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First published in The Royal Magazine, April 1907
in the series "The Quests of Paul Beck"

Collected in The Quests of Paul Beck,
T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1908

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2021
Version Date: 2021-11-09

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"The Quests of Paul Beck,"
with "Trifles Light as Air"



M. McDonnell Bodkin

Irish barrister and author of detective and mystery stories Bodkin was appointed a judge in County Clare and also served as a Nationalist member of Parliament. His native country and years in the courtroom are recalled in the autobiographical Recollections of an Irish Judge (1914).

Bodkin's witty stories, collected in Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (1900) and Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1898), have been unjustly neglected.

Beck, his first detective (when he first appeared in print in Pearson's Magazine in 1897, he was named "Alfred Juggins"), claims to be not very bright, saying, "I just go by the rule of thumb, and muddle and puzzle out my cases as best I can."

...In The Capture of Paul Beck (1909) he and Dora begin on opposite sides in a case, but in the end they are married. They have a son who solves a crime at his university in Young Beck, a Chip Off the Old Block (1911).

Other Bodkin books are The Quests of Paul Beck (1908), Pigeon Blood Rubies (1915), and Guilty or Not Guilty? (1929).

Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, Steinbrunner & Penzler, 1976.


IT was written in a neat, feminine hand that contrasted strangely with its purport; not a letter out of place, not a comma missed, not an "i" undotted or a "t" uncrossed. Mr Beck read the note for the third time with a frown of perplexity on his good-humoured face.

"Dear Sir,"—it ran—

"I feel I have no right whatever to trouble you, and cannot complain if you throw my letter aside. But from what I have heard and read about you it seems just possible that you will help, and the chance, however remote, is worth taking. There has been a terrible murder here. Squire Ackland has been shot through the heart. His nephew, Mr Richard Ackland, was found guilty of murder at the Coroner's inquest to-day, and everyone says the evidence was conclusive. But the Rev. Archdeacon Greaves believes him innocent, and he has had the best opportunity of judging. I am sure he would be anxious that the matter should be placed in your hands. But I have not told him I am writing, lest you should refuse.

"Yours faithfully,

"Alice Dale."

"P.S.—The railway station is Woodland, on the Great Southern Line. The rectory is a mile and a half from the station. I have no money to pay you."

"Now what does it all mean?" pondered Mr Beck. "The girl wants me down on her own account. She has some strong interest in Mr Richard Ackland. What is it—for or against? Who is she, anyway, and where does the parson come in? She must be a remarkable girl who could write so precisely on such a subject. A wonderfully cool card! and she has written just the letter that would bring any man down."

The direction on the letter was a hamlet, half town, half village, in a remote part of Gloucestershire. For reasons that will be appreciated it is better not to be too precise about name or locality.

Mr Beck sent a wire: "down by next train, arrive two"—and went on deliberately with his substantial breakfast, pausing every now and then for another look at the letter, pulling the tangle about in his mind to loosen the knots.

"What's her little game, I wonder? Clergyman doesn't know she was sending for me. Did she want him to know? Was she afraid he'd stop her if he got the chance? He believes in the young man's innocence. She says nothing about herself. Does she want the young man cleared or hanged? Did love or spite make her send that letter? Well, I'll know that when I go down—a girl cannot keep a secret."

THE railway station was a rural cottage at the end of a short branch line, which had stopped disheartened about a mile and a half outside the village. Mr Beck left his bag at the station with the stout, good-humoured, elderly man that was a compromise between porter and stationmaster. He walked to the village through a deep lane carpeted at the borders with wild flowers, and fenced with high green walls of hawthorn sprayed with white blossoms, and alive with the chirping and flutter of birds.

A quarter of a mile from the village he passed by the girls' school, a red-tiled and narrow-windowed cottage, smothered in creepers and built on the verge of a clear, shallow stream. A murmur of fresh young voices poured out through the open window into the spring air, to mingle with the babbling of the brook and the bird-songs. A little further the ground, steeply sloping, lifted him over the red-roofed village which nestled in the valley. The pointed spar of the village church sprang up through the trees sharp and clear in the pure air. To the right the gables and turrets of a red-brick Elizabethan building showed over the billowy woods.

