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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.
"MURDER!" The shrill shriek rang out through the still night air, striking sharp on the startled ears of the two men in the lamp-lit streets of the town of Deemington, a quarter of a mile away.
Silence, dead silence followed.
The two constables passing their nightly round through the more lonely streets of the town were brought to a sudden stand by the first wild cry.
"Hark!" cried the elder of the two, "that means mischief, Roper, or I'm a Dutchman."
"It came from away down by Thornton Park," replied the other, anxiously. "If I am not mistaken, sergeant, that was Squire Melville's voice."
"Come along!" cried Sergeant Dempsey, laconically, and the two men went clattering over the pavement and out into the open country on the western side of the town.
One minute's quick run brought them to a fine wrought-iron gate, whose intricate traceries looked like black lace in the moonlight. They entered softly through the little side door which they found ajar, and paused, panting from their run, on the broad avenue just inside.
"Left or right?" whispered the younger man.
"Left," responded Sergeant Dempsey, in the same cautious tone. "I think I hear a sound of moaning down there to the left."
They started off again along a gravelled walk, a white and black patchwork of moonlight and shadow. It was known as the Wild Hyacinth Walk, and the faint, sweet odour of the wild flowers was heavy on the calm night air.
It was no moaning, but only the placid hum of a little stream the sergeant had heard. Its soft sound made the peaceful night more peaceful. Here surely was no scene of wild outrage. The calm beauty of the scene unconsciously impressed the men by its contrast with their own horrible imaginings.
The same thought was in both their minds, though they might have found it hard to put their feelings into words.
They walked more slowly. They were on the point of stopping when a sudden turn showed them a tall figure, clear outlined against the white night, standing stock-still in the very centre of the pathway, not fifty yards in front. Quickening their steps but walking softly on the grass border of the gravel path, they came upon him silently and suddenly.
He never moved. Still as a statue he gazed with pale face and wild eyes at the ghastly object that lay right at his feet.
YES. Murder had been done in that peaceful place. There lay the young and handsome Squire Melville of Thornton Park, prone on his back. One glance was enough for the practised eyes of the keen officers of the law. The man was dead.
There had been no struggle, the strong man had had no chance for his life. Yet the squire's dark, fierce face had a look of sullen anger, frozen on it by sudden death. He must have looked his murderer full in the face for a single moment just as the blow was struck, and uttered that one shrill, despairing cry as the knife struck. The man was in evening dress. From the wound over his heart the blood, black in the moonlight, oozed slowly, and trickled in a thin line down the glazed white surface of the shirt-front. To the right of the wound were five curious, dark stains, the largest of the five standing clear of the rest.
The living man, motionless as the dead, was gazing intently at the face of the corpse with face as ghastly as its own.
For the moment the constables failed to recognise him, so changed and strange he looked.
Then Sergeant Dempsey cried out: "It's Dr Kerwan! My God! Dr Kerwan, what's the meaning of this?"
The man addressed seemed to waken like one half dazed by an ugly dream. "I don't know," he stammered, "murder it would seem. I heard a cry and I ran to it. I saw a man disappear in the distance, I found this here. There is no hope," he added incoherently, "he is quite dead."
"How did you come here, sir, at this hour of the night?" said Sergeant Dempsey, sharply, but respectfully withal.
"I cannot tell you," said the doctor. He had got back something of his composure, and spoke, as was his wont, very quietly, though the handsome face still looked ghastly, and the strong figure quivered with suppressed excitement.
The constables interchanged glances of quick suspicion. The doctor was well and favourably known to both of them, not merely as a skilful physician, but as one of the pleasantest-mannered and kindliest-hearted of men. But constables are constables, and, to use their own phrase, the case looked very black against Dr Kerwan. His feud with the dead man and the cause of it were the common gossip of Deemington.
"Then, Dr Kerwan," said the sergeant, speaking with a gravity that gave him a sort of dignity, "I fear it is my duty to arrest you on suspicion of the wilful murder of Squire Stanley Melville. You are not bound to say anything, but I have to warn you that anything you do say may be used in evidence against you."
The very notion of such a thing plainly struck the doctor then for the first time with sharp surprise. There was anger in his voice as he turned upon the sergeant.
