Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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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.
BECK'S wife had just been beaten at tennis, fifteen games to thirteen, and vainly challenged him to a return match. Now as he lay on his back on the warm green sward, his head on a silk cushion, a cigar between his lips tilted skywards, and an iced drink on a low table within easy reach, he smiled up at her a beatific smile of lazy enjoyment.
The trees were still in full foliage, but not a leaf quivered in the still, warm air of evening. The sky, to Mr. Beck's upturned eyes, was an ocean of pure blue in which rested a thousand fantastic cloud islands clear outlined and solid-seeming as land.
"September is the loveliest month of the year," he breathed out softly in a puff of faint smoke that went straight up and melted into pure air.
"You said that of April, May, June, July, and August," protested his wife indignantly.
"Of course I did; each was the loveliest at the time. To a man with a nice wife and a clear conscience the present hour is always the best."
"Clear conscience!" cried she tauntingly, as she dropped down on the grass beside him. "Oh, you hypocrite! What have you to say to that? I have kept it all day that I might worry you as you deserve when you were in your very laziest humour."
Before his sleepy eyes was flaunted a gold locket with a ruby-eyed phoenix wrought in flaming opals, that shone a hundred flickering colours in the sunshine.
"I found it in an old box in your study," she went on. "Don't tell me that that is merely a memento of one of your cases."
"Certainly not; if I did you would want me to tell you all about the case."
"You can't deny you got it from a girl?"
"I could deny it if I chose. I'm not George Washington, my dear. But there is no use lying when you wouldn't believe me."
"Her picture is inside, I suppose?"
"You only suppose. Do you mean to say that you have had the locket all this time without opening it? Who can say women are curious after that? Well, open it now, if you want to—there, hold it steady or you'll spill it."
She pressed the spring and the lid flew open, a gold flash in the sunshine, and showed inside a little gold tray of snow-white ashes with a few dark specks scattered through it.
"Oh, Paul, you heathen! Was she cremated, and are these her ashes you carry about in a locket?"
Mr. Beck raised himself slowly and labouriously to a sitting posture, and took the cigar from his mouth to reply solemnly:
"It is the ashes of the phoenix, Dora, the golden bird of the sun."
"Don't talk nonsense, Paul!"
"It's the truth, my dear. That little pinch of ashes was worth sixty thousand pounds once upon a time."
She closed the locket with a snap.
"You must tell me the whole story."
Beck sighed resignedly.
"Act I. Scene 1.—Wimbledon Golf Links," he began. "I was playing golf with young Markham and beating him. It wasn't so much that he was off his game as that he was off his head. Someone once said that golf is a cure for worry. If you are playing well nothing troubles you, if you are not playing well nothing else troubles you. It is true enough as a rule, but there are exceptions. Young Markham was a very decided and remarkable exception.
"He was a broad-shouldered, curly-headed young chap, who drove like a steam-engine, and was as keen as mustard on the game. But that day when he missed a short putt clean and clear to the tenth tee, instead of the customary 'damn' he said 'tut-tut.'
"That settled it. I put my driver in my bag, and sent my caddie for my ball two hundred yards away, and strolled quietly back to the club house. Even that didn't rouse him; he strolled quietly back with me without a word.
"'It's no use, old chap,' I said, putting my hand on his shoulder, 'own up. You are in some trouble.'
"He only nodded twice, the second to emphasise the first.
"'I'm in the deuce of a hole,' he said.
"'Is it about a girl?'
"'It is and it isn't. It's about a will, a curious case, something right in your line, Beck. I was thinking I would ask you to lend a hand, but I was afraid you'd think me too cheeky.'
"For answer I offered him my hand on the spot.
"'Yours to command,' I said. 'Come straight back to town and dine with me at my chambers. We will talk the matter over after dinner.'
"When we were settled comfortably after dinner, with our pipes going, he began:
"'I can't find a will my father drew up, and there's over sixty thousand pounds depending on it.'
"'Let's have the whole story,' I suggested. 'Begin at the beginning.'
"He started afresh:
"'Old Bartley Banks—you may have heard the name—a rich wine merchant, got my father to make his will about twelve or thirteen years ago. The old chap had married a second time, a Mrs. Alington, a real good sort. They had no children of their own, but Mrs. Alington had a daughter, Molly, by her first husband.'
