SEXTON BLAKE AND THE GHOST OF OTIS MAUNDER
by David Friend ©
Sexton Blake cradled the candlestick telephone with a sudden urgency.
"Quickly, Tinker!" he cried.
Moments later, the pair were leaping into a dog-cart in the street below.
"What is it, guv'nor?" asked Tinker, bewildered, as he dropped down beside the detective.
Sexton Blake was now studying his pocket-watch with beetled brows. "I have had a cable from Inspector Ratnage," he reported. He looked about them, searching for shorter routes to whatever destination he was so keen to reach. "Nothing interests me less than the news of an arrested murderer, Tinker. By definition, all mystery has withered to nought. However, this matter is unprecedented." Blake's face tightened, his head hung low. "An old friend of mine, Miss Violet Hunter, has been arrested for murder."
"What in the–?" began young Tinker.
"Horace!" Blake barked at the cabbie, who swerved to a hasty halt outside the police station.
The detective leapt out, and his strides were long and loping. With a firm push, the doors swept open and he entered the foyer, a fierce look in his cold-grey eyes.
A wiry young man was moving swiftly past in a curious half-run, his arms hung still and his feet like those of a duck paddling through water.
The man stopped and turned. "Mr Blake!"
Blake stepped closer. "I must see Inspector Ratnage at once," he said seriously. "It is a matter of great importance."
The constable led them through to a small, cramped room on the west side of the building. Inspector Ratnage was hunkered over a desk, his not inconsiderable bulge pressed hard against the wood as though it were trying to push it away. Blake had not seen him since the deadly affair of Dr Callistratus, during which there had been considerable tension between the pair. The Inspector lifted his large, bearded head and looked at them in surprise.
"Inspector," said Blake, as Cartwright took his place beside the door. "I would appreciate it if you could furnish us with the facts." He didn't take a seat.
Inspector Ratnage's brows were raised so high they were almost obscured by his hairline. Blake could observe in him a faint air of triumph, as though he were pleased to have solved a case without the help of London's famous consulting detective. Blake, however, had not come here to give his congratulations, however much Ratnage would have liked to have heard it.
"Mr Blake, I am sure you can understand that this case is now closed."
There was a rickety chair opposite and, without a glance, Blake seated himself on its edge. "It is about to be open again," he said quietly. "Why have you arrested Miss Violet Hunter?"
His stare was absolute and seemed to displease the Yard man.
"The same reason we arrest anyone," was the terse reply. "Because she's guilty."
Sexton Blake leant back. "You belong in the music hall!" he said bitterly.
"Sir!" said Tinker worriedly. His governor looked as though he were about to emit a derisive laugh, so the boy spoke quickly to stop him. "Mr Blake would like to see Miss Hunter," his young voice firm.
The Inspector looked irritated. "You will be wasting everyone's time," he warned his rival. "As I said, the case is closed. But, by all means, cause yourselves embarrassment. It would make a change to the usual foolish praise you so hungrily crave."
Constable Cartwright led Sexton Blake on another journey across the police station, during which he and Tinker caught glimpses of other associates from cases past, all crooked over desks, including Detective Inspector Coutts, Superintendent Venner and Chief Inspector Lennard. They finished up in the cells, and Cartwright revealed to them Miss Violet Hunter.
She had been sitting on a bench and had risen at the tinkle of keys. Her appearance was much the same as the last time she had met Blake. Her face was pale and lightly freckled, her hair still curled and auburn, while the only discernible difference was the look of frozen horror in her eyes.
She stepped widely towards them, relief spread across her face.
Blake moved to the bench and sat down as though he himself was now a prisoner. "Miss Hunter," he said earnestly, "if we are to help you, you must tell us all."
Miss Hunter was still registering the surprise of their arrival. She lifted a hand and rubbed her temple, clearly trying to focus. "It is such a shock to see you," she said quietly. She quickly marshalled and slowly began pacing the cell. Within moments, she was telling her tale.
