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Title: The Blue Scarab

Date of first publication: 1929

Author: Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943)

Date first posted: Oct. 17, 2018

Date last updated: Oct. 17, 2018

Faded Page eBook #20181029

This ebook was produced by: Delphine Lettau, Mark Akrigg, Jen Haines & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net


Medico-legal practice is largely concerned with crimes against the person, the details of which are often sordid, gruesome and unpleasant. Hence the curious and romantic case of the Blue Scarab (though really outside our speciality) came as somewhat of a relief. But to me it is of interest principally as illustrating two of those remarkable gifts which made my friend, Thorndyke, unique as an investigator: his uncanny power of picking out the one essential fact at a glance, and his capacity to produce, when required, inexhaustible stores of unexpected knowledge of the most out-of-the-way subjects.

It was late in the afternoon when Mr. James Blowgrave arrived, by appointment, at our chambers, accompanied by his daughter, a rather strikingly pretty girl of about twenty-two; and when we had mutually introduced ourselves, the consultation began without preamble.

“I didn’t give any details in my letter to you,” said Mr. Blowgrave. “I thought it better not to, for fear you might decline the case. It is really a matter of a robbery, but not quite an ordinary robbery. There are some unusual and rather mysterious features in the case. And as the police hold out very little hope, I have come to ask if you will give me your opinion on the case and perhaps look into it for me. But first I had better tell you how the affair happened.

“The robbery occurred just a fortnight ago, about half-past nine o’clock in the evening. I was sitting in my study with my daughter, looking over some things that I had taken from a small deed-box, when a servant rushed in to tell us that one of the outbuildings was on fire. Now, my study opens by a French window on the garden at the back, and, as the outbuilding was in a meadow at the side of the garden, I went out that way, leaving the French window open; but before going I hastily put the things back in the deed-box and locked it.

“The building—which I used partly as a lumber store and partly as a workshop—was well alight and the whole household was already on the spot, the boy working the pump and the two maids carrying the buckets and throwing water on the fire. My daughter and I joined the party and helped to carry the buckets and take out what goods we could reach from the burning building. But it was nearly half an hour before we got the fire completely extinguished, and then my daughter and I went to our rooms to wash and tidy ourselves up. We returned to the study together, and when I had shut the French window my daughter proposed that we should resume our interrupted occupation. Thereupon I took out of my pocket the key of the deed-box and turned to the cabinet on which the box always stood.

“But there was no deed-box there!

“For a moment I thought I must have moved it, and cast my eyes round the room in search of it. But it was nowhere to be seen, and a moment’s reflection reminded me that I had left it in its usual place. The only possible conclusion was that during our absence at the fire, somebody must have come in by the window and taken it. And it looked as if that somebody had deliberately set fire to the outbuilding for the express purpose of luring us all out of the house.”

“That is what the appearances suggest,” Thorndyke agreed. “Is the study window furnished with a blind or curtains?”

“Curtains,” replied Mr. Blowgrave. “But they were not drawn. Anyone in the garden could have seen into the room; and the garden is easily accessible to an active person who could climb over a low wall.”

“So far, then,” said Thorndyke, “the robbery might be the work of a casual prowler who had got into the garden and watched you through the window, and assuming that the things you had taken from the box were of value, seized an easy opportunity to make off with them. Were the things of any considerable value?”

“To a thief they were of no value at all. There were a number of share certificates, a lease, one or two agreements, some family photographs and a small box containing an old letter and a scarab. Nothing worth stealing, you see, for the certificates were made out in my name and were therefore unnegotiable.”

“And the scarab?”

“That may have been lapis lazuli, but more probably it was a blue glass imitation. In any case it was of no considerable value. It was about an inch and a half long. But before you come to any conclusion, I had better finish the story. The robbery was on Tuesday, the 7th of June. I gave information to the police, with a description of the missing property, but nothing happened until Wednesday, the 15th, when I received a registered parcel bearing the Southampton postmark. On opening it I found, to my astonishment, the entire contents of the deed-box, with the exception of the scarab, and this rather mysterious communication.”

He took from his pocket-book and handed to Thorndyke an ordinary envelope addressed in typewritten characters, and sealed with a large, elliptical seal, the face of which was covered with minute hieroglyphics.

“This,” said Thorndyke, “I take to be an impression of the scarab; and an excellent impression it is.”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Blowgrave, “I have no doubt that it is the scarab. It is about the same size.”

Thorndyke looked quickly at our client with an expression of surprise. “But,” he asked, “don’t you recognise the hieroglyphics on it?”

Mr. Blowgrave smiled deprecatingly. “The fact is,” said he, “I don’t know anything about hieroglyphics, but I should say, as far as I can judge, these look the same. What do you think, Nellie?”

Miss Blowgrave looked at the seal—rather vaguely—and replied, “I am in the same position. Hieroglyphics are to me just funny-looking things that don’t mean anything. But these look the same to me as those on our scarab, though I expect any other hieroglyphics would, for that matter.”

Thorndyke made no comment on this statement, but examined the seal attentively through his lens. Then he drew out the contents of the envelope, consisting of two letters, one typewritten and the other in a faded brown handwriting. The former he read through and then inspected the paper closely, holding it up to the light to observe the watermark.