"'Yes, the girl, as you will have it so. The three of them lived in a pretty detached villa out Hampstead way, and were all as happy as birds in a nest. Old Banks doted on his step-daughter, who was about twelve when the will was made.'
"'Did you ever see the will?'
"'Never. The governor told me when he took me into partnership a few years ago. The will was on a single sheet of paper with room to spare. Old Banks left all he died possessed of to his wife for her lifetime, and after her death to her daughter Mary, commonly called Molly, Alington. His only nephew he cut off with a shilling. The reason was plainly set out, the governor told me, but I could never get him to tell me what it was.
"'When the will was drawn, signed, and witnessed, old Banks put it into an envelope labelled "My last will," and carried it off with him. A year later the poor old chap went off his head; nothing dangerous, you know, just silly and careless and happy. He thought he was a three-year-old child and tried to live up to the part.
"'The wife wouldn't put him anywhere. She kept him in her own place and took care of him till she died three years ago. Then Molly took up the reins and was as kind and patient as her mother had been. The old chap thought she was his mother; he was crazy about her. "Good-bye, mammy. God bless you," were the last words he spoke.'
"'When did he die?'
"'About three weeks ago. Just a little while before that the nephew came back—Vincent is his name—a very decent young fellow, if you ask me; but the old chap couldn't bear the sight of him.
"'Well, when old Banks died I hadn't the slightest doubt I should find the will, which my father described, amongst his papers.
"'I searched high and low, I turned the house upside down and inside out, but there wasn't a trace of it. I know what was in it. I'm sure he never destroyed it, but I cannot, of course, give secondary evidence of the contents, because I have it only on hearsay from my father.
"'If the will isn't found, the whole property, over sixty thousand, goes to the nephew. I must say he has acted very well in the business; he won't touch a farthing while there is a hope of the will turning up, and he insists, if he gets the money, on making a handsome provision for Molly.'
"'Well, I don't see why it should spoil your golf anyway.'
"'I haven't told you everything,' he said, with an uneasy laugh. 'You were quite right in thinking——oh, hang it all, I'm awfully fond of Molly. She is the dearest girl in the world!'
"'I'll take all that for granted, but you are well enough off to marry without a fortune.'
"'That's just it—that's where the trouble comes in. I hinted as much the other night when we were searching together, and she took me up quite short. She said it was pity and duty and all that kind of thing, declared that she didn't need charity, and that she can earn her own bread. So she can; she has a voice like an angel. Unless the will is found there isn't a ghost of a chance for me.'
"'Where do I come in?'
"'At Hampstead. I want you to come with me for a bit to old Banks's house, Salerno. My mother is staying there with Molly, and there is a room for me whenever I can get down. Vincent Banks is there, too. I fancy he is a bit sweet on Molly himself. I should hate him for that, I suppose, but I don't; it may be because she can't bear the sight of him. I can promise you a welcome if you'll come and help to search for the will. I know it's in the house somewhere.'
"Salerno was more than a villa. It was nearly a country seat, with a couple of acres of lawn in front and an acre of garden behind.
"As Markham promised, I was made welcome and comfortable. His mother and I had been old friends for years; Molly was a little cool, I thought, at first. She was one of those quiet, clever girls that don't take readily to strangers; but after a day or two we got to be good enough friends. I didn't wonder that Markham and young Banks were in love with her. She had the loveliest brown eyes you ever saw, eyes that gave you a little thrill every time you looked into them."
Dora put up a warning hand.
"That will do about Miss Molly and her eyes," she said. "I don't want any more raptures. What was the nephew like?"
"A handsome young chap enough, about thirty years of age, with a very pleasant smile. From the start he was very civil.
"'I have heard of you, Mr. Beck,' he said, 'as far away as Australia. If any man can find the will you are the man. I suppose you won't believe me when I say I hope you'll find it?'
"'That's awfully good of you,' I replied. It seemed the best thing to say under the circumstances.
"'Anyhow,' he went on, 'I mean to give you a perfectly free hand. I will cross over to Ireland for a fortnight. If anything turns up you will drop me a line to the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Naturally, I will be anxious to know.'
"'Naturally,' I said. 'I'll write or wire.'
"Something did turn up a week after he left, though it wasn't at all the thing we expected or desired.
