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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.
MR BECK often looked in casually to a London police court. Sometimes a seemingly trivial case put him on the track of a great crime. He had been puzzling for some time over the gigantic fraud of "The Spanish Prisoner," which, worked by a gang of accomplished, unscrupulous scoundrels, yearly numbers its dupes by thousands, and its plunder by hundreds of thousands. Mr Beck's services had been requisitioned by a wealthy victim, and he was laying his plans to strike the conspiracy at its headquarters, and had even gone so far as to study the language.
By a strange coincidence, "Spanish Prisoner" were the first words he heard as he dropped into the Westminster police court. The silence of the squalid crowd that thronged the court made it plain that a case of more than ordinary interest was in progress. The magistrate—a bald-headed man who generally lay back bored by the dreary monotony of his work—leant forward eagerly, with eyes that glanced quickly from the dock to the witness chair.
In a moment Mr Beck recognised the voice of the witness. It was Mr Jonas Millbank, M.P. for a North of England constituency—able, wealthy, and eminently respectable.
"Surely he has not been caught by this transparent fraud," thought the detective, as the police respectfully made way for him to a place where he could see and hear.
Mr Millbank, M.P., was a good-looking man, about forty years of age. His mouth was firm lipped, nose large, and the cheek-bones high, indicating the canny Northern breed. But the light blue eyes looked you straight in the face, frank and smiling.
"She claims, I believe, to be a daughter of this Spanish Prisoner," he said at the moment that Mr Beck dropped into his seat.
"She!" Mr Beck's eyes went straight to the dock and opened wide with surprise.
He thought he had never seen a more beautiful girl. She seemed wholly out of place amid her dismal surroundings. The gay colours of her Spanish dress would have overtaxed a beauty less resplendent; they ministered to hers. The warm, lustrous tints of cheek and lips, the brilliancy of her great black eyes, the rich coils of her ebony hair piled on her shapely head, and breaking here and there into an unruly ringlet that fell to her shoulder—all challenged admiration as a right. She stood up in the dock straight and tall, her head well thrown back, her dark eyes fixed with angry light on the witness.
"Do you know the girl, Mr Millbank?" asked the magistrate, respectfully.
"Never saw her in my life before to-day, your worship."
A low cry came from the prisoner. She spoke a word or two in Spanish. Whatever might be the meaning of the words, there was no mistaking the anger in her voice. Her eyes blazed on Mr Millbank's face, a thin, white line showed her teeth through the parted red lips.
"How then do you account for the annoyance, Mr Millbank?"
"I cannot account for it, your worship. I can only tell you the facts."
Mr Millbank was putting the magistrate in his place. His worship meekly accepted the correction. The witness went on:
"About six months ago, your worship, I received this curious letter from Spain:
"You will not have forgotten me. I am in trouble and danger, and to you I cry for help. But, first, I will tell you my sad story. I am a prisoner in this town, and it is for debt. You will say, what is that? can it be thus for my friend that I have known? He was rich. Well I am still rich, my dear friend, but my treasure is buried and I cannot come to it. In crossing from the mountains we buried it to escape the cruel guard who were close on our track. It is in coin and jewels, and value twenty thousand pounds of your English money.
"Now you will say, what am I to do in this? My friend, as you know, I have a daughter. She was but a child when you saw her last, now she has grown to a woman and is very beautiful. I trust her in all things, but there is none other I can trust, only you. She has a map of the spot where the treasure is hid. This she will give to you. It is a place easily found. You will not be suspected. When the treasure is restored, I will desire that you shall take a full third part for your share; the remainder will suffice for my daughter and myself. Come quickly, come at once, dear friend, for we have much need of you.
"Aloroso de Castro."
"The usual thing," commented the magistrate, when he had himself glanced at the letter. "I have seen scores of these same letters published in The Looking-Glass. Never got one myself, I'm proud to say. What did you do about it, Mr Millbank?"
"Nothing, your worship, just threw it aside and let it lie. It is a mere chance I found it again."
"You did not communicate with the police?"
"What was the use—the police can do nothing. I got a number of further letters, which I mislaid, with the same signature."
"You know nothing of the man, of course?"
"Never heard of him before; if indeed there is such a man."
"Or the mythical beautiful daughter?"
"The prisoner claims to be the beautiful daughter."
"You don't say so!" The magistrate put on his spectacles for a better view of the girl in the dock. "There is always a beautiful daughter in these cases, but this is the first time she has materialised. This seems a new trick in the old game. She molested you in the street, you say. When?"