“The paper appears to be of Belgian manufacture,” he remarked, passing it to me. I confirmed this observation and then read the letter, which was headed “Southampton” and ran thus:

Dear Old Pal,

I am sending you back some trifles removed in error. The ancient document is enclosed with this, but the curio is at present in the custody of my respected uncle. Hope its temporary loss will not inconvenience you, and that I may be able to return it to you later. Meanwhile, believe me,

Your ever affectionate,


“Who is Rudolpho?” I asked.

“The Lord knows,” replied Mr. Blowgrave. “A pseudonym of our absent friend, I presume. He seems to be a facetious sort of person.”

“He does,” agreed Thorndyke. “This letter and the seal appear to be what the schoolboys would call a leg-pull. But still, this is all quite normal. He has returned you the worthless things and has kept the one thing that has any sort of negotiable value. Are you quite clear that the scarab is not more valuable than you have assumed?”

“Well,” said Mr. Blowgrave, “I have had an expert opinion on it. I showed it to M. Fouquet, the Egyptologist, when he was over here from Brussels a few months ago, and his opinion was that it was a worthless imitation. Not only was it not a genuine scarab, but the inscription was a sham, too; just a collection of hieroglyphic characters jumbled together without sense or meaning.”

“Then,” said Thorndyke, taking another look at the seal through his lens, “it would seem that Rudolpho, or Rudolpho’s uncle, has got a bad bargain. Which doesn’t throw much light on the affair.”

At this point Miss Blowgrave intervened. “I think, father,” said she, “you have not given Dr. Thorndyke quite all the facts about the scarab. He ought to be told about its connection with Uncle Reuben.”

As the girl spoke Thorndyke looked at her with a curious expression of suddenly awakened interest. Later I understood the meaning of that look, but at the time there seemed to me nothing particularly arresting in her words.

“It is just a family tradition,” Mr. Blowgrave said deprecatingly. “Probably it is all nonsense.”

“Well, let us have it, at any rate,” said Thorndyke. “We may get some light from it.”

Thus urged, Mr. Blowgrave hemmed a little shyly and began:

“The story concerns my great-grandfather, Silas Blowgrave, and his doings during the war with France. It seems that he commanded a privateer, of which he and his brother Reuben were the joint owners, and that in the course of their last cruise they acquired a very remarkable and valuable collection of jewels. Goodness knows how they got them; not very honestly, I suspect, for they appear to have been a pair of precious rascals. Something has been said about the loot from a South American church or cathedral, but there is really nothing known about the affair. There are no documents. It is mere oral tradition and very vague and sketchy. The story goes that when they had sold off the ship, they came down to live at Shawstead in Hertfordshire, Silas occupying the manor house—in which I live at present—and Reuben a farm-house adjoining. The bulk of the loot they shared out at the end of the cruise, but the jewels were kept apart to be dealt with later—perhaps when the circumstances under which they had been acquired had been forgotten. However, both men were inveterate gamblers, and it seems—according to the testimony of a servant of Reuben’s who overheard them—that on a certain night when they had been playing heavily, they decided to finish up by playing for the whole collection of jewels as a single stake. Silas, who had the jewels in his custody, was seen to go to the manor house and return to Reuben’s house carrying a small, iron-bound chest.

“Apparently they played late into the night, after everyone else but the servant had gone to bed, and the luck was with Reuben, though it seems probable that he gave luck some assistance. At any rate, when the play was finished and the chest handed over, Silas roundly accused him of cheating, and we may assume that a pretty serious quarrel took place. Exactly what happened is not clear, for when the quarrel began Reuben dismissed the servant, who retired to her bedroom in a distant part of the house. But in the morning it was discovered that Reuben and the chest of jewels had both disappeared, and there were distinct traces of blood in the room in which the two men had been playing. Silas professed to know nothing about the disappearance; but a strong—and probably just—suspicion arose that he had murdered his brother and made away with the jewels. The result was that Silas also disappeared, and for a long time his whereabouts was not known even by his wife. Later it transpired that he had taken up his abode, under an assumed name, in Egypt, and that he had developed an enthusiastic interest in the then new science of Egyptology—the Rosetta Stone had been deciphered only a few years previously. After a time he resumed communication with his wife, but never made any statement as to the mystery of his brother’s disappearance. A few months before his death he visited his home in disguise and he then handed to his wife a little sealed packet which was to be delivered to his only son, William, on his attaining the age of twenty-one. That packet contained the scarab and the letter which you have taken from the envelope.”

“Am I to read it?” asked Thorndyke.

“Certainly, if you think it worth while,” was the reply.

Thorndyke opened the yellow sheet of paper and, glancing through the brown and faded writing, read aloud:

Cairo, 4th March, 1833.

My dear Son,

I am sending you, as my last gift, a valuable scarab, and a few words of counsel on which I would bid you meditate. Believe me, there is much wisdom in the lore of Old Egypt. Make it your own. Treasure the scarab as a precious inheritance. Handle it often but show it to none. Give your Uncle Reuben Christian burial. It is your duty, and you will have your reward. He robbed your father, but he shall make restitution.


Your affectionate father,

Silas Blowgrave.

As Thorndyke laid down the letter he looked inquiringly at our client.

“Well,” he said, “here are some plain instructions. How have they been carried out?”

