murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Case of the Left-Handed Footman


A Dixon Hawke Mystery

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Dixon Hawke's Casebook | Spring 1940 | No. 4

Est. Read Time: 21 mins

When a parlour game of "Murder" produces a real-life dead body, can Dixon Hawke sift through the clues and reveal the real-life murderer?




Sometimes even the best of parties seem to go flat for a few minutes for no apparent reason. That is what happened at the dance which Colonel MacIntyre gave at Glen Erradale House.

It was a small dance, with fifteen or twenty people, and just before midnight everyone seemed to go stale. They stood about in little groups, talking in low voices.

One man alone was at his ease. He stood with his back to the wide oak mantelpiece, a black pipe gripped between his teeth and a faint smile creasing the tanned smoothness of his face. Dixon Hawke was a friend of the Colonel, and he had come north for the shooting, accompanied by Tommy Burke.

Colonel MacIntyre waylaid his nephew, Hugh Charteris.

“For goodness sake, Hugh, my boy, think of something,” he whispered urgently. “They’re standing about like a lot of sheep on market day.”

Hugh grinned. “It’s all right, Uncle. I’ve a scheme that’ll waken ‘em up all right.” He turned towards the room.

“Listen, folks!” he shouted. “I’ve got an idea. What about a game of ‘Murder’?”

There was a murmur of interest, and the guests crowded around him.

“In case some of you don’t happen to know it,” he went on, “I’d better explain the game.

“It’s like this. We each pick a card from a pack containing the same number of cards as the number of people present. The pack always includes the ace of spades and the ace of hearts. Whoever gets the ace of hearts is a detective. Whoever gets the ace of spades is the murderer. And any of the rags is the murderee. The lights are switched off at the main. The murderer murders one of you. And the detective has to find out who the murderer is. The victim screams once when he’s being ‘murdered.’ Then the murderer gets half a minute before the lights are switched on again. Get it?”

There was a shout of approval. The party had miraculously come to life again. Hugh found a pack of cards, and when they had been dealt out, Colonel MacIntyre sent word to the servants’ quarters that the lights were going to be switched out. Then he went to the cupboard in the main hall, where the main switch was situated, and a few seconds later Glen Erradale House was plunged into darkness.

The guests began to spread out over the house, feeling their way along walls and banisters. It was their object to keep as far apart from each other as possible, for no one knew for certain that a companion might not also be a potential “murderer.”

Moonlight streamed in through the high old windows, and the breakers of Loch Erradale growled ceaselessly on the rocks of the shore below.

Suddenly a scream rang out. And when the lights were switched on and the guests began to gather again in the big lounge that had been cleared for dancing, they found Hugh Charteris lying on his back on a sofa. A handkerchief tied round his neck showed the manner in which he had been “murdered.”

Everyone waited expectantly. Then Dixon Hawke stepped forward and laid the ace of hearts on the arm of the sofa.

“H’m! Strangled! Poor fellow!” he said gravely.

Colonel MacIntyre came into the room. Hawke turned quickly and pointed to him.

“Arrest that man!” he said crisply.

“What the devil —” the Colonel spluttered. “How the deuce did you know, Hawke?”

“You took rather over a minute to get back and switch on the lights again, Colonel.”

There was a roar of laughter, and the Colonel said dryly, “Well, I suppose we’d better try again. But you and I won’t play this time, Hawke. Carry on with the deal, Hugh.”

“Wait a minute,” said Hugh. “Where’s Jane?”

Jane Corry was the only one of the guests who had not returned. She and Hugh were engaged.

The Colonel chuckled. “Jane has probably very wisely found herself a corner where she can hide. She’ll turn up all right. Carry on.”

Hugh said nothing, and began to deal out the cards.



When Colonel MacIntyre went to switch off the lights again, Hawke accompanied him. They stood together at the door of the cupboard for some minutes, and then, for the second time that night, a scream shattered the stillness that hung over the old house.

The Colonel counted thirty slowly. Then he threw up the main switch, and, blinking in the sudden glare, he and Dixon Hawke went out into the hall.

