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First published in The Royal Magazine, February 1908
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: 2021-11-30

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"The Quests of Paul Beck,"
with "The Unseen Hand"



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.


THEY were a pleasant party at Alwood—Lord Marchal's big and beautiful country-seat, twenty miles from anywhere at all, in the heart of the wild country. Reversing the customary precedents, his lordship's daughter Winifred—more popularly known as Lady Madcap—was to marry Roland Parker, one of the very youngest and best-looking of America's multi-millionaires. The wedding presents had come pouring in in an ever-increasing torrent for a month or more, and one large room at Alwood glittered like a Bond Street shop with a vast array of silver and gold and flashing jewels, for winsome Lady Madcap was the most popular girl in the countryside.

Only the day before, Roland Parker had come over in his new toy—an eighty horse-power Mercedes, which he drove with erratic recklessness, and his coming naturally gave fresh stimulus to the gaieties at Alwood.

They kept it up late that night, the young folk in the ball- room, and their elders at the bridge-tables, and the darkness was melting into the summer dawn before the great house had settled to repose.

All of a sudden a startled cry, then the sharp crack of a pistol-shot rang through the silence of the still dawn. Instantly the whole household was awake and buzzing like a beehive with excitement. As by magic the great stairs and corridors were thronged with a babbling and disorderly crowd. The women in dressing-gowns, the men in pyjamas, bare-footed and bareheaded, streamed with one accord towards the room where the wedding-presents were housed.

Alert and strenuous young Roland Parker headed the throng. Within a minute after the shot was heard his hand was on the door knob. The handle turned, but the door refused to open. He stepped back a pace or two into the thick of the following crowd, his shoulder came against the door with a crash like a battering ram, the fastening gave, and he plunged headlong into darkness. Rebounding from the floor like a rubber ball, he was on his feet in a moment.

A breath of the cold night air struck across his face, and from the farther end of the room came a low moaning. Groping with stretched fingers, Roland found the switch of the electric light. The dazzling glare of a score of lamps flashed out at once, as the crowd—wild-eyed with excitement—came pouring into the room.

There all was confusion, tables overthrown and their contents scattered on the ground. In a corner, huddled in a shapeless heap, moaning, bleeding, and blubbering, lay the footman who had been left on guard during the night. The table in front of him was overturned, his revolver lay on the floor, and beside it a broken champagne bottle, the liquor foaming white over the carpet.


Huddled in a shapeless heap... lay the footman
who had been left on guard during the night.

Roland had seen service in the Spanish-American war. A single glance showed him the footman was more frightened than hurt. The fellow told his story in short gasps. He could not deny that he had had a little champagne to drink his young lady's health; then he must have dropped off in a doze, from which he woke suddenly to see a man with a black bag moving silently from table to table.

In his surprise the footman leapt to his feet and cried out. Thereupon the burglar, without an instant's hesitation, turned and fired his revolver.

"My leg felt as if you had put hot iron to it," the man wailed. "I caught the table and it came over with me. Then the lights went out, and a moment afterwards the door burst open."

One look was quite enough to tell Roland how the burglar had entered and escaped. The window stood open, and under it was a chair. Breaking through, the burglar had shivered the glass, which lay in a glittering litter on the carpet.

"We have him!" cried Lord Marchal, exultantly. "He cannot escape. The window opens on to the garden, and the garden on to the coachyard. The gates are locked, the walls of the coachyard are too high to climb without a ladder, and the ladders are all locked up at night. The fellow is caught in a trap."

Meanwhile poor Lady Madcap darted from table to table with little shrill cries of dismay. "Oh, oh!" she wailed, "the brute has taken all my nicest things, nothing but jewels or gold."

"Egad!" commented Lord Marchal, "that black bag of his is worth carrying."

