Searock House, home of Miss Helen Baxter, was exactly what its name implied — a house built on a rock overlooking the sea.
It was situated on a rugged stretch of coast, and cliff-top residences were few and far between, the nearest being Westleigh, about half a mile distant.
Sir Reginald Wilmer lived a tranquil bachelor existence at Westleigh.
Sir Reginald was forty-five years of age, a trifling eight stone in weight, and as good-natured as he was muddle-headed. Miss Baxter, who was hefty and healthy despite her morbid ideas, rather liked him, and called him Snoopy.
They were very neighbourly. At least, Miss Baxter was. Sir Reginald, small, frail and timid, seemed to stand in awe of her.
When the pair called on Dixon Hawke at Dover Street, it was with difficulty that the criminologist repressed a smile.
The story, which Miss Baxter told in the maximum number of words, was bewildering in the extreme.
"Do I understand you to say," demanded the astonished detective, "that your home is — simply crawling with ghosts?"
"Yes," replied Miss Baxter impatiently, "but that isn't what we've called about. I don't mind ghosts. I'm used to them. I've seen dozens, scores, hundreds. In fact, I'm an authority on the supernatural."
Members of the Psychical Research Society had, it appeared, visited her home to investigate her claim that it was haunted by a poltergeist.
"That isn't what we've called about at all," said Miss Baxter. "I wouldn't consult you about ghosts. I know far more about them than you do. What we want you to do is to find out if what Sir Reginald says is true."
"And what is that?"
"Well, you see, Sir Reginald came over to my place recently, and during his visit he heard the rattling and knocking and scraping of the poltergeist, and he doesn't believe it is a poltergeist."
"You see," put in Sir Reginald, "I'm afraid my view is that noises of that sort can only be made by a human agency, and, that being so, it means only one thing — namely, that something unauthorised, and possibly criminal, is going on. The noises sometimes seem to come from the cellar, which is cut out of the living rock, and sometimes from just outside the house, by the sea wall. I don't trust Miss Baxter's secretary. Anyway, he looks like a jailbird."
Miss Baxter smiled radiantly. "Sir Reginald's a lawyer," she said, "and awfully cautious about making statements. You note he says that Gill looks like a jailbird. Looks, mark you! And, all the time, he knows perfectly well that Gill is a jailbird. I got him from the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society."
"Oh," exclaimed Hawke dryly, "I see. So you have come to me with an eye to the possibility that Sir Reginald may, after all, be right."
"Gill is an ex-convict, and I think he really means to live down his past life. But I'm not a fool, and it's possible he may be up to something."
"And what do you wish me to do?"
"Come and be my guest at Searock House for a week, and watch Gill. Also my butler, Warren. I don't know whether he's an ex-convict or not, but he looks thoroughly dishonest. I engaged him out of curiosity, and I only keep him on because Sir Reginald wants me to sack him."
"H'm. No doubt you find that a sufficient reason. Wouldn't it clear the air, though, and simplify matters altogether, if you were to discharge both the secretary and the butler?"
"And turn Gill into a criminal again? When I might be reforming him? Oh, I didn't think you'd make such a suggestion, Mr. Hawke!"
Hawke assumed the solemn expression that Miss Baxter seemed to expect of him.
"Now tell me, apart from servants, is there anyone else at Searock House?"
"My nephew, Sidney Forsythe, and his wife. They've been staying with me for the past six months — since they returned from Canada. I hadn't seen Sidney since he was a little boy. His parents died out there, but he preferred to stay on, for he had employment. I sent him cheques from time to time, to help him along, and he sent me letters regularly. Such a nice boy — "
She broke off and sighed.
"But how marriage alters some people," she added.
"He has altered — for the worse!"
"He's somehow taciturn and morose. And since he's been staying with me, his financial requirements have grown steadily heavier. I'm afraid that Ena, his wife, has led him into extravagant ways."
The woman was obviously preparing to give a long recital of family history, but Hawke adroitly headed her off, and brought the interview to a close, with the promise that he and his young assistant, Tommy Burke, would be visiting Searock House on the morrow.
