Roy Glashan's Library
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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.
DORA BECK looked charming in a pale blue morning gown, her hair, all curly from her bath, twisted into a soft coil, with ringlets loose round her forehead. But her husband had eyes only for his newspaper. He ate his breakfast slowly, with long intervals between each mouthful, and he answered mechanically "Yes," or "No," until her curiosity could stand it no longer.
"Put it down this instant, Paul—put it down, I say, and talk to the wife of your bosom! What is it you find so entrancing in the Daily Telephone?"
He looked at her absent-mindedly for a second, then his face brightened.
"All right, old girl!" he said, putting down his paper obediently. "Oh, I say, you look very fetching this morning! Whatever have you done to yourself?"
"Thanks. I've waited to be admired for the last half hour, and this is your first look at me. What's in the paper?"
"Read it yourself," he answered, handing the paper across the breakfast table. "There, at the third column under the heading 'Avengers of Blood.' It's a queer kind of high falutin', of course, but when you've skimmed off the froth of fine words, there's a very queer story underneath. Read it out loud, my dear, if you don't mind; I hadn't got halfway through it."
Mr. Beck proceeded in earnest with his belated breakfast, while Dora, letting the food cool on her plate and the coffee in her cup, drew her chair a little closer and read:
"AVENGERS OF BLOOD.
"The purblind materialists who limit all things by their own narrow-minded pre-conceptions may well be startled out of their hide-bound theories by an extraordinary incident that occurred yesterday in the quaint little village of Grassmere, and have to acknowledge the profound wisdom of the words of the Danish prince, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'
"When the representative of the Daily Telephone arrived in the afternoon in this smiling hamlet he found it in a condition of wild and unfamiliar commotion. He at once proceeded with the utmost celerity to make himself acquainted with the most salient facts.
"Guy Trogmorton was (the use of the past tense will be presently explained) the chief landed proprietor of the district—a silent, reserved, middle-aged man, who had never, till lately, shown the least desire to introduce a chatelaine into his ancestral home. About a year ago he seems to have been completely captivated by the charms of the fascinating young orphan heiress, Miss Mary Beverly, who resides with a maiden aunt in a stately mansion in the immediate neighbourhood.
"But Squire Trogmorton had a formidable rival in the person of his next neighbour, Mr. John Middleton. Young, handsome, athletic, courageous, his was a personality likely to capture the young affections of wayward beauty. Like Nimrod of old, he was a mighty hunter, and did not disdain in pursuit of fur and feather the arms of precision which modern science has supplied.
"One other name only deserves to be mentioned. Such of our readers as are poetically inclined are acquainted, doubtless, with the works of Francis Noble, the Byron of the twentieth century. His poems are, indeed, not pap for babes and sucklings, but strong meat for men. But the vigorous and inspired writer, whom to-day our representative had for the first time the privilege of beholding, is a frail and delicate boy. If he shares the genius, unhappily he shares also the deformity which was an abiding torment to the sensitive self-love of his great prototype, Lord Byron. Francis Noble has been lame from his birth. He lives in a rose-embowered cottage on the edge of Mr. Middleton's demesne, meet nest for so sweet a singing-bird, and between the frail poet and the sturdy squire the most cordial friendship has existed. Nor was genius unsunned by the smiles of beauty, for the fair Miss Beverly was a constant visitor at the poet's home, and, like Petrarch, his sonnets were doubtless warmed by her approving smile.
"Having thus briefly sketched the characters of the drama, we may now ring up the curtain for the tragedy that is to follow.
"The night before last Squire Trogmorton left his stately Tudor home as twilight was falling, and though he did not return in time for the prandial repast, little anxiety was felt in the household, as punctuality was never regarded as his most noted attribute. But when morning dawned and found him still absent from his home, a vague anxiety was born, and search, careful but fruitless, was made by his domestics.
"It is at this juncture that we pass from the natural and commonplace into the domain of psychological mystery. On the night of Squire Trogmorton's absence from home, between dark and dawn, the poet dreamt a dream and woke in the early morning strangely perturbed. At the time he could have no inkling of Squire Trogmorton's mysterious disappearance. But so strongly had the dream impressed itself on the delicate retina of his imagination that, in the early morning, he started off before breakfast to confer with his nearest friend, the athletic young squire, Mr. Middleton. Finding Mr. Middleton from home, he instantly sought an interview with the charming Miss Beverly, and in her found a sympathetic auditor of the strange narration of his dream.