"This is too absurd, Dempsey. Do you really think I killed the man?"
"I must do my duty, sir," said the sergeant, stolidly, but not without a certain respect, "you are on the spot at the time of the murder. You can give no account of why or how you came here. The town knows that you and the squire were not good friends. All this is for the magistrates, not for the like of me. You'll excuse me, sir, but I must take you to the police-station."
His right hand went into the breast of his tunic as he spoke, but his comrade whispered a remonstrance. He, too, was a constable, but he was human. Dr Kerwan had saved his sister's life the week before.
"Never mind the handcuffs, Dempsey," he whispered.
"Never mind the handcuffs, Dempsey," echoed the doctor, whose quick ear had caught the whisper, "I am quite willing to go whenever you choose to take me."
A curious change had come over his face and voice. With a sharp chill of returning consciousness he seemed to realise for the first time his position. In a flash he realised the deadly pressure of the evidence against him, the horrible peril in which he stood, the imprisonment, the trial, the shameful death that might follow. No wonder a sickening feeling stole shudderingly through his body. But he faced the situation with the courage of conscious innocence, or the despair of cunning guilt.
"If you are ready, sergeant, I am," he said. There was no tremor in his voice, there was no faltering in his step as he strode beside his captor down the peaceful moonlit path, where the flowers filled the air with perfume, and the running stream with dreamy sound. The other constable kept lonely vigil the while beside the murdered master of that pleasant place.
PAUL BECK was enjoying his early breakfast in his own snug fashion in his own snug chambers in the very pleasantest quarter of Deemington, when he was startled by a quick, impatient knock at the sitting-room door. Before he could say "Come in," Frank Wolfington burst into the room, crying out as he entered:
"I'm so glad I've caught you, Mr Beck."
"Why, am I wanted for murder?" replied Paul Beck, jestingly.
Then, as he turned and caught sight of the young man's face, his whole manner changed. It was hard enough to recognise in the excited young fellow who had broken so abruptly into his chambers the genial and jocund Frank Wolfington, the brightest and most popular man in Deemington, who had gallantly lived down the reputation of the driving, grinding, grasping old miser his father.
Frank Wolfington's dashing appearance, his yellow curls, and merry blue eyes, were the envy of the young men and the delight of the young girls at every gay gathering in the town. But no one had ever seen Frank Wolfington in earnest or excited before.
"Don't look at me like that," he cried impetuously to Mr Beck, who continued gazing at him with blank amazement. "You'll be as excited as I am when you hear the news. Stanley Melville was murdered last night, stabbed through the heart in his own grounds."
"You are not serious!"
"Do I look like I'm jesting? Is this a thing to jest about? But bad as it is, there is worse behind; Mark Kerwan—Dr Kerwan, you know, has been arrested for the murder."
"What a stupid blunder! I haven't known the man long, but I know him well enough to know he could not do a thing like that."
"I hope not. I most sincerely hope not; he was a dear friend of mine. But they have got a pile of evidence against him. He was found on the spot by the police red-handed, as one might say. You know he and Melville didn't pull at all. It was hard to pull with Melville. But there was real bad blood between these men. Then there's one awful piece of evidence. The knife that killed the squire was a black-handled knife, and there is one of the same pattern missing from the case in Kerwan's surgery."
"You don't think yourself he did it?"
"Don't ask me. I cannot believe he did it, I won't believe he did it, a cold-blooded, deliberate murder. There must have been some terrible provocation—Melville was such a proud, violent, insulting chap—you remember he struck me across the face with his riding-whip in the public street, merely for handing his sister to her phaeton. I should love to think there was some terrible provocation in this case. Kerwan himself denies the whole thing, point-blank. But that's not the question now. That's not what I came to talk to you about, Mr Beck. You must get him off. It's his last chance. Miss Melville is distracted, and it's hard to blame her, poor girl. It is rough upon her; her only brother murdered, and her sweetheart in danger of being hanged for it."
"Her sweetheart?" said Mr Beck.