"Yesterday, your worship. Being in town for a few days, I took the opportunity to hunt up a butler in one of the registry offices. I found the accused looking, or pretending to look, for employment. When she heard my name she flew at me like a tigress. I know a little Spanish, I have travelled in Spain, but she spoke so quickly I could only make out that she charged me with having robbed her father of twenty thousand pounds.
"I tried to soothe her. I said I knew nothing of her father or herself. But she only cried in Spanish the louder: 'Oh, you know him and you know me.'
"To avoid disturbance I left the place, but she followed me into the street, calling me 'a traitor to friendship.' A crowd gathered and some of them began to hustle me when the policeman came up, and I was reluctantly obliged to give the girl in charge. I wish your worship to deal leniently with her; I only want to be protected from annoyance.'
"The case is a grave one," said the magistrate. "The girl is plainly in some way connected with the gang of swindlers who are plundering the unwary."
"She may be the dupe, your worship," suggested Mr Millbank, kindly. "I have been a good deal in Spain, and more than once in Seville. She may mistake me for someone else."
"You have no knowledge of her?"
"Hers is a remarkable face, not likely to be forgotten?"
"I never saw her face before."
"You hear what the gentleman says, prisoner," said the magistrate. "Do you understand English?"
"A little, seņor."
"He says he never saw you before."
"He is the liar, the villain, the coward, the thief! He rob my father who is in prison, rob him of much gold, I say again."
"Come, come, my girl, you must not say that again. I cannot allow such language in Court. Is the prisoner professionally represented?"
"I appear for the prisoner," said a tall, cadaverous-looking man, with a long, yellow face and a long shiny black coat, buttoned close up to the throat "Kindly tell her she must restrain herself."
"You must conduct yourself reasonably, miss," said Mr Hastings, "or I cannot continue to appear for you."
Undeterred by this terrible threat, the girl broke out again: "I speak the truth, and he the lies. His friend's money he has stolen; his friend that trusted him; his friend, my father, that is in prison. Ah!"
Her anger overflowed the limits of her broken English, and broke out in a rushing torrent of sonorous Spanish. Her gestures were splendid as she denounced the imperturbable Mr Millbank.
Mr Beck's recent study of the language enabled him to fish up a word or two out of the rushing stream.
"He is a traitor," she cried at last, "and I will have my revenge."
Then, to the surprise of all in Court, she whipped a short poinard from her girdle, held it in the air, and so stood with black eyes blazing—a statue of vengeance incarnate.
The magistrate jumped on the Bench. "Silence!" he shouted. "Constable, take the knife from the young woman."
The young woman put the dagger quietly back in its place, but kept her hand on the hilt, and the constable made no attempt to capture it.
"This is a grave case," the magistrate went on, "and I fear I must deal with it seriously. I would willingly give effect to Mr Millbank's merciful views, which I must say do him much credit under the circumstances. But I have a duty to the public. Here is a very dangerous young woman plainly in league with a corrupt gang. I fear I must inflict a sharp term of imprisonment."
"Might I interrupt for one moment, your worship?"
"What's that? Oh, Mr Beck, glad to see you; certainly, Mr Beck. What do you wish to say?"
"Could your worship see your way to letting the prisoner out on bail to be of good behaviour?"
"There is no one to go bail for her."
"I will go bail for any amount you please."
"I should be very glad, Mr Beck, but——"
"Don't say 'but,' your worship. I'm sure I can convince you if you will kindly give me a word in private."
FIVE minutes' conversation between Mr Millbank, Mr Beck and the magistrate settled the matter. Mr Beck undertook that Mr Millbank should have no further annoyance from the girl, whom he meant to send back to Spain as soon as possible. Meantime, he hoped she might drop a hint which would put him on the track of the gang who worked the fraud.
"If necessary," he added to the magistrate, when the other had left, "I will have Mr Millbank watched and protected without his having the least suspicion."
THE young girl was in quite another mood when they returned to Court. The fit of passion had passed and left her limp. The constable had told her she would surely be hanged, and she made a pitiful appeal to the magistrate for mercy.
Mr Beck, watching her closely, as, with streaming eyes, she prayed for her life, thought to himself she would make the finest actress on the stage.
"It is all right, my girl," he said reassuringly, "you are not going to be hurt this time." Then, with an effort, he managed to screw out a few kindly words in Spanish.
At the familiar sound she turned to him in eager delight, and simply smothered him with a melodious torrent of speech.