"My life has recently become one of change," she said. "I became betrothed last summer to a young man named Mr Marcus Housley, an Alderman in Penshurst. I have become a schoolteacher since I last saw you and have also been a headmistress. A few weeks ago, I received a letter. The headmaster of a public school, a Mr Otis Maunder, was retiring and had recommended me as his successor. Well, I could scarcely believe it." She shook her head, still apparently bemused. "Not only was it strange to receive such a letter without warning, but I had never met this gentleman. However, I knew better than to disregard such an offer and accepted it gladly. I went there and started work. The name of my predecessor, however, kept returning to me, and queerly, I began to feel as though I had heard it before.
"I spent the first Friday unpacking my belongings in my office. In one of the drawers of this desk, I found lots of old photographs, mainly of the school through the years. There was only one portrait. A framed photograph covered in dust. In it, was a man I supposed was Mr Maunder. It must have been from long ago as he looked to be in his late thirties, with thinning dark hair combed briskly to the left and a cool, absent stare as though he wasn't aware he was standing for his likeness at all. I thought again of his name and it seemed to tug at something at the back of my mind.
"Then I remembered. My late father, Pheaphilus, had mentioned him quite frequently at one time. They and two others had set up the Sevenoaks Secretarial College for Gentlewomen. If I remembered rightly, it came to light that Mr Maunder had embezzled funds. However, instead of informing the police, my father and his friends were lenient and agreed that Mr Maunder should simply leave the firm. I remember Father being disappointed, but apart from that, it is all I recall about the affair.
"I finished sorting and my new secretary, Mrs Burton, appeared. She is quite a gentle lady, with a grey bun and an open, pleasant face. I wanted to ask about Mr Maunder. It still troubled me why he would recommend me for such a position. Perhaps, I considered, he was grateful to my father for not telling the police of what he had done.
"Mrs Burton told me how he had left the school quite quickly, leaving only a hasty recommendation for his successor, and had died soon after from heart failure. I asked what she knew of the college and, at the very mention of it, the old lady's face turned sour. She said she didn't know the particulars, just that he had been forced to leave and had always been bitter and furious because of it. Whenever the girls at the school expressed an interest in proceeding to the college, Mr Maunder virtually forbade it. He said the people there had done him a great disservice and he would never forgive them. He would, apparently, tremble with the rage it brought him."
"That night, I continued with work far into the evening. It had turned quite cold and I tested the fire. Then, as I often did while a governess elsewhere, I took a walk around the grounds. The moon was out and though dimmed by clouds, I could clearly make out the lake. I moved towards it, breathing in that brand of evening air which is so fresh and chilled that you can taste it. All I could hear was silence. With the school behind me, I could only see woods and country ahead. I looked towards the lake, a couple of yards distant, and saw how it stretched far and deep into darkness. And that was when I noticed something.
"A curious shape seemed to have formed and was slinking slowly across the water. It was a good way out from the edge, not at all near the shallow part, and at first I had to strain my eyes. It was a man, I could tell, but his footfalls were firm upon the water. How in the world was he doing it? My heart began to race. As he moved closer, I recognized his face. It was the young Mr Maunder, just as he had been in the photograph. My throat was suddenly dry and I couldn't even muster the energy to scream.
"‘Avenge me!' wailed this impossible spectre. ‘Avenge me!'
"Breathless, I span around and dashed back in the direction of the school. I was breathing heavily, even hoarsely, as I stamped across the grounds, and my feet were hurting like never before. I found my way inside and didn't stop until I had reached my office and shut the door. For a reason I didn't even register, I turned the key in the lock and stood as far away from it as possible. There, in the darkness of the office — a room which didn't look at all familiar anymore — I cowered. Shivering with fright, I turned away, my eyes falling to the desk and the photograph of Mr Maunder. Quite witless, I took it from its frame, tore it in two and threw it into the fire.
"I needn't add that I barely slept that night. Even on the morrow, the memory of whatever it was I had seen haunted me still. I felt compelled to tell someone and so I told Mrs Burton. The old lady humoured me, of course, telling me it was the excitement and nerves of starting in a new position. But I knew what I had seen. I think myself practical, Mr Blake, and it was in such manner that I set about researching Mr Otis Maunder. I searched in various books and documents and asked others, too. I learned how he had become headmaster in the late ‘60s and that he had set up the college with my father and two men named Edwin Luckett and Nathaniel Farley. Both men lived in the nearby village of Riverhead. I heard again that Mr Maunder had never forgiven any of them and that while they had become rich and successful, he had become progressively miserable until he recently resigned.