"As Molly was sitting in the little room they called the library—she was very proud of the library, where the books were all her own selection—she saw that one volume projected a little from its place. A little surprised that she had not noticed it before, she went to set it back and found another book behind it, a handsome copy of Moore's poems that she had never seen. She opened the book carelessly, and a paper dropped out. As she picked it up from the carpet she at once recognised the handwriting of her stepfather.
"It was a will, regularly signed and witnessed, leaving 'Everything I die possessed of to my dear nephew Vincent Banks, whom I find I have treated with much injustice.'
"The will was dated almost twelve years back, which, she was almost certain, was after the missing will in her favour.
"It must have been a sharp trial to the poor girl. The will made her a pauper instead of an heiress; put her at the mercy of the man whom she detested. No one but herself dreamt of the existence of that will, not even the man in whose favour it was made. There was a fire burning in the grate, she had only to drop it in and be done with it.
"She does not seem to have hesitated for a moment. Five minutes after the will was found it was in the hands of young Markham, who was utterly dumbfounded at the sight of it. His father had taken a note of the date of the previous will; Molly was right, the one she had found was dated six months later.
"Then I was called into council. I must confess it looked a very bad business. The will was duly executed, there seemed to be no room for doubt that it was in the handwriting of old Mr. Banks. Markham had lots of his handwriting of the same period to compare with it. There were just the likenesses and differences one would expect in a genuine document.
"One of the witnesses was dead, the other was alive and kept a small beer shop in the neighbourhood.
"'I wouldn't give much for his evidence,' said Markham; 'but he was butler to Mr. Banks at the time.'
"Markham and myself looked at each other in blank silence for a few minutes.
"'I'm afraid it's all up,' I said at last.
"He nodded dismally. The girl took the disappointment best of the three of us.
"'Well, the suspense is over, at any rate,' she said cheerily, 'and I know where I stand now, whether the other will is found or not. What are we to do next?'
"'I'm afraid the first thing is to wire to Banks at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. I promised I would if anything turned up, and something has turned up with a vengeance.'
"I was down in my boots, in the very soles of my boots, all day. I wanted to get round the will and couldn't see a way in any direction, the whole thing hung together too well. The first will would naturally be burnt before the second was made. Suppose for a moment it was a forgery—and, mind you, I didn't think it was—how were we to prove it so? Forgery or no forgery, the witness, old Sam Cricket, would swear to it if he had been properly squared. Then the circumstances were all in its favour, falling as it did into the hands of the very person who had most interest in destroying it."
"Oh, Paul, what a fool you are!"
"Silence in court. Are you telling this story, madam, or am I? Go on now and tell it your own way."
"I only meant——" his wife began humbly.
"I meant the same thing myself a little later. The will was not accidentally found, the books were arranged like an ingenious mouse-trap; Molly was bound to be caught, and it was quite safe—as anyone who knew her at all must know—to trust the will in her hands. These thoughts kept buzzing through my head all night, and in the morning I had another good look at the document.
"Then I made up my mind it was a forgery—a beautiful and artistic forgery, artistically brought to light. But how was I to prove it? Have you ever hunted all round the room for something that was staring you in the face? That was my case exactly. Suddenly it came to me—the will purported to be twelve years old; if I was right it was forged a few days ago."
Dora drew a deep breath of comprehension.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"The nephew, from whom we had had a wire, was timed to arrive that evening. I went into London to a chemist's shop for something I wanted."
"A saturated solution of oxalic acid," interposed Dora demurely. "Don't stare like that, Paul, go on with your story."
"Dora, you're a witch," said her husband, admiringly, as he slipped his arm round her waist and drew her closer to him. "You are quite right, my dear, it was oxalic acid. You see I was setting a little trap in my turn for Mr. Banks.
"No one could have acted better than Banks when he heard the story. He had started on receipt of my wire without waiting for my letter, so his surprise was complete. He was quite enthusiastic about Molly.
"'She behaved splendidly!' he exclaimed. 'Anyone else would have tossed the thing into the fire. But it's a forgery, of course. I never heard of such a will. My uncle was mad with me at the time; he drove me out of his house. Even if he had no cause—that doesn't matter—he thought he had. Was it at all likely, I ask you, Mr. Beck, that he made a will in my favour so soon after I was gone? If he did make it, which I don't believe, was it likely he should stick it into a book and leave it there?'