"And it will be hard to carry. Gold weighs heavy, sir," interposed Roland, who seemed instinctively to take command of the situation. Already he had tied up the footman's wound with a handkerchief, and had him carried off to bed. Now he turned to the crowd of half-dressed men who waited impatiently for instructions; the ladies in déshabille had melted away from the glare of the electric light, as snow melts before the sunshine.

"You fellows get a move on," cried Roland; "it's up to you to catch this chap. Jump into your things, search the garden and coach-house. I'm off to the police-station."

"It is a long twelve miles," objected Lord Marchal.

"Twenty minutes for the motor," Roland answered cheerily. "I'll be back with the 'cops' within the hour."

AS the big car went humming and throbbing round the bend of the avenue in the grey light of the dawn, a girl stepped into the middle of the road and blocked its passage, both hands raised. Roland put the brakes down hard, and the wheels ploughed the gravel.

"Jerusalem! You here, Winnie?"

"Just so." She was beside the car now.

"But, my girl, you cannot come, you know."

"You mean, my boy, you cannot go without me."

"I just can. Why not?"

"You are off to the police-station?"

"That's so."

"You know the way, of course," with fine scorn.

"I can ask the way," stammered Roland, who had missed this important point.

"Ask the trees! ask the stones! You won't meet a soul on the road. Now don't be silly. Move over a little on the seat; I'll show you the way."

Before he could remonstrate she had jumped in beside him, and the great car went humming down the avenue and out through the huge, wrought-iron gates to the high road.

"To the right!" cried Lady Madcap, and nestled comfortably amongst the cushions.

It was her boast that she could dress, and dress well, in seven minutes. "Ten if I dawdle." And now she had justified her boast. The trim blue costume was perfect. Her cheeks were flushed, and her brown eyes alight with excitement. She looked her best, and knew it.

"Straight on," she said, as she jabbed in the hat pins more tightly and drew a thick blue motor veil over her face, "like a cloud over the sun," as Roland observed with a lover's fatuity.

IT was a delicious drive, so they confided to one another. The cool freshness of the dawn, faintly sweet with the perfumes of the may-blossoms, was in the air, and the half-awakened birds were chirping in the thick hedgerows. A sharp shower had fallen during the night and laid the white dust under a thin coat of grey mud through which the wheels of the great motor slid noiselessly.

The lovers' hearts were elate as they sped through the growing dawn. Lady Madcap half forgot her lost trinkets, and Roland thought the drive was cheaply bought at their loss. They sat needlessly close together, though the front seat of the great motor was wide, and Roland had only one hand on the steering wheel as they sped along the straight stretches, or whirled perilously on two wheels round the curves. It was perhaps lucky that the roads were so lonesome.

More and more light it grew, and of a sudden the red rim of the sun blazed over the edge of a distant hill, just as the motor drew up with a jerk at the narrow entrance to the lane that led to the police-station. Both leapt out together, leaving the motor at the roadside.

The lane wound between high hedges white with may-blossom, up the steep slope on which the police-station stood, with rustic porch and creepers, disguised as a rural cottage.

EARLY as was the hour, the inmates were already astir in the police-station. The sound of voices came down to their ears as they climbed the slope of the lane.

"Yes, Mr Beck," a loud voice cried cheerily, "as good a stream for trout as any in the county or the county next it. Try the deep pool under the crooked elm tree. There's a big trout there, five pounds if it's an ounce. I hooked him last Sunday fortnight, and he snapped my line as if it were sewing cotton. Good-morning and good luck. I wish you the best of sport."

A stout, good-humoured man, fishing-rod in hand and fishing-basket over his shoulder, came briskly past them in the lane, and they had a glimpse of the sergeant at the porch, half dressed, waving him a cordial good-bye.

The next moment the sergeant caught sight of them in turn, and stared with round, wide-open eyes—a stout statue of surprise.

"Morning, my lady," he stammered. "Is there anything I can do? I did not expect to see—I beg your pardon, miss——" His fingers fumbled hopelessly with his buttons, his tongue left the sentence unfinished.