"'I dreamt,' he said, 'that it was evening; the sun was a red ball in the west, and his beams lay almost flat upon the earth. I was standing close to the edge of the wood that skirts the river in the loneliest corner of Squire Trogmorton's grounds, about a mile from the mansion. I knew that something was about to happen—something terrible—and that I was there to see it. Looking through the trees that were pierced by the slant rays of the sun, I saw a man, whom I instantly knew to be Trogmorton, walking impatiently up and down in a small opening in the wood. Then another figure appeared on the pathway at the wood's edge, and as it came closer and closer I could see that it carried a gun on its shoulder. I was standing on the path right in its way, but it went through me as if I were an unsubstantial shadow, and I only felt a puff of cold wind as it passed, while all the time it kept its face averted from my gaze; I never saw the face.
"'About thirty yards further, the nearest point on the path to the opening where Trogmorton waited, the figure paused, stepped a little way into the wood, and levelled its gun. Through the opening in the trees I caught the glint of the sunlight on the level barrel. I heard the report, I saw the spurt of red fire, I saw Trogmorton leap into the air, stagger and tumble headlong on to his face.
"'At the same moment I awoke, and so strong was the illusion that I leapt from my bed to rush to the aid of the fallen man. Even when I found the carpet under my bare feet and the pitch darkness around me I had to touch the pillows and counterpane of the bed to persuade myself it was not a dream.'
"Such was the dream Francis Noble related to Miss Beverly, and they were still eagerly discussing the cause and effect of this singular vision when an excited maidservant broke in on them with the news that Mr. Trogmorton was missing from his house. Miss Beverly cried out that the dream had come true and proposed to start out at once for the vision-haunted locality in the woods. It happened that Mr. Trogmorton was a breeder of bloodhounds, and two massive brutes, Pluto and Charon, had already been requisitioned by the local constables for the search that was in progress.
"At Miss Beverly's suggestion the search party at once proceeded, Mr. Noble leading the way, to the spot where he had witnessed the visionary murder.
"The dream was true.
"In the little opening which the poet had so accurately described to Miss Beverly, Squire Trogmorton lay on his face, stone dead; a charge of buckshot, discharged at close range, had drilled a hole through his heart. There were no traces of footprints on the hard path, but in the damp ground, on the very spot where the dreamer had seen the shadowy figure of the visionary murderer advance a little way into the wood, two distinct footprints were found.
"The sensitive soul of the poet was oppressed almost to dissolution to find the idle fantasies of the night materialise in red-handed murder. He had to be helped home in an almost fainting condition from the scene of the tragedy to the tranquillity of his sylvan retreat. The young lady returned with him.
"One of the constables remained to watch the body, the other set the sleuth-hounds on the track at the spot where the assassin had fired on his unsuspecting victim. For a moment or two the dogs nosed the footprints that bore mute evidence of his corporeal presence on the scene; then they gave tongue furiously and rushed along the narrow pathway, almost tugging from their sockets the arms of the stout keepers who held them in leash.
"The track led from the woods out into the open across a rough and stony country, interspersed here and there with patches of water and marsh, where the same footprints were found. For over nine miles the sleuthhounds held their course with untiring eagerness, till they came out on the borders of a lake, the haunt of innumerable wild fowl.
"They came to a sudden stop at the foot of a rugged and broken crag—one of the long ridge that flanked the water. The hounds still tugged at their cords, and so led their custodians up the steep declivity to some scrub which they strove to enter. Stooping on hands and knees and peering through the bushes, one of the keepers was surprised to find an opening between the two edges of the cliff wide enough for a man to pass.
"Holding back the hounds, they called out their discovery to the constable, who waited at the foot of the declivity. With a courage that cannot be too highly praised, he ventured alone through the narrow pass that seemed to lead into the bowels of the earth, thereby, as he personally informed our representative, seriously injuring his uniform.
"The narrow entrance broadened to an easy passage where he could stand erect, and after moving in and down for about twenty or thirty yards, he passed from the passage into a circular cave where a dim, religious light, penetrating through many openings, showed him a man lying at ease on a pile of dry ferns, smoking. The floor of the cave was of fine white sand, and in a heap on the floor were a half-a-dozen wild birds, of the duck species, and beside them a fowling-piece. The man's back was towards the constable as he entered.
"The constable coughed discreetly, and the man, leaping from his improvised couch, showed him the astonished face of Squire Middleton. For a minute the two men confronted each other in silence. The Squire spoke first.
"'Hullo, Constable Jennings,' he said. 'How the devil did you find me here?'
"'Squire Trogmorton's dogs, sir,' said the constable.
"'Has Trogmorton been organising a man-hunt?'
"'Squire Trogmorton is dead, sir, and we have come after you with the bloodhounds.'
"'My God, dead!' cried the other.
"'Murdered, sir; shot through the heart. We thought——'
"'Oh, yes, I understand! Of course, I'll help all I can.'
"He picked up his fowling-piece, letting the wild birds lie, and led the way from the cave.