Already people were beginning to gather there. Hugh Charteris, with an ace of hearts in his hand, came in.

Well,” he said. “ Where’s the body? I can’t very well —”

He stopped suddenly. Hawke, following his eyes, saw a dark girl, Mary Cullies, the daughter of a neighbouring laird, swaying in the curtained entrance to a passage. Her lips were trembling, and her face white as a sheet. She was falling when Hawke took three quick steps forward and caught, her.

” What is it?” he demanded. “What’s the matter?”

She had difficulty in speaking. But at last she said:

“In the cloakroom — the one next Colonel MacIntyre’s study. There’s something behind the door. I think it’s a — a body!”

She broke down then, and Hawke handed her gently to the Colonel. With Hugh Charteris at his heels, he brushed aside the curtain and went into the passage. It was half a dozen yards in length, with only two doors in it. One was that of the study, and the other opened into a small, seldom-used cloakroom. Hawke pushed this open, noticing that it moved sluggishly. What seemed to he a heavy bundle of coats was hanging on the hack of it. Hawke threw the topmost coat aside, and Hugh Charteris, behind him, gave a choking cry. For Jane Corry was hanging by a coat-belt from the hook.

Hawke pushed him gently outside, and called urgently to the Colonel. Together they lifted the girl down, but Hawke’s experienced eye had already told him that she was dead.

“Better take her into your study, Mac,” said Hawke crisply.

“I’ll get some of my men along at once, too,” said the Colonel. He was the Chief Constable of the county.

Tommy Burke appeared at that moment, and helped to carry the girl into the study.

“I’ve told everybody to wait in the lounge, guv’nor,” he said breathlessly.

Hawke nodded. “That’s right, my lad. Go along there now and see that none of them leaves the room.”



Tommy went back down the passage, and while the Colonel was telephoning, he examined the cloakroom. It was a small room about ten feet square, with coat-hooks round three walls and a handbasin in the fourth. It had no window.

When he had finished. Hawke went into the study. Colonel MacIntyre replaced the receiver and turned to him.

“This is ghastly, Hawke. It’s poor Hugh I’m most sorry for. And in my own house —”

Dixon Hawke nodded absently. He was standing at the side of a couch, staring down at the dead girl.

“What makes you so sure that it’s murder?” he asked.

“She’d have had to stand on something and then kick it away,” said the Colonel quietly. “There was nothing in the cloakroom that would have served. Besides, there was no earthly reason for suicide.”

“You’re quite right,” said Hawke slowly. “It was murder, planned to look like suicide. And it wasn’t committed in the cloakroom.”

“How do you know?”

“One of her shoes is missing. Came off in the struggle, I expect. There must have been a struggle. She was strangled by hand. You can tell that from the marks on her throat.”

“Then where the shoe is, she was murdered?”

Hawke nodded his head. “Very possibly. And she wasn’t killed, for example, in the lounge and carried here across the hall, or in one of the bedrooms and carried downstairs. It’s only logical to suppose that she was killed in the only other room in this passage.”

“You mean in here, Hawke — in my study?”


“But where’s the shoe?”

“I don’t know. It may have been thrust into a drawer. Your men can look for it when they come.”

A few minutes later, a sergeant and two constables were shown into the room.

One of the constables was sent to round up the servants and take them to the lounge, and the sergeant and the other constable were instructed to search the house, particularly for the missing shoe.

The Colonel himself searched the study. While he was doing so, Hawke looked slowly round the room. His eye finally came to rest on a sporting gun resting on two hooks on the wall near the door. He stared at it for a moment with a puzzled frown. Then he said: “I didn’t know you were left-handed, Mac.”

The Colonel straightened himself. “I’m not. Why?”

“Do you clean your guns yourself?”

“No. Except that one you’re looking at. I wouldn’t let anyone else handle that. It’s a special Purdy I got as a presentation.”

“Curious,” mused Hawke. “Do you notice that the barrel’s on the right and the stock on the left? A right-handed man would put it up the other way — with the stock to the right. Try it yourself.”

The Colonel picked up the gun, frowned, turned it about and replaced it.

