. But if you do not— Look! You can see for yourself. He is all but arrested now!" And she pointed to the policeman standing vigilant at Hampden's elbow.

"It would have been a question of hours only." said Blake. "But it shall be as you will. The matter is quite simple. The murderer, whoever he was, was not Mr. Hampden. He was a man not over five feet four. Witness the top shelf of that safe, to reach which he had to stand on an inverted, despatch box."

"How do you know he even looked there?" sneered Jarkins.

"Because," replied Blake calmly, "he has taken care to wipe the finger-prints he would have left with the orange peel he held in his right hand. The idea was evidently an afterthought. But he has applied it to everything he could touch. There is nothing he could have touched that he has not cleaned with orange peel, even to the haft of the knife in the dead man there. Hampden however, has not a trace of orange peel on his fingers. My initial examination had brought me to this inference, when I was attracted by the sight of a pip near the glass door there, I found on the handle of the key the same traces. I also found on the other end of the key the ring mark, showing that the key had been turned with pliers from the other side. In the grate in the back-room I found this piece of half-charred orange peel. It had sunk between the side of the fireplace and a piece of half-charred coal. It retains a faithful imprint of a man's thumb, with a triangular scar In the tip; and, as you may see, various particles of green paint still adhere to the inside of the orange. On the handle of the outside door, leading into the garden there is a similar thumbprint, and one or two similar particles of paint—enough to afford a valuable clue."

"H'm!" grunted the inspector. "Very ingenious, no doubt, But what's to prove that Mr. Hampden here didn't first kill the old gentleman, and after doing all you say, pass tho booty to an accomplice in the garden, clean up his hands, and join Miss Harkoff?"

"There is no triangular scar on his thumb," said Blake, "I propose," he continued, "to go and look for a newly-painted fence into which someone has run this morning. I shall be back in an hour or less."


III-

IT was in less than a quarter of an hour that Blake was back. He was breathless from running, and he almost swept the party from the hall into the police motor-car which had brought the inspector, and had been waiting since his arrival.

"Hastings! As hard as you can pelt!" he panted, then subsided into silence, and refused to speak a word till the car put them down a few yards from one of the largest hotels on the Esplanade of the seaside town.

He ran up the steps into the hotel, followed by the others, who were anxious to discover the explanation of the detective's apparent eagerness.

"You have two gentlemen here, lunching In a private room," he said sharply to the manager; who came anxiously forward.

"Yes, sir," said the manager; "but they have given orders—"

"In the name of the law!" snapped Blake. "Lead the way. They'll be desperate," whispered Blake to Jarkins, "and we'll, have our work cut out to take them without coming to harm ourselves. It must be a quick rush, and no softness."

And such it was. There was a sharp, desperate struggle, but the two lunchers were borne to the ground and handcuffed before they had time to realise what was happening.

"That is the murderer of Professor Harkoff!" said Blake coolly, indicating the smaller of the two men. "You can see the orange stain and the paint on his finger ends now. The other is Lieutenant Felcher of the Austrian service, his accomplice on all counts. The plans and money you will find in Dr. Otto Bernstein's bag there, which he is eyeing so anxiously. It was a bad job for you, doctor, when you banged into Mrs. Prawl's newly-painted fence this morning. You can take them away, inspector."


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.