About ten minutes after their departure the bell rang, and Sir Reginald was presently re-admitted to the study, this time unaccompanied.
He seated himself, and faced Hawke across the latter's massive desk. Without Miss Baxter s overpowering presence, the detective was able to take better stock of him.
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A Queer Household
A characteristic which now struck Hawke was the steadiness of Sir Reginald's clear blue eyes.
Hawke suddenly realised the significance of this physical attribute.
"Of course," he exclaimed, "you are Wilmer, the Bisley man — the crack shot! I've seen your picture in the papers many times."
The other nodded.
"That's right, Mr. Hawke. I'm something of a pot-hunter."
"A successful one, at any rate. What's on your mind now?"
"That nephew of hers. It's no business of mine, but I don't like seeing her imposed upon. And, in my opinion, Mr. Hawke, that nephew is imposing on her. I don't care for the looks of him — great, big, hefty young loafer. If there's dirty work going on there, I shouldn't be surprised if he's at the bottom of it. I — er — thought I'd drop the hint. Couldn't very well say it in Miss Baxter's presence.
"You'll find it a queer household, Mr. Hawke, what with her infernal astrology and crystal-gazing. She has one room cluttered up with hideous skulls, death masks, and astrological symbols. Lot of rubbish."
"What Miss Baxter needs," said Hawke lightly, "is a husband and a family."
He was amused at the look of alarm which appeared on Sir Reginald's face.
"I say!" he exclaimed. "You don't think the woman has designs on me, do you? Lots of people do. Heaven forbid!"
"Hasn't she — er — foretold her own destiny by means of the symbols and things!"
"Great Scott, yea! And mine, and everybody else's in the neighbourhood. Everybody has a mystic number, which, so far as I can make out, means exactly nothing. She has been good enough to tell me that she will marry. There's a soul-mate to come along — I wish he'd hurry up — and he will arrive by the sign of the Eye of the Needle, whatever that is, and his mystic number's six hundred."
"I hope it all turns out satisfactorily to you, Sir Reginald," said Hawke with a smile. "So far as I am concerned, I am regarding the little commission as being a break from more serious work, but I promise you I'll do my best to expose any under-handed activities which may be going on."
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Miss Baxter's Ghosts
It was exhilarating to climb the steps to the top of the six-foot-thick sea wall surrounding Searock House, but not advisable for persons with no head for heights, nor for anyone on a really gusty day, for the outer surface of the wall was flush with the cliff face, and there was a drop of close on two hundred feet from the top of the wall to the rock-strewn beach below.
Hawke and Tommy Burke both enjoyed the experience, and breathed their fill of sea air.
The bracing outdoor atmosphere was a striking change from that prevailing within the house.
Shortly after their arrival, Miss Baxter introduced the visitors to her "wizard's den," as she called it.
It was the sort of apartment that Sir Reginald had described.
The walls were plastered with charts and hieroglyphics. The lighting was provided by electric globes, which shone through the eye sockets of skulls and the eyes of stuffed owls, bracketed about the walls.
There was a bookcase in one corner, full of massive volumes, mostly dealing with astrology and folklore.
It appeared that the "den" was principally a place for the entertainment of members of the local women's institute, of which Miss Baxter was president.
Miss Baxter was an ardent church-woman, and the detective was intrigued by the ingenious way in which she reconciled orthodox religion with her frivolous dabblings in black magic.
He became convinced that her apparent faith in her ridiculous symbols and omens was largely an extravagant pose.
Nevertheless, that did not explain certain other startling things which presently began to occupy his attention.
Conversation had lapsed, Miss Baxter being immersed in a passage in one of her books, which had suddenly caught her eye, and Hawke and Tommy were sitting staring abstractedly about them, when suddenly the door flew open, with unnatural violence.
The startled guests stared at the open doorway, but no one entered. The passage beyond the doorway was gloomy, so that it was impossible to perceive who or what had been responsible for thrusting open the door.
Automatically, they turned questioning faces towards their hostess, who was eyeing them quizzically.