Mr Beck felt the tranquillising beauty of the scene keenly, though he would have found it hard to put his feelings in words.

"Rum scene for a murder," was his prosaic comment as he strode on in the direction of the church, rightly guessing he would find the vicarage in its shadow.

If he doubted his welcome there the doubt was quickly removed. The vicar met him at the gate that led, through a shaven lawn dotted with lilacs, laburnum and standard rose bushes, to the vicarage—a delightful, old-fashioned place made up chiefly of gables and bow windows.

Just for one moment a look of surprise flitted over the vicar's handsome face as he caught sight of the genial, innocent-looking visitor, so different from what he expected.

"I have the pleasure of meeting——?" He hesitated.

"Mr Beck," responded the other. "Don't look much like a detective, do I? But I'm lucky sometimes, and it's better to be lucky than clever."

The vicar shook his hand heartily.

"My dear sir, I'm charmed to meet you. I've heard of you, of course—who has not heard of Mr Beck? I was delighted when Miss Dale told me she had written to you and brought me your telegram to say you were coming down. Sad affair this, Mr Beck—so sudden and so mysterious!"

"Not much mystery," said Mr Beck, "if we are to judge by Miss Dale's account. The jury found the case clear."

"I trust you will reserve your judgment, my dear sir. You mustn't judge wholly by the bald facts; you must know the people as well; but I am forgetting my hospitality; lunch is waiting."

FROM the first moment he laid eyes on that handsome, intellectual face, Mr Beck knew that he had seen the vicar before. But they had passed from the soup to the cutlets in a pleasant little tête-à-tête luncheon before his memory found the man. Perhaps the quaint Indian trophies in the low-panelled room, grotesque idols, wrought brass and silver filigree, helped his memory.

"If I mistake not," he said, "I have the honour of lunching with the Rev. Ernest Greaves, the famous Indian missionary."

Mr Greaves was plainly pleased with the recognition, though he waved away the praise with a deprecatory white hand.

"I heard you speak in London, sir, on your return from the massacre," Mr Beck went on smoothly. "I was never so impressed with anything in my life. I had a word afterwards with the woman whose life you saved. I am honoured to meet you again, Mr Greaves, but I certainly never hoped to encounter you in a quiet Gloucestershire vicarage."

"Lord Ripondale is responsible for that," said Mr Greaves; "we will drink his health, if you don't mind; you'll find this Madeira tolerable. I have never set eyes on him to this hour, but he wrote to me to say that he 'liked a priest with pluck,' and offered me the living—eight hundred a year and a charming residence, as you see. The contrast is curious from the hourly perils of India. I have been here now for nearly two years, and there hasn't been a ripple of excitement on the current of our daily lives until this lamentable affair."

"Was it far from here the thing happened?"

"A couple of miles. If you have quite finished your lunch, Mr Beck, we might visit together the scene of the tragedy. We can talk as we walk and smoke if you care to."

Mr Beck declined the vicar's offer of a cigar. He took a stumpy briar-root pipe from his pocket and charged it with his own special mixture. The vicar talked as they walked, and Mr Beck smoked and listened in stolid silence.

The detective noticed that the vicar walked a little lame and leant on a thick malacca cane with a curved ivory handle. "An arrow in the foot," the vicar explained, "and poisoned at that. One of the converts sucked the wound and died of the venom. The foot still aches a little at odd times, and I never stir out without a stick if I can help it."

Though the scene of the murder was only two miles from the vicarage, by the time they had got there Mr Beck knew all the vicar had to tell of the tragedy and the actors in it.

Squire Ackland, he learnt, was a middle-aged bachelor whose reputation was none of the best—a man of domineering character, with the characteristic vices and virtues of the aristocrat. He was overbearing, reckless of other people's rights or wishes, harsh to the verge of cruelty if thwarted.

On the other hand he was courageous, generous when pleased, and brutally candid. He specially prided himself on his truthfulness. "I never funked a danger or broke a promise, for good or ill," he had once boasted. But, as a rule, he was not given to boasting. He was unpopular in the neighbourhood, for he had scant regard for man's honour or woman's virtue, and he always carried a revolver, which he could use on occasion with deadly skill.