"All right," he protested, when at last he could get a word in, "tell me the rest at your leisure. You are to come with me, if you don't mind; we'll take a hansom to your place. Where are you staying?"
But when she gave him the address he said: "No, that won't do. That is not the place at all for a nice-looking girl like you, my dear. Cabby, drive to Dickens' Private Hotel, Norfolk Street.
"The landlady," he explained to the girl, in stumbling Spanish, "is a great friend of mine and will take care of you. Now tell me your name. I'll have to introduce you."
"Aurora de Castro." The termagant had vanished. A school-girl, shy and grateful, was beside him in the hansom, and for the first time the conviction came to Mr Beck that the girl—whatever else she might be—was a lady born.
"Look here, Aurora! I may call you Aurora?"
"Well, if you will tell me the truth I will do what I can for you."
"You will release my father; you will restore our treasure; you will punish this most wicked man?"
"Perhaps," said Mr Beck, drily; "we'll see about that. I want your story first, if you please; but here we are at the hotel."
MRS CUNNINGHAM, manageress and proprietress, met them in the hall—a good-humoured Irishwoman whom twenty years of residence in London had not robbed of her mellifluous brogue.
"Ah, then good day to you, Mr Beck," she said cheerily, "and whom have we here?"—with a swift glance at the brilliant figure in the cab. "I'm ashamed of you going about in hansom cabs with your Italian countesses," she exclaimed mockingly, "and at your time of life, too. An elderly person like myself would be more suitable."
"That's all right," said the placid Mr Beck. "I want you to do me a great favour, Mrs Cunningham."
"If I can I will," she answered at once, "you may take that for granted."
"Well, you must take care of this young lady for me, and keep an eye on her comings and goings and her visitors, if any."
"But, my dear Mr Beck, isn't she a 'leetle' remarkable for a quiet place like mine?"
"Don't worry about that. She's Spanish and she's a lady, and she'll dress as quietly as you like. I want you to see to all that later on. Meanwhile, will you let us have lunch in a private room? I must have a chat with her before I leave. Come in, Aurora," he said at the cab door, "I want to introduce you to my friend, Mrs Cunningham, who'll take care of you."
"Let me show you your room, my dear," said the good-natured Irishwoman, captivated by the beauty and gentle manners of the girl; "you are lucky to have found a friend in Mr Beck."
HALF an hour later Mr Beck and the daughter of the Spanish Prisoner sat down to a comfortable little luncheon in a private room, though Mrs Cunningham, at the door, protested to Mr Beck she was "shocked at his goings-on."
Mr Beck refused to hear a word of her story till the girl had finished her luncheon. "You cannot eat and talk," he said, "and you must be hungry."
He was right there. No nibbler of fragments was this young Spanish beauty. She ate with the hearty appetite of youth and health, and Mr Beck watched approvingly.
"I had only a cup of coffee and nothing this morning," she explained, as she pushed away her plate at last and sipped a glass of light wine.
"Now," said Mr Beck, "what is it all about?"
"He is a traitor," she said, with a sudden flash of her old anger.
"That's all right," he chimed in soothingly. "You said that before, you know, and we'll take that for granted. But your father—is he the Spanish Prisoner?"
"My father, alas! is still in prison, and his treasure is stolen."
"We will never get any further at this rate; begin at the beginning. Tell me all about your father."
"His name? It is Don Aloroso de Castro. My mother died when I was born. He has no other child. He was very rich, but, alas! now he is no longer rich; his treasure has been stolen."
"I know all that," interpolated Mr Beck, "we'll come to that later on. What was your father before he became a Spanish prisoner?"
"My father was a banker at Konda. You know it is about forty miles from Cadiz. We have also a house at Cadiz, but chiefly we lived at Konda. He had much treasure in his bank, gold, notes and jewellery, and many customers. He was for Don Carlos, of course."
"For what did you say?"
"For Don Carlos, the true King of Spain—a man, not a foolish boy whom they dress in king's clothes. You are for Don Carlos, are you not, Don Becko?"
"Well, I have not quite made up my mind yet," Don Becko answered sedately. "I'll think it over; meanwhile go on with your story."
"My father he helped Don Carlos with money, and even bought arms for him which were stored in the bank vaults and carried away at night. The Civil Guard knew nothing of all this, but after a while even they suspected. There were whispers in Cadiz and the sound of them came across the mountain to Konda. So my father thought he would be wise to leave Konda and come to Cadiz. For you see, while we were at Konda, the Carlists would come to the house."