"Don't you know? I thought you knew. Yes! They were engaged to be married. That's what made the doctor and the squire so furious with one another. Melville was his sister's guardian, you know. He was frantic about the engagement, swore she should never marry an Irishman. He treated the girl badly, too, they say, locked her up in her own room, and all that sort of thing. It is an awful business whatever way you look at it, Mr Beck, but we have got to make the best of it. You are the poor fellow's last chance. I don't like talking of fees to you, but you know I'm pretty well off. No expense must be spared. I know you will put by everything else, and throw yourself into this with your whole heart and soul."
"I won't take up the case, I cannot take up the case," said Mr Beck, with quiet determination. "Don't you see why I cannot? You are Kerwan's best friend, and yet you cannot conceal your strong suspicion of his guilt. The facts against him are damning. I know Miss Melville for the nicest girl in Deemington. Do you think I could set my mind to work and by some quibble of the law save a murderer from the gallows and give him for a husband to a nice young girl? The thing is preposterous."
"But every man is to be presumed innocent until he is proved guilty; isn't that what the lawyers say?"
"Rot!" broke in Mr Beck, impatiently. "I am not going to stifle my conscience with legal jargon. I couldn't if I tried. I would help to hang the man if I did anything, and I don't want to do that."
In vain Wolfington attempted to shake his resolve, and after a full half-hour's unavailing remonstrance and entreaty he departed disconsolate to see what could be done elsewhere.
MR BECK made no pretence of resuming his breakfast. He flung himself into an easy chair, his brain in a perfect whirl. But through the horror and confusion of his thoughts there kept constantly rising to the surface the vague suggestion: "What if Dr Kerwan is innocent after all?"
It was a positive relief to him when a second knock came to his chamber door, low and timid this time.
"Come in," he cried, glancing round, without rising from his seat. But the next moment he was on his feet, staring with open-eyed amazement.
The doorway framed a girl's figure, as winsome as ever man's eyes looked upon. The young face was very pale, the sweet, red lips close shut, yet quivering, and the blue eyes bright with piteous entreaty.
"Miss Melville!" was all he could stammer out.
"Yes, I have come myself," she said, answering his looks not his words, "I know you will not refuse me."
He shook his head sorrowfully. "I cannot," he murmured, "indeed I cannot. Did not Mr Wolfington tell you?"
"He did. He told me there was no use in my coming, that you were as firm as a rock and as cold. But I knew better. I know you will not let my affianced husband perish miserably without stretching a hand to save him. I have had sorrow enough. I feel as if I were going mad with the horror of it. He is innocent, oh, believe me he is innocent," she cried with plaintive persistence. "His heart is mine, and I know it as I know my own. I could as soon have done this horrible thing myself as he. Will you not save him for me?"
"But Mr Wolfington?" began Mr Beck.
"I have never loved him," the girl cried.
"Love?" said Mr Beck, briskly, with a curious inflection in his voice. "Was Wolfington in love with you?"
"Oh, I should not have spoken of that, but he has forgiven me, he has promised to help me. Oh, do not desert me!"
She flung herself on the floor at his knees, sobbing as if her heart would break.
But he raised her very gently and gravely, as an elder brother might, and helped her to a seat.
"There is no need of that, Miss Melville," he said slowly, "I will do as you desire. Such help as I can give is freely yours, and his. I feel he is innocent. I feel it as strongly as you do yourself. Your love for him is the only warranty I desire. You could not love a man capable of so base a crime. That is assurance enough for me. Another thought has struck me, but it is as yet too vague to talk about. Do not be too hopeful. The case looks very black against your lover. But of this be sure, every power and faculty of my mind will be strained to the one object of saving him. I promise it."
Poor child, she could find no words to thank him. But the grateful look in her soft eyes, and the timid pressure of the little hot hand as he helped her to her carriage were thanks enough, and he felt a kind of envy for the miserable man who lay in prison with the horrible charge hanging over his head.
THE coroner's inquest was next day. Mr Beck formally instructed a clever young solicitor of the town. But he took the whole heat and burden of the case upon himself. He went early in company with the solicitor for the prosecution to examine the body. The knife, he was told, was found clumsily hidden close to the scene of the murder, heft and hilt were clotted with blood. Mr Beck seemed much struck with the five bloodstains on the bosom of the shirt, which he examined closely through a powerful magnifying-glass.
"You will have those photographed, of course, Mr Lestrange," he said to the Crown solicitor, "they may prove useful in elucidating the mystery."