His nephew and heir, Richard Ackland, if the vicar was not prejudiced in his favour, was a vast improvement on the uncle, whom still in many ways he resembled. He, too, was of a domineering spirit, but he was neither selfish nor cruel, and was specially chivalrous to women.

In courage and candour he rivalled his uncle. Indeed, his recklessness was a proverb. No sport attracted him that had not danger in it. He was generally known as "Dare-Devil Dick."

"A conflict between two such men," the vicar said, "was bound to be violent; for the occasion and result of that quarrel I am in some degree responsible."

"For the murder?" queried Mr Beck, imperturbably.

"Well, remotely, if we can call it a murder. I am responsible for bringing those two imperious, fiery-tempered men into violent conflict. Some months ago there was a vacancy in the position of village schoolmistress. The matter was left in my hands. I engaged a young girl whose mother I had once known. The girl was a lady by birth, but had fallen into straitened circumstances, and was glad to take the position. The fact that I happened to be vicar of the parish was, I may say, an inducement: for her mother, when dying, had commended her to my care. I had never even seen the girl at the time, but I felt for her as a father might.

"These details may seem irrelevant, Mr Beck," the vicar interrupted himself, "but you will find they have a bearing on the problem you have to solve. I will say nothing about the appearance of the young girl, Alice Dale. You will have an opportunity of judging for yourself. But I may say that, in my judgment, she is one of the sweetest and purest of women, incapable of evil. I fear I weary you by my prosiness; I suppose it's the way with us parsons, but I will try to get to the end.

"Before the girl was a week here it chanced that both the uncle and nephew met her, and both fell desperately in love, but in a very different fashion. The nephew, headstrong and passionate as ever, wooed her like a gentleman to be his wife, but I understand—that is, I believe—got scant encouragement.

"The uncle—but I need not go into details. You will understand. It is hard to have to say harsh things of the dead, but he was a reprobate who scoffed alike at religion and at the virtue of women. Alice Dale was young and guileless; she scarcely knew his meaning when he spoke to her. But the warning instinct of virtue protected her.

"Something of his uncle's vile pursuit of the girl came, however, to the ears of the nephew. There was a stormy interview between the two. Both told me of it afterwards, and strangely enough their version was the same. The uncle made no secret of his purpose. The young man was furious with the elder, and raged and threatened to no purpose.

"'You young fool,' was the cynical, savage answer to all his protests, 'cannot you see it is to your interest I shouldn't marry! Lucky for you I don't want to. Go get a wife for yourself if you choose. I'll double your allowance; I'll treble it when you marry. But you must leave this young schoolmistress to me. You've got to stand out of my way, young man, or I'll cut you off with a shilling. Then, if you please, ask the girl to marry you, and live together on your debts.'

"The young man turned pale—'the colour of a corpse, egad!' the uncle told me afterwards, 'and swore he would have my life if I hurt a hair of her head. Well, I don't want to hurt a hair of her head, so that's all right, I told him—eh, parson, I don't want to shock your reverence, so you had best wink the other eye if you find your schoolmistress and myself philandering.'

"Now comes the exciting part of the story."

Mr Beck's face was as inscrutable as ever.

"Yesterday as I was strolling through this wood—a favourite walk of mine—thinking out next Sunday's sermon, I came suddenly on the squire, sitting on that fallen tree yonder, smoking. I was passing with a curt 'good day,' when suddenly the thought flashed upon me what he was waiting for. Alice Dale used to pass that way every afternoon from the school to the cottage in the village where she lodged. He waited there to meet her alone. I was determined he should not have the chance.

"'By the way, squire,' I said, as politely as I could manage, 'there is a matter I want to consult you about. Your tenant, Giles Cossing, is down with fever, and I heard to-day when I called that two of his children have caught it. I understand that he is behindhand with his rent. Now I am quite sure that, knowing the circumstances, you——'

"'All right, parson,' he broke in rudely. 'Talk to me about it some other time. Confound it, man! don't you see I'm busy, and I don't want to be disturbed?'

"But I was not to be turned from my purpose. I affected to take his words as a jest.