"The constable shrewdly insisted, under pretence of service, on carrying the fowling-piece during the return journey through the woods, the keepers with the sleuthhounds bringing up in the rear. When they reached the scene of the assassination, where the second constable awaited them at the wood's edge, Squire Middleton was, to his intense amazement and indignation, real or affected, made acquainted with the suspicion which prompted the pursuit. It was found that his boots fitted exactly the tracks of the hypothetical assassin, and he was forthwith taken into custody on a charge of murdering Squire Trogmorton.
"Inspector Endive of Scotland Yard has just arrived at the theatre of events to take charge of the investigation and is busily prosecuting inquiries. Needless to say, the tranquillity of the district is profoundly disturbed by the tragedy. But the criminal investigation sinks into insignificance in comparison with the strange psychological phenomenon involved. In the vague borderland of sleep do there lurk avengers of blood whose self-allotted tasks——?"
"It goes on for another half-column like this," complained Dora, looking up from the paper.
"Don't bother any more with it," replied her husband; "but it is a rum go any way you look at it; 'rum' is the only word for it."
"The newspaper man found a lot of other words for it," said Dora.
Mr. Beck did not smile.
"Look here, Dora," he said after a pause, "this thing grips me; I don't deny it. I knew old Squire Middleton well; stayed at his place for a fortnight, and knew the young squire as a boy. He seems to be in a pretty tight kind of a hole. Inspector Endive and myself are old friends—I did him more than one good turn in my time. He's as straight as a die, and as plucky as a bull-dog, but—well, he's not the man to be let muddle alone through a thing of the kind.'
"How far is Grassmere from here?" asked Dora irrelevantly.
"About forty-five miles or so."
Dora stood up to press the electric bell, apparently unconscious of her husband's excitement.
"Tell them to have the motor at the door in a quarter of an hour," she said when the servant appeared.
"What's up now, Dora?"
"Oh, Paul, I can read you like big print! You are just mad to be off to the 'theatre of events.' I'll have your bag packed by the time the motor is at the door."
"You've put in the camera and microscope?" asked Beck as he stepped into the motor.
"Do you think I'm a fool?" was Dora's curt reply, but it satisfied Mr. Beck, and he stooped over to kiss her again before he gripped the steering-wheel and sent the fifty horse-power Mors humming like a kettle-drum down the avenue.
It was about noon when the car drew up opposite the small, many-gabled inn which stood back from the village green of Grassmere, with a great elm in front of the door. The whole place slept in hot sunshine and silence.
The big motor impressed the burly landlord, who bustled to the door in his shirt-sleeves.
"Inspector Endive staying here?" Beck asked. "I want to see him at once."
"You are in luck's way, sir," the landlord answered genially. "He's only just come in."
He led the way down a long passage to a small, oak-panelled room, where Inspector Endive wrestled with a fat note-book, a pint of beer in its native pewter on the table beside him. He looked up sharply as they entered.
"Now, landlord," he began, "didn't I tell you——?" Then his tone changed. "Hullo—hullo, Mr. Beck! If I were asked what man in the whole wide world I would soonest have laid eyes on I would have named you. But I thought you were clean out of this kind of work?"
A short, roundabout man was Inspector Endive, with broad shoulders and legs slightly bowed. His bullet head was thatched with black hair, and his quick, black eyes looked out of a round, ruddy face. At first glance he seemed too stout for active service, but every ounce of the squat figure was bone and muscle.
"I have come to give you a back up, if you don't mind, Inspector," Beck assented as he gripped the muscular hand extended so cordially.
"If I don't mind! Landlord, will you bring another pint of beer?"
"Squire Middleton's father was a friend of mine," explained Beck when they had the room to themselves and he had half emptied his beer at a draught. "I knew the young squire himself as a boy."
"It looks black against him," retorted Endive, "and the evidence keeps growing. Yet, somehow, it puzzles me. The case is too plain. You once taught me, sir, not to trust a case that's too plain, and this dream is a queer start to begin with. You've read the account in the Daily Telephone?"
"Well that's pretty right so far as I could fish any meaning out of it. I was on the spot just after they took the young squire into custody. The newspaper man was right in that—his boots fitted the mark to a T. He was as mad as a March hare when they arrested him, and told them to go to blazes when they gave him the usual caution: 'What you say may be used in evidence against you.'
"'I don't care a curse what's used in evidence,' he broke out. 'I'll say what I jolly well like. The tracks are mine right enough. I went out flight shooting last evening, and I passed here on my way to the lake. I blundered on that cave you found me in a year ago, and I generally turn in there for a quiet smoke and snooze when the duck flight is over. Do you think I went off to shoot duck after I shot poor Trogmorton?'"
"Well, it would be pretty cool if he did," commented Beck.