"There does not seem much of a mystery, Mr Beck," replied the other, smiling blandly. "I'm sorry for the wretched man's sake. I had a high opinion of him myself."
"But you will do as I suggest?"
"Certainly, certainly, I had already intended it."
But he hadn't. Beck's suggestion first put the notion in his mind.
It was Beck, too, who first pointed to the fact that the edges of the dead man's waistcoat pockets, and of the light dust-coat he wore, were smeared with blood, as if ransacked with blood-stained fingers. But as his purse and watch were in their place this curious circumstance seemed to lead nowhere.
It is true there had been no trace of blood on Kerwan's hands when he was arrested. But the prosecution was not without its explanation. Faint marks of footsteps had been found leading from the gravel walk where the body was found, down to the brink of the little brook and back again. The marks were indeed too faint to enable the footprints to be identified, but it was quite plain to the official mind that the prisoner had gone down to the brook to wash the red evidence of guilt from his fingers. Why he had afterwards returned to stand over his victim till the police came was, however, a problem which the official mind was not so ready to explain.
It was strange how much Mr Beck seemed perturbed by this little bit of evidence. The official explanation plainly did not satisfy his mind. When the group of spectators and speculators had moved away, he walked down along the line of footprints and stood on the grassy margin of the small stream peering into its brown, running waters, as if he hoped they would give up their secret to his earnest scrutiny.
Then he moved slowly down-stream close to the bank, with restless eyes glancing everywhere. A few hundred yards lower he came to a little miniature whirlpool made by a large grey stone in the centre of the current. The swirling water of this little eddy caught all light things that came floating down the stream, and backed them into a patch of smooth water at the side fringed round with weeds.
This was on the other side of the stream, which was here some sixteen feet across. With an activity none would have expected from his build, Mr Beck backed a score of paces on the firm sward, and cleared the brook from bank to bank at a bound. The next moment he was eagerly peering and poking with his walking cane into the accumulated rubbish. There were all sorts of dank flotsam and jetsam there; a child's boat turned mast downwards, a couple of straw champagne cases from some picnic party upstream, and half a dozen corks, were one after the other raked ashore.
But his interest seemed mainly excited by a number of little, tiny scraps of white paper, torn as small as the "scent" for a boys' paper chase. With infinite care and patience he secured every morsel. He wiped the fragments lightly with his handkerchief and set them in the hot sunshine to dry.
There was writing on the paper, made fainter indeed by the water, but still plainly legible. Beck scanned the writing with intense eagerness, piecing the fragments roughly together, so as to get a word or two in sequence here and there. His keen grey eyes brightened as he looked. A smile struggled at the corners of his firm mouth. "I thought so," he muttered, "I thought so."
Then, packing the scraps carefully in the pocket of his notebook, he cleared the stream once more in a flying leap, and walked briskly back to the town, in good time for the inquest.
THE constables told their story with dull, damning accuracy of detail. The bad feeling between the murdered man and the accused, and the incidents of the finding of the knife and body and the prisoner, were all in turn deposed to.
Then came an unexpected witness. Miss Lilian Melville insisted on being examined. There was what the reporters call "a sensation" in the court, as the graceful figure stepped up to the table, and raising her veil showed a face as pale as death and as sad.
A low murmur ran through the crowd. They had made up their minds about Dr Kerwan's guilt, as people are always ready to believe the worst. His character for kindness and gentleness did not help him in the least; on the contrary, it seemed to heighten the revulsion of feeling against him. There was a bitter indignation in Court that an only sister should come to offer evidence on behalf of her brother's murderer.
All eyes were fixed cruelly on her sweet face, as she took the book. She flushed and trembled under the brutal ordeal, but her low voice was clear and steady, and could be heard at the furthest end of the silent court.
"What do you know about this terrible occurrence, Miss Melville?"
"I know what brought Dr Kerwan to the place that night, and I must tell if he will not." Her voice faltered for a moment, then she went on in the same clear whisper. "He came in answer to a note from me. He is my affianced husband. But my brother was bitterly opposed to our marriage. Dr Kerwan asked me and I agreed to meet him there at ten o'clock, and I left the small gate open for him to come through. I waited for him for about twenty minutes. Then I knew he could not come, for he had always been before time. I had just gone back to the house and was in my own room when I heard the awful cry. A little while afterwards there came a loud knocking at the door. I went down to see what it meant, and I found——" She broke down all of a sudden, her eyes filled up, her lips quivered, and, with one quick glance at the prisoner, she covered her face with her hands and wept silently.