"In looking for papers which could help me in my quest, I happened upon a letter. I am not of a mind to pry into other people's correspondences, Mr Blake, but I read the first line almost accidentally and I confess its bluntness gripped me. I remember it vividly:
"I sense there are spirits here in this house. Nobody may believe me, but it is what I know to be true. In the dark of night, when the world is otherwise silent, I can hear noises. I wander and hope to find them. Alas, I have not yet, but I shall one day and I dread it. I even consider leaving here and escaping once and for all. But something makes me stay. A sort of indescribable hold."
"Naturally, I was staggered. The handwriting was rough, as though the person writing it was scared."
"Was there an address?" asked Sexton Blake. He had remained sitting, his head tilted back against the bars, his eyes closed.
"No. It appeared to be unfinished."
"Well, it frightened me even more. I felt like he had led me to this letter, to prove to me that what I had seen was real. I was desperate to speak to those who had known him. It so occurred to me that I should speak with his former associates — presumably, the people his ghost wanted me to avenge. I took a trap to Riverhead and saw Mr Luckett and Mr Farley wandering the village. I wondered what I could say. Part of me wanted to tell them what I had seen, but I was worried they would consider me mad. I was prevaricating still when a policeman passed.
"‘You want to speak to those men?' he asked curiously.
"‘I mustn't,' I said. ‘What I have to say would only scare them.'"
"And so I returned to the school. I decided that I must now forget what I had seen. I was still trying to do this, some days later, when the police arrived. They began questioning me immediately. In Riverhead, they said, two middle-aged men had been stabbed to death in their houses. Their corpses had been covered in violets."
Tinker jerked back a step in surprise. "Violets?" he repeated, then looked at Blake, but the detective did not seem the remotest surprised.
"They had been picked from the surrounding gardens," Miss Hunter explained. "As such, no violets could now be found in any garden at that end of the village. They believed I was responsible; that a clue had been deliberately left as a twisted joke. The killer was a violet hunter, and I am a Violet Hunter. The police discovered that I had been asking about both men, had traced them to Riverend and had watched them. One of their own constables was a witness! They also spoke to Mrs Burton, who told them how convinced I was that I had seen the ghost of Otis Maunder. They believe me insane, Mr Blake, and want me to hang!"
Finishing, she turned to Blake expectantly. He remained still, almost as if he were asleep. But then, his eyes blazed open and he sprang to his feet, and moved to the door of the cell. To the lady's surprise, he whirled around, suddenly, like a sequined cobra.
"Miss Hunter," he said quietly. "I cannot promise you anything."
In the corridor, Constable Cartwright told Blake that they had discovered Miss Hunter had been consulting an alienist, and gave them his address. And so, ten minutes later and two streets away, Blake and Tinker entered a dimly-lit office. It was lined with bookshelves with small, curtained windows and a narrow desk in the corner. A short man was seated behind it. Dr Marcellus Chappell had a wide, domed forehead and a bushy Van Dyke beard, rather like Carl Zeller. The hair on the back of his head was brushed up untidily as though he wanted to remind people that he had at least some of it left.
"My name is Sexton Blake and this is my friend and protégé Master—"
"Ah," said Dr Chappell in surprise and let out a hand for the detective to shake. "It is good to meet you, Mr Blake. I have heard so much about you!"
"You are most kind, doctor," said Blake suavely. "It is such business that brings me to your door. Perhaps you can tell us of your professional opinion regarding Miss Violet Hunter?"
Dr Chappell's eyes widened at the remembrance of his curious patient.
"I concluded that Miss Hunter is mad," he said candidly. "She has convinced herself that she had seen Mr Maunder's ghost. She may even believe that it was possessing her. As I see it, Miss Hunter was suffering from guilt."
"Guilt?" Tinker echoed. "Why must she feel guilty?"
Dr Chappell continued as though the boy had not said a word. "We have spoken extensively about her experiences," he said, looking at Blake. "I understand her father and Mr Maunder, among others, had founded a college together, but Mr Maunder had been forced to resign. It would seem he was willing to forgive her father and, as a symbol of this, he recommended Miss Hunter to succeed him as head-teacher. She felt she could return this favour by punishing those who had wronged him. You see, Mr Blake, Miss Hunter is clearly unwell. This was hardly the action of a sound mind."