"There's more, sir, a deal more," said the Inspector, fiddling with his beautifully written notes; he prided himself on the beauty of his handwriting. "There was bad blood of late between Squire Middleton and the deceased over the young lady, who, it seems, was having her bit of fun with the two of them. Trogmorton was heard to order Middleton out of his grounds, and threaten to shoot him if he caught him there again. Now what do you make of this, Mr. Beck?"
The Inspector turned the pages of his note-book and read:
"'In the pocket of the deceased was found a letter purporting to have been written by Miss Beverly, making an appointment with him on that evening in the glade where he was shot, but on the letter being shown to Miss Beverly she denied, with appearance of great agitation, that she had ever written it; on close examination the handwriting was found to differ in some respects from hers; but there can be little doubt that this letter, by whomsoever written, lured the deceased to his death.
"Now, you see," added the Inspector, laying the notebook on the table and planting his squat hand squarely on the cover as if to guard it against all comers, "so far as I can make out Squire Middleton was the only one who knew enough to write that letter. Oh, yes, there is another thing I was near forgetting! When he was taken, Middleton said that the poet chap, young Mr. Noble, knew that he was going flight shooting. Mr. Noble said he knew that was so, but when he was asked why he went to Squire Middleton's house first if he knew he was away shooting he was completely nonplussed for a minute; then he declared that he must have forgotten, but that he remembered it now, and Squire Middleton had certainly told him about it.
"So far as I can judge, Mr. Beck," the Inspector added diffidently, "the poet is as thick as thieves with the young squire, and means to get him out of the hole if he can. He is already weakening a bit on that queer dream-story of his."
"How about the body?" asked Beck.
"I have had it removed to his own house. The doctor says that death was instantaneous. The coroner will sit tomorrow; meanwhile I have had the scene of the outrage carefully guarded; constables have been on duty there turn and turn about day and night."
"Good!" said Beck, with such hearty approval in his voice that the honest face of the Inspector beamed with delight. "Now," he added, rising and finishing his beer at a draught, "I'd like a word or two with the three principal characters in the performance, afterwards I'll have a peep at the scene of the murder. Ladies first, Inspector. Where does Miss Beverly hang out?"
"About a mile from here, but I'm afraid she won't see you. She is horribly cut up over the business, crying half the time and raging at the notion of Squire Middleton being taken."
"Oh, she'll see me right enough," said Beck, "if you will kindly point me the way! No, I don't want you with me; I'd like to see the young lady alone."
Mr. Beck, smoking meditatively as he went, strolled slowly under a sky of unclouded blue across the village green, and sheltered himself as soon as might be under the shade of the trees that lined the dusty high-road.
There was no mistaking the heavy, wrought-iron gateway, with a wicket at the side. A quarter of a mile of an avenue that wound like a corkscrew through the trees brought him to the white stone steps of a big solid house. While he waited for the door to open he scribbled "Friend of Squire Middleton" under his name on his card, and offered it to the butler when he appeared.
"Miss Beverly is not at home, sir," said the butler, standing in the doorway.
Though he spoke very distinctly, Mr. Beck did not appear to hear him. He went quietly on, as if there were no one in the way, and the butler, to his own surprise, found himself in the centre of the hall with the gentleman in front still offering him a card.
"Take Miss Beverly that card," Beck said. "She will see me. I will wait here," and he seated himself comfortably in one of the big leather chairs that flanked the empty fireplace. "Look alive, like a good man."
Again the butler forgot his dignity, and almost ran up the broad staircase.
Two minutes later Beck caught sight through the banisters of a girl's figure flitting down the stairs. There was no question of her haste; almost before he could jump from his chair she was in the hall.
"Mr. Beck?" she said, reading from the card between her fingers. "A friend of Squire Middleton's?"
"That's so," he answered gravely.
"We can talk better here," she said, and turned the handle of a door at the end of the hall furthest from the entrance. The room into which he passed was one which old poets would call "the lady's bower," and irreverent moderns her "den." Whatever may have been Miss Beverly's perfections, tidiness was not one of them. The room was in a litter—a pretty and picturesque litter—but a litter all the same. She had to turn a hat with pins stuck through it out of a chair to make room for Mr. Beck, and planted herself opposite on a music-stool that had somehow got isolated from the piano.
The young face that fronted Mr. Beck was a very pitiful face, pallid and tear-stained, with dark rings under the eyes; but he could see, all the same, it was a pretty face as well. She looked more like a boy than a girl, with all a boy's indifference to appearance. Her dark hair had been cropped close, but was beginning to grow again and curl luxuriously round her shapely head. But the figure, in its short-skirted, closely fitting costume, with its delicate lines and curves was the figure of a ripe girl of twenty.
"You say you are a friend of Mr. Middleton's. Why don't you put an end to this monstrous business? Do you know they have arrested him for murder?"
"Oh, yes, I know that," he answered gravely. "The way to get him out is to prove his innocence; that's why I want you to answer a question or two."