“You’re right, Hawke,” he said. “It’s been moved.”

“By a left-handed man. Now, I wonder —” said Hawke.

“I don’t see that it has anything to do with the case, anyhow,” said the Colonel. “Some deuced inquisitive servant been examining it, I suppose. Now I think we’d better interview these people.”



It was a tiring interview. All the guests had the same story to tell — of edging along darkened corridors with nerves pleasantly tingling, of fitful moonlight streaming through windows that framed a dark vista of Loch Erradale, and the black shapes of the hills on the far shore. Mary Gillies told how she had gone to the cloakroom by the Colonel’s study to hide, how she had felt the hanging form behind the door and had screamed in terror and rushed out to the hall.

The servants’ stories were equally unhelpful. The butler, a grave, portly man, said that while the lights were out some of the servants were up in their bedrooms. He himself had been in the servants’ hall. He did not know where Charles, the footman, had been.

The footman was the last to be interviewed. He was thin and dark, with a tanned skin that seemed strangely out of keeping with his calling.

“How long have you been employed here?” Hawke asked him. Colonel MacIntyre and he were the only others present in the lounge by this time.

“A matter of weeks, sir,” said the footman. “I am employed in a temporary capacity at the moment.”

Hawke glanced at the Colonel, who nodded.

“He was in my employment once before — “

Hawke looked up at the footman. “When?” he asked.

Charles looked momentarily startled. “Well, sir, I’m not quite sure. It would be during the war, I think.”

“Where were you employed before this?”

“I was a ship’s steward, sir.”

“Anything you can tell us that might help?”

“I’m afraid not, sir. I was in my room all the time that the lights were out.”

“That will do, then,” said Hawke abruptly. “There’s a wineglass on the floor behind the door. You’d better remove it as you go out, in case someone breaks it.”

The footman hesitated at the door. Then he bent down swiftly, and with an expert movement, scooped the wineglass up by its stem.

Hawke watched him curiously. As the door closed softly, he turned to the Colonel.

“Wonderful how adept these fellows get when they’re trained as stewards,” he remarked. “But I’m afraid he wasn’t telling us the truth. Or else your butler wasn’t.”

“How do you know?” asked the Colonel curiously.

“When we were standing at the door of the switch-cupboard a man crossed the hall in the darkness. But he passed through a shaft of moonlight from the window at the top of the stairs. And it flashed on silver buttons.”

The Colonel nodded. “And they’re the only two, of course, with silver buttons. But I can’t believe that Graham would lie, and Charles — as he said — was with me once before.”


“I can’t just recollect the exact circumstances. But I knew his face the moment he applied for this post. And when I asked if he’d been with me before, he said yes.”

Hawke’s attention seemed to have drifted away as the Colonel finished speaking. Suddenly he gave a low whistle and slapped his knee.

“Got it! “ he exclaimed. “I see it all now. Where do you keep your tobacco, Mac?”

The Colonel’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “In my tobacco jar — on the little table by the fireplace in my study. Why?”

“It wasn’t in the room when we went in with the dead girl. I knew something was missing, but I couldn’t think what. And when you unwound the coat-belt from her neck you laid it down on that very table — where the tobacco jar should have been.”



The door opened, and Tommy thrust his head round it.

“Sergeant’s out here with the shoe, guv’nor. Will I show him in?”

Hawke nodded, and Tommy and the sergeant came into the room. The sergeant had a black evening slipper in his hand.

“It was in Miss Margaret Charteris’s room, sir — she is a sister of Mr. Hugh,” he reported. “It is next door to the dead young lady’s room.”

“Where are these rooms, Colonel?” asked Hawke swiftly.

“In a passage near the back of the house.”

“And the passage leads to —? “

“There are one or two other rooms in it. And at the end a service stair.”

“Good! “ said Hawke. “I think we have him.”

He rose suddenly to his feet and strode across the room. “But I still can’t find the motive.”

He stood thinking for a moment. Then he took an old envelope from his pocket, scribbled something on the back of it, and handed it to Tommy.

“Off you go, my lad,” he said crisply. “And take care. I don’t want to lose you.”