Blake could see the doctor's reasoning, but somehow did not want to accept it. Instead, he seized upon the question of the violets.
Dr Chappell tilted his head ponderously as though he was only now considering the matter. "I would suggest Miss Hunter's subconscious mind had selected the violets and left them on the bodies as a clue to her identity," he said. "It is not an unusual occurrence for the culprit to desire capture and therefore punishment for his crimes, particularly if there is a large degree of guilt involved, which there may be in this case as Miss Hunter perhaps feels she has benefited from her predecessor's death."
"And the ghost?" Blake asked.
"A vivid dream," said Dr Chappell dismissively. "They can often be confused with reality. If I recall, Miss Hunter believes she encountered the ghost at night time, which would make perfect sense."
"It would indeed," the detective agreed. "Thank you for your time, Dr Chappell."
"Not at all. I look forward to reading more of your adventures in the press, Mr Blake. Let us hope it will not be too long before you net Leon Kestrel or Dr Huxton Rymer."
Sexton Blake's mouth curved into a polite smile. "Maybe, doctor, maybe."
A short hour later, the detective and his young associate were taking a train from Charing Cross to Sevenoaks. Blake was silent for much of the journey and stared blankly at the floor, as though there were not any sumptuously golden fields lying flat beyond the window. After a while, Tinker too was seized by thoughts of that mysterious phantom striding across the lake.
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting the school over which Miss Hunter had presided and speaking with those who had known her. Mrs Burton, her secretary, attested that Miss Hunter had confided in her about the alleged ghost. The old lady seemed quite shocked at the subsequent events, but was certain that her headmistress was unwell.
Blake also discovered that another teacher, Mr Jeduthan Devitt, was the only teacher who found Miss Hunter's presence at the school disagreeable. This was due to the fact that he had expected to inherit Mr Maunder's position himself. Blake met him briefly in one of the many labyrinthine corridors and he certainly seemed unconcerned about the circumstances in which his headmistress had now found herself. He was a long-limbed man with jagged sideburns and flamboyant curls, though his stare alone made him worthy of note. It was cold and intense, his blue eyes seemingly fixed so hard that nothing would pry them away. Eventually, he became distracted when he recognized one of the boys — the school's most infamous practical joker, apparently — and began telling him off.
It became clear that Blake and Tinker were to spend more than just a day in Sevenoaks and Blake suggested to his young assistant that he should find them accommodation for the night. Tinker, it so happened, went to the village and settled upon The Ploughman's Inn. He considered it to be a quiet and comfortable hostelry and Blake planned to join him there that evening for a steak and ale pie. Tinker waited for him at the bar and, once again, his adolescent mind mulled over the ghost who walked on water.
A little after six o'clock, Sexton Blake joined him. The boy noticed a gleam in the detective's eyes which could only foretell success.
"I have had a most invigorating session at the school library," he said.
"Good to hear, guv'nor," said Tinker between mouthfuls. This, Blake was embarrassed to note, was the boy's third helping of pie.
"Miss Hunter's father, Pheaphilus Hunter, was indeed in business with Otis Maunder, Nathaniel Farley and Edwin Luckett," said Blake. "They were rather entrepreneurial men, having noticed the growing demand for female clerks and the need to equip them with the skills of shorthand and typing. Luckett had a friend, G. E. Clark, who had founded a secretarial college in Southgate Road in 1880, and wanted to do the same here. So it was that the four men founded the Sevenoaks Secretarial College for Gentlewomen. They hoped it would emulate the success of Skerry's College, which provides young men with civil service training and has colleges all around the country. However, it soon became apparent that Maunder was embezzling funds and, just as Miss Hunter said, the other three men did not inform the police. This, by the way, is Maunder."
He had taken out a photograph and Tinker examined it with interest. Mr Otis Maunder had been stout and of medium height, with only a few forgotten hairs left on his head, and a downturned mouth which made him appear somewhat brusque.
Blake was about to speak again when he noticed something through the window of the pub.
"Ah!" he said. "Come, my boy." He leapt from his chair and threaded quickly through the inn's other customers. "This," he told his protégé in a low voice as they made their way outside, "will be Ambrose, an odd-job man from Sturridge. I had the landlord summon him here to clean the windows quite urgently."