"Oh, I can't bear it—I can't!" she cried hysterically. Beck's sympathetic face had an uncanny power of inviting confidence. "It was all my fault. I flirted and made fun of them both. I was a horrid little beast, and now I have the blood of poor Mr. Trogmorton on my hands." She held out her little brown hands as if she expected to see bloodstains on them.
"Easy does it, Miss Beverly; if Squire Middleton didn't kill him you are not responsible, and you don't believe he did."
"Of course he didn't! The idea is monstrous. But I can't forgive myself all the same. Squire Trogmorton proposed to me and Squire Middleton proposed to me, and I would give neither of them an answer just for the fun of seeing them glower at each other, though I knew which I wanted, of course."
"Of course—of course! I don't care if the whole world heard me. I didn't know how much I loved him till this horrid thing happened; I'd marry him at the foot of the gallows. I didn't care a jackstraw for Mr. Trogmorton, and if I'd told him so right away the forged letter wouldn't have brought him to meet his death."
"One other question. This young poet, this dreamer, is he, too——?"
"Yes, he is. I suppose I should pretend not to understand. I was meaner to that poor boy than any of them, pretending I was a sister to him and he was a brother to me, and watching how he took it. He never said anything, but a girl knows; and he was always so nice about it—always praising the other two. Anyone but a mean, vain, spiteful cat would have let him alone."
"Don't blame yourself overmuch, my dear," said Mr Beck. Half-unconsciously he was holding the little brown hand in his big paw, and patting it softly. "Whatever happens or is to happen you are not to blame. I hope to have news for you before nightfall."
"You are not going so soon?"
"I must." There was a stern inflection in his voice that sent a little shiver through the girl. "I'm going to find Squire Trogmorton's murderer if I can."
Half-an-hour later Beck was on his way with Inspector Endive to the lock-up that held Squire Middleton.
"Mr. Beck! It is surely not you, Mr. Beck!" the young squire cried, as he crushed Mr. Beck's hand in a hearty grasp.
"It is a kind of miracle," he said under his breath. "I read a lot about you, Beck; I dreamt of you last night, this morning I prayed you might come, and now——"
"There is just a question or two I would like to ask you," Beck interrupted briskly.
"Give him the usual caution," interposed the Inspector.
"Caution be d——d!" retorted the squire contemptuously. "Fire away, I'll answer if I can."
"You were going straight to the lake?"
"As straight as the lie of the ground would let me."
"You were in a hurry?"
"Well, I wanted to get there before nightfall, and I hadn't much time to spare."
"Why did you turn out of your way at the edge of the wood where the footprints were found?"
The squire seemed wholly taken aback by the question.
Twice he tried to speak, and twice checked himself. At last he faltered out:
"It seems a silly thing to say, but really I can't remember."
"Well, we will let it go at that. Have you any enemies that you know of?"
Again the squire paused to think.
"Some poacher chaps, maybe. Then there was the tramp that stole my duck gun about a week ago."
"A gun? What about a gun?" asked Beck sharply.
"He must have got in through the window of the gunroom; I don't know how I left the catch open. It was the only gun lying about, and he took it with a few cartridges."
"Some were buck-shot, I think. The gun he took was the hardest hitter I ever had," went on the squire regretfully, apparently forgetting everything in the memory of his loss. "It kicked like a horse, and made your shoulder black and blue if you didn't look out."
"How did you know it was a tramp took it?"
"By his boots. We found the tracks. No one but a tramp ever had boots like that—broken old things you'd pick up by the roadside. The tracks were all over the place—there was one in every damp spot, and always his right foot. How do you account for that, Mr. Beck?"
"Well, I fancy there was only one boot, that of the right foot, and the tramp wore that on his right hand."
"Why the deuce should a chap wear a boot on his right hand?"
"Because he had already one on each foot," said Mr. Beck, laughing. "Now I must be off, Mr. Middleton; I have to go and see your friend Mr. Noble."
"Didn't get much out of him," said Inspector Endive as they left, the police station together.
"More than he understood or intended," retorted Mr. Beck, "and more than I expected, for that matter."
The "sylvan retreat" of the poet justified the gush of the newspaper man. Just outside Squire Middleton's demesne was a charming, many-gabled, many-windowed cottage. Even yet, though autumn was waning, it was smothered in red and white roses. A small garden with high box-borders and white-gravelled paths led up to the cottage. A broad path through the flower-beds stretched from the rustic gate to a French window of the cottage.
As Mr. Beck walked up this pathway he particularly admired a double row of rare chrysanthemums, and, noticing that the blooms were a little shrivelled and withered at one spot, with that inquisitiveness which was with him a second nature, he paused a moment to examine the cause, and found that the earth appeared to have been recently loosened round the roots.