"'Very well,' I replied lightly, 'I won't disturb you while you are so busy. It is a pleasant spot for a quiet smoke. I'll try a cigar myself, and when you have finished your business you'll let me have a word with you about Giles Cossing.'

"I found a seat at the further end of the fallen tree and lit a cigar. He growled out a curse between his teeth and glared at me like a wild beast. For a moment I thought he would strike me, but I carried this heavy stick, and I was not in the least afraid. For ten minutes we sat and smoked in silence. Then he gave in. 'Say what you've got to say quick, and go.'

"'I'm afraid it will take some time,' I said. He was quick to understand.

"'So that's the reason,' he snapped out.

"'Yes,' I replied, 'I mean to wait here till she comes, and walk with her to her lodgings.'

"'Aha, parson!' he cried with a laugh like a snarl, 'is that the way of it? Have you a sweet tooth too, like the rest of us?'

"I confess I almost lost my temper then; my grip tightened on my stick, but a missionary, Mr Beck, learns self-control.

"'She is coming,' I said, for I heard a distant step in the wood. He got up slowly and knocked the ashes from his pipe, rapping the edge viciously against the rough bark of the fallen tree. His face wore an ugly smile. I saw he had some plan in his mind—what it was I shall never know.

"A moment later I knew it was not Alice Dale's step I heard. It was too heavy and too hasty. At the same moment I read in his eyes that the squire knew who was coming.

"Young Richard Ackland broke through the trees into the opening. He was in a furious rage, beside himself with passion, and glared at his uncle, who mocked him with a smile of utter contempt. I could see the young fellow was as mad as a dog that strains on his chain. He caught sight of me as I stood a few yards apart from the squire.

"'I'm very glad to see you here, Mr Greaves. I want a witness to all that passes between this man and myself. He has offered the vilest insults to Miss Dale. I cannot repeat what he has said to her.'

"'Don't worry, old chap,' chimed in the squire, 'parson knows.'

"'And he still associates with you?'

"'Well, I would not call it association exactly. He insisted on staying here in spite of me. He wanted to play the watch-dog to gentle Alice.'

"'You were here lying in wait for Miss Dale?'

"'A love tryst,' laughed the squire. 'Don't be so jealous, young man. Age before honesty—you know the proverb. Your turn may come afterwards.'

"At that Dare-Devil Dick whipped a revolver from his pocket. 'You're jesting with death,' he said. 'I mean to protect Alice Dale though it cost your life and mine. Give me your word you will never speak to her again.'

"The squire's mood changed instantly to black bitter anger.

"'Drop that foolery,' he cried harshly; 'you ought to know the man you have to deal with. Put up that pistol and get out of my sight.'

"For answer Dick levelled the revolver. I stepped between the two men. They were not five paces apart. 'Put up the pistol, Dick,' I said, 'there is nothing to be gained by violence.' I came close to him to take the weapon from his hand.

"Under his breath he said: 'It is not loaded,' and louder, that the squire might hear, he ordered me to stand aside.

"I was fool enough to appeal to the squire. 'Let the girl alone,' I said, 'she is very young and innocent. Let her be.'

"He flamed into sudden anger. 'You whining sneak,' he cried, 'I believe you want the girl for yourself,' and he struck me with his open hand across the face.

"Dick spoke again. 'Your answer,' he shouted. 'Promise never to see the girl again, or take the consequences.'

"'You young fool,' growled the squire, fiercely, 'do you think I'm to be frightened by these schoolboy tricks!'


"The revolver shot rang out sharp and harsh through the silent woods. The squire clapped his hand to his side, reeled a little like a drunkard that tries to keep his balance, and fell. I had barely time to drop my stick, catch him in my arms, and so let him slide down to the sward, where he lay prone and still.


The squire clapped his hand to his side, reeled a little... and fell

"Dick Ackland, with the revolver, from which curled a ringlet of smoke, dangling loosely by his side, stood gazing with wild eyes—a very statue of bewilderment.

"'But the pistol was not loaded,' he muttered, speaking, it would seem, to himself more than to me; 'I took the bullet from the cartridge myself.'

"'It may be a fit of some kind,' I answered.

"'I will fetch a doctor.'