"I see," assented Mr Beck, shortly; "a case of save me from my friends."
She only half caught his meaning.
"From our friends, no, from our enemies—the friends of the tyrant. We did not wish to go. But I feared for him and he for me, and so it was agreed upon. The bank was closed and our debts were paid—all except one to a great friend of my father who lived in Cadiz, and to him we were bringing the money. But you shall hear. It was—I cannot count in your English—seven, eight, nine, ten weeks since we set out to cross the mountains. The Civil Guard offered to protect us, but we would not. My father asked them to protect instead the bank, where it was thought the treasure still lay, for we put it out that we were going only on a visit to Cadiz, and would return.
"So we two started early in the morning, hoping to reach Cadiz by nightfall. We rode on mules with a third mule to carry the baggage, and amongst the rest of the baggage there was a leather portmanteau in which the treasure was packed."
Mr Beck made a mental note of the portmanteau. It was a coincidence that all Spanish prisoners' stories ran on the same lines; there was always a leather portmanteau.
"We brought with us no servants to avoid suspicion. Our household remained for the time in Konda. There are two roads from Konda to Cadiz as you must know, Don Becko?"
"Cannot say I do exactly," said Mr Beck, modestly.
"We chose the longer but the easier of the two. It was fortunate for us we did so. For miles it lay through the valley with bordering vineyards and olive groves—a smooth and pleasant road where the mules went forward swiftly. Already four leagues lay behind, when we came to the place at the entrance to the pass where the two roads join, and begin together to climb up into the mountain.
"By this time the sun was nearly straight over us, and the sky was like the lid of an oven closing in the heat upon the roasting earth, for there was no cloud nor wind. The mules sweated under their loads and the heat pressed upon us like a weight. Our shadows were no more than round blots on the burnt ground.
"We welcomed the shelter and coolness of the inn that stood at the meeting of the roads. The cup of cold wine and water was what the souls in purgatory pray for. My father, exhausted by the heat, lay indoors, till the anger of the sun should have passed. But for me I sat in the summer-house in the garden, where the thatch of green leaves was so thick that no sun could enter, and so slipped softly into sleep.
"The sound of strange voices got mixed with my dreams, till I suddenly woke to know they were real. Close by the summer-house where I lay the road ran, and by the roadside, under the trees, were men resting and talking. They spoke of Don Carlos and the Civil Guard, and suddenly I heard my father's name. 'Don Aloroso,' said the rough voice of an old man. 'Don Aloroso goes to meet the friends of Don Carlos on the mountain. But the Civil Guard have heard of it and pursue them. This morning a company went down by the shortest road to Konda to arrest him.'
"'I hear he gives money, much money, to Don Carlos,' said the shriller voice of youth. 'By Bacchus, if I had money, it should go for wine.'
"'It is but a mile now to my house where there is a skinful of the best in Spain,' the first voice answered, and then the noise of their speech passed slowly out of my hearing.
"I had heard enough. My sleep was over for the day. Going swiftly down to the posada, I woke my father and told him what I had heard. It frightened him, Don Becko, though he is not a man easily made, afraid. 'My little girl,' he said, 'it is ruin if they catch us with this treasure in our possession. They will swear, as these country fools have said, we bring it to Don Carlos. It means death for me, and for my little girl poverty and the misery that comes with poverty. We must start instantly.'
"Then, though the sun was still high up in the heavens, we resumed our journey at once, urging the mules to their best speed. On from this inn the pathway climbed the mountain, winding through the rocks and passing here and there over a ledge that made one dizzy to look down from.
"But the mules moved without fear, planting their feet as steadily on the narrow ledge as on the broad high road. The air grew cooler as we climbed, and the country below lay wide and lovely in the sunshine. Like the narrow lines of a map we could distinguish far beneath us the roads that lead out of Konda.
"My father had brought with him a field-glass, and every now and then he turned to scan the roads back to the horizon's edge. 'Safe so far, Aurora,' he would say to me after each long look, and urge the mules to better speed.
"When we had reached almost to the ridge of the pass where the pathway begins to run down hill towards Cadiz, my father stopped for a last look at the ribbons of road that ran through the plain far below.
"He started, looked again long and steadily, then handed the glasses to me. 'Your eyes are younger than mine, my child,' he said.
"I swept the road back from the foot of the hill to the horizon's edge, and found at last what I sought yet did not wish to find. Rocks and trees, small and dim in the distance, grew large and clear as they glided into the range of the glasses. The ribbon widened into a rugged road, and along it mounted men—small as toy soldiers, but clear beyond mistaking—moved swiftly up towards the mountain.
