A rumble of thunder shook the old house, and a moment later the patter of rain was heard. It streamed from the sky at an angle, and caused Colonel Graham to jump to his feet and close the windows. He smiled as he returned to his guest.
“Rain at last, Hawke!” he said. “This will make the farmers happy. The ground has been fairly parched.”
“And it will cool the air and make a good night’s sleep possible,” Dixon Hawke remarked. He yawned and glanced at the clock. “Eleven-thirty! By Jove, how the time passes when one talks about old times!”
The criminologist puffed reflectively at his pipe. He had been invited to Bambourne to spend a long weekend with his old friend, Colonel Graham.
After a final nightcap Hawke and the Colonel prepared to go to bed, but were startled by the sharp ringing of the front door bell.
The servants had already retired, and the Colonel opened the door himself. The village constable stepped into the hall, shaking the rain from his cape.
There was a brief conversation between the officer and Colonel Graham, who was justice of the peace for the district.
“Hawke!” the criminologist’s host called out. “Here’s a nasty business. Constable Sanders has just found a dead man up the lane! He says his head has been smashed in, and it looks like murder. Do you want to come?”
Hawke agreed to go, and they slipped into mackintoshes and followed the police officer out of the house. He led them to a narrow lane a few hundred yards from the gates, and shone his torch on the body of a man sprawling on the wet ground. Hawke knelt and made a swift examination.
He discovered bruises on the man’s face, but they were minor injuries compared with the dreadful wound on the side of the head. Hawke looked at the colonel and nodded.
“No accident,” he said. “There was some sort of fight, and the poor fellow was knocked down. He was struck with a blunt weapon as he tried to rise. There’s still warmth in the body, so he must have been alive about half an hour ago. The constable is right. It’s a case of murder!
“Do you know him?” asked the criminologist, after a pause.
“Not from Adam. We’d better go through his pockets.”
The man’s clothes were rather shabby. They turned out the pockets carefully. There were several letters addressed to Mr. William Cargill at a London post office. The initials “W. C.” were on a fob hanging from the watch-chain of the dead man, so his identity was established.
Colonel Graham read the letters by the light of the constable’s torch. He looked very grim as he passed them to the criminologist.
“They’re from a local fellow,” ho said. “Do you remember Jim Thornton who lives in a cottage near the church? A mysterious sort of chap who’s been here some years, but keeps to himself. Must have a small private income.
“Well, judging by these letters, Cargill was blackmailing him. Read this note. It was in an envelope with yesterday’s postmark, Hawke.”
The criminologist read it carefully.
Thornton had written: “I will meet you between eleven and midnight near the stile in Butt’s Lane. You’ll have the money, but it’s the last I’ll ever give you. You’ve bled me white, you rat! They ought to kill things like you!”
Hawke could well guess what had happened.
Cargill had made some fresh demand, and Thornton had just lost his temper. He had knocked the blackmailer down and struck him with a stick.
In silence the three men lifted the body and carried it to a shed on the colonel’s property. Hawke got his car out, and they drove up to the village.
The constable pointed to a lighted window in a house near the church. They stopped the car and watched the shadow of a man’s figure crossing and recrossing the window as he walked up and down the room. Colonel Graham sighed and led the way up the path. He felt pity for Thornton, and hesitated before he knocked.
A minute passed before the man came down. He was tall and thin, and his hair was prematurely grey. There was a cut on one cheek, and his left eye was swollen. The blackmailer had apparently put up a fight.
“Thornton,” the colonel said, “I’m confoundedly sorry to be here on this mission. Did you meet somebody in Butt’s Lane a short time ago?”
“I did! ” Thornton’s eyes flashed. “So he had the nerve to complain to you? Well, I’m not afraid. He was blackmailing me! He—”
“He’s dead! ” Colonel Graham said grimly.
“Dead? But he was alive when I left. I knocked him down after I’d given him the two hundred pounds he demanded from me! He’s not dead! ”
“In the heat of your temper you didn’t know what you did. You struck him so violently with your stick that you killed him. Will you go quietly with the officer?”
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The Poacher’s Evidence
Dixon Hawke did not see Colonel Graham until lunch the next day. The Colonel had been busy with the police superintendent who had come to take charge of the case. Formal evidence of arrest was to be given against Thornton that afternoon.
“It’s a clear case,” said the Colonel to Hawke. “We’ve got a witness who saw them together—Tom Mason, who prowls about a lot at night.”
“Ah! The poacher!”