“They haven’t been carried out at all,” replied Mr. Blowgrave. “As to his son William, my grandfather, he was not disposed to meddle in the matter. This seemed to be a frank admission that Silas killed his brother and concealed the body, and William didn’t choose to reopen the scandal. Besides, the instructions are not so very plain. It is all very well to say, ‘Give your Uncle Reuben Christian burial,’ but where the deuce is Uncle Reuben?”

“It is plainly hinted,” said Thorndyke, “that whoever gives the body Christian burial will stand to benefit, and the word ‘restitution’ seems to suggest a clue to the whereabouts of the jewels. Has no one thought it worth while to find out where the body is deposited?”

“But how could they?” demanded Blowgrave. “He doesn’t give the faintest clue. He talks as if his son knew where the body was. And then, you know, even supposing Silas did not take the jewels with him, there was the question, whose property were they? To begin with, they were pretty certainly stolen property, though no one knows where they came from. Then Reuben apparently got them from Silas by fraud, and Silas got them back by robbery and murder. If William had discovered them he would have had to give them up to Reuben’s sons, and yet they weren’t strictly Reuben’s property. No one had an undeniable claim to them, even if they could have found them.”

“But that is not the case now,” said Miss Blowgrave.

“No,” said Mr. Blowgrave, in answer to Thorndyke’s look of inquiry. “The position is quite clear now. Reuben’s grandson, my cousin Arthur, has died recently, and as he had no children, he has dispersed his property. The old farm-house and the bulk of his estate he has left to a nephew, but he made a small bequest to my daughter and named her as the residuary legatee. So that whatever rights Reuben had to the jewels are now vested in her, and on my death she will be Silas’s heir, too. As a matter of fact,” Mr. Blowgrave continued, “we were discussing this very question on the night of the robbery. I may as well tell you that my girl will be left pretty poorly off when I go, for there is a heavy mortgage on our property and mighty little capital. Uncle Reuben’s jewels would have made the old home secure for her if we could have laid our hands on them. However, I mustn’t take up your time with our domestic affairs.”

“Your domestic affairs are not entirely irrelevant,” said Thorndyke. “But what is it that you want me to do in the matter?”

“Well,” said Blowgrave, “my house has been robbed and my premises set fire to. The police can apparently do nothing. They say there is no clue at all unless the robbery was committed by somebody in the house, which is absurd, seeing that the servants were all engaged in putting out the fire. But I want the robber traced and punished, and I want to get the scarab back. It may be intrinsically valueless, as M. Fouquet said, but Silas’s testamentary letter seems to indicate that it had some value. At any rate, it is an heirloom, and I am loath to lose it. It seems a presumptuous thing to ask you to investigate a trumpery robbery, but I should take it as a great kindness if you would look into the matter.”

“Cases of robbery pure and simple,” replied Thorndyke, “are rather alien to my ordinary practice, but in this one there are certain curious features that seem to make an investigation worth while. Yes, Mr. Blowgrave, I will look into the case, and I have some hope that we may be able to lay our hands on the robber, in spite of the apparent absence of clues. I will ask you to leave both these letters for me to examine more minutely, and I shall probably want to make an inspection of the premises—perhaps to-morrow.”

“Whenever you like,” said Blowgrave. “I am delighted that you are willing to undertake the inquiry. I have heard so much about you from my friend Stalker, of the Griffin Life Assurance Company, for whom you have acted on several occasions.”

“Before you go,” said Thorndyke, “there is one point that we must clear up. Who is there besides yourselves that knows of the existence of the scarab and this letter and the history attaching to them?”

“I really can’t say,” replied Blowgrave. “No one has seen them but my cousin Arthur. I once showed them to him, and he may have talked about them in the family. I didn’t treat the matter as a secret.”

When our visitors had gone we discussed the bearings of the case.

“It is quite a romantic story,” said I, “and the robbery has its points of interest, but I am rather inclined to agree with the police—there is mighty little to go on.”

“There would have been less,” said Thorndyke, “if our sporting friend hadn’t been so pleased with himself. That typewritten letter was a piece of gratuitous impudence. Our gentleman overrated his security and crowed too loud.”

“I don’t see that there is much to be gleaned from the letter, all the same,” said I.

“I am sorry to hear you say that, Jervis,” he exclaimed, “because I was proposing to hand the letter over to you to examine and report on.”

“I was only referring to the superficial appearances,” I said hastily. “No doubt a detailed examination will bring something more distinctive into view.”

“I have no doubt it will,” he said, “and as there are reasons for pushing on the investigation as quickly as possible, I suggest that you get to work at once. I shall occupy myself with the old letter and the envelope.”

On this I began my examination without delay, and as a preliminary I proceeded to take a facsimile photograph of the letter by putting it in a large printing-frame with a sensitive plate and a plate of clear glass. The resulting negative showed not only the typewritten lettering, but also the watermark and wire lines of the paper, and a faint grease spot. Next I turned my attention to the lettering itself, and here I soon began to accumulate quite a number of identifiable peculiarities. The machine was apparently a Corona, fitted with the small “Elite” type, and the alignment was markedly defective. The “lower case”—or small—“a” was well below the line, although the capital “A” appeared to be correctly placed; the “u” was slightly above the line, and the small “m” was partly clogged with dirt.