"'Perhaps he didn't care to show it to the governor so soon after the other,' Markham suggested. 'He may have forgotten it. Remember it was shortly after that he——'
"He didn't need to finish the sentence. Banks had no answer to make except to persist obstinately, almost angrily, that the will in his own favour was a forgery.
"'But who would want to forge it?'
"'That I can't say. Perhaps the old scoundrel who witnessed it—he might hope to make a dishonest penny by the job. Anyhow, I'm almost sure it is a forgery.'
"'We can make quite sure,' I said quietly.
"He turned sharp round on me with a quick question: 'How, may I ask?' But before I could answer he clapped me on the back admiringly.
"'That's where a clever chap like you comes in. The microscope, I suppose, written over pencil, and all that kind of thing.'
"'No,' I said, taking out my little bottle, 'it's just a slight chemical trick, but it is conclusive. I am going to try it here and now.'
"I dipped a little brush in the oxalic acid and held it suspended from my finger and thumb.
"All four—Markham, his mother, Molly, and Banks gathered round the table where the will lay. Banks took his side next the fire.
"'This is oxalic acid,' I said. 'Here is a twelve-year-old letter written by the late Mr. Banks, which Markham was kind enough to get for me. I will brush it with the acid. See, it leaves no mark. Now I will brush the writing of the will. If it was made twelve years ago there will be no sign. If it is a forgery made within the last year, if it was written even three years ago, the blue provisional colouring of the ink won't have had time to get absorbed in the black tannate, and there will be a smudge.'
"I touched the old letter again with the acid. Nothing happened. Then I drew the brush lightly over the first word of the will. The ink ran and blotted the paper. All four started and cried out, surprised as at a clever conjuring trick. Banks was first to recover himself.
"'What did I tell you?' he exclaimed exultantly. 'It's a forgery, an infernal forgery!'
"Then, before we could stop him he had snatched the paper, torn it to bits, and tossed the bits into the fire. There could be no prosecution of the forger, anyhow, whoever he might happen to be."
"Clever!" murmured Dora.
"Devilish clever," assented her husband, "so clever that it almost convinced the others that he knew nothing of the forgery. It completely convinced the girl, obliterated all her previous dislike and distrust of the man.
"'Who else was to forge it?' I asked her next day when we were walking together in the garden. I told you we had got to be good friends."
"No doubt you did!" said Dora.
"Don't interrupt, please. 'Who else was to forge it?' I asked her.
"'Why should he do it?' she cried. 'Why should he commit forgery when he would come into the property anyway? The will Mr. Markham talks about will never be found when it hasn't been found before this!'
"That touched me on the raw. I had devoted three or four hours a day to the search without result. There were so many places a single sheet of paper might be hidden that it was impossible to find a clue.
"I went in next day to Markham's private office in Lincoln's Inn Fields and had a chat with him, while half-a-dozen clients were kept waiting.
"'Did old Banks,' I asked, 'never give you a hint where he had hidden the will?'
"'Never the very faintest.'
"'Did your father never ask him?'
"'Never before he went off his head, afterwards often and often, but it was no use. The old chap would put his lips to the governor's ear as if he were going to whisper something dreadfully secret, then he would cry "Coo-coo!" and laugh like a child, quite delighted with his own cleverness. I saw him at it more than once myself when I was a lad.'
"'Always the same thing? I mean, did he always cry "Coo-coo"?'
"'Always, so far as I know, whenever the will was mentioned.
"'Never any other time?'
"'Give me a minute to think, like a good chap,' I said.
"I felt my brain, as it were, groping in the dark for something I knew was there. Suddenly I caught it.
"'Markham,' I asked abruptly, 'is there a cuckoo clock in the house?'
"'By Jove!' he cried, with a sudden spurt of animation. 'Do you think that was it?' He collapsed the next moment.
"No use,' he said, 'there never was any cuckoo clock that I heard of.'
"'Think again, man, give yourself a chance.'
"I could see he was straining his memory. Then his face brightened.
"'Upon my soul, Beck,' he said, 'I believe you're right. There was a carved wooden clock that used to stand on a bracket in the passage. It never cuckooed in my time, but it was just the kind of clock that would. I don't know what became of it, but I have a faint notion that it was carted off into the lumber room.'