Tommy glanced at the paper, grinned at his chief, and went out.

“Anything of value in the house, Mac?” Hawke asked.

The Colonel thought for a moment and shook his head. “No. No, I don’t think so. I’ve one or two trinkets in the safe in my study —”

“In the study? A safe? I didn’t see it,” said Hawke sharply.

“It’s a wall safe,” explained the Colonel. “It’s concealed behind a picture. But there’s nothing of direct value in it. Some trinkets worth a few pounds. And some War Office documents. I shouldn’t like to lose them. They deal with naval bases on this coast. Half the lochs on this part of the coast, you know, are seaplane or submarine bases.

“Look here, we’d better go to the study to see if they’re still safe,” added the Colonel anxiously.

“I think we had,” agreed Hawke, and they quickly made their way to the study. The Colonel switched on the light and crossed to a picture which he removed, disclosing the safe behind. Swiftly he dialled the combination, and in a moment the door swung back. Then the Colonel gave a sigh of relief.

“Thank heaven, they’re still here,” he said, turning over the documents in his hand.

“I suggest,” said Hawke quietly, “that an attempt to steal the documents is at the bottom of our mystery. The thief must have been interrupted before he actually got to work on the safe. He counted on escaping detection as the murderer of Miss Corry, and hoped to carry out the theft of the plans later. He calculated that it would be safer not to go on with his original intention of securing them to-night.”

Hawke knocked out his pipe in the fireplace and began to refill it, pacing slowly up and down the room.

“I see it all now,” he mused.

“When he heard that the lights were to be switched off at the main he decided that this was as good a chance as any. People would be moving about all over the house, and he would be able to move himself with a certain amount of freedom. He went down to the study. Five minutes would have been enough for him. I fancy he is an expert. But, unfortunately, Jane Corry decided to do what Mary Gillies did later — to hide in the cloakroom. That’s a sound enough supposition. And perhaps she saw a light flicker beneath the study door and went in to investigate.

“She saw at a glance what was happening. With admirable presence of mind she grabbed your Purdy from its place on the wall. But she had no chance in the darkness — once he had switched off his torch. I’ve no doubt he had one. He closed with her and tore away the gun. They struggled. He had her by the throat to prevent her crying out. But he was too rough, and before he knew it — murder would be the last thing he wanted — she was dead.”

“Who the devil are you talking about?” demanded the Colonel.

Hawke scarcely seemed to hear him. He was piecing together the whole incident in his mind, and thinking aloud.

“He thought desperately. His only chance was to make it look like suicide. But he had very little time. He carried her through to the cloakroom. Tied her to the hook as we found her and threw a coat over her. A silly thing to do, but the natural inclination to conceal the body was too strong. Then he went back to the study to clear up the traces of disturbance. The tobacco jar had been smashed in the struggle. He gathered up the pieces, perhaps straightened a rug, and put your Purdy back in its place. Then he found her shoe. He was about to go and put it on her. But something interrupted him. Hugh’s shout, doubtless, as he was being ‘murdered’ He didn’t know what it meant. But he had a shrewd idea that the lights would go on before long. He wasted no time. His quickest way of escape was upstairs and down to the servants’ quarters by the service stair. On the way he thought of returning the incriminating shoe to its owner’s bedroom. That would heighten, if anything, the appearance of suicide. But he made a mistake and put it in the wrong bedroom. Then he went down to the servants’ quarters. It fits the facts exactly, Colonel. And I think Tommy will be able to cap it.”

“As I said before, Hawke,” said the Colonel in a tone of exasperation, “who the devil are you talking about?” Hawke looked at him in surprise.

“I thought you were following, Mac. I’m talking about. Charles, of course. Don’t you understand? Do you remember the way he scooped up that glass by the stem between two fingers? He thought we were trying to get his finger-prints. And though he probably used gloves, while he was at work in the study, he picked the glass up so that it wouldn’t give any prints. That suggests that he’s an old hand.

“Moreover, it was with his left hand that he picked it up. Simply because he’s left-handed. And what better job could you think of than that of a ship’s steward for bringing a man in touch with people who would — well, who would be interested in these naval and air bases?”