Up to this point I had been careful to manipulate the letter with forceps (although it had been handled by at least three persons, to my knowledge), and I now proceeded to examine it for finger-prints. As I could detect none by mere inspection, I dusted the back of the paper with finely powdered fuchsin, and distributed the powder by tapping the paper lightly. This brought into view quite a number of finger-prints, especially round the edges of the letter, and though most of them were very faint and shadowy, it was possible to make out the ridge pattern well enough for our purpose. Having blown off the excess of powder, I took the letter to the room where the large copying camera was set up, to photograph it before developing the finger-prints on the front. But here I found our laboratory assistant, Polton, in possession, with the sealed envelope fixed to the copying easel.

“I shan’t be a minute, sir,” said he. “The doctor wants an enlarged photograph of this seal. I’ve got the plate in.”

I waited while he made his exposure and then proceeded to take the photograph of the letter, or rather of the finger-prints on the back of it. When I had developed the negative I powdered the front of the letter and brought out several more finger-prints—mostly thumbs this time. They were a little difficult to see where they were imposed on the lettering, but, as the latter was bright blue and the fuchsin powder was red, this confusion disappeared in the photograph, in which the lettering was almost invisible while the finger-prints were more distinct than they had appeared to the eye. This completed my examination, and when I had verified the make of typewriter by reference to our album of specimens of typewriting, I left the negatives for Polton to dry and print and went down to the sitting-room to draw up my little report. I had just finished this and was speculating on what had become of Thorndyke, when I heard his quick step on the stair and a few moments later he entered with a roll of paper in his hand. This he unrolled on the table, fixing it open with one or two lead paper-weights, and I came round to inspect it, when I found it to be a sheet of the Ordnance map on the scale of twenty-five inches to the mile.

“Here is the Blowgraves’ place,” said Thorndyke, “nearly in the middle of the sheet. This is his house—Shawstead Manor—and that will probably be the outbuilding that was on fire. I take it that the house marked Dingle Farm is the one that Uncle Reuben occupied.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But I don’t see why you wanted this map if you are going down to the place itself to-morrow.”

“The advantage of a map,” said Thorndyke, “is that you can see all over it at once and get the lie of the land well into your mind; and you can measure all distances accurately and quickly with a scale and a pair of dividers. When we go down to-morrow, we shall know our way about as well as Blowgrave himself.”

“And what use will that be?” I asked. “Where does the topography come into the case?”

“Well, Jervis,” he replied, “there is the robber, for instance; he came from somewhere and he went somewhere. A study of the map may give us a hint as to his movements. But here comes Polton ‘with the documents,’ as poor Miss Flite would say. What have you got for us, Polton?”

“They aren’t quite dry, sir,” said Polton, laying four large bromide prints on the table. “There’s the enlargement of the seal—ten by eight, mounted—and three unmounted prints of Dr. Jervis’s.”

Thorndyke looked at my photographs critically. “They’re excellent, Jervis,” said he. “The finger-prints are perfectly legible, though faint. I only hope some of them are the right ones. That is my left thumb. I don’t see yours. The small one is presumably Miss Blowgrave’s. We must take her finger-prints to-morrow, and her father’s, too. Then we shall know if we have got any of the robber’s.” He ran his eye over my report and nodded approvingly. “There is plenty there to enable us to identify the typewriter if we can get hold of it, and the paper is very distinctive. What do you think of the seal?” he added, laying the enlarged photograph before me.

“It is magnificent,” I replied, with a grin. “Perfectly monumental.”

“What are you grinning at?” he demanded.

“I was thinking that you seem to be counting your chickens in pretty good time,” said I. “You are making elaborate preparations to identify the scarab, but you are rather disregarding the classical advice of the prudent Mrs. Glasse.”

“I have a presentiment that we shall get that scarab,” said he. “At any rate we ought to be in a position to identify it instantly and certainly if we are able to get a sight of it.”

“We are not likely to,” said I. “Still, there is no harm in providing for the improbable.”

This was evidently Thorndyke’s view, and he certainly made ample provision for this most improbable contingency; for, having furnished himself with a drawing-board and a sheet of tracing-paper, he pinned the latter over the photograph on the board and proceeded, with a fine pen and hectograph ink, to make a careful and minute tracing of the intricate and bewildering hieroglyphic inscription on the seal. When he had finished it he transferred it to a clay duplicator and took off half-a-dozen copies, one of which he handed to me. I looked at it dubiously and remarked: “You have said that the medical jurist must make all knowledge his province. Has he got to be an Egyptologist, too?”

“He will be the better medical jurist if he is,” was the reply, of which I made a mental note for my future guidance. But meanwhile Thorndyke’s proceedings were, to me, perfectly incomprehensible. What was his object in making this minute tracing? The seal itself was sufficient for identification. I lingered awhile hoping that some fresh development might throw a light on the mystery. But his next proceeding was like to have reduced me to stupefaction. I saw him go to the book-shelves and take down a book. As he laid it on the table I glanced at the title, and when I saw that it was Raper’s Navigation Tables I stole softly out into the lobby, put on my hat and went for a walk.

When I returned the investigation was apparently concluded, for Thorndyke was seated in his easy chair, placidly reading The Compleat Angler. On the table lay a large circular protractor, a straight-edge, an architect’s scale and a sheet of tracing-paper on which was a tracing in hectograph ink of Shawstead Manor.