"'They will overtake us before we reach Cadiz,' groaned my father.
"'We might hide,' I hinted.
"'Impossible, impossible; they must have already seen us. But yet—oh, there is some hope yet, we might hide the portmanteau with the money and papers. They dare not arrest us without some proof. Quick, child, quick! It is an hour before they are here, and now the ridge hides us from view.'
"We urged the mules just over the edge of the pass, and then looked around for a likely hiding-place.
"By the side of the track on a terrace in the flank of the hill was a Moorish ruin—shrine, or fortress, I cannot say—sheltered from the north wind by three tall pines, the centre of the three bent so."
With a few deft bold strokes of a pencil she drew on a sheet of notepaper what she had described.
"As quickly as we could we carried the portmanteau down to the terrace, and found by good fortune just what we looked for. The walls and roof had crumbled in. The place looked a solid mass of masonry, overgrown with wild vines and weeds. But circling it I spied on the side that faced the valley, faintly showing through the thick overgrowth, the outline of a stone or two cut in the fashion of a Moorish arch.
"We drew the wild vines and creepers apart, and found a window in the wall about two yards from the ground. My father climbed to the window. I helped to lift the portmanteau to him, and he pushed it through, lowering it gently to the ground. Then we re-arranged the curtain of wild vine, with its close cluster of small berries, till no sign of window or arch was visible.
"An hour later, when two of the Civil Guard came softly over the ridge of the pass, they found a man and girl resting in an angle of the track with their mules tethered close by.
"There were the remains of a slight repast—bread and fruit and a flagon of wine. The man was restfully smoking a cigarette, and the girl was sketching the lovely view with a Moorish ruin and three tall pine trees in the foreground. Oh, Don Becko, you will understand?"
"A map of the place," said Mr Beck.
She nodded. "You understand; even before their very eyes I drew it. But they never for one moment suspected.
"The leader of the band, Don Fabrice, I knew. I had met him before. I had danced with him."
Mr Beck noted that the frank and easy narrative suddenly became abrupt and disjointed.
"My father invited Don Fabrice to eat with us. He would not. One would have thought we were the police and he the fugitive, he looked so frightened.
"'Don Aloroso,' he blurted out, 'I come on a most unpleasant duty. I have been sent to seize certain treasure, which it is said you carry to agents of Don Carlos, and to arrest you for high treason. I crave your pardon, and yours, Donna Aurora, but if I had refused the duty it would have been intrusted to another less considerate.' He looked aside at a tall man, also in the uniform of an officer, who stood apart glowering—Don Rodrigo, whom also I knew and liked not.
"My father smiled, and rolled a cigarette between his fingers. 'Trouble yourself not, my friend,' he said. 'You are welcome to the treasure if you find it.'
"Why should I weary you with a long story, Don Becko? They searched our baggage and found nothing. Don Rodrigo searched closest and was savage at his failure. He was rude in manner and question. Twice I thought that he and Don Fabrice would have drawn swords on each other.
"At last even Don Rodrigo was convinced there was no treasure—neither dreamt we had hidden it. Why should we hide it when we had had no notice of their coming? Don Fabrice was most kind, and even Don Rodrigo made a sulky apology.
"There is little more to be told. They both came down with us to Cadiz, Don Fabrice riding at my rein, and the other a score of paces behind.
"For awhile all went well at Cadiz. Suspicion was at rest, and my father was planning a little excursion into the hills, which were only a few hours' ride, when suddenly he was arrested for debt at the suit of Don Ambrosio de Legna.
"Don Ambrosio was a friend whom my father loved and trusted. But he wanted me to marry him and was furious when I refused him. He had money in our bank at Konda. Somehow, he learnt we had brought no money with us to Cadiz. The day after our return he asked me again to be his wife, and when I again refused he had my father thrown into prison for debt.
"I was in great trouble, Don Becko. My father could not help me. I dared not tell Don Fabrice of his persecution, or there would be a duello, and I dared not slip away to the mountains for our treasure to pay my father's debt, for Don Rodrigo was always at my heels.
"It was then we thought of writing to Don Millbank in London."
"You knew him before?" asked Mr Beck.