"Before he could move a foot there was a glimmer of colour on the shady path, and Alice Dale appeared. She stood still, her eyes questioning us; they seemed to search our hearts. When you have seen her you will understand.

"'I fear he is dead,' groaned poor Dick, constrained to answer her questioning eyes.

"'And you?'

"Then she saw the revolver lying in his hand and guessed. She gasped like one hurt to death. All the colour ebbed swiftly from her face; she swayed and fell forward in a dead faint, yet not so suddenly but Dick caught her in his arms.

"'Look to her, Dick,' I said. 'It is only a faint—the sudden shock; a little water from the brook will revive her. I will bring Dr Hampden. There is a short cut through the woods.'

"I don't think, Mr Beck, a lame man ever covered rough ground quicker. I had to climb the demesne wall at the end of my run. You shall see the path presently if you care to."

"I would like to see the young lady first," said Mr Beck.

HE had been poking about in the short, mossy turf like a golfer in search of a lost ball. It was an instinct of Mr Beck's to poke about. The gleam of bright metal caught his eye. He picked up something and held it out for inspection to the vicar, who eyed it curiously.

"It looks like the lid of a small brass box," the vicar said tentatively.

It was like the lid of a very small circular brass box, of less diameter than a farthing, but much thicker, and fitted with a screw.

Mr Beck held it in the palm of his broad hand, turning it over and over inquisitively with a strong, thick forefinger, as if he questioned its use.

"I never saw a box so small," he said, "except a pasteboard pill-box. I wonder who had it here, and for what purpose?"

The question was addressed rather to himself than to the vicar. Anyway, the vicar made no answer.

Mr Beck dropped the little disc of brass into his waistcoat pocket.

"Shall we call on the young lady now," he said briskly, "and find what she has to say for herself?"

"She is at the school," answered the vicar. "She insisted on going on with her work, though she is terribly cut up by this tragedy, poor child!"

"Naturally," said Mr Beck. "Let us go to the school and see the young lady."

The walk led them through shady woodland ways to the school which Mr Beck had seen in the morning hard by the banks of a clear, swift-flowing stream.

The birds piped in the overhanging boughs, the sunbeams danced on the ripples of the stream and made a shifting network of gold on the sandy bottom. There was a grim incongruity between the peaceful rural scene and the tragedy they had come to investigate.

"If you will wait here," said the vicar, "I will call the girl to you. She can give the school in charge of her assistant for a few minutes."

Presently she came towards him where he stood at the fringe of the wood, a slim, girlish figure, bareheaded, and clad in a close-fitting black gown, with white at the neck and wrists. The sun was in her eyes, and she walked with downcast lids.

Mr Beck was surprised. It was the face of a schoolgirl, pretty, with the commonplace prettiness of soft brown hair and a pink and white complexion; not in the least the girl he had expected to see; not in the least the girl he would have thought likely to kindle the flame of hot passion in the hearts of two such headstrong men as the vicar had described.

"This is Mr Beck," the vicar said, and she looked him straight in the eyes.

Then he understood. This was no ordinary woman. Never in his life had he seen such wonderful, such beautiful eyes. The colour was the pure, deep blue of the violet; the light was clear and bright as the sapphire. But violet or sapphire is a trite, meaningless comparison. It was not the colour nor the light that made her eyes so wonderful. It was the life, the thought, the soul of a woman that shone through from their clear depths. Even the stolid Mr Beck lost his self-possession under her gaze.

The girl spoke first.

"It was very good of you to come," she said. "I hope you may be able to help the innocent. Richard Ackland is quite innocent."

"How do you know that?" Mr Beck asked.

Her eyes answered before she spoke.

"He told me so. Of course, I knew before he told me, but I was glad to have his word."

"Well," said Mr Beck, "we'll assume his innocence. That's all right for us, but, you see, we have got to prove it to others. I'll find that task easier when I know all the facts."

"Where shall I begin?"

"As near the beginning as you can, Miss Dale."

"A little while after I came here the elder Mr Ackland said things to me which——" the fair cheeks flushed, and the colour darkened in those wonderful blue eyes with anger or pain.

Mr Beck saw her trouble and briskly interposed: "Never mind about him—tell me about the younger man."