“Why did you make this tracing?” I asked. “Why not take the map itself?”

“We don’t want the whole of it,” he replied, “and I dislike cutting up maps.”

By taking an informal lunch in the train, we arrived at Shawstead Manor by half-past two. Our approach up the drive had evidently been observed, for Blowgrave and his daughter were waiting at the porch to receive us. The former came forward with outstretched hand, but a distinctly woebegone expression, and exclaimed: “It is most kind of you to come down; but alas! you are too late.”

“Too late for what?” demanded Thorndyke.

“I will show you,” replied Blowgrave, and seizing my colleague by the arm, he strode off excitedly to a little wicket at the side of the house, and, passing through it, hurried along a narrow alley that skirted the garden wall and ended in a large meadow, at one end of which stood a dilapidated windmill. Across this meadow he bustled, dragging my colleague with him, until he reached a heap of freshly-turned earth, where he halted and pointed tragically to a spot where the turf had evidently been raised and untidily replaced.

“There!” he exclaimed, stooping to pull up the loose turfs and thereby exposing what was evidently a large hole, recently and hastily filled in. “That was done last night or early this morning, for I walked over this meadow only yesterday evening and there was no sign of disturbed ground then.”

Thorndyke stood looking down at the hole with a faint smile. “And what do you infer from that?” he asked.

“Infer!” shrieked Blowgrave. “Why, I infer that whoever dug this hole was searching for Uncle Reuben and the lost jewels!”

“I am inclined to agree with you,” Thorndyke said calmly. “He happened to search in the wrong place, but that is his affair.”

“The wrong place!” Blowgrave and his daughter exclaimed in unison. “How do you know it is the wrong place?”

“Because,” replied Thorndyke, “I believe I know the right place, and this is not it. But we can put the matter to the test, and we had better do so. Can you get a couple of men with picks and shovels? Or shall we handle the tools ourselves?”

“I think that would be better,” said Blowgrave, who was quivering with excitement. “We don’t want to take anyone into our confidence if we can help it.”

“No,” Thorndyke agreed. “Then I suggest that you fetch the tools while I locate the spot.”

Blowgrave assented eagerly and went off at a brisk trot, while the young lady remained with us and watched Thorndyke with intense curiosity.

“I mustn’t interrupt you with questions,” said she, “but I can’t imagine how you found out where Uncle Reuben was buried.”

“We will go into that later,” he replied; “but first we have got to find Uncle Reuben.” He laid his research-case down on the ground, and opening it, took out three sheets of paper, each bearing a duplicate of his tracing of the map; and on each was marked a spot on this meadow from which a number of lines radiated like the spokes of a wheel.

“You see, Jervis,” he said, exhibiting them to me, “the advantage of a map. I have been able to rule off these sets of bearings regardless of obstructions, such as those young trees, which have arisen since Silas’s day, and mark the spot in its correct place. If the recent obstructions prevent us from taking the bearings, we can still find the spot by measurements with the land-chain or tape.”

“Why have you got three plans?” I asked.

“Because there are three imaginable places. No. 1 is the most likely; No. 2 less likely, but possible; No. 3 is impossible. That is the one that our friend tried last night. No. 1 is among those young trees, and we will now see if we can pick up the bearings in spite of them.”

We moved on to the clump of young trees, where Thorndyke took from the research-case a tall, folding camera-tripod and a large prismatic compass with an aluminium dial. With the latter he took one or two trial bearings and then, setting up the tripod, fixed the compass on it. For some minutes Miss Blowgrave and I watched him as he shifted the tripod from spot to spot, peering through the sight-vane of the compass and glancing occasionally at the map. At length he turned to us and said:

“We are in luck. None of these trees interferes with our bearings.” He took from the research-case a surveyor’s arrow, and sticking it in the ground under the tripod, added: “That is the spot. But we may have to dig a good way round it, for a compass is only a rough instrument.”

At this moment Mr. Blowgrave staggered up, breathing hard, and flung down on the ground three picks, two shovels and a spade. “I won’t hinder you, doctor, by asking for explanations,” said he, “but I am utterly mystified. You must tell us what it all means when we have finished our work.”

This Thorndyke promised to do, but meanwhile he took off his coat, and rolling up his shirt sleeves, seized the spade and began cutting out a large square of turf. As the soil was uncovered, Blowgrave and I attacked it with picks and Miss Blowgrave shovelled away the loose earth.

“Do you know how far down we have to go?” I asked.

“The body lies six feet below the surface,” Thorndyke replied; and as he spoke he laid down his spade, and taking a telescope from the research-case, swept it round the margin of the meadow and finally pointed it at a farm-house some six hundred yards distant, of which he made a somewhat prolonged inspection, after which he took the remaining pick and fell to work on the opposite corner of the exposed square of earth.

For nearly half-an-hour we worked on steadily, gradually eating our way downwards, plying pick and shovel alternately, while Miss Blowgrave cleared the loose earth away from the edges of the deepening pit. Then a halt was called and we came to the surface, wiping our faces.

“I think, Nellie,” said Blowgrave, divesting himself of his waistcoat, “a jug of lemonade and four tumblers would be useful, unless our visitors would prefer beer.”