The Crown solicitor waited for a few moments with old-fashioned courtesy. "Will you pardon me a question or two, Miss Melville?" he said at last very gently. "You arranged to meet Dr Kerwan at ten o'clock, you waited twenty minutes; he did not appear. Shortly after you heard the death-cry of your murdered brother?"
She saw the trap into which she had fallen.
"Yes," she answered, so faintly the words were scarcely audible, "that is so."
There was yet another surprise for the court when Dr Kerwan himself stepped into the witness-chair, calm and collected as if he was in his own surgery. It was hard to look on that handsome face, with the broad brow and frank, fearless eyes, and think the man a murderer. "But appearances are deceptive," said one man in the crowd to his neighbour.
Curiously enough Mr Beck made no objection to his being examined. "When I believe a man is innocent," he said, "I let him fire away; he cannot hurt himself. I want all the facts brought out in this case. All."
Very briefly Dr Kerwan confirmed the evidence of Miss Melville. He had gone there to meet her by appointment. He had heard the cry of murder, came suddenly upon the dead body lying in the centre of the pathway, and had been stunned by the sight. It was at that moment the police arrived.
"You were more than half an hour late for your appointment, Dr Kerwan," said Mr Lestrange. "How was that?"
"I cannot account for it. I started from home at half-past nine, and I can walk to the place in a little over twenty minutes. I went straight there without stopping. Perhaps Miss Melville's watch was fast."
"She is confirmed as to the time by the constables. They found the body at half-past ten, and, according to your own story, you had only that moment arrived. Is your own watch a good timekeeper?"
"Most accurate. It never loses or gains a minute. It is a curious, old-fashioned, family watch, with a modern lever movement inserted. The watchmaker told me they make no such works in modern watches. It has been going for a hundred years, and should go for a hundred more."
"Have you it here?"
"I have, but it is run down. I forgot to wind it last night."
"That is unfortunate. Was there anybody with you in your rooms before you started last evening?"
"Yes, Mr Wolfington dined with me. We dined early. I told him I had to keep an important appointment at ten o'clock. He laughed, I remember, and chaffed me about it. He asked me was it a case of heart disease. I told him the hour—I did not tell him what the appointment was, but I think he guessed. He knew of my engagement to Miss Melville."
"He went away before you?"
"Yes, he left about seven or half-past seven."
"Mr Wolfington is a particular friend of yours?"
"A very dear friend. Our friendship began with a long attendance, in which I had the good fortune to pull him through a bad attack of typhoid."
One of the jurors asked that Mr Wolfington might be examined, but he had very little to say. There was a manifest eagerness to make his evidence tell as far as possible in Dr Kerwan's favour. He remembered dining with Dr Kerwan. He had suspected where he was going that evening, but did not know for certain.
"Did Dr Kerwan seem at all nervous or excited?" asked Mr Lestrange.
"Not in the least."
"Pray remember yourself, sir. According to his own story he was going to meet his betrothed. Did he seem at all excited?"
"Oh, yes, now I remember, he was terribly excited. He hardly touched his dinner. He could not sit quiet in his chair."
"You left before he did?"
"Yes, but I think it only fair to say that Dr Kerwan was quite accurate in his evidence about his watch. I know it well. Only that very day he was showing it to me, and telling me what a perfect timekeeper it was. He took off the outer case to show it to me. He said it was over a hundred years old, and was as good as when it started."
"Do you remember was it correct when you looked at it?"
"I'm not quite sure."
"Had you it in your hands?"
"The owner was boasting of its accuracy? Would you not have noticed if it were wrong then?"
"I'm sure I would. I'm sure it was quite correct."
The prisoner's solicitor, prompted by Mr Beck, asked only one question, and that seemed quite wide of the case. "Squire Melville," he said, "was a violent-tempered man to your own knowledge?"