"Later," she said simply, "Richard asked me to be his wife. I refused him. I feared it would make trouble. But to-day, when I saw him in the police-station for a moment, I promised."

"If..." began the vicar, fumblingly.

She caught his meaning in an instant.

"If he wins through this horrible trouble," she said quietly; "if not, I shall never marry."

All this was said very quietly, in a sweet, even voice. Only the girl's frank eyes told how intense was the pain she suffered.

"I don't want to worry you more than I can help," said Mr Beck, compassionately; "just a word as to what happened yesterday. You fainted, I believe, Miss Dale."

"Only for a second; I recovered instantly."

"You thought at first that Mr Richard Ackland had shot his uncle."

Hot anger kindled in the blue eyes.

"Never, never for a moment. How dare you say so! I was frightened, that was all. I saw a man lie bleeding—a wicked man, a man I hated, I won't deny it. But I was shocked all the same and wanted to save him. I had studied nursing before I came here and I thought he was still alive. I tried to bind up his wound; it looked no more than a pin prick, with one or two drops of blood oozing from it. I sent Mr Richard Ackland to fetch water. In the squire's coat pocket I found a revolver. I must have accidentally meddled with the trigger some way, for the thing went off."

"I forgot to say I heard the report when I was just climbing the demesne wall," said the vicar.

"The noise," the girl went on, "brought Richard running back to me. The squire was then quite dead, and we stayed together till the doctor came back with Mr Greaves. A short time afterwards the police appeared. That is all I know. Can you save him?" The blue eyes were full of a piteous entreaty.

"I hope so," Mr Beck answered a little huskily. Beauty in distress always moved him.

With a queer little, old-fashioned curtsey to the vicar and to the detective, but without a word more to either, the girl went back across the sunlit sward to her school.

"If you are not tired," said Mr Beck, "I would like to have a word with the police."

"I'm never tired," the vicar answered, "when there is work to be done; and the police-station is only a quarter of a mile away."

SERGEANT COLEMAN knew Mr Beck by name and reputation. He had a brother, he said, who had been in a case with Mr Beck, and he was as proud of it as Lord Dundreary was of the brother who played the German flute. He regarded the detective with the profound veneration of the small boy for the head of the school.

Mr Beck took the good man's manifest worship with modest unconcern. The corpse lay in the guard-room. A hard, handsome face—the face of one of the wicked old Roman Emperors carved in grey marble.

In another room the nephew, Richard Ackland, was held for the murder. Mr Beck managed to get an unobserved peep through the window. The young fellow sat bolt upright, with eyes half closed and the handsome face rigid.

"Looks like a caged hawk," was Mr Beck's comment as he moved away. "Always try to know what they look like, sergeant, before you jump to conclusions. It helps, believe me, it helps."

Mr Beck was very keen in his scrutiny of the two revolvers. Both were six-chambered. The one which was said to belong to the dead squire had four chambers loaded with ball cartridge. The nephew's weapon was loaded in five chambers, but the five bullets had been carefully extracted from the cartridges.

"You'll be wanting to see this, sir," said the sergeant. "It was that bit of lead that did the job." He handed him a little flattened fragment of lead. "Must have gone clean through," the sergeant explained. "It fell out of his waistcoat when we undressed him."

Mr Beck took it in the palm of his broad hand.

"Got a scales, sergeant? A letter-scales will do." He weighed it to a hair. "Keep that carefully," he said, as he handed it back. "It will be useful at the trial."

"Have you found a clue, Mr Beck?" the vicar asked, as they strolled back to the vicarage.

"Too many, I'm afraid," said Mr Beck, dejectedly. "The case is getting confoundedly plain."

In the vicarage there was a revolver hanging to a nail in the hall.

"Loaded?" asked Mr Beck, pointing to the weapon.

"No," the vicar answered; "merely a scarecrow. It is half a year since I fired a shot out of it. It was a gift from young Richard Ackland."

Mr Beck took the pistol from the wall and examined it.

"It is one of a pair," he said; "the same maker and calibre, and takes the same cartridge. Could you get me a bullet of this pistol, Mr Greaves? I should like to weigh it."