"That," she said, in unruffled tones, "is the poltergeist. He appears to be in one of his more violent moods today. He generally smashes things up when he's like that. It's quite alarming. Things suddenly smash to pieces in front of your eyes, apparently without cause."
She had hardly spoken the words when there was a crashing of glass at the far end of the room, and the thoroughly bewildered visitors turned to see the shattering of a glass pane in a cabinet which stood against the wall, facing the doorway.
Hawke rose and walked towards the cabinet.
"Aren't you afraid," demanded Miss Baxter, "that the poltergeist might work some violence on your person. I never move about the room when he's here. It seems like asking for trouble."
Without paying the slightest heed, the detective proceeded to examine the damaged cabinet, pulling open the doors, gingerly sorting over the fragments of glass, and inspecting the woodwork at the back.
This done, he turned and spoke to Tommy.
"Run up and get my instrument-case," he said. "And take care not to touch that door-handle."
"What are you going to do?" asked Miss Baxter.
"Make a simple test," was the answer. "You see, you were the last person to touch the door-handle before it was thrust open in that mysterious way. By treating it with a special powder which I carry in my research-case your fingerprints should be clearly revealed. What I shall be interested to see is whether anyone else's fingerprints have since been superimposed on them."
"What is the next step in tracking down a ghost — after you've got its fingerprints?"
"I'm afraid I take the same view as Sir Reginald — that these things are occasioned by a human agency."
"Sir Reginald's a well-meaning ninny!"
"Miss Baxter," said Hawke after a thoughtful pause, "I don't want you to take offence at this question, but in fairness to both of us I feel impelled to put it. You are not playing any practical joke, are you? That is to say, you are not deliberately party to a hoax of any sort?"
Miss Baxter stared at him, and, just when he was expecting an outburst, she replied calmly enough:
"It's a reasonable question. I'm one of a large and growing band of people who believe in psychic phenomena, simply from the evidence of their senses. I give you my word that I am not a party to any hoax."
"Thanks, Miss Baxter. I believe you said, when you called on me at Dover Street, that you were quite accustomed to seeing ghosts about the place. Do you really claim to have seen ghosts?"
Pulling open a drawer of her desk, she produced a photographic print and passed it across.
It was a blurred picture of a lady standing by a window. Her head was turned away from the camera, and she was draped in a loose white gown, suspended from her shoulders and reaching to the floor.
"There's a photograph of one. What more do you want? I took it by moonlight on the landing outside my bedroom, using a camera with a huge lens which I had bought specially."
"You mean you expected to see this — er — ghost?"
"I've seen it dozens of times. It walks down the stairs from the top of the house, and disappears somewhere below. I thought if I could photograph it, people would believe me, but, bless you, people won't believe anything! I took it to newspaper offices, and they asked how I could prove that it was not a faked picture."
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The Hidden Passage
Just then Tommy returned with the research-case, and for the next half-hour the two were busy powdering and photographing the outside doorknob.
"And now," said Miss Baxter when the operation had been completed, "do you want to take the servants' finger-prints?"
"I'll take yours now, Miss Baxter. I think I would prefer not to say anything about this to anyone else. I can collect fingerprints, by various means, surreptitiously."
At dinner Hawke and Tommy met the Forsythes. Nephew Sidney was tall and powerfully built, and he seemed to be nursing a secret sorrow. Throughout the meal he scarcely spoke, the conversation being almost monopolised by Mrs. Forsythe.
After coffee Hawke took the opportunity of having a word with Gill in the library.
At first the private secretary's attitude was hostile, but Hawke had a way with him, and they were presently conversing quite amiably.
Hawke questioned him about the Forsythes, and learned that they came from Toronto.
Later he talked with Sidney Forsythe, who gave his opinion tersely.
"My aunt's mad," he declared — a remark which certainly seemed to have behind it all the force of robust common-sense.
By showing copies of Miss Baxter's photograph of the white lady, Hawke secured the finger-prints of most of the company, and he and Tommy retired to Miss Baxter's photographic darkroom, where they remained until a late hour.