"Why would windows need to be cleaned urgently?" Tinker asked.
"Because we won't be here for long, Tinker, and this man is the son of Otis Maunder."
The pair turned a corner and approached a figure pressing a rag against one of the windows. He looked, considered Tinker, nothing like his father. Whereas the older Maunder had been paunchy, Ambrose was tall and lithe, his face thin with sucked-in cheeks and a pencil moustache sat astride his mouth.
"Good evening," said Sexton Blake merrily. "We would like to speak with you about a young lady named Miss Violet Hunter."
The young man turned and eyed the detective suspiciously. "I'm not talking about her," he said quietly. He seemed to grip the cloth harder and turned back to the glass. "I'm busy."
"If you insist," said Blake, "Tinker here will wash those windows for you."
The boy looked at his friend in surprise. "I will?"
"Most certainly," said Blake, as though he himself were offering to help.
Ambrose paused reluctantly, but nodded to a bucket on the ground. Tinker picked it up and stared into it with distaste. It was half filled with dirty water, with pieces of old moss and floating dead beetles. He shook my head resignedly, squeezed the cloth out and applied it firmly to the window.
"How do you feel about your father's — ah — ghost being seen?" Blake asked.
"It's not true," he said stonily. "It's a fairy tale. Margaret Oliphant nonsense."
"Have you considered asking Miss Hunter about it? I don't think you have visited her yet, have you?"
The young man's lips pulled back into a bitter grimace. "And I won't either," he said. "My father has been dead five months and now this mad woman is trying to start rumours. I won't have his memory upset like that."
Blake nodded, as though none of this was unexpected. "Your father once embezzled funds from a company he ran with his friends."
Tinker paused in his endeavours, shoulders sagging with disappointment.
"Carry on, Tinker," Blake instructed him, and the boy reluctantly did so, muttering something under his breath.
"I won't have his memory upset by you either," Ambrose said harshly.
"We already know it to be true," Blake pointed out. "I grieve to tell you that speaking ill of the dead is a necessity in my profession."
Ambrose seemed to consider for a moment. "He needed the money." He said it quickly, as though he had been bursting to support his father for a long time and was now finally able to. "But he always thought the other three should have given him a second chance. And I did too."
Sexton Blake nodded. "One other matter, Mr Maunder, to which I hope you will submit your attention." He fished a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his coat and presented it to the young man, who looked at it indifferently. "Is this your father's handwriting?" he asked.
Ambrose shifted, unsure. "It's been a long time," he said, "but I think so."
"Thank you," said Blake, and turned away. His smile was less fleeting than usual. Clearly, the detective was pleased about something.
The investigative pair returned indoors and found their table again.
"I didn't like to mention his mother's alcoholism," he volunteered before Tinker could even ask. The boy looked incredulous. "The letter I showed him," was the explanation. "It is the one Miss Hunter found. It seemed to describe how his father thought there were spirits roaming the house at night, how he could hear them, how they frightened him and how he was considering moving away just to be rid of them. Rather, of course, the letter wasn't about ghosts at all."
"What you mean, guv'nor?"
"His wife was addicted to drink," he clarified. "She swore to her husband that she was addicted no more, yet she hid these bottles of spirits in the house. He became suspicious and was determined to find them. She would drink them at night, coming downstairs and taking them from their secret hiding places, where they would tinkle and unknowingly disturb him upstairs. In his despair, Maunder even considered leaving her. The letter was written to his son, explaining the situation, and the handwriting was shaky as Maunder was upset. "
Tinker was about to congratulate Blake when he noticed the detective's twisting into a perplexed frown. "There's something else," the adolescent detected.
Blake nodded. "I cannot say here," he said, his eyes flitting fretfully about the snug.
They took the stairs to the first landing, each of their rooms in opposite directions. Blake stood over the banister, his hands gripping it tightly as he spoke. "Otis Maunder," he said, "never forgave his former associates. He was resentful of his lost opportunity. The other three went on to become wealthy and Maunder did not. He was furious. Ambrose admits that he is too. No doubt the old man poisoned his mind. I believe that, before he died, Otis Maunder thought of a plan in which he could exact his revenge.