For a moment the vicar looked startled and confused. He must have realised how deadly it would prove for Richard Ackland if the bullet of the pistol proved the same weight as the lead that killed the squire.

Mr Beck saw his hesitation—possibly he guessed the cause.

"The truth is the truth, anyway, and it must out," he said, "whoever brings it out."

"I will get you the bullet," said the vicar, and left the room.

In a moment or two he returned with a bullet between his fingers. Mr Beck weighed it carefully.

It was the same weight as the morsel of lead he had weighed at the police-station.

"I'm afraid that settles it," muttered the detective; "the case has grown quite clear."

"I hope not, I sincerely hope not," cried the vicar.

"Well, we must all hope for the best," said Mr Beck, "but it is hard to hope strongly against strong proof."

He refused the vicar's pressing invitation to put up at the vicarage.

"There is a comfortable public-house, the sergeant tells me, in the village. My mind, such as it is, works best when I'm roughing it. Good-evening, sir. I hope to call to see you early to-morrow with some news."

EARLY next morning Mr Beck was on the scene of the murder—not the stolid Mr Beck of the day before, but active, eager, every sense keenly alert. There was a curious suggestion about him of a well-trained setter dog when it is close upon the game—every nerve and muscle vibrant with suppressed excitement.

Like a setter he beat round the spot, searching the ground with his eyes. There had been much rain of late, and the ground was still soft enough to take and hold footprints. He found three or four prints, small and sharp, of the heel of a girl's shoe. He could even trace where Dick Ackland's foot had slipped and torn the sod as he stopped and turned on his way to the brook when he heard the second revolver shot.

The vicar's footprints were faint and hard to follow (the lame foot lighter than the other) as he ran for the doctor. At first Mr Beck could only find a mere trace at intervals through the grass, but after a bit he reached the bottom of stiff clay that took the mould of the footprints like plaster of Paris.

Then suddenly he came upon something that surprised him. It was a slight protuberance in the clay, shaped somewhat like a button mushroom, a foot or so distant from the vicar's footprint.

Mr Beck dropped on his knees and whipped out the magnifying glass he always carried. He could just distinguish a faint, spiral line on the surface of the tiny thimble of clay.

Fumbling in his waistcoat pocket he got out the little brass lid he had found at the scene of the murder. It fitted the clay mushroom like a glove.

"I thought so," Mr Beck muttered, as he slipped the little brass lid back into his pocket; "that makes it quite certain." He followed the track carefully. The little round knob showed at intervals beside the footprints. Then it ceased.

Mr Beck's keen glance searched the ground on either side. To the right the woods opened to a clearing; to the left there was a sandy rabbit-warren rising in stunted hillocks. In front, not a hundred yards off, was the wall of the demesne. He had no trouble in satisfying himself that someone had recently scrambled over the wall—a stiff scramble for a lame man. The mortar had been stripped in several places by clinging feet and hands.

A moment's inspection satisfied Mr Beck there was no more to be learnt there. He followed the track no further, but went back to the rabbit-warren. Here on the dry, shifting sand the traces of recent feet were so slight as to be imperceptible to any eyes less keen than his own.

He poked about curiously amongst the burrows as if he were rabbit hunting, not crime hunting, and he even stretched his arm to the shoulder into two or three tortuous holes.

At last, apparently, he found what he sought in a rabbit hole near the top of a sandy hillock. Then he sat down, lit his pipe, and waited placidly.

The blue smoke curled softly up through the still air, the birds woke to song, and the peaceful rural scene, with its clumps of trees and wide stretches of lawn, and silver gleam of water in the distance, grew lovelier in the glowing sunlight, and still Mr Beck smoked and waited.

At last he caught sight of the unmistakable figure of the vicar limping swiftly over the ground, with his inevitable walking-cane in his hand.

Almost at the same moment the vicar caught sight of him as he sat conspicuous on the hillock, paused for the fraction of a second and then came on quickly as before.

"Good-morning, Mr Beck," he said genially, as he took a seat beside him. "You are very early abroad. Is it business or pleasure?"

"Both," said Mr Beck; "it is a lovely morning to get an appetite for breakfast."