“But, Hawke, he’s been in my employment before. Why should I suspect him? I remember him distinctly. I remember his face, anyhow.”

“Probably from a Scotland Yard circular,” said Hawke. “And when you played into his hands by asking if he’d been with you before, he did the obvious thing.”

“I see,” said the Colonel slowly. “But I’m still not quite clear about — “

He was interrupted by the sound — muffled, as though from a distant part of the house — of two pistol shots in quick succession.



Hawke sprang to the door, calling to the Colonel:

“Quick! The servants’ quarters. Which way?”

“This way,” shouted the Colonel, and he brushed past Hawke and made for the stairs.

They took the stairs two at a time, sprinted down a corridor, with the sergeant and one of the constables at their heels, bundled down another flight of stairs and along a tiled passage.

Graham, the butler, met them at a door at the far end. He was shaking with fright. He pointed to a spiral stair that led up to the servants’ bedrooms.

“Up there, sir! “ he gasped.

Hawke brushed him aside, but before he had reached the foot of the stair Tommy appeared from above and clattered down. He was wildly dishevelled, and his jacket was torn.

“He’s got away, guv’nor,” he shouted hoarsely. “He came in when I was searching and tried to brain me with a chair. He got away by a fire-escape. I was following when he took a couple of pot-shots at me. I thought I’d better get hold of you. He can’t go far.”

“Is it there?” Hawke asked.

Tommy nodded. “It’s in his room. Up this way.”

He led the way up the stair to a small, severely-furnished room. The bottom drawer of a small chest of drawers had been pulled out, and lying on the top of a pile of disordered clothing were the broken pieces of Colonel MacIntyre’s tobacco jar.

Hawke pulled out the other drawers rapidly, and in one of them he found an expensive camera, a couple of spare lenses, and some odd pieces of photographic apparatus. He gave a grunt of satisfaction.

“H’m. If he’d had any luck, you’d never have known anything about it, Colonel. He’d have photographed your papers and returned them to the safe.”

He went to the window and threw it up. It looked out over the dark waters of the loch. The moon was hidden by a bank of cloud.

Faintly out of the darkness came the sound of an outboard motor-boat.

“His plans have been laid for an emergency apparently,” said Hawke. “There’s a little bay on the far shore of the loch. The road runs quite close to it. A car was parked there the other day when we passed, and if I’m not mistaken that’s where he’s making for. Get the Bentley out, Tommy.”

Five minutes later the big car was roaring down the road from Glen Erradale House, with Hawke himself at the wheel. The surface was bad, but Hawke was a fine driver and they kept up a steady speed.

After a couple of miles he drew into the side and stepped out.

“Carry on, Tommy,” he snapped. “You and the Colonel go on by road until you come to the parked car. The sergeant and I will cut across the moor. I don’t know which way will be the quicker, and we can’t risk losing him.”

Tommy slipped into the driving-seat, and the Bentley drew away. Hawke led the way across the rough heather until it dipped down to the black water. Then they circled round by the shore, going silently on the grass by its verge.

Hawke was listening intently. No sound broke the stillness, save the whisper of a breeze in the sedges down at the water’s edge.

Then they heard the sound of an outboard motor-boat. Hawke gripped the sergeant’s arm, and they dropped where they stood.

After a few moments the boat materialised out of the darkness, the motor was switched off, and the vessel glided towards the shore, grounding on the shingle. Like a dark shadow a man scrambled out and began to run up the hill. He was within a yard of them when Hawke rose to his feet and closed.

The man fought like a tiger. The sergeant ran forward to help, tripped, and went full-length. The murderer’s foot found the side of his chest, and he groaned and rolled down the slope towards the beach.

Hawke held on grimly, waiting his chance. It came; there was a sharp, clean snap as Hawke’s fist connected with his jaw, and Charles dropped in the heather without a sound.

Hawke ran lightly down to the beach to help the bruised and winded sergeant to his feet and send him to bring back Colonel MacIntyre and Tommy with the car for their prisoner.