"Yes," replied the witness, eager apparently to help his friend in any way. "He once struck me across the face without any provocation."
THAT closed the inquiry. The jury, after a very brief deliberation indeed, found that Squire Stanley Melville had been wilfully murdered by Dr Mark Kerwan.
There was much disappointment at the "form" displayed by Kerwan's solicitor. He was noted alike for his getting a strong hold on a jury, and his pulverising powers as a cross-examiner. He had displayed neither faculty. He had been apathetic, they said, almost inattentive, and certainly had scarcely opened his mouth during the inquiry. His chance had come and he had not taken it. It was true the case was a hopeless one, but that was no excuse for letting it drop.
"For that very reason," said a sporting solicitor to a group of admirers, "Charley ought to have had his fling out of it. He should have blazed away right and left at everything that got up, and he might have winged a witness with a stray grain at a snapshot. As it is, he has not knocked a feather out of one of them. The last question of his was pure bosh. Did he want to make out that Kerwan was right in stabbing the squire because he had a bad temper?"
But Mr Beck seemed in no way disconcerted with the case or the comment. He even smiled a little as the verdict was read.
Lilian, who knew the man as only women know men, took courage from his smile. Her shy look of gratitude went straight to his heart. His answer was like the man he was. He walked straight to where Dr Kerwan stood with a constable guarding him on either side, and, in full view of the hostile crowd, shook his hand warmly like a friend.
"Keep a good heart, doctor," he said, "I know you are innocent, and I believe we can pull you through yet."
The man in deadly peril looking on that calm, resolute face read hope of life and happiness.
THE magistrate's investigation was little more than a duplicate of the inquest. Dr Kerwan was formally committed for trial at the ensuing Assizes. One curious little incident might have been noticed by a particularly sharp pair of eyes. A different Bible was presented to Wolfington, when he came to be sworn, from that given to the other witnesses, and it quickly and quietly disappeared when his oath was taken. As the two books were identical in appearance, with the same smooth, black, shiny covers, it was hard to notice the change. But Mr Beck's lips twitched at the corners with the faint inception of a smile when he saw the trick performed.
There happened to be little doing at the time, and the newspapers of the three kingdoms made the most of the sensational murder. The whole country seethed in wild excitement over it, and Deemington was of course the centre of the vortex. The Attorney-General came down himself to prosecute, and stayed in the town for a week before the Assizes.
He was much annoyed when he learnt that Mr Beck was working up evidence for the defence, and sent at once for that imperturbable gentleman.
The Attorney-General was a bright-eyed, brisk little man, rapid of speech and movement. The contrast between himself and Mr Beck as they stood together in the best sitting-room of the best hotel of the town was the contrast between a sparrow-hawk and an owl.
"I have heard of you, Mr Beck, very favourably," the Attorney-General began with gracious condescension; "you are well spoken of, Mr Beck, in the highest of quarters, the very highest of quarters. When I learnt you happened to be staying at Deemington, I was anxious to secure your services in this case for the Crown."
"You shall have them, sir," said Mr Beck.
The Attorney-General seemed surprised.
"Then I was mistaken."
"In your view of the case, very likely, Attorney-General."
"No, no"—a little snappishly, "I was mistaken in supposing you were interested for the defence."
"Oh, you are not mistaken in that."
"I'm sorry to hear it. I should have hoped that your sympathies would have been on the side of the law. I suppose I may not ask you if you have discovered any evidence bearing on the case."
"Indeed you may, and I will answer you quite frankly. I must tell you first I have only agreed to help the accused so long as I believed him to be innocent, not a moment longer. That undertaking does not hinder me from bringing a guilty man to justice."
"I'm delighted to hear it. Then I am to understand you have discovered some new and material evidence?"
"Some new and conclusive evidence," corrected Mr Beck.
"It can hardly be more conclusive than the evidence we already possess," said the Attorney-General with an incredulous smile.
"It is far more conclusive."
"Well, well, we won't quarrel about that anyway, we cannot have our case too strong. Will you kindly make out a short outline of your evidence, Mr Beck, and have it sent to the Crown solicitor?"
"No," said Mr Beck, shortly, "I won't." The Attorney-General started. "I will give you my evidence, which I repeat is conclusive, on one condition only, that I am allowed to give it at a consultation at which the counsel and the witnesses for the prosecution are present."