"Have you come to the rabbits for counsel?" queried the vicar, smilingly. "Found any clues in the rabbit holes?"

"Well, yes," answered Mr Beck, stolidly. "I found the last clue there, but I knew pretty well what I should find before I found it."

The vicar's face hardened for a second, as with a sudden spasm of pain or fear. But his voice was easy and careless as he said: "Tell me all about it. You know I'm deeply interested."

"I know that," said Mr Beck, simply. "It's a very interesting case." He took the little brass lid from his pocket. "It puzzled me a bit at first," he said, "though I ought to have guessed. This morning I found out what it is."

"And what is it?" asked the vicar.

"The ferrule of an air-gun," answered Mr Beck, gravely, and again the vicar's face hardened with pain or fear.

"Of course," Mr Beck went on, "I knew that it was not his nephew who shot the squire."

"How did you know it—when did you know it?"

"When I weighed the bit of lead that killed him. I knew the weight of the bullet that pattern of revolver would carry. It is my business to know. It was not the bullet of that revolver which killed the squire. When you brought me a bullet of the same weight as the lead and told me it was the bullet of your revolver you gave the show away. Then the idea of an air-gun flashed upon me, and I came out this morning to make sure."

"Well?" The word came with a kind of gasp from the vicar. "Did you make sure?"

Mr Beck answered slowly: "I made quite sure. You see," he went on, "a man using the air-gun as a walking-cane with the ferrule off would leave little knobs on the clay. I found those little knobs and the little brass cap fitted them."

The vicar only nodded, but there was no fear in his face now.

"Vicar," said Mr Beck, with grave concern in his deep voice—almost with compassion—"you had your cane in your hand when you started to run for the doctor. You could not climb that wall with your cane in your hand and yet it found its way back to the vicarage. You can guess what that told me."

"There were two identical canes," said the vicar.

"And one of the two was an air-gun. It only remained to find out where you had hidden the air-gun before you climbed the wall. That was an easy task."

Mr Beck stooped over a rabbit hole beside him and drew out a walking-cane, in appearance identical with that which lay on the grass beside the vicar. But the second was of steel, and there was a little hole where the ferrule should have been.


Mr Beck stooped over a rabbit hole... and drew out a walking-cane.

The vicar never flinched. They were right who praised the courage of the man. His eyes were steady; there was no tremor in his voice.

"I'm glad I shot the brute," he said, "and I'm half glad you found me out; but I hope you will believe I had no notion of letting Dick Ackland suffer for it. As a last resource I would have surrendered. Still, I hoped to get him out of the country, and so give me a chance with Alice Dale, for I love Alice Dale."

The words were very quietly spoken, but the man's whole soul was in them. His voice shook with hopeless passion.

"I love Alice Dale," he repeated. "Now you will understand why I killed the scoundrel who insulted her. Perhaps you will even understand why I hoped that if young Ackland were out of the country I might have had a chance.

"The air-gun," he went on quietly, "was a gift of a dear friend when I was going to India. It is wonderfully powerful, and fires half a dozen bullets to a single pumping. I found it very useful more than once in India. The duplicate cane I bought in London when I returned, because it was so like the air-gun. I could hardly tell them apart, except by the weight. I had put the air-gun aside. No one in the vicarage knew anything of it.

"But I took it out of its hiding-place and carried it constantly since I heard of Squire Ackland's insult to Alice Dale. I had it with me loaded when I met him in the wood, and I quietly screwed off the ferrule, which slipped from my fingers into the thick grass. I almost hoped he would give me a chance to use the gun in self-defence. When Dick Ackland fired the blank cartridge I saw my chance and took it. I was standing close to the squire at the time. I turned the point of the air-gun to his side, pressed the little knob with my thumb, like this——"

With a quick movement he snatched the air-gun from where it lay across the detective's knees, and turned the nozzle to his side. There was a sharp, metallic twang as the release of the tightly-packed air drove the bullet home. The man toppled over, and the gun went clattering down the hillock.

The spasm of the parting soul distorted the vicar's face with sudden agony. Then a smile settled on the dead face, and he lay limp and still, staring with sightless eyes at the blue sky. Human justice had no further claim on him.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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