When they returned to the library everyone had gone to bed, and the place was oppressively silent, the faint, far-off rumbling of the sea only serving to enhance the sense of isolation.
Tommy glanced nervously about him.
"By Jove, guv'nor! I can't say I'd care to be in this shack on my own."
His employer laughed.
"Come, let's go down to the cellar, and see what there is to be seen," he said.
They were in the cellar a considerable time, for they discovered a low, narrow passage leading from one end of it to the cliff-face.
The entrance was concealed by boxes, and it was quite possible that Miss Baxter was unaware of its presence, for that part of the cellar was almost shut off from the rest by a pile of bricks, evidently part of an uncompleted wall.
"There may have been a path leading right down to the beach at one time," remarked Hawke. "There are lots of places like it about the coast. The lower half of the old smuggler's path gets demolished through a landslide. The point to bear in mind is that anyone who came down here to make noises with the object of scaring Miss Baxter could easily find concealment in the event of a search being made."
"But why should anyone want to scare Miss Baxter? Besides, it doesn't scare her. She actually seems to like the noises."
"I don't know. We may find that out presently. Now to bed."
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On the Brink of Death
It was a small point, but one of vital significance to the man from Dover Street.
Miss Baxter was showing him a file of letters the following afternoon — typewritten epistles which her nephew had written her from Canada. They dated back for several years, and, after the manner of aunts of her type, Miss Baxter had preserved them all.
Hawke remembered seeing Forsythe typing a letter on a portable machine in the library that morning. He had been typing awkwardly, jabbing at the keys with his two middle fingers.
The detective now bent his attention to the letters, displaying particular interest in those of recent date.
Sidney Forsythe had spent a lot of time typing letters that morning, and had since been walking about wearing a worried frown. Several times Hawke caught him talking to Mrs. Forsythe in urgent, heated undertones.
"Tommy," he said later, "I want to get a little collaboration from Gray. Telephone Scotland Yard, will you? Not from here. Go over to Wilmer's place, and explain all about it to him. He'll let you use his phone. Now, I'll tell you what I want done."
Tommy listened carefully to his employer's instructions, and an hour later had carried them out.
Sir Reginald called over later in the evening and his presence saved the situation socially, for the Forsythes seemed to have a squabble of their own on, and were at no pains to conceal their irritability.
"We've got to take it in turns to keep an eye on Miss Baxter's room tonight," said Hawke to his assistant as bedtime drew near. "There is, as Wilmer suspected some sort of intrigue going on. Something tells me it's pretty serious, and I have a feeling that Miss Baxter might be in some danger."
"Well, all I hope," said Tommy fervently, "is that if the white lady appears, she does it in your watch."
"I don't think you'll see any white lady, but, if you do, just conceal yourself and watch where she goes."
The vigil, however, proved uneventful. The ghost did not walk, and even the poltergeist seemed to have tired of his pranks.
Miss Baxter was an early riser, and it was her practice to take a stroll round the sea wall before breakfast.
Soon after seven there was a telephone call for Hawke from Sir Reginald, who had had a call from Scotland Yard.
Hawke sent Tommy over to Westleigh, having decided to continue his unobtrusive guardianship of Miss Baxter.
Tommy had been gone about a quarter of an hour, and Miss Baxter had reached a section of the sea wall not overlooked from the house, when there were sudden, swift developments.
Sidney Forsythe appeared from round a corner of the building, and, after a cautious glance round, climbed to the top of the wall where Miss Baxter was strolling, and approached her stealthily from behind.
Hawke came out from his place of concealment, and was after him with the agility of a cat.
Forsythe was almost in the act of giving his aunt the shove which would have sent her to her death when the detective pounced on him.
Miss Baxter turned with a startled cry, and, when she saw what was happening, she did what was for her an extraordinarily feminine thing. She fainted.
It was fortunate that the wall was so broad, or she might have toppled over.