"But this is most irregular."
"I cannot help that."
"Mr Beck," said the Attorney-General, curtly, "I'll be quite frank with you. If I were to act on my own judgment I would instantly refuse your condition. I cannot believe that you have discovered any material evidence not already in the possession of the Crown. I am sure that the evidence we have already against the accused is, as it stands, quite sufficient to secure his conviction."
"I am quite sure it is," said Mr Beck.
"Then, in the name of common sense, what do we want with yours?"
"To make surety double sure. In a murder case there should be no room, not the space of a pin's point, for doubt."
"Quite so, quite so," assented the Attorney-General, "and you think the evidence vital?"
"I'm sure of it."
"You are very confident. Let me say again frankly your confidence does not convince me. But you have strong backers, Mr Beck. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister himself have spoken very highly of you. I accept your conditions."
So it came about that three days before the trial there was an informal Crown consultation. All the witnesses examined at the inquest were present, together with the counsel and solicitor for the Crown. Even Lilian Melville was there. A thick, black veil hid her face, but in the pose of her head, in every movement and gesture, there was a suggestion of impatience.
As she entered, young Wolfington sought her side with softly-uttered sympathy, but she managed to elude him, and kept as close as possible to Mr Beck, who for his part kept close to the door.
"Won't you sit down, Mr Beck?" said the Attorney-General, with dangerous courtesy—the courtesy of the cushioned paws of the cat with the nails close to the surface.
"Thanks. I can say what I have got to say standing," replied Mr Beck, mildly.
"Then perhaps you will be kind enough to say what you have to say—if you have anything worth saying," retorted the Attorney-General. The last few words were in an aside to a colleague, but loud enough for Mr Beck to hear.
"Well, the first thing I have to say," he began bluntly, "is that you have got hold of the wrong man."
A QUIVER of surprise ran through his audience. Lilian Melville turned her veiled face sharply towards Mr Beck. One could see she was looking and listening intently. Young Wolfington, sitting by himself at the far end of the room, grew rigid with excitement at the words. The Attorney-General laughed jarringly. "Indeed! sir, and will you give us the right one?"
"In good time."
"You have witnesses, I presume, to the truth of this singular statement, Mr Beck. You will perhaps offer us an alibi"—and he laughed again contemptuously.
"I have no witnesses, only a few photos," said Mr Beck.
"How interesting! You mean, I presume, to produce them on behalf of the prisoner at his trial?"
"No, for the sufficient reason that the prisoner you hold will never be tried."
"And why not, if I may inquire?"
"Because in half an hour you will yourself order his release."
Then the Attorney-General, dropping his bantering tone, lapsed into sudden anger.
"Let us have an end of this nonsense, sir," he cried sharply. "If you have really anything to the purpose, tell it. But remember I need proofs."
"You shall have them. Bear with me for just one minute. I want to begin at the beginning. It was Mr Frank Wolfington's visit that first put me on the right track. For that service, at least, the prisoner has to thank him."
Mr Wolfington stood up as if to speak, but sat down without a word.
"Mr Wolfington gave me my first clue," went on Mr Beck, smoothly, "then I blundered on from one thing to another through the dark passage till I came out into the light at the far end.
"I need not remind you, sir," he said, addressing the Attorney-General, and emphasising his points with a thick forefinger on a broad palm, "I need not remind you of the blood marks on the pockets of the murdered man. They were a little hard to explain as there was nothing stolen, and there was no blood on the hands of Dr Kerwan which were supposed to have made those marks.
"Of course the Crown had a theory—the Crown always has a theory." He said this quite seriously, not in the least as if he were laughing at the Crown. "Dr Kerwan, it was surmised, had gone down to the little stream to wash the blood off his hands; there were the footmarks down and back to prove it. But that didn't quite explain why Dr Kerwan should come back to stand beside the man he murdered.
"I didn't like the Crown's answer to the riddle. I tried one of my own. The real murderer—the chap with the bloody fingers—knew of some clue in the squire's pockets. He wanted that, though he didn't want purse or money. He went down to the stream to throw it in. If by any chance it happened to be paper—a letter for example—it would float. My guess chanced to come right. Here is a letter I got out of the water. It was torn into little bits when I got it, but I have patched it together."