"'Well, we'll try to-night,' I said, 'when the house is asleep. It looks all right; if we find the clock I fancy we will find the will.'
"A top garret had been turned into a lumber room. There was some trouble about the key till it occurred to Markham to try the handle of the door, and he found it was not locked. But he was fool enough to ask his mother for the key while Banks was about.
"At one o'clock in the early morning, as was arranged, carrying a tiny dark lantern in my hand that bored a little round hole of light in the blackness, I knocked at Markham's door. He was out in a second, and in our stocking feet we stole up the stairs without a sound to the lumber room, closing the door softly behind us and bolting it on the inside, but forgetting, I'm sorry to say, to stop the keyhole.
"I sent a little circle of light dancing about over the ragged regiment of furniture with which the room was crowded—armchairs out at elbows, crippled tables, dilapidated pictures whose glasses were cracked and covered with dust. A four-poster raised a dingy canopy on three thin pillars close to the door.
"Away in the far corner of the room I caught sight of a clock peeping out from behind the back of one of the old chairs, a wooden clock with the figures carved in wood, and a little den at the top for a wooden cuckoo to flap in and out.
"I gripped Markham's arm as he was making a dart for it.
"'Gently, gently,' I said. 'Don't break your neck over the rubbish, you will raise the house. Can't you take things quietly?' I may tell you, my own heart was beating like a trip-hammer. I was as excited as a hound on a hot scent when he sights the fox after a long run, but I kept the brake on hard.
"By the light of the lantern we picked our way gingerly through the debris, raising clouds of dust. Markham stifled a sneeze in his handkerchief.
"Having pushed the chair aside we got the clock out, and planted it on the worsted wool parrot with green bead eyes that adorned the seat. Then we got its little wooden door open. Nothing inside! Then we coaxed the cuckoo himself out of his den where there was only just room for him, and prodded his wooden carcase with a penknife. He was a solid bird from beak to tail.
"Half sick with disappointment I poked my finger round the pendulum and reached the back of the clock, my fingertip touched a paper, and in a moment I had a closed square envelope out—the will, at last!
"'Open it,' I said to Markham, 'let us make sure.'
"The instinct of the respectable solicitor woke up in him even in a lumber room at that hour of the morning.
"'What's the use?' he objected. 'It's the will right enough, read the endorsement on the envelope. I should prefer to break the seal'—there was no seal, by the way—'in the presence of the parties concerned. Time enough when they are all there before breakfast.'
"I was going to protest, at least I hope so, when, just as he spoke, there was a tinkle in the silence of the night. The brass knob handle of the door jumped as if a hand had touched it lightly. I flashed the lamp on the door and I fancied there was an answering glint of light from an eye at the keyhole. At the same moment Markham shoved the envelope into the inner breast pocket of his coat, and we both rushed together for the door, jumping and stumbling together over the lumber. Too late, we knew it would be too late. By the time we got the door unbolted, it was as still and as dark as death in the passage.
"Markham gave a nervous little laugh.
"'Banks?' he whispered.
"'I think so.'
"'Well, let him do his worst now. I've got the will safe and we'll read it in the morning. For fear of accident I'll sleep with a revolver under my pillow, and I'm a deuced light sleeper. Good-night, old man, and a million thanks. I knew you would do the trick all right.'
"'Good-night,' I answered, and turned towards my own room, but I had a curious foreboding that something would go wrong before morning.
"Two hours later I was wakened from my beauty sleep by a banging of doors and a cry of 'Fire! Fire!'
"Markham, in his pyjamas, burst into my room panting. He seemed to carry the close smell of smoke with him.
"'My room is on fire!' he cried, in a choking voice, when he had got his breath back.
"I was out of bed at once, caught up the big water jug, and bolted for the room with Markham at my heels. Through the thick, white, woolly smoke I had a glimpse of a little red serpent of flame writhing up the legs of the dressing-table. I just let fly the contents of the water-jug in a solid splash, and the flames hissed and went black out. Markham switched on the electric light and we took a look round.
"The fire was out, it wasn't much of a fire at the worst, and the smoke was billowing and eddying through the half-open window top, and I tried to force it down still further to give the smoke free vent.