"Perhaps," he muttered as he stepped back into the pathway. "It is a long shot; still, a long shot hits the mark occasionally. But it's time enough to see about that later on."
It appeared that the poor poet was completely upset by the tragedy in which he had himself played so prominent and so strange a part, and the buxom maid who answered Mr. Beck's ring at the glass door said as much in her own words:
"Master bean't fit to be seen, he's that knocked about. He's in his bed."
"Will you take my card to him, my dear?" said Mr. Beck with his most genial smile. "He may see me, and I won't delay him a moment."
As usual he met with an answering smile from the maid.
"If you'll step inside here, sir," she said, "I'll see. But you mustn't excite him, so the doctor says."
The room in which Mr. Beck waited was feminine in its delicate beauty—a lady's boudoir rather than a man's study. But there were books everywhere in beautiful bindings, and it was with a thrill of pleasure, since all men are human, that Beck recognised a record of his own "Quests" lying on a table in the window as if it had been recently laid down. He had scarcely time to notice it when the smiling maid reappeared with the message:
"Master will be very pleased to see you, sir, if you will kindly step this way."
"This way" led to a bedroom dimly lit by candles with pale pink shades, and it was a few seconds before Mr. Beck had a clear vision of a bed in a far corner of the room and two piercing black eyes fixed intently on his face. He realised with a thrill the wonderful spiritual beauty of the poet.
"Mr. Beck," said a musical voice from the bed, "you are already known to me; I have read with interest the records of some of your exploits. In ordinary circumstances I should be delighted to see you here, but the cause of your visit spoils its pleasure. I presume you are here in connection with this mysterious tragedy?"
"In a way, I must say I am," responded Mr. Beck, "but only as an amateur. Squire Middleton's father was an old friend of mine, and I knew himself as a boy."
The invalid grasped his hand with sudden cordiality, and Beck was surprised to find what strength there was in those delicate fingers.
"Then I'm glad, unfeignedly glad, to see you here. If any man can, you are the man to free Middleton from this preposterous charge."
"Then you don't believe him guilty?"
"I?" There was an honest indignation in the tone of the reply. "He is my friend of long standing, and I know him incapable of this dastardly crime. He is no more guilty than I am."
"But your dream, Mr. Noble?"
"Confound the silly dream," he replied. "I'm sorry I ever mentioned it to a soul; but Bob Middleton wasn't in it anyway. I'll swear that the shadow of a man who brushed by me on the path was not he."
"I am afraid the jury would be inclined to believe the evidence of the footprints and the bloodhounds, Mr. Noble."
"Curse the bloodhounds!" cried the poet with intense bitterness. "Great, lumbering, blundering brutes! Why did I ever suggest them to Miss Beverly?"
In his eagerness he half-raised himself in his bed.
"If Squire Middleton is hanged I feel that his blood will be upon my head."
"Be quiet, Mr. Noble, or you will do yourself an injury. He won't be hanged if he is innocent. I am just off with Inspector Endive to the scene of the murder."
"You will come back and tell me the result? You can understand how anxious I am."
"Oh, yes, I can well understand. Certainly I will come back."
"Everyone seems pretty certain of Squire Middleton's innocence," said Mr. Beck to himself as he walked back over the white-gravelled path, casting a curious glance at the weak spot in the double row of chrysanthemums. "Now I wonder what our friends the bloodhounds will have to say on the subject?"
There was no shadow of a cloud, no whisper of a breeze, that lovely September evening when Mr. Beck and the faithful Inspector, with the two lumbering bloodhounds held in leash behind them, walked along the pathway of the narrow strip of wood that held the mystery of murder. The trees were motionless as the picture trees of a landscape. In the intense silence distant sounds were heard, the chirping of birds and the rustling of live things in the undergrowth. From the wider woods half-a-mile away the cooing of pigeons pulsated softly.
The belt of trees at whose edge they stood was less than a hundred yards across, and on its further side was a little stream, narrow but deep, whose tinkling was distinctly heard.
Mr. Beck scarcely glanced at the footprints.
"It's all right, Inspector; of course they are Middleton's. You are not a man to make a mistake in a thing of the kind. I want to see the spot where the body lay."
In that little opening in the woods where the withering ferns were splashed with newly-shed blood Mr. Beck's serenity vanished as if by magic. He was as eager, restless, and excited as a sporting dog on a hot scent. Now on his knees, now on his feet, he was all over the place. With a powerful, long-handled magnifying glass he searched out the minutest traces of the outrage—the stains on the ferns and the tiny round holes where the shot had perforated the smooth, green leaves of the dwarf oaks that surrounded the opening, to bury themselves in the trunks beyond.
"Come," he said sharply at last to the Inspector, who seemed dazed at the sudden change in the man. His eyes had a dangerous light in them, and his mouth was set grimly.