My Lady Madcap took him up kindly, but briskly. "Sorry to trouble you, sergeant," she said, "but there has been a burglary at Alwood. My presents have all been stolen. We want you and your men to come at once to catch the thief. The motor-car is waiting on the road."

The sergeant was himself in a moment; his eyes lit with more than professional alacrity. His first sudden exclamation startled his visitors as much as their coming had startled him.

"Your ladyship is in luck," he cried. "Here Tom!" he shouted to a lounging, half-clad subordinate, "look alive, will you? Run after Mr Beck, and ask him will he be kind enough to step back here for a moment. Tell him it's something in his line, something very important."

"You'll excuse me, my lady," the sergeant added more soberly to the astonished girl, while Tom set off at a sharp trot after the fisherman, "when I said you were in luck. I didn't mean you were lucky to lose your wedding presents; but you were lucky to light by mere chance on the man who, if any man can, will catch the thief for you. I was in a job with him myself once—a queer murder case it was—and we all suspected the wrong man before he came. But Mr Beck spelt it out as easy as A B C. He's as clever as they make 'em, my lady."

The constable must have missed his way, for it was a full fifteen minutes before he returned with the burly fisherman in tow. Meanwhile the sergeant had been voluble in the great detective's praises.

"Mr Beck," he broke off abruptly, addressing the stout gentleman who sauntered back good-humouredly, "here is Lady Winifred Marchal, who wants your help in the matter of a burglary. My lady, this is Mr Paul Beck, the cleverest detective in the world."

Mr Beck waved the compliment aside with a big hand. "The luckiest if you like, sergeant," he muttered, and the great detective actually blushed.

"My luck, such as it is, is at your ladyship's service," he added, bowing.

"But your fishing, Mr Beck, and the big trout under the twisted elm? We overheard the sergeant, you know, as we came up the lane."

"The big trout must wait," he said, "when there are bigger fish to be caught. There is no time to lose, my lady."

Then the girl found a new quality—a sudden alert briskness in the detective's eyes and voice. He had spoken to her, but as he spoke he glanced inquiringly at Roland.

"My intended husband," said Lady Winifred, graciously. "He knows all about it. Tell him, Roland."

With an American's curt clearness Roland told the story, Mr Beck listening intently without question or comment. "He was caught in a trap, you see," concluded Roland, "there is no way out of the garden except into the yard."

"And out of the yard?"

"No way unless he flew."

"How did you come?"

"Oh, I drove out through the gate in my motor, of course."

"Just so," said Mr Beck, drily.

Roland looked surprised at this question and answer. "Don't let us lose time," he said eagerly; "I've got to take you back as quick as the motor can carry us to Alwood; if you'll come, that is."

"We'll go first to the motor, anyway," said the placid Mr Beck, "then—we'll see."

The motor, with its bright crimson morocco cushions, and its big brass lamps glaring in the sunshine in discordant contrast to the green and white of the hedgerow, challenged the detective's admiration.

"A fine car," said Mr Beck, with the quick, appreciative glance of the expert. Then he went round to the back, and, stooping, peered at the grey layer of mud on the road between the motor and the hedgerow.

"As I thought," he said sharply. Plainly he had found what he sought for; he straightened himself and beckoned to Roland.

"See," he said, and pointed.

Roland and the sergeant and the girl behind him looked intently where he pointed, and all six eyes saw nothing but the grey mud of the road.

Mr Beck's forefinger came down closer to the surface. Then they saw two small marks, about a yard apart, in the grey mud—one fainter than the other—two small half-circles with lines across.

"The toes of ribbed rubber-soled shoes," Mr Beck explained quietly. "You carried the burglar and his bag with you from Alwood, Mr Parker, under the back seat of your motor."

"By Jove!" cried Roland, "you don't say so. What a plucky devil! If we had only caught him."