"'It's jammed,' Markham whispered, 'it won't come down any further; I meant to have it fixed every day.'
"In a moment or two the smoke had thinned down to a grey haze through which objects in the room were dimly visible. Markham's clothes that lay on a chair near the bed were burned to ashes. Then, for the first time, I guessed at foul play.
"As his glance followed mine to the chair he caught my thought from my eyes and went white as a sheet. 'My God!' he cried despairingly, 'the will is burnt!'
"He made a wild rush for the chair, but I gripped him by the collar, almost tearing the pyjamas from his back.
"'Gently, gently,' I said, 'there may be a chance even yet.'
"Gingerly, with cautious finger tips I touched the pile of charred clothes on the chair beside the bed. The shirt and vest, which lay at the bottom, were burnt to atoms. The trousers had half fallen from the chair, and one leg lay on the floor where it had been cut off by the flames from the waist. But the dinner jacket was charred right through and had crumpled up in parts. I got at the pocket cautiously with touches as light as a butterfly's wing, and drew out the envelope, black and brittle.
"The endorsement was wholly illegible. Markham groaned as I held it up to him. Still more cautiously I coaxed the paper out of the envelope—it was a half sheet, unfolded, and burnt as black as your shoe."
"My shoes are white, sir," said Dora, extending a dainty little foot and ankle in a white tennis shoe and white silk stocking. Her husband kissed her by way of comment.
"How can you be so foolish, my dear? At the most exciting part of the story. It's not complimentary, to say the least of it."
"Most complimentary! It shows that I am sure you won out, and I think I can guess how. Was it a thick half sheet?"
"It was thick common paper, not rag—the kind that is loaded with china clay and other vegetable matter, so there!"
"Need I finish?"
"Of course you must finish, I want to know exactly what happened."
"Well, the first thing was that I sent Markham to the pantry for two soup plates.
"'What for?' he asked me.
"'Never mind that, trust me. I believe I can pull through even yet.'
"'You don't mean it, Beck? By Jove, but you do! I can't see how in the least, but I know I can trust you.' He was back with two soup plates in a jiffy.
"The ashes of Markham's clothes were still hot, and I buried the plates in them till they were dry and warm. Then I edged the envelope and paper into one plate and set the other over it. Now wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a queen?
"There was a safe in old Banks's study, an old-fashioned affair let into the wall, and our first job was to get our soup plates locked up in it. Luckily Markham had the key. I carried my treasure downstairs as steadily as if it were a brimming glass of comet port. We locked the room door after us as we went in, and this time we left the key turned in the lock, blocking the keyhole.
"When we had got our plates secure in the top shelf of the safe Markham looked at me questioningly.
"'You're not chaffing, by any chance, Beck? It's not a case for chaff.
"'I never was more serious in my life, old man. You won't have your will ready to read before breakfast, that's all. Now, as the newspapers say, we must try to discover the origin of the conflagration.'
"By this time there was a growing grey light in the sky, brightening in the east as we slipped out, through the side door on to the lawn and skirted the house to the window of Markham's bedroom.
"The origin of the fire was not hard to find. On the ground in front of the window there were marks where the heels of a ladder had been planted. After a little search I found a thin, half-burnt wax match.
"'That's clear enough, anyway,' I said to Markham; 'he saw you put the paper in your coat pocket and tried to get in through the window and found it jammed. Lucky you forgot to have it fixed up. Then he let the wax matches flare up—they are hard to quench when well lit, and tossed them on your clothes.'
"'He?' said Markham. 'You mean——
"'We will make quite sure,' I interrupted, 'let us have another look round.'
"The ladder had been left back in the tool shed, and there were abundant signs of it having been moved in the night; but the weather had been dry for the few previous days and nowhere could I find a trace of a footstep.
"Taking a straight line from Banks's window, which was on the ground floor, to the tool shed, and from the tool shed back to Markham's window, I searched every inch of the ground with my eyes and could find nothing. At last, when I had almost given up in despair, I found what I sought.
"The gardener had hung up the watering-pot on a peg in the tool house after watering the roses the night before, and a trickle from the nozzle had made a soft spot in the clay floor. Right at the opposite side from the ladder—he must have gone there to look for it first—I found on the soft spot on the floor a curious footprint, a little traced pattern like lace-work with a slight blur at one corner.