"Have you found anything?" the Inspector asked almost timidly.
Mr. Beck suddenly relaxed into his own genial self.
"I have found another way home," he said, chuckling. "Call over the dogs."
Then, with a short run, he cleared the brook, fourteen feet from bank to bank, followed by Inspector, dogs, and keepers. There was another pathway a few yards from the far side of the brook. Beck moved a little up and down on this path till he had a clear view of the opening where poor Trogmorton, buoyed up by his dreams of love, had waited impatiently for his death.
"Here," said Beck. "Put the dogs on here."
"It is hard to find a cold scent," remonstrated the keeper who held Pluto, anxious for the honour of the hound, "unless you have some object."
Beck drew from his pocket a fine, white handkerchief with a delicately stitched monogram, and the dogs muzzled it eagerly, then they laid their blunt noses to the ground with quick inquisitive snuffling. Charon found first, and broke into a deep, melodious cry, which was promptly caught up by his comrade, and the two rushed along on a hot scent in the direction they had come, straining the arms of the keepers to hold them.
For over two miles they kept to the pathway, whose hard, dry substance took no trail. Then, without warning, they swerved sharply towards the bank, almost swinging the keepers into the water, and so out to the pathway again, and straight on as before.
"Will you wait for me there, Endive?" Beck cried out over his shoulder as he passed the spot where the dogs had swerved. "I won't be long now, and I hope to show you something curious when I come back."
For about half-a-mile more the hounds held their course along the pathway. Then again they swerved in towards the bank, but this time they stopped short and began nosing about for the lost scent. The quarry had taken to the water.
"Shall we try them on the other side, sir?" asked the keeper who had spoken before. "They might pick it up again."
"No," said Mr. Beck, "I'll do the rest of my hunting myself," and he astonished the keepers with a tip of a sovereign apiece. One of the two trailed off with the dogs, and the other turned back with Beck the way they had just come.
Inspector Endive, seated in the long grass by the brook's brink, with his coat and hat off and a pipe between his teeth, patiently waited Beck's return. The cool flow of the water over the pebbles, here bright in the sunshine, there dark in the shadows of overhanging boughs, was inexpressibly pleasant on that hot, still evening. Beck suddenly realised how warm he was.
"Now for it," he said to the Inspector. He pulled off his coat, rolled his shirt sleeves right up to the elbow, and lay flat on the bank, with his face close to the water. "Hold on to my heels, like a decent chap; I'm going to fish for a heavy one."
The bank was hollowed out at the spot he chose, and the water chocked with clinging leaves. Down his arms went into the water, right up to the shoulder, and his hands groped under the bank as if he were trying to tickle trout in their hiding-place; one lusty fish broke out with a splash into mid-stream.
Shifting his position a little, he plunged in again, reaching for the bottom with his finger-tips.
"Ah!" he said, with a deep sigh of relief as he brought his catch dripping to the surface—a heavy fowling-piece coated, lock and barrel, with mud and weeds.
"A terrible condition for a decent gun," said the keeper plaintively, as a mother might speak of a hurt child, and he took to wiping it tenderly with his tweed cap.
"I'll bet you a pint of that excellent home-brewed beer, Endive," cried Beck exultantly, "that this is the hard-hitting, hard-kicking duck gun that the tramp with the old right-foot boot stole from Squire Middleton about a week ago. Don't look so puzzled, old chap; I'll meet you in an hour's time at the Blue Bull and tell you all about it. I promised I'd look in with the news to Mr. Noble, who is naturally anxious cooped up all alone in his room."
With his fowling-piece over his shoulder, Mr. Beck strolled placidly along the river bank, while the others turned off in the direction of the Blue Bull. Crossing a little rustic bridge, he passed through a small wooden gate. This time he did not go straight to the cottage, but loitered along the brook where it skirted the garden. Three steps ran down to the water from the garden side, and just beyond the top step, faintly visible in the sand of the pathway, Beck's quick eyes found the mark of the heel and toes of a naked foot. Plainly, the foot had been planted wet on the sand and the print had dried in the sunshine.
The impression was very faint. To make quite sure, Beck knelt down and examined the marks with his magnifying glass before he moved towards the house. Halfway across the garden the row of chrysanthemums again caught his eyes.
"As likely a hiding-place as another," he muttered; "it is worth trying, anyway."
The withered plants came up loosely in his hands, and he prodded in the soft hole they left with the barrel of the fowling-piece till he rooted out an old boot half-full of earth and worms.
It was certainly not an inviting object to bring into the dainty home of the poet, and Mr. Beck was plainly conscious of the fact as he held it gingerly at the extreme edge between his finger and thumb; but still he did not like to part with it. Contriving somehow to keep it out of sight of the bright eyes of the maid, he got it safely into the bedroom of Mr. Noble, who was anxiously waiting for him. Beck entered so softly that the poet, whose face was turned from the door, did not notice him at first. There was just time to set the gun and old boot down out of sight of the bed before Noble turned and saw him.