"Pheaphilus Hunter, of course, had since died and so it was necessary to punish his daughter instead. He discovered Miss Hunter was now a teacher and headmistress and was, as it happened, searching for a new position. Maunder retired and recommended Miss Hunter as his successor. He fully intended to carry out the rest of his plan, but died of heart failure before he was able to. I fancy that Ambrose knew of what his father was up to and decided to continue himself."
Tinker stared at his friend keenly, much as he had done when the pair were on the threshold of another adventure against Zenith the Albino or the great, duplicitous George Marsden Plummer.
"What was the plan?" he asked.
Blake let go of the banisters and threw his hands up in the air as though admitting defeat. "It is a hypothesis which cannot work," he confessed with remorse. "I believed that it was Ambrose who Miss Hunter had seen that night. Just how he managed to walk on water, I do not yet know. But I was sure it had to be him." He smiled grimly. "But Ambrose looks nothing like his father. Even if he had stuffed a cushion up his shirt, he would still not have looked convincing. From the moment we learned this ghost was supposed to be Otis Maunder as a young man, I wondered why. Surely a ghost would look like a man at whatever age he died, not as he was in his prime? Alas, Ambrose could not, I fancy, look like the photograph of his father which Miss Hunter had seen. His father carried too much weight. In other words, we still do not know what happened."
The following morning, the pair took a dogcart to the school, but Blake elected not to trouble any of its staff again. Neither of them spoke for some time. Tinker followed his master through the grounds and noticed with concern how sombre he seemed. The detective moved briskly, the ground dipping slightly into a curve, and reached the lake.
"How, Tinker? How?" he murmured as the adolescent joined him.
Quite suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, he charged into the water, splashing like a mad seal until he finally halted, over two yards away. The water came up to his knees.
"There would have to be a platform of some sort," he speculated. Then, with another splash, he disappeared beneath the surface. There he remained for what felt like minutes, until Tinker began to feel worried. Something, he decided, was wrong. The young adventurer stepped forward and was about to totter into the stillness himself when there was a sudden burst a foot away.
Tinker smiled with relief as he watched Sexton Blake, curled into a ball near the very edge of the lake, unfurl into a stand. Every inch of him appeared soaked. He clambered out, dripping onto the ground.
"Find anything?" Tinker asked.
Blake shook his head and water sprayed off his hair. "Nothing. Just blackness, mud and moss."
He looked about him, his face tight with concentration. He was searching for something. Tinker, for his part, could see nothing unusual. The detective's eyes then widened and one side of his mouth twisted shyly into a smile, and he sprang forwards into a run. He stopped some yards away, then bent down and picked something up and held it aloft like a schoolboy who had just won a prize.
"A dead fish," he reported, and examined it minutely. "How do you suppose it got so far from the lake?" he asked. "I know they can leap out of a stream but they couldn't get this far." He sighed. "Come Tinker," he said finally. "We shall discover nothing more here."
With surprising dignity, the detective walked off, his clothes still dripping water wherever he went.
The two returned to the Ploughman's Inn and Sexton Blake took the opportunity to change into dry clothes.
"We must return to London," he announced afterwards.
And so it was that they met with Miss Hunter again. This time, however, they shared her cell with Inspector Ratnage, who took prime position on the bench, with Constable Cartwright.
Blake brushed a piece of fluff from his sleeve with a weak-fisted wave. He was set to begin. "It occurred to me, Miss Hunter," he said, "that we only ever had your confirmation that the man in the picture was indeed Otis Maunder."
Miss Violet Hunter looked shocked. "Mr Blake! Are you accusing me of lying?"
Sexton Blake's expression almost mirrored hers. "Not in the least," he said. "I simply mean that you would not know what a young Otis Maunder looked like. The photographs in the drawer did not include any other. I am suggesting it was not the late Mr Maunder in that picture at all."
Miss Hunter, Inspector Ratnage and Constable Cartwright all shared the same frown.
"Who could it have been?" she asked.
"His son Ambrose," said Blake. "I was always convinced it was he, though I could not reason just how he had managed it. But then it became clear. Instead of using a photograph of his father, of whom he looked nothing alike, he used a photograph of himself. He put it in an old frame, covered it with dust and planted it in the drawer. He wanted you to believe it was his father and you did not question the implication for a moment."