"'That's all right,' I said, as I lifted myself up with a crick in my back from examining it with my magnifying glass, 'that's all right, we can lay our hands on the wax match artist when we want to. Meanwhile we have other fish to fry. While I run down to the chemist's shop on my bicycle—he keeps open all night—you might get a fire lit in the study as soon as you can. And above all, mum's the word; not a word to a living soul of what happened last night till I give the word.
"A bright fire burnt cheerily in the study when I got back from the chemist's at about six o'clock. Not another soul was yet astir in the house; Markham had lit the fire himself, and, I am sure, enjoyed the job. There is no better fun than lighting a fire."
"Parlourmaids don't think so," said Dora.
"Surfeited, my dear," retorted Paul. "All delights pall on you if you get too much of them. Now I've lost my place. Where was I? Oh, with Markham at the study fire. The door, I may observe, was locked and the key in the keyhole.
"I got my two soup plates out, carried them to a table beside the fire, and had a good look at the charred paper. With the magnifying glass I could just discover the faintest trace of a line here and there, a blacker black in the blackness. Turning it gently over I painted the reverse side with a solution of aluminium acetate which I had got from my chemist.
"'Heat that plate, like a good fellow,' I said to Markham, 'it is the best way to dry up this stuff.'
"When the plate was quite hot I clapped it over the other, left it there for a moment, heated again, and repeated the process till the paper was as dry as a bone."
Dora opened her lips to speak, but her husband held up a warning finger.
"I know what you are going to say. No, I don't think it was necessary with that kind of paper, but I was taking no chances. When I had done, the paper was as stiff as cardboard; there was no longer the least fear of it falling to pieces. I went through the same performances with the envelope, and then shut them up between the hot plates and stowed them away again in the safe. I meant it as a dainty dish for my friend Mr. Banks.
"Not a word was said, not a hint given at breakfast, though I fancied that I could once or twice detect a quick, questioning glance of Banks's eyes flash from Markham's face to my own.
"But he couldn't have really suspected anything, could he, my dear; or he wouldn't have started off for a long walk after breakfast?"
"He didn't want you to suspect that he suspected," suggested Dora.
"Well, perhaps that was it. Anyhow he did the very thing I wanted him to do. Molly Alington was out in the garden busying herself with a trowel and some slips, while the gardener, a stout man with a very large belt, leant on his spade as a warrior on his sword, and watched her scornfully.
"'Miss Alington,' I said, coming up behind her on the white gravelled walk. 'I want a word with you in the study if you can spare the time.'
"She cast an anxious eye on her basketful of slips.
"'But——' she began.
"'It's important,' I said, 'very important!'
"A question leapt to her eyes as they met mine. 'Have you found the will?' But she did not ask out loud, and I did not answer her eyes. My face was, I hope and believe, as impassive as a stone wall.
"'I shan't keep you long,' was all I said, and in we went together.
"We found Markham and his mother waiting for us in the study. The old lady was bubbling over with excitement. I confess I quite enjoyed the situation.
"'Yes,' I said when they were all three seated, 'I have found the will.'
"Both ladies jumped to their feet. 'Oh!' they cried out together.
"'What's in it?' added prudent Mrs. Markham on her own account.
"'I don't know,' I answered gravely. 'We found it last night, Markham and I, in the old cuckoo clock in the lumber room. We didn't even open the envelope till we could open it in your presence. And meanwhile, early this morning, the will was burnt.'
"The second 'Oh!' was a very different sound from the first; it was an unmistakable groan. Molly sat down suddenly hopeless, disappointment in every line of her pretty face.
"'But how did it get burnt?' questioned Mrs. Markham sternly, as if we two were in the dock and she was the prosecuting counsel. 'There must have been very gross carelessness somewhere.'
"'No,' I said, 'I don't think there was. I will tell you how the trick was played if you care to hear it later on. But what's the use of crying over spilt milk. The will and the envelope that contained it are black ashes, not a line, not a letter visible. Get the thing out from the safe, Markham, like a good fellow.'
"It amused me to see the women stare with open eyes and open mouths in utter bewilderment when Markham took the double soup plate from the safe, and set it down in front of them on the table, as if it were something particularly nice to eat.