We both gave our votes for lemonade, and Miss Nellie tripped away towards the house, while Thorndyke, taking up his telescope, once more inspected the farm-house.

“You seem greatly interested in that house,” I remarked.

“I am,” he replied, handing me the telescope. “Just take a look at the window in the right-hand gable, but keep under the tree.”

I pointed the telescope at the gable and there observed an open window at which a man was seated. He held a binocular glass to his eyes and the instrument appeared to be directed at us.

“We are being spied on, I fancy,” said I, passing the telescope to Blowgrave, “but I suppose it doesn’t matter. This is your land, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” replied Blowgrave, “but still, we didn’t want any spectators. That is Harold Bowker,” he added, steadying the telescope against a tree, “my cousin Arthur’s nephew, whom I told you about as having inherited the farm-house. He seems mighty interested in us; but small things interest one in the country.”

Here the appearance of Miss Nellie, advancing across the meadow with an inviting-looking basket, diverted our attention from our inquisitive watcher. Six thirsty eyes were riveted on that basket until it drew near and presently disgorged a great glass jug and four tumblers, when we each took off a long and delicious draught and then jumped down into the pit to resume our labours.

Another half-hour passed. We had excavated in some places to nearly the full depth and were just discussing the advisability of another short rest when Blowgrave, who was working in one corner, uttered a loud cry and stood up suddenly, holding something in his fingers. A glance at the object showed it to be a bone, brown and earth-stained, but evidently a bone. Evidently, too, a human bone, as Thorndyke decided when Blowgrave handed it to him triumphantly.

“We have been very fortunate,” said he, “to get so near at the first trial. This is from the right great toe, so we may assume that the skeleton lies just outside this pit, but we had better excavate carefully in your corner and see exactly how the bones lie.” This he proceeded to do himself, probing cautiously with the spade and clearing the earth away from the corner. Very soon the remaining bones of the right foot came into view and then the ends of the two leg-bones and a portion of the left foot.

“We can see now,” said he, “how the skeleton lies, and all we have to do is to extend the excavation in that direction. But there is only room for one to work down here. I think you and Mr. Blowgrave had better dig down from the surface.”

On this, I climbed out of the pit, followed reluctantly by Blowgrave, who still held the little brown bone in his hand and was in a state of wild excitement and exultation that somewhat scandalised his daughter.

“It seems rather ghoulish,” she remarked, “to be gloating over poor Uncle Reuben’s body in this way.”

“I know,” said Blowgrave, “it isn’t reverent. But I didn’t kill Uncle Reuben, you know, whereas—well it was a long time ago.” With this rather inconsequent conclusion he took a draught of lemonade, seized his pick and fell to work with a will. I, too, indulged in a draught and passed a full tumbler down to Thorndyke. But before resuming my labours I picked up the telescope and once more inspected the farm-house. The window was still open, but the watcher had apparently become bored with the not very thrilling spectacle. At any rate he had disappeared.

From this time onward every few minutes brought some discovery. First, a pair of deeply rusted steel shoe buckles; then one or two buttons, and presently a fine gold watch with a fob-chain and a bunch of seals, looking uncannily new and fresh and seeming more fraught with tragedy than even the bones themselves. In his cautious digging, Thorndyke was careful not to disturb the skeleton; and looking down into the narrow trench that was growing from the corner of the pit, I could see both legs, with only the right foot missing, projecting from the miniature cliff. Meanwhile our part of the trench was deepening rapidly, so that Thorndyke presently warned us to stop digging and bade us come down and shovel away the earth as he disengaged it.

At length the whole skeleton, excepting the head, was uncovered, though it lay undisturbed as it might have lain in its coffin. And now, as Thorndyke picked away the earth around the head, we could see that the skull was propped forward as if it rested on a high pillow. A little more careful probing with the pick-point served to explain this appearance. For as the earth fell away and disclosed the grinning skull, there came into view the edge and iron-bound corners of a small chest.

It was an impressive spectacle; weird, solemn and rather dreadful. There for over a century the ill-fated gambler had lain, his mouldering head pillowed on the booty of unrecorded villainy, booty that had been won by fraud, retrieved by violence, and hidden at last by the final winner with the witness of his crime.

“Here is a fine text for a moralist who would preach on the vanity of riches,” said Thorndyke.

We all stood silent for a while, gazing, not without awe, at the stark figure that lay guarding the ill-gotten treasure. Miss Blowgrave—who had been helped down when we descended—crept closer to her father and murmured that it was “rather awful”; while Blowgrave himself displayed a queer mixture of exultation and shuddering distaste.

Suddenly the silence was broken by a voice from above, and we all looked up with a start. A youngish man was standing on the brink of the pit, looking down on us with very evident disapproval.

“It seems that I have come just in the nick of time,” observed the new-comer. “I shall have to take possession of that chest, you know, and of the remains, too, I suppose. That is my ancestor, Reuben Blowgrave.”

“Well, Harold,” said Blowgrave, “you can have Uncle Reuben if you want him. But the chest belongs to Nellie.”

Here Mr. Harold Bowker—I recognised him now as the watcher from the window—dropped down into the pit and advanced with something of a swagger.

“I am Reuben’s heir,” said he, “through my Uncle Arthur, and I take possession of this property and the remains.”