"Lucky you didn't," commented Mr Beck, drily. "The fellow had a revolver and knew how to use it." He glanced quickly at Lady Madcap, who stood wide-eyed with startled surprise at this strange discovery.

Roland caught the look, and his bronzed cheek paled at the thought of what might have happened.

"What next?" he asked, eager for action.

Mr Beck answered the question with another to the sergeant. "How far to the nearest railway station?"

"Five short miles, straightforward."

"When does the next train start?"

The sergeant consulted a silver turnip. "Thirty-five minutes, sir," he answered; "a fast train goes through to London."

"Right," cried Mr Beck, cheerily. "Time enough and to spare. Jump in all three. Stay! Just one moment to make quite sure."

He crossed the road, pushed his head and shoulders through the hedgerow with his eyes on the rank grass beyond, and was back in a moment. "All right," he said again, "the fellow has gone on." Then, as he climbed in beside the girl in the back seat, "Now, Mr Parker, straight for the railway station. Let her rip."

ROLAND was a bit awkward at starting, and a minute was lost before they got under way. But the big car soon gathered speed.

The sharp wind which blew in their faces rose to a gale against the rush of the car. They had not gone half a mile when at a word from Mr Beck they stopped to pick up a light grey tweed cap which lay on the road.

"Why did the owner leave it there?" queried Lady Winifred, curiously, as Mr Beck, cap in hand, stepped back into the car.

"Blew off over the fence," Mr Beck explained curtly. "Didn't want to leave footmarks in the road coming after it."

A minute later the rhythmic throb of the machine was broken by spasmodic jerks, and it came slowly to a standstill, shivering through its big bulk like a wounded beast. Mr Beck grabbed the toolbag, and was out and under the machine in a moment. He emerged presently, his broad waistcoat a plaster of mud, a black grease stain across his face.

"All right," he cried to Roland, "a fly got into the spraying nozzle and choked it." He showed a tiny damp dot on his forefinger. "Small thing to hold up an eighty-horse-power car."

Even as he spoke the great car crept smoothly into motion.

But their troubles were not yet over.

As they swept round a long curve, Roland suddenly shouted, and put the brakes down. But it was Mr Beck who, leaning across, threw the machinery out of gear. Only just in time. The front wheels stopped not twenty paces from a man in a light tweed cycling suit, who lay bareheaded prone on the road, with a smashed bicycle beside him. A black bag was strapped awkwardly to the handle-bar of his machine.

"Got him!" shouted Roland, triumphantly, as he plunged his hand into the black bag, and drew out a small gold cup and a jewel-case from a jumble of underclothing.

"Poor fellow! Is he dead?" asked Lady Winifred.

Mr Beck was bending over the prostrate man, with his hand over his heart.

"No, not dead, my lady; nor like to die," he said gravely. "It was a close shave, though."

"This is no bicycle accident, Mr Parker," he added; "more like an attempted murder. There was nothing to throw the bike down on this smooth track. That machine was broken up deliberately, battered down on the road, and trampled on."

"We've got the right man, anyhow," persisted Roland.

"Not a bit of it," said Mr Beck. "This poor chap is an innocent victim."

"But the cap, Mr Beck, the black bag, and the things I found in it."

"The cap was stolen by the thief," Mr Beck explained, "the black bag, and the few things in it were left behind by the thief. See—this cap I found on the road is three sizes too large for this poor fellow's head. We have a clever and dangerous man to deal with, Mr Parker. I can see what happened as well as if I had been an eye-witness. Our man wanted a cap for one thing. He wanted to throw pursuit off the scent for another. Here was a chance. He called to the bicyclist from the roadside, pretended that he was hurt, no doubt. When this foolish Samaritan dismounted to help him he knocked him down. See this cut to the bone on the right temple. A ring did that. See the bump on the back of the poor chap's head where it met the road. Look at the track on the mud, where the scoundrel dragged the body across from the side to the centre, covering up his own footmarks at the same time.