“Yes. He happened to pass the lane and saw Thornton and Cargill together. They were shouting at one another. According to Mason, it was then about eleven o’clock, for he got home shortly after that hour. He lives with old Sam Dill, his uncle, at Millstream Cottage.”
“So that clinches the case?”
“I’m afraid so. One curious point. Thornton swears he gave the blackmailer two hundred pounds in small notes. As you know, there was little money on him—a handful of silver, if I remember rightly. We’ve checked with Thornton’s bank, and it’s quite true he drew the money. We’ve searched his house, but can’t find it. Thornton also claims that it was nearly eleven-thirty when he met Cargill, and that Mason couldn’t have seen them.”
“Mason may have been mistaken about the time.”
“Oh, no! His uncle let him in when he came home. He had to knock him up because he’d forgotten his key. It was then eleven o’clock, according to old Sam.”
After lunch the Colonel hurried away to take his place on the Bench for the brief appearance of the prisoner.
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Queer Behaviour of a Clock
There were one or two points about the case which puzzled Hawke despite its apparent clearness, and later that afternoon he dropped in for a chat with old Sam, with whom he had become acquainted on a previous visit.
Hawke found the old fellow standing on a chair glaring at the face of a grandfather clock.
“Dang thing’s gone daft! ” he grumbled. “Never known it do a thing like this before! ”
“It’s rather an old clock, Sam.”
“Not more’n a hundred years, sir, and what’s that for one o’ they clocks? Time’s perfect, right to the second by the wireless. But striking! Well, you listen to it! ”
The minute hand was nearing the ten-past three mark when the deep notes of the chime rang out. Hawke counted them. The clock had struck four.
“Dang silly thing! ” muttered old Sam. “Striking four at ten past three!” Dixon Hawke laughed. “You’ll have to get a watchmaker to it,” he said. “By the way, Sam, that was a nasty business last night, wasn’t it?”
“It was that, sir. And me nephew saw them at it. He’s gone to court to give evidence now. Wish he weren’t coming back! ”
“Why do you say that?” asked the criminologist.
“Well, it’s hard for a chap with my small pension to have to keep the likes of him. Not a stroke of work will he do! And even when it comes to picking up an occasional rabbit, he ain’t smart like I used to be. Besides, I don’t hold with a young ’un coming in late and getting an old man like me out of bed to open the door.”
“Does Sam make a habit of that?”
“He has a key, but last night he forgot it. Banged about and yelled until I woke up and came down. We had a rare set-to and I put him in his place proper. Told him all honest folks’ doors should be locked before eleven o’clock.”
“So it was eleven when he came home?”
“He pointed that out to me. Fair cheeky he was. Old clock began to strike when we were a-shouting, so it must have been running all right then. And him standing there with the rain dripping from his hat and a-telling me—“
“Rain?” exclaimed Dixon Hawke.
“Cats-and-dogs outside, sir! ” Hawke was staring at the grandfather clock with considerable interest.
“How long after Tom came in did you stay up?” he asked abruptly.
“About five or six minutes. He calmed down and said he’d lock up, so I went back to bed.”
“I hope he won’t upset your sleep again, Sam. By the way, when he came in and the clock struck, did you count the chimes?”
“The argument was too ’eated for me to do that, sir.”
Shortly after Hawke left the cottage, and when he was outside, he glanced at his watch. He walked briskly to Butt’s Lane and looked at his watch again. Hawke’s expression was grim as he hurried to Colonel Graham’s house and got his car out of the garage.
He drove down to the village and stopped at the Memorial Hall, which was also used as a courthouse. A crowd of people stood outside the door. Hawke whispered to the constable on duty and went in, finding himself a seat at the back of the hall.
The proceedings were very informal, the prisoner standing before a long table where the magistrates were sitting. Superintendent Moss was presenting the police case, asking for Thornton to be committed to the Assizes.
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Hawke Asks Some Questions
The cold facts lined up by the officer left the prisoner in a hopeless position. It was proved that he had been blackmailed by the murdered man for several years, and that he had paid out until his capital had almost gone.
The superintendent explained how the two men had met in the lane; how, on the prisoner’s own admission, they had quarrelled and Cargill had been knocked down. When the officer stated that Thornton had struck him with a stick as he tried to rise, the prisoner interrupted for the first time.
“That’s a lie! ” he shouted. “I tell you, Cargill was sitting up when I left! I did not kill him!”
“I have one witness to prove there was a quarrel,” the superintendent went on. “Step up, Mason.”
A big man came up to the table and took the oath in a mumbling voice. Old Sam’s nephew was shifty-eyed and surly, and looked rather frightened.