"Oh, yes, for five years. We were in Toledo when I was so high." She set a shapely brown hand within half a yard of the floor to indicate her height. "One night it seems the Englishman had been rude to a girl. I hardly know the story, I was so young then. Her lover was angry. He had a knife drawn and would have stabbed the Englishman, but my father struck it from his hand. That night the Englishman came home to supper. He was grateful, oh, so grateful to my father. He called him the saviour of his life, and asked us both to come and see him in England. Behold, I alone have come to find him."
The girl's full red lips tightened, and the angry light rekindled in her black eyes.
"That's all right, my dear," put in Mr Beck, soothingly; "go on with your story. Did Mr Millbank go to Spain when your father wrote to him?"
"At once, oh, at once, he was so kind. All we wanted he would do, and would take no reward. Then I gave him my sketch of the place, and told him where to look; and so one morning he rode away to the mountains, promising to bring the treasure back the same evening. But he never came back, and then I knew he was a liar and a thief. I suspected him when I saw him, but my father trusted him."
"What next?" asked Mr Beck. "Go on with your story; it's interesting."
"I sold my trinkets and my watch, and I followed him here. There was a man in London I knew. He was what you call a butler when we lived in Toledo. Afterwards they say he was in trouble, and joined the bandits. What do I know? It was only talk. But he left the country and came to London. I wrote to him, and he found a room for me, and told me where I might find your Mr Millbank."
"Not mine," protested Mr Beck; "I claim no share of him."
"Oh, you believe in him," she answered quickly. "He is what you call respectable. He will not steal—is it not so?"
She looked keenly in his face and read nothing there but blank good-nature, and turned from him with quick impatience.
"But Pedro believes in me; Pedro knows me well. Oh, I should not have spoken—I should not have told you his name!"
"Perhaps not," retorted Mr Beck. "Pedro seems a modest and retiring kind of gentleman. If I were you I would not trouble him any more in this business. Will you promise you will have nothing more to say to Pedro on the subject?"
She hesitated for a moment. "Yes," she said slowly at last, "I will promise." She looked away from Mr Beck's steady gaze as she said it.
"One thing more," he added. "I want to change your Spanish money for English notes or gold."
"Certainly; it is not much." She bundled some small notes and a few Spanish gold pieces out of her purse, and gave them into his broad palm without a look at what he offered in exchange.
"Well, good-bye," he said; "steer clear of Pedro till we meet. Mrs Cunningham will take care of you. I hope to see you again in a week or a fortnight at furthest."
"But you will help me to find the treasure?"
"Yes, I will help you to find the truth," he answered gravely.
The girl flung herself back into the chair as the door closed after Mr Beck and laughed softly to herself with a laugh like the pleased purr of a cat. "That's all right," she murmured in Spanish; "he is a clever man, this Don Becko. We will see."
"A MAN for me?" said Mr Millbank. "All right, show him in." It was the day after his appearance in the police-court, and he was having late breakfast in his private room at the Grand Hotel.
A middle-aged, stoutly-built man, dressed plainly but not shabbily, came quietly into the room, carrying a new top hat awkwardly in his hand.
"I come about the situation, sir," he began respectfully before Mr Millbank could question him. "I understand you are on the lookout for a butler, and I come to offer myself."
"Why not apply through the registry office?" queried Mr Millbank.
"Because I believe in direct dealings, sir. I like to come to headquarters. Here are my testimonials."
He took a bundle of letters from his pocket and laid them respectfully on the breakfast-table.
They were all excellent. One from the Duchess of Southern found special favour with Mr Millbank.
He knew her Grace's handwriting. He had seen it often and always with pleasure on delicate invitations to dinner or dance, for her Grace was a social leader of the party to which he belonged.
"I have much pleasure"—the letter ran—"in strongly recommending Mr Marshall for the position of butler. While in my service he proved himself invaluable. He is sober, honest, and most trustworthy—a capital waiter and always at hand when he is required. From what I know of him I fed sure he will discharge efficiently any duties he may undertake."
"The Duchess is very complimentary," said Mr Millbank, smiling; "why did you leave her?"
"I wanted a holiday, sir. The work was hard and responsible."
"You will find my work lighter," said Mr Millbank.
"I trust so, sir."
"I certainly do not entertain on the same scale as the Duchess, nor do I pay the same wages."
"Wages are no great consideration with me, sir, if I can give satisfaction."
"I think you will suit me. Can you come at once?"
"At once, sir."
"The Duchess will recommend you, I suppose?"
"She said she would be glad to give me a strong personal recommendation, sir, at any time."
"I'm afraid she is out of town at present. Well, I may see her later on. She is a very intimate friend of mine. Meanwhile, you may come at once if the terms suit."