"A neat piece of work," commented Mr Beck, "a very neat piece of work, and all on the spur of the moment. More proof," he added, as he picked up a little spiral white rag, blood-stained through and through. "Our man cut his finger with the window glass. This is what he tied it up with."

But even while he rapped out these quick, sharp sentences, Mr Beck's hands were not idle. He had brought the cyclist back to the grassy bank on the roadside, propped him up comfortably, and forced some brandy and water, drop by drop, through his tight-clenched teeth. It was a long ten minutes before the man gave the slightest sign of returning life. Then his lips quivered with a noiseless sigh, and a faint colour showed in his cheek.

"He'll do now," cried Mr Beck, who had watched and waited impatiently. "We will leave him and the brandy flask in your charge, sergeant. He'll come through all right, and we'll be back in twenty minutes to take him to the police-station." He pulled out his watch. "God bless my soul, we're nearly late. Jump in, Mr Parker, and let her rip! Full speed! Never mind the law!" And they slid down a long slope and climbed the opposite hill with a rush.

Too late! The train went panting out of the station as the motor pulled up abruptly at the entrance.

Mr Beck's placidity had disappeared. He was out and on the platform in a moment in eager conversation with the station-master.

"You've got a burglar on board your train," he said, "and a would-be murderer. Wire to stop it at the next station. Small, wiry man with bicycle bag, wearing cap two sizes too small for him, diamond ring on left hand, has cut finger tied with a strip of handkerchief. Don't stand looking at me, man! Wire at once!"

The station-master went off like a shot, but was back in a moment with dismay writ plain on his broad face.

"The wires are cut," he gasped.

Mr Beck growled like a dog when a bone is snatched from between his teeth.

"I might have guessed it," he grumbled; "the clever devil has taken no chances. Have you located the break?"

"No. It is nowhere near the station."

"He must have climbed the telegraph pole a mile or two outside, and probably broke the non-conductor as well. It would take too long to find the break and tap the wire. How far to the next station where the train stops?"

"Twenty-seven miles," said the station-master. "It's a big town, Warmington. You see, sir, if I had only known beforehand I could——"

The station-master never told what he could have done, for Mr Beck was out beside the motor before his sentence was finished.

"Man gone," he cried, "and wires cut. What's your car, Mr Parker? Seventy horse-power, eh?"

"Eighty," said Roland, proudly.

"Then we may do it yet, Mr Parker. Will you trust your car with me for a couple of hours? I'm going to try to overhaul that train."

"You may have the car," said Roland, shortly, "but I go too. I'm bound to see this thing through."

"All right. Kindly step out, Lady Winifred; we'll come back for you."

"No!" said Lady Madcap.

"But, Winnie——" began Roland.

"Don't lose time arguing, sir. I won't stir a step. You cannot drag me out. You'll be late if you stand there talking."

"If she will she must," said Mr Beck, and jumped into the car.

"I take a back seat this time," said Roland. "Come over here, Winnie, and hold on tight." He suited the action to the word. "Now, Mr Beck!"

THE car turned the corner smoothly and faced out into the long, smooth road. Far off a thin trail of white smoke showed against the pale blue of the morning sky. The train had got a two miles' start. Like a restive horse when the reins are slackened, the huge motor went off with a sudden plunge that made the two behind jump in their seats, and drew a little smothered scream from the girl.

"Don't, Roland, don't!" she pouted, "don't squeeze me. I'm not a bit nervous; it's glorious, glorious!"

The car gathered speed. It was flying. The wind that was at their back when they started grew into a fierce gale in their faces. Dimly they saw the grey road slide under the rushing wheels like the water of a torrent unimaginably swift. The hedges on either side, like long, green walls, raced by them. A steep incline showed vaguely in the distance. They had topped its ridge and were rushing down the slope.