“Pardon me, Harold,” said Blowgrave, “but Nellie is Arthur’s residuary legatee, and this is the residue of the estate.”

“Rubbish!” exclaimed Bowker. “By the way, how did you find out where he was buried?”

“Oh, that was quite simple,” replied Thorndyke with unexpected geniality. “I’ll show you the plan.” He climbed up to the surface and returned in a few moments with the three tracings and his letter-case. “This is how we located the spot.” He handed the plan numbered 3 to Bowker, who took it from him and stood looking at it with a puzzled frown.

“But this isn’t the place,” he said at length.

“Isn’t it?” queried Thorndyke. “No, of course; I’ve given you the wrong one. This is the plan.” He handed Bowker the plan marked No. 1, and took the other from him, laying it down on a heap of earth. Then, as Bowker pored gloomily over No. 1, he took a knife and a pencil from his pocket, and with his back to our visitor, scraped the lead of the pencil, letting the black powder fall on the plan that he had just laid down. I watched him with some curiosity; and when I observed that the black scrapings fell on two spots near the edges of the paper, a sudden suspicion flashed into my mind, which was confirmed when I saw him tap the paper lightly with his pencil, gently blow away the powder, and quickly producing my photograph of the typewritten letter from his case, hold it for a moment beside the plan.

“This is all very well,” said Bowker, looking up from the plan, “but how did you find out about these bearings?”

Thorndyke swiftly replaced the letter in his case, and turning round, replied, “I am afraid I can’t give you any further information.”

“Can’t you, indeed!” Bowker exclaimed insolently. “Perhaps I shall compel you to. But, at any rate, I forbid any of you to lay hands on my property.”

Thorndyke looked at him steadily and said in an ominously quiet tone:

“Now, listen to me, Mr. Bowker. Let us have an end of this nonsense. You have played a risky game and you have lost. How much you have lost I can’t say until I know whether Mr. Blowgrave intends to prosecute.”

“To prosecute!” shouted Bowker. “What the deuce do you mean by prosecute?”

“I mean,” said Thorndyke, “that on the 7th of June, after nine o’clock at night, you entered the dwelling-house of Mr. Blowgrave and stole and carried away certain of his goods and chattels. A part of them you have restored, but you are still in possession of some of the stolen property, to wit, a scarab and a deed-box.”

As Thorndyke made this statement in his calm, level tones, Bowker’s face blanched to a tallowy white, and he stood staring at my colleague, the very picture of astonishment and dismay. But he fired a last shot.

“This is sheer midsummer madness,” he exclaimed huskily; “and you know it.”

Thorndyke turned to our host. “It is for you to settle, Mr. Blowgrave,” said he. “I hold conclusive evidence that Mr. Bowker stole your deed-box. If you decide to prosecute I shall produce that evidence in court and he will certainly be convicted.”

Blowgrave and his daughter looked at the accused man with an embarrassment almost equal to his own.

“I am astounded,” the former said at length; “but I don’t want to be vindictive. Look here, Harold, hand over the scarab and we’ll say no more about it.”

“You can’t do that,” said Thorndyke. “The law doesn’t allow you to compound a robbery. He can return the property if he pleases and you can do as you think best about prosecuting. But you can’t make conditions.”

There was silence for some seconds; then, without another word, the crestfallen adventurer turned, and scrambling up out of the pit, took a hasty departure.

It was nearly a couple of hours later that, after a leisurely wash and a hasty, nondescript meal, we carried the little chest from the dining-room to the study. Here, when he had closed the French window and drawn the curtains, Mr. Blowgrave produced a set of tools and we fell to work on the iron fastenings of the chest. It was no light task, though a century’s rust had thinned the stout bands, but at length the lid yielded to the thrust of a long case-opener and rose with a protesting creak. The chest was lined with a double thickness of canvas, apparently part of a sail, and contained a number of small leathern bags, which, as we lifted them out, one by one, felt as if they were filled with pebbles. But when we untied the thongs of one and emptied its contents into a wooden bowl, Blowgrave heaved a sigh of ecstasy and Miss Nellie uttered a little scream of delight. They were all cut stones, and most of them of exceptional size; rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and a few diamonds. As to their value, we could form but the vaguest guess; but Thorndyke, who was a fair judge of gem-stones, gave it as his opinion that they were fine specimens of their kind, though roughly cut, and that they had probably formed the enrichment of some shrine.

“The question is,” said Blowgrave, gazing gloatingly on the bowl of sparkling gems, “what are we to do with them?”

“I suggest,” said Thorndyke, “that Dr. Jervis stays here to-night to help you to guard them and that in the morning you take them up to London and deposit them at your bank.”

Blowgrave fell in eagerly with this suggestion, which I seconded. “But,” said he, “that chest is a queer-looking package to be carrying abroad. Now, if we only had that confounded deed-box——”

“There’s a deed-box on the cabinet behind you,” said Thorndyke.

Blowgrave turned round sharply. “God bless us!” he exclaimed. “It has come back the way it went. Harold must have slipped in at the window while we were at tea. Well, I’m glad he has made restitution. When I look at that bowl and think what he must have narrowly missed, I don’t feel inclined to be hard on him. I suppose the scarab is inside—not that it matters much now.”