The terms suited Mr Marshall. He showed himself easily pleased in money matters, and the upshot of the interview was that he returned with Mr Millbank to his handsome villa residence, which stood in its own ground, five miles away, clear of the smoke and tumult of London, but was brought close by train, telegraph and telephone to the heart of the great city.
FOR three whole days Mr Marshall proved himself a model butler. On the third day Mr Millbank gave a little bachelor's dinner, and everything went off splendidly. The attendance was perfect, the champagne was cooled and the claret warmed to precisely the right point. That night Mr Millbank flattered himself he had found a treasure. The next night he changed his mind.
He returned home late from dining in the City, let himself in quietly with his latchkey, and entering the dining-room found the electric light turned on to the full, his model butler lolling in an easy chair blind drunk, with a half-filled bottle of port on the table in front of him, and two empty bottles on the carpet beside his chair.
One glass, at least, had gone the wrong way, as was shown by a broad, dark crimson stain on the white damask. Mr Marshall's face, usually so placid, wore a very truculent expression in liquor. With the first quick glance Mr Millbank noticed the butt of a big revolver bulging from his pocket.
The drunken butler did not seem the least disturbed by the sudden advent of his master.
"Have a glass of port, old boy," he said, and lifted the bottle to fill the glass, but it dropped with a crash on the floor.
"All right, all right, my covey," stammered the excellent Mr Marshall, "no hurry; get in another bottle. You and I, old cracksman, will have a drain together. Both in the same trade, don't you see; both on the Spanish Main. Fetch another bottle, old boy."
Mr Millbank's nerves were not strong. For a moment he was frightened to death at the truculent appearance of this drunken bully. But in an instant he realised that the brute was too drunk to be dangerous.
"What are you waiting for?" stammered Marshall, lurching towards him. "Want money to pay for the drink? Here it is for you." He clapped a Spanish coin down on the table. "There's more where that came from." He dived his hand into his breeches pocket, and fished up a fistful of money—Spanish notes and gold.
"Confidence trick, old man," mumbled the drunken butler with an ugly laugh. "You did Don what you call him, and I do you. Drink together, old pal."
Mr Millbank's face flushed and paled as he saw the money on the table. His resolution was quickly taken and acted on.
"Right you are," he said, laying a timid hand on the drunkard's shoulder and pressing him down into his chair, "I'll fetch the wine."
He would have locked the door behind him, but the key was not in the lock; so he had to be content with closing it carefully.
He went straight to the telephone, and got on to Scotland Yard.
"Hullo! are you there? Yes; put me on to the inspector. I'm Mr Millbank, of Burlington—yes, Member of Parliament. Listen. I want you to send two men out to my place as soon as possible. Yes, my butler has got drunk and is violent. Yes, they had better come armed. No, there is no immediate danger, but send at once. All right; good-bye."
"Now to see what the ruffian has stolen," he muttered, as he rang off and replaced the receiver. "How the blazes did he find out the secret of the safe?"
Closing the door behind him, he switched on the light in his bedroom. He took down a small picture that hung on the panelled paper of the wall, and pressed the little brass nail on which it hung. Instantly a thin sheeting of wood, opening neatly on the lines of the paper panel, showed the door of a large safe let into the wall. Mr Millbank fitted a tiny key to the lock softly and smoothly, the massive door opened level with the floor, and he lugged out a heavy old leather portmanteau on the carpet.
"It feels all right," he said, "and it looks all right. The lock has not been tampered with. But then, where did the brute get all that Spanish money, and what did he mean by his talk about Don what's-his-name?"
"Will you kindly permit me to explain?" said a quiet voice at his ear, and a strong hand was laid on his shoulder. A glance was enough. Chill terror froze his voice, for leaning over him, revolver in hand, was his drunken butler.
No, not drunken. The hand that held the revolver was steady as a rock—there was a bland, good-humoured smile on the broad face. Mr Millbank noticed, too, that the black mutton-chop whiskers were gone, and the expression of the face wholly changed. Surely he had seen that genial smile, those twinkling eyes before. Through the mist of bewilderment in which he was lost the truth dawned on him suddenly.
"Oh, I see," said Mr Beck, pleasantly. "You know me at last. I suppose I need not explain further. I wanted to find out where you had hidden this"—he touched the portmanteau with his toe—"and you were kind enough to show me. That's why I showed you the Spanish money. I knew the sight of it would send you to see if your treasure were safe.