He handed the letter to the Attorney-General—a letter pasted on a dark sheet of paper, with scores of faint, zigzag marks, like the lines on a child's puzzle map, showing the piecing together of the fragments, and the Attorney-General read it aloud:
"'If you would find your sister and the Irish doctor in company, try the Wild Hyacinth Walk at half-past ten this evening. I don't ask you to take anything on trust. Seeing is believing.—Yours, A Faithful Friend.'"
"The handwriting is disguised," went on Mr Beck, placidly, "but I think, if need be, I can prove who wrote it. That letter brought Squire Melville to his death."
"But——" began the Attorney-General.
"One moment," said Mr Beck, "there are a lot of 'buts' in the case; there is an answer to them all.
"What, you may ask, kept Dr Kerwan late for his appointment? How did his watch go wrong—how was his surgical knife found near the place all covered with the squire's blood? Let me ask a few questions in reply. Who was in Dr Kerwan's rooms that day? Who knew of his appointment? Who had his watch in his hand and could put it back or forward as he pleased? Who had the chance of stealing the knife out of the surgery? Finally, who was likely to take the chance at one stroke to revenge himself on the man he had reason to hate and to clear a favoured rival for ever out of his way?"
Excitement and suspense were growing in the room, but Mr Beck's insistent voice gave no time for expression.
"It is easy to guess, but we need no guessing," he continued implacably, "when we have clear proof.
"You remember the five blood marks on the shirtfront of the murdered man?"
The Attorney-General nodded.
"I never had a doubt," said Mr Beck, "the murderer pressed his blood-stained finger and thumb tips on the breast of his victim as he drew out the knife which was wedged in the wound. That was his signature to his work—his hand and seal on the deed. I need not tell you, sir, that there can be no more infallible test of a man's identity. It is the test used, as you know, in every prison in Europe. Well, at my request, the solicitor for the Crown had a magnified photo made of those marks, and here it is."
He showed as he spoke a huge photo of five great spots on a white ground. Each spot was traversed with a thousand fine lines like a skeleton leaf, or a close-woven cobweb.
"I wanted the murderer's finger and thumb marks for comparison and I got them. A Bible was prepared for his sole use at the inquest. A thin coating of wax was on the cover, and took the impression of his thumb and finger tips. Of this impression, too, I had a magnified photo made to compare with the other. In every line and curve it is identical. There is no escape from the conclusion. The hand that held that Bible was the hand that grasped the knife. The Sacred Book bears witness against the murderer."
Mr Beck never raised his voice, but there was that in his level tone that held his audience fast.
When he paused the silence was intense.
It was broken suddenly by a quick, short snap, like the report of a Christmas cracker. But there was death in that puny sound.
A puff of smoke rose in a corner of the room, and the hot smell of gunpowder stole into the air.
There was a rush to pick up the limp, lifeless figure; that was all that was left of the gay, debonair Frank Wolfington. His right hand still grasped a pretty toy pistol—a charming, ivory-inlaid, gold-mounted plaything, only a few inches in length—a dainty trifle, brilliant as a gaily-coloured snake of the tropics, and as deadly. They found a little, jagged, red hole in the white forehead—"not as deep as a well nor as wide as a church door," but it served. Frank Wolfington had anticipated the hangman.
Turning his back on the dead man and the crowd that buzzed about him, the Attorney-General gripped Mr Beck's hand hard. He was manifestly much shaken. "I thank you," he said in a low voice. "But for you I would have prosecuted an innocent man to the death. You will come with me at once."
"Where?" asked Mr Beck.
"Straight to the prison, of course, with an order for the prisoner's release. He must not suffer a moment that can be spared him."
"Attorney-General," said Mr Beck, gravely, "there is one here who has first claim. It is to the loyalty of Miss Melville that her affianced husband owes his escape from a shameful death."
The Attorney-General turned, eager as a boy, to the girl whose veil was thrown aside, whose cheeks were flushed and lips bright with the joy of a great deliverance.
"You will come with us, dear lady," he said. "You will be the first to tell him the good news with your own lips. It is a privilege you have earned."
Non sibi sed omnibus
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