Blake gestured to his young assistant, clearly unwilling to continue his explanation himself.
"Ambrose," said Tinker, remembering what Blake had told him on the way back to the capital, "had his father's key to the school and every night he would go into the office and check to see if the photograph had been moved. When he found it was missing, he knew it was time to put the rest of his plan into action. As an odd-job man, you see, he does a little work in the grounds every now and then. He had seen you walking around the lake and learned that it was what you did so every night. The guv'nor and I have visited the lake. Now, if you remember, the end you saw is quite narrow at only two yards across, and the ground beside it is only an inch or two higher, right? Well, there is also a curvature in the ground's formation, meaning that it can keep water when it rains and make a puddle."
"I believe," Blake went on, "that soon before you ventured out for your walk, Miss Hunter, Ambrose came to the lake and filled a bucket with its water. He then poured it thickly across the ground and kept doing so until he had created a very large puddle, as Tinker just indicated. It stretched out wide until it reached the edges of the lake itself. From a distance, the join between lake and puddle could not be discerned. To all purposes, the lake had been extended a little. Ambrose then positioned himself in the middle and waited.
"Soon after, you arrived, Miss Hunter. In the dim moonlight, with the barest hint showing from behind the clouds, you did not have the surest notion of where, precisely, you were standing. Neither did you realise that the lake was apparently nearer than usual. All you knew was that a figure was out on the lake and moving towards you. His feet, in fact, were touching the ground underfoot but, from all outward appearances, he was walking on water. To your startled eyes, Otis Maunder had returned as a ghost!
"Over the following few days, you learned of his life and death and that his former associates Edwin Luckett and Nathaniel Farley lived in nearby Riverend. You even visited the place and saw them from afar, which not even Ambrose could have anticipated. He worked in many gardens and had been in Riverend for a couple of weeks already. He collected together a bunch of violets. He then visited both of the men's houses and killed them, leaving the flowers on their corpses. He hoped the police would understand the message and they did. The killer was apparently announcing himself as a violet hunter and you are indeed a Violet Hunter."
Inspector Ratnage's face had paled. He looked from Blake to his client and back again. Constable Cartwright, meanwhile, was struggling to keep speed with Blake.
"They believed you were quite literally mad, leaving a cryptic clue as you avenged Otis Maunder. And with the questions and the spying and this talk of a ghost, it is no wonder they had you see an alienist."
Miss Hunter looked awed. "But we can understand your conviction," Blake added, at pains to soothe her.
"But Mr Blake," said Miss Hunter, "how do you know this?"
Sexton Blake lifted a hand like a magician producing a pigeon. "You ripped the photograph in two and threw it into the fire. Considering your temper at the time, you were too distracted to tell if it had properly burned. I checked, and I was fortunate, for one piece had fallen behind the lumber."
He took it from his pocket and revealed it to his listeners. It was the upper half of the photograph and was clearly Ambrose, not his father.
Inspector Ratnage looked sceptical. "What about the lake?"
"Upon inspection of the ground nearest to the lake, I found a small, dead fish. Ambrose had clearly scooped it in his bucket before pouring the water onto the ground. He was too rushed to notice it. I had visited Ambrose and had also seen pieces of moss in the bucket which I believe had also come from the lake. I tried to have Tinker retrieve it, but he started washing windows instead."
Miss Hunter remained worried. "But how will the police stop believing it is me?"
"Rest assured," said Blake, "I would wager that even the inspector here will secure a confession from Ambrose Maunder. Leaving you, Miss Hunter, free to marry Mr Marcus Housley and continue your career as a headmistress."
Miss Hunter's frown cleared as he said this. "Mr Blake," she said, "I cannot adequately thank you!"
Blake opened the cell door and she sauntered happily out of it.
Cartwright followed them, frowning. "But, I don't understand. What's the fish got to do with anything?"
Inspector Ratnage remained sitting on the bench, frowning at the wall and thinking over all he had heard. Blake quietly closed the door of the cell, locking the oblivious inspector inside. The detective looked at his young assistant with a mischievous smile and a finger raised in silence as they moved away.
"Now the case is closed, Inspector!" called Sexton Blake and the pair could hear the man's guttural cry of indignation as they left.