"Now to business; allow me." He stooped and extracted a dainty revolver from the breast-pocket of Mr Millbank's frock coat. "We don't want those playthings," he said, as he dropped the two weapons into his own coat pocket, "they disturb conversation and we have only a short time for our chat. You know, I suppose, you have got to do what I tell you?"
In spite of the good-humoured smile and twinkling eyes there was a tone of quiet determination in the spoken words that made Mr Millbank wince. "That's all right," Mr Beck added. "I see you understand the situation. I heard you telephone for the police. They will be here, I suppose, in half an hour. What do you mean to say to them? You won't tell. Have you any curiosity to know what I mean to say or do? Does it occur to you that I might clap on a pair of handcuffs and hand you over to your own police for theft and perjury? They know me and would take you quick enough on my word. That portmanteau is chock-full of evidence for the prosecution. What do you say to that?"
Mr Millbank said nothing to that. Something in Mr Beck's face and manner told him that gentleman's mind was made up. He waited to hear more.
"Well, I'm disposed to give you a chance," said Mr Beck, after a pause, "though you don't deserve it. It is not for your sake, mind you. I want the young lady you cheated and her father to get back their valuables at once. I don't want the fuss and delay of a prosecution; see? That's where your chance comes in. Now listen to what you have got to say and do. When the police come you must tell them you had a quarrel with your butler—that's me—that you accused me of drunkenness and theft, and that you found you were wrong and apologised. You want me to stay on; I insist on leaving at once. I have my portmanteau packed to go with me. This is my portmanteau. You will give the men a sovereign each for their trouble, and they will take me and my portmanteau back to London. Mind, it's that, or arrest and prosecution."
"What are you going to do with the portmanteau?" asked Mr Millbank, tremulously.
"That's my business. Are you afraid I'll cheat the Spanish Prisoner and his daughter?"
"I'm honestly entitled to a third."
"But I was promised a third for my trouble."
"Easy there. You tried to steal it, not to save it for the owner. You grabbed all and you've lost all. We don't pay salvage on theft—not a farthing. Do you take my offer?"
"I suppose I must," growled Mr Millbank, sulkily; "there is nothing else."
"Oh, don't delude yourself. You can have the handcuffs and the gaol instead if you prefer them. Make up your mind which it is to be—quick!"
There was sudden menace in the curt word, and Mr Millbank gasped out a hurried acceptance.
"I thought so—of two evils—you know the proverb. Mind you play your part properly."
THE two Scotland Yard men arriving in hot haste were glad to hear the trouble was over. They each pocketed a sovereign, and had a cold-meat supper, washed down with a couple of glasses of port apiece of Mr Beck's choosing, and cheerily carried the offended butler and his portmanteau back with them to London.
"Jolly old cock," said one to the other, when they had dropped Mr Beck at Charing Cross, "sings a good song."
"And opens a good bottle, by Jingo; he got the bulge on his boss. See the way he packed him out of the dining-room?"
TWELVE days later a four-wheeler drove to the door of Mrs Cunningham's hotel. There were three men in it, one young, one old, both stately looking, with dark complexions and brilliant dark eyes. Mr Beck was the third.
"She is waiting for you in the private sitting-room," he said. Carrying a heavy portmanteau as lightly as if it were a brown-paper parcel, he led the way upstairs.
"Come in," cried a sweet voice in answer to the knock, and the old man went first into the room.
Aurora had been reading. She put down her book and sprang to her feet as he entered. A moment she stood, her bosom heaving, her black eyes wide open with amazement. Then sudden joy flooded them with light.
"Father!" she cried exultingly, and flung herself into the arms of Don Aloroso. She lay there laughing and sobbing, unconscious of all things else in the world but her great joy. Mr Beck coughed.
Lissom as a willow wand she slipped from her father's embrace, caught the detective's heavy face between her two hands and kissed him twice.
"Now Don Fabrice," suggested Mr Beck, maliciously.
The rich blood flooded her face.
"Don Fabrice is very welcome," she said demurely with downcast eyes, and she gave him her hand, which he clasped and kissed—the lover unmistakable.
"I came over with your father," he said, "only for a day. I could get no longer leave, but I could not deny myself the pleasure of telling you I have been promoted. I am now a captain. I have a future. I will return again next year if I may?"
A shy consenting smile was her answer to the eager entreaty in his voice.
"But my father?" she asked.
"Oh, your father," replied Mr Beck, briskly, as he lifted a heavy old leather valise into the room, "your father has come to stay. He has brought his portmanteau."
Roy Glashan's Library
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