"I lit a match and touched it very gently to the edge of the black charred paper. A flame flickered over it, and as it passed the paper turned snow white and the letters came out in clear black lines as legible as print.
"The women were too surprised to speak; they just stared at the will outlined distinctly on the ashes.
"'Copy it, Markham, in case of accidents,' I said, and Markham copied it on a sheet of foolscap, reading aloud as he wrote:
"'I hereby will and bequeath all the property I die possessed of to my beloved wife, Margaret Banks, and after her death to her daughter Mary, commonly called Molly, Alington. I have cut out my nephew because he has twice forged my name, once after I had discovered and forgiven him. Signed, Bartley Banks.'
"'That helps to explain the mystery of the library will,' I said.
"'But you cannot have a will,' cried Molly, 'on a sheet of ashes that will go to pieces if you touch it. No one ever heard of such a thing!'
"'Markham has a copy,' I said. 'And now I am going to take a photograph, so there won't be the slightest difficulty in proving it. Miss Alington, will you raise the plate a little, oh, gently, gently, I only want to get the sunshine on the ashes.'
"I confess that I felt a malicious delight in the surprise of my friend Banks, who walked into the room just as I snapped my last snap and got the camera hidden away before he saw it.
"He was amazed to see us all sitting round the table staring at a soup plate which Miss Molly still held carefully tilted to catch the sunshine. He didn't see what was in the soup plate—not at first.
"'What in Heaven's name are all you people at?' he cried.
"The girl's eyes with the light of laughter in them caught mine as she settled the soup plate down flat on the table and put the other on top.
"'Oh, Vincent,' she cried smilingly, 'what do you think? The will has been found!'
"'Found?' he cried, with such genuine surprise in his voice that it would have taken me in if I hadn't known. 'I congratulate you, Molly. It's a pretty hard knock for me, there's no denying that, but I am glad for your sake, 'pon my soul I am.'
"Her face changed suddenly, the smile died out, and she looked as if she were going to cry: it was wonderful acting on both sides.
"'You need not be glad on my account,' she moaned, 'the will was burnt before it was read.'
"'Burnt?' he cried incredulously, 'nonsense, you're chaffing; I can see by your face that you're chaffing. Who could have burnt it?'
"'You know as much as I do about that, but it certainly was burnt, burnt to black ashes——'
"'I am so sorry, honestly I am. It is awfully hard lines on you, Molly; but as it was never read, perhaps——'
"'You needn't be sorry on my account,' she retorted, smiling again. 'The will has reappeared like the phoenix from his ashes. Paul Beck did the hatching.'
"She uncovered the soup plate and held it under his nose. The writing on the ashes was as plain as a placard. He just glanced at it and the mask dropped at last. His good-looking face grew ugly as a devil's with baffled rage.
"'It's a fraud,' he shouted, and gripped the plate and crumpled my beautiful ash will into dust; the dust is in that locket in your hand, Dora.
"Then it was my cue to come on.
"'Don't be an ass, Banks, as well as a rogue. Of course we have a copy and photographs which are as good as the will itself—better, for they can't be shaken into dust. It was you forged the first will we found, it was you burnt the second.'
"'I never saw the cursed will!'
"'Possibly not, but you burnt it all the same. You watched us in the lumber room, and saw Markham put it in his pocket. I found your matches under his bedroom window. I found the print of your stocking foot where the watering pot had softened the clay in the tool shed. I have a cast of the footstep. I have the stocking with the clay on it—there is a slight darn on the left side which came out beautifully in the print—I found it in your room. You have earned seven years' penal servitude, my lad, by this job. I don't suppose Miss Molly wants a scandal; but if you are not out of the house in three minutes on your way to the railway station, the police will help you out. Your things will be packed and sent after.'
"The coolness of the chap was splendid or abominable, according to taste.
"'Good-bye, ladies,' he said, 'I'm afraid I must be off. Thanks for a pleasant time. By the way, Beck, don't forget to put that stocking back into my portmanteau.
"I watched him go down the lawn swinging his cane, and turn in the direction of the railway station. When I looked back into the room Mrs. Markham was industriously reading a book with a smile on her pleasant face. Dick Markham and Molly were seated at the far end of the table whispering, not so low but I heard Molly say: 'Will you marry me now, Dick?' And Dick answered: 'No, certainly not!'"
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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