Hawke had taken on a terrible task. Forsythe was slightly more than his match in strength, though not quite as nimble. But he struggled with a ferocity born of panic, and the odds were that both would go hurtling to the beach below.
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A "Long Shot" Comes Off
It was the keen-eyed Wilmer who first sighted the two tiny figures locked in their grim struggle, and he had snatched up a telescope to survey them just as Tommy arrived.
"It's Hawke and Forsythe," he gasped. "They'll both go over."
"Good heavens, sir!" cried Tommy. "What can we do?"
"We can't reach them in time. Telephone to Gill or the butler. Quick!" Tommy rushed into the house, but was out again in a moment.
"Line's engaged," he said desperately, "and I can't make the fool at the exchange cut in."
Sir Reginald put down his telescope and rushed indoors, returning in a few seconds with a rifle fitted with telescopic sights.
"It's a chance in a thousand," he said. "I might be able to pick off Forsythe without hitting Hawke."
He clicked the bolt, and adjusted the trajectory scale.
"I should put the range," he said thoughtfully, "at about a couple of hundred yards short of the half-mile." A moment later he was lying full length on the ground, resting on his elbows, squinting down the sights.
The breathless Tommy saw the great marksman, Sir Reginald Wilmer, in action.
Hawke, struggling on the sea wall, heard Forsythe gasp and felt him go suddenly limp a second or so before he heard the report, and by that time he had taken advantage of his opportunity, and the pair rolled down the steps on to the inland side of the wall.
Forsythe lay on the ground, breathing stertorously, blood oozing up from behind his collar. He was unconscious.
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Fate — and Sir Reginald!
Tommy and Sir Reginald drove over to Seabrook House, the former having been in touch with Scotland Yard over the phone.
The local police had already arrived with a doctor and an ambulance.
"A fractured shoulder-blade," reported the doctor. "He'll be all right."
"Not be very all right," murmured Hawke, after Mr. and Mrs. Forsythe had been taken away.
"Tell me what it's all about," demanded Miss Baxter, who had now fully regained her normal composure.
"He's not your nephew, Miss Baxter. An official colleague of mine at Scotland Yard has been in touch with the Toronto police, who recognised his description as that of a criminal named Ronald Hawker, supposed to have been killed in a car crash. I'm afraid you will find, Miss Baxter, that it was your nephew who was killed. This man had gained his confidence and learned all about his wealthy aunt in England. He probably engineered the crash.
"You see, he learned everything he possibly could about your family history and them practised this imposture, relying on the fact that you had not seen your nephew since childhood. Have you — er — made a will in his favour?"
"I fancy that creditors have been pressing him of late. He's been typing letters to them, to stave them off. It is not difficult to visualise his plan. He and his wife played ghosts, knowing your susceptibilities in that direction. You talked about these ghosts, and earned yourself a reputation for being — if you don't mind my saying so — eccentric. One day you were to be found dashed to death on those rocks, and there would not be any very close inquiry — you being a known eccentric."
"And the poltergeist?"
From his hip-pocket Hawke produced a small piece of metal.
"An air-pistol bullet. I found it lodged in the wood at the back of that cabinet, which, if you remember, was facing the doorway. Forsythe had fired at it from the passage, after shoving the door open and darting back to cover. The fingerprints on the door-handle will supply evidence to prove that, if it is needed. He had worked a similar stunt several times, and he worked it on this occasion, not knowing of our presence. He thought you were alone."
"And I suppose the white lady was Mrs. Forsythe?"
Hawke turned to Wilmer.
"By the way," he said, "I must congratulate you on that absolutely miraculous shot."
Sir Reginald displayed his gratification.
"I used a Swift Express Special .22, the latest high-velocity weapon," he said. "Telescopic sights, you know. But even so, it was a mighty tricky task. It was like shooting through the eye of a needle, and the range was six hundred yards — "
Something oddly familiar in the words he had just uttered seemed to dawn on Sir Reginald and his jaw dropped.
Miss Baxter was goggling at him.
"The eye of a needle! Six hundred!"
Hawke and Tommy were present at the wedding.
~ The End ~