He told how he had been returning home about eleven and had passed Butt’s Lane. Loud voices had caused him to look round, and he saw Thornton and the dead man standing close together. The prisoner had been in a violent mood.
At the back of the court Dixon Hawke was scribbling on a piece of paper, which he sent up to the Bench. Colonel Graham passed it to his fellow magistrates, and after a whispered conversation with the superintendent, Hawke was called.
“Mason,” Hawke said. “You got home at eleven?”
“Clock was striking when Uncle let me in. That’s proof, ain’t it?”
“Was it raining?”
“Might ha’ been.”
“Your uncle says it was raining hard and there was thunder. Now, I remember when it began to rain, Mason, and so does Colonel Graham. It was exactly eleven-thirty when the first roll of thunder started the downpour!
“There was no rain at eleven,” Hawke said, “so you did not come in at that hour! ”
“That’s a lie! My uncle can prove it! He knows it was eleven. That clock of his ain’t never lost a minute, and you can go down and look at it now!”
“I have already done so. It’s accurate—but it strikes an hour in advance of the proper time, and at ten minutes past the hour, mark that! Do you know what that means? It means the clock was put back as it was about to strike midnight! The chiming mechanism runs independently, and moving back the hands won’t make it change.”
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“Sensation in Court”
There was a long silence. The prisoner had lifted his head and was staring at Hawke. Superintendent Moss was frowning. When he spoke, there was a note of surprise in his voice.
“Are you suggesting that the witness tampered with the dock?” he demanded.
“I am!” Hawke replied. “He claims he had forgotten his key and had to knock up his uncle to enter. But it is my belief that he entered the house secretly just before midnight and moved the clock back an hour. Then he went outside and knocked for Sam Dill to let him in. He deliberately made a scene with the old man and drew his attention to the time.
“When Dill went to bed, Mason put the clock on to the proper time! ” Hawke continued. “The hand had to go past the hour mark again, and, as twelve had already been struck when the hands were pointing at eleven, it struck one — when the hands were pointing at ten minutes past twelve! ” Hawke turned to the witness and rapped a single question. “Why did you try to make an alibi for yourself?”
“I—I—what be you trying to do?”
“I’ve proved you were out at midnight, that you did not see the start of the quarrel between Thornton and Cargill, but the end of it. You saw the prisoner go away after knocking the other man down!
“Mason, I’ll tell you what happened last night. You were poaching near Butt’s Lane, and you saw the two men together. You saw Thornton pass over a roll of money. You saw the quarrel and the dead man knocked down. Thornton went away and you thought Cargill was stunned. The money was too much of a temptation. You bent over him to take it. He surprised you by starting to get up. In your hand was a cudgel you used for killing rabbits. You struck him with it and stole the money.
“Then you ran home and fixed that alibi. You thought you were cunning, but you were very stupid. If you hadn’t tampered with the clock and roused your uncle, you would never have been suspected! ”
A shriek of rage came from Mason. He dived a hand into the deep pocket of his coat and pulled out a short but wicked-looking club. He sprang forward and rushed at Hawke viciously, catching him a glancing blow which caused him to fall to his knees.
“I’ll kill you! ” yelled Mason.
The attack had been made with such suddenness that everyone was too startled to move, and the club was lifting for another blow when the prisoner suddenly went into action. He flung himself forward and the two rolled to the floor, clinging to one another and fighting desperately.
The superintendent and the village constable made a rush, and between them they separated the pair. Handcuffs clicked, and Mason, still screaming with rage, was forced into a chair.
Dixon Hawke rose to his feet and smiled grimly as he felt the bruise on his head.
Then he bent and picked up the cudgel. He examined it carefully before giving it to Superintendent Moss.
“It has been washed,” he said. “However, a laboratory test will surely show traces of blood and hair. This is the weapon that killed Cargill! ”
“And here’s the money, sir! ” interrupted the constable, who had been searching Mason. “It was tucked away in the lining of his coat. It will take more than an alibi to explain that away!”
Some time later Dixon Hawke, his head bandaged, was sitting in a comfortable chair at Colonel Graham’s house. Thornton, cleared of the dreadful charge, was opposite him. There was a look of contentment on his haggard face.
“And now I’m free,” he said. “Free from everything! It’s all thanks to you, Mr. Hawke! ”
“You can thank last night ’s storm! ” the criminologist said.
“If it hadn’t rained at exactly eleven-thirty, I would never have doubted Mason’s claim that he was home at eleven. And if I hadn’t doubted that I would never have given a second thought to the strange behaviour of Sam Dill’s dock!”
~ The End ~