What is that black blot on the vague line of the long, straight road? Before thought could frame the question they were by the market cart, with a dim vision of an angry man shaking his whip at them as they passed. Faster and faster! The wheels no longer rolled, they bounded like a greyhound on his stride, leaving a broken trail on the grey crust of the road. Once when they flashed over the sharp ridge of a culvert, they felt the huge monster go sheer into the air like a leaping horse, and land with a thud five paces forward.

The thin line of smoke which had vanished as they started again showed faint on the horizon's edge as they swept in a hurricane up the slope of a high hill. Faster and faster till it seemed they would shoot over the crest into space. They lost sight of the smoke as they slid down into the valley, but they found it again, longer and thicker, at the next rise of the ground. The road curved inwards and then ran for three miles parallel with the railway line.

Now the trail of smoke is almost straight ahead and very near. The rushing car is gaining on the train, closer and closer it creeps till it is level with the rearmost carriage. Slowly as a snail they seemed to crawl along the line of carriages, though the car is racing at the rate of sixty miles an hour. They are level with the engine at last; they have passed it, when a curve of the road sweeps them once more apart.

"Two miles more! We'll do it yet," gasped Mr Beck, and the words were blown back to those behind by the rush of the wind. But fast upon the words there followed a despairing cry.

The car came round a corner on two wheels, the others spinning in the air. The road stretched long and straight in front, but the despairing cry broke from the driver's lips when he saw a railway level crossing right before him. Even as he spoke, the long gates closed with a clang across the road, to guard the approaching train.

The motor brakes went down hard, the car jarred and jolted as it slid with the fierce momentum of its former speed down the smooth slope to the opposing barrier. So fast it went before the brakes could hold, it struck and bulged the strong steel of the gates.

In that moment, as if the sudden stopping had shot him from the car, Mr Beck was out and over the gate and on to the line. A vivid red silk handkerchief waved in his hand.

The approaching engine yelled out a fierce long cry of warning and menace, but Mr Beck held his ground. The train brakes grasped and rasped and squeaked upon the wheels, and before he stepped off the lines the huge train came grumbling to a stand.

"In the name of the law," he whispered blandly to the cursing engine-driver as he passed him. "You've a man that's wanted for burglary and attempted murder. I'll have him out in a moment and signal you again."

From every carriage window heads protruded and voices cried to him. But Mr Beck's quick eyes fastened upon one face alone. It was a pale, handsome face at the window of a first-class carriage. A tweed cap two sizes too small was perched on the head. The first finger of the hand that rested on the window-sash was tied with a strip of blood-stained linen; on the third finger there glittered a diamond ring.

"A break-down, porter?" cried the man to Mr Beck. "No danger, I suppose?"

"Great danger!" grunted Mr Beck; "get out at once."

The man stooped for a bicycle bag that lay on the seat beside him, and opened the door with the bag in his hand.

Then, seeing no one else had moved, he hesitated and would have gone back.

But a sudden grip on his collar jerked him, bag and all, headlong out of the carriage and flung him on his back. Mr Beck signalled the engine-driver, and with a storm of impatient snorts the train trailed itself round a curve and vanished.


A sudden grip on his collar jerked him,
bag and all, headlong out of the carriage-

At that moment Lady Madcap and her lover came rushing across the line, abandoning the quivering motor at the gate.

The fallen man picked himself up and turned with quiet fury on Mr Beck.

"This is an outrage," he hissed; "you have made some damnable blunder, and you'll pay dearly for it. Here is my card!"

"No you don't," said Mr Beck, quietly. He caught the man's wrists with a sudden grip like a steel trap, and drew from his breast pocket the right hand and the revolver it held. The weapon dropped harmless on the ground as Mr Beck jerked the man's wrists together, and there was a glimmer and click of steel as the handcuff catch snapped.

Lady Madcap screamed.

"It's all right, my lady," said Mr Beck, soothingly. "I think you will find your pretty nick-nacks safe in the bicycle bag."


Roy Glashan's Library
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