"It was very good of you, Mr. Beck, to come back to humour an invalid. I am at a loss to thank you.
"There are no thanks needed," returned Beck almost harshly, "and it certainly wasn't to humour you I came."
"That's your nice way of putting it, Mr. Beck. I'm sure you must be tired. There is some excellent brown sherry in that decanter on the table beside you; thirty years old, they tell me; a present from poor Middleton. Oblige me by filling yourself a glass."
Beck's hand was on the neck of the decanter, he had raised it over the glass, when he glanced at the face of the man in the bed and put it down slowly.
"No, I think not, Mr. Noble; I think it would be safer not."
"Much safer," agreed Mr. Noble cordially. "I see you don't belie your reputation, Mr. Beck. It was a last resource—I hardly hoped to succeed."
"But how did you guess?"
"I watched you in the garden. I saw the gun on your shoulder, I watched you examining the sand, I saw you dig up the old boot. It wasn't hard to guess then, was it? I had only just time to slip back to my room and flavour the wine before you came in. May I ask in turn how you know?"
"Certainly. The dream was the first thing. I never believed in it."
"No, you wouldn't," said Mr. Noble thoughtfully, "but it took in all the rest completely. It was the one plan I could think of to get the hounds on the trail at once."
"Then there was the motive," continued Beck. "Both men were lovers of Miss Beverly, and from what she told me I guessed you were sweet on her yourself."
"Sweet on her!" He laughed out loud, and there was a horrible mockery in his laugh. "I would have given my body and soul to hell's flame for ever for one kiss from her lips, and the thought that either of those two louts——Oh, very well! I was 'sweet' on her myself, as you say; we will let it go at that. That's why I tried to wipe those two fellows out—two birds at one shot you understand."
"I don't understand how you got Middleton to come in off the path to the edge of the wood."
"It was quite simple. I crowed like a cock-pheasant. I had practised it because I knew that would fetch him. I have been out with Middleton a score of times, and he never heard a cock-pheasant crow without wanting to get a peep at the bird."
"Neat," commented Beck; "but then it was quite plain that Middleton could not have fired the shot that killed Trogmorton from that side of the wood."
Again Noble started half-erect in his bed.
"How could you tell?" he demanded sharply.
"Why, it was child's play! The marks of the shot through the leaves and on the trunks and branches of the trees showed which way they came."
There was a long pause. Noble spoke first.
"Is it all up? Must I hang?"
"I believe so."
"Is there a chance for me—a fighting chance? Honestly! Take time before you answer me, for I'll take your word for it."
"Then, honestly, I don't think there is. There's a vital bit of evidence that I haven't mentioned yet. Under your silk pyjamas the skin of your right shoulder is bruised black and blue; I notice you are stiff when you move. You didn't hold Squire Middleton's gun tight enough—you didn't know it was a hard kicker; your shoulder will be worse to-morrow—how are you going to account for it?"
"I'm not going to account for it; I'm not going to try to account for it. I've a bargain to make with you. I don't want to be arrested for an hour."
"Listen to the rest of the bargain before you answer. It would save a lot of trouble, wouldn't it, if I wrote a confession?"
"It would, certainly. For one thing, it would get Middleton out on the spot."
"Precisely. Well, I'll write a confession if you promise to leave me in peace for an hour."
"Done with you!" cried Beck after a moment's hesitation. "I don't care whether it is regular or not. But, remember, I remain in the room, and there is not the slightest chance of your getting away."
"That's my affair. You may stay with me for the hour if you care to. Will you write the confession and I'll sign it, or shall I write it?"
"Best that it should be all in your own handwriting," suggested Beck.
"Just move that writing-table a little closer to the bed."
He wrote for five minutes with a steady hand.
"Will this do?"
Mr. Beck took the paper and read—firmly and distinctly written—
"I, Francis Noble, confess that I shot Squire Trogmorton with a gun which I stole from Squire Middleton, on whom I endeavoured to fix the guilt of the crime.
" (Signed) Francis Noble."
"That's all right," Beck said.
"Now, as a last favour, will you kindly hand me my sleeping draught? I feel very tired, but I doubt if I can sleep without it."
There was a small medicine-bottle, with a splash of red sealing-wax on the cork. Mr. Beck read: "Sleeping draught, half wine-glass to be taken when required," drew the cork and poured some into a wine-glass.
Noble took the glass in his hand, emptied it at a gulp, and sank back on the pillows.
"You were wrong, after all, my dear Mr. Beck," he said, with a mocking smile. "They won't hang me. Good-night and good-bye."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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