The scarab was inside in an envelope; and as Thorndyke turned it over in his hand and examined the hieroglyphics on it through his lens, Miss Blowgrave asked: “Is it of any value, Dr. Thorndyke? It can’t have any connection with the secret of the hiding-place, because you found the jewels without it.”

“By the way, doctor, I don’t know whether it is permissible for me to ask, but how on earth did you find out where the jewels were hidden? To me it looks like black magic.”

Thorndyke laughed in a quiet, inward fashion. “There is nothing magical about it,” said he. “It was a perfectly simple, straightforward problem. But Miss Nellie is wrong. We had the scarab; that is to say we had the wax impression of it, which is the same thing. And the scarab was the key to the riddle. You see,” he continued, “Silas’s letter and the scarab formed together a sort of intelligence test.”

“Did they?” said Blowgrave. “Then he drew a blank every time.”

Thorndyke chuckled. “His descendants were certainly a little lacking in enterprise,” he admitted. “Silas’s instructions were perfectly plain and explicit. Whoever would find the treasure must first acquire some knowledge of Egyptian lore and must study the scarab attentively. It was the broadest of hints, but no one—excepting Harold Bowker, who must have heard about the scarab from his Uncle Arthur—seems to have paid any attention to it.

“Now it happens that I have just enough elementary knowledge of the hieroglyphic characters to enable me to spell them out when they are used alphabetically; and as soon as I saw the seal, I could see that these hieroglyphics formed English words. My attention was first attracted by the second group of signs, which spelled the word ‘Reuben,’ and then I saw that the first group spelled ‘Uncle.’ Of course, the instant I heard Miss Nellie speak of the connection between the scarab and Uncle Reuben, the murder was out. I saw at a glance that the scarab contained all the required information. Last night I made a careful tracing of the hieroglyphics and then rendered them into our own alphabet. This is the result.”

He took from his letter-case and spread out on the table a duplicate of the tracing which I had seen him make, and of which he had given me a copy. But since I had last seen it, it had received an addition; under each group of signs the equivalents in modern Roman lettering had been written, and these made the following words:


Our two friends gazed at Thorndyke’s transliteration in blank astonishment. At length Blowgrave remarked: “But this translation must have demanded a very profound knowledge of the Egyptian writing.”

“Not at all,” replied Thorndyke. “Any intelligent person could master the Egyptian alphabet in an hour. The language, of course, is quite another matter. The spelling of this is a little crude, but it is quite intelligible and does Silas great credit, considering how little was known in his time.”

“How do you suppose M. Fouquet came to overlook this?” Blowgrave asked.

“Naturally enough,” was the reply. “He was looking for an Egyptian inscription. But this is not an Egyptian inscription. Does he speak English?”

“Very little. Practically not at all.”

“Then, as the words are English words and imperfectly spelt, the hieroglyphics must have appeared to him mere nonsense. And he was right as to the scarab being an imitation.”

“There is another point,” said Blowgrave. “How was it that Harold made that extraordinary mistake about the place? The directions are clear enough. All you had to do was to go out there with a compass and take the bearings just as they were given.”

“But,” said Thorndyke, “that is exactly what he did, and hence the mistake. He was apparently unaware of the phenomenon known as the Secular Variation of the Compass. As you know, the compass does not—usually—point to true north, but to the Magnetic North; and the Magnetic North is continually changing its position. When Reuben was buried—about 1810—it was twenty-four degrees, twenty-six minutes west of true north; at the present time it is fourteen degrees, forty-eight minutes west of true north. So Harold’s bearings would be no less than ten degrees out, which, of course, gave him a totally wrong position. But Silas was a ship-master, a navigator, and of course knew all about the vagaries of the compass; and, as his directions were intended for use at some date unknown to him, I assumed that the bearings that he gave were true bearings—that when he said ‘north’ he meant true north, which is always the same; and this turned out to be the case. But I also prepared a plan with magnetic bearings corrected up to date. Here are the three plans: No. 1—the one we used—showing true bearings; No. 2, showing corrected magnetic bearings which might have given us the correct spot; and No. 3, with uncorrected magnetic bearings, giving us the spot where Harold dug, and which could not possibly have been the right spot.”

On the following morning I escorted the deed-box, filled with the booty and tied up and sealed with the scarab, to Mr. Blowgrave’s bank. And that ended our connection with the case; excepting that, a month or two later, we attended by request the unveiling in Shawstead churchyard of a fine monument to Reuben Blowgrave. This took the slightly inappropriate form of an obelisk, on which were cut the name and approximate dates, with the added inscription: “Cast thy bread upon the waters and it shall return after many days”; concerning which Thorndyke remarked dryly that he supposed the exhortation applied equally even if the bread happened to belong to someone else.



This story is Number Thirty Two from the book

“The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke

 Thirty-seven of his criminal

 investigations as set down by

 R. Austin Freeman.”


also known as


“Dr. Thorndyke His Famous Cases as

 Described by R. Austin Freeman”.


First published July 1929

Hodder & Stoughton, London


Misspelled words and printer errors have been corrected. Where multiple spellings occur, majority use has been employed.

Punctuation has been maintained except where obvious printer errors occur.

Illustrations have been moved to facilitate flow of text.

Book name and author have been added to the original book cover, together with the name and number of this story. The resulting cover is placed in the public domain.

[The end of The Blue Scarab by Richard Austin Freeman]