Robert Maitland, a rich young academic and philanthropist, and his doctor friend Frank Barton go to a rather seedy London club, the Cockpit, to play baccarat. There they meet the disreputable Hon. Thomas Cranley. In the course of a game, Barton catches Cranley cheating by using a cigarette case and a puddle of spilled soda water as a 'shiner' to see the cards being dealt. Cranley is thrown out the club, disgraced. Outside, he finds a copy of The Times, reads an obituary, and has an idea ...
"So the old boy's dead," he reflected; "and that drunken tattooed ass and his daughter are to come in for the money and the mines! They'll be clever that find him, and I shan't give them his address! What luck some men have!"
Here he fell into deep thought, his brows and lips working eagerly.
"I'll do it," he said at last, cutting the advertisement out of the paper with a penknife. "It isn't often a man has a chance to star in this game of existence. I've lost all my own social Lives: one in that business at Oxford, one in the row at Ali Musjid, and the third went—to-night. But I'll star. Every sinner should desire a new Life," he added with a sneer.
... before disappearing into the night.
Some weeks later, the corpse of a "old Dicky Shields", a heavily tattooed tattoo artist, is found dead in a cartload of snow outside his lodging in a rough part of London. Maitland gets to hear of this, as he has a connection: he paid for Dicky's daughter Margaret ("a daisy flourishing by the grimy waterside") to be "transplanted ... to a school in the purer air of Devonshire" with an eye to making her his ward and eventually marrying her. Maitland enquires of Dicky's landlady, Mrs Gullick, who tells him that Dicky had for some months been tattooing a sailor acquaintance. In the course of their conversation, another mystery is mentioned: her small daughter, Eliza, tells how she was frightened by seeing "a big Bird" on the roof.
The scene shifts to Devon - Miss Marlett's Establishment for the Highest Education of Girls at The Dovecot, Conisbeare, Tiverton, where Margaret receives a telegram from Maitland about the death of her father. Shortly after, Maitland arrives in person, only to find Margaret has gone, having left with a fur-coated "Mr Lithgow" authorised by a bogus telegram from Maitland.
Maitland enquires along the rail route, without luck, and returns to his Oxford college, St Gatien's. A few weeks later, his friend Barton visits; having seen Dicky Shields' corpse, he has the extraordinary theory that Shields was murdered (contrary to the inquest's finding of death by natural causes) by some undetectable poison.
"Well, it is strange; the murderer must have been a great traveller also. He must have been among the Macoushi Indians of Guiana, and well acquainted with their arts. I know them too. I went there botanizing."
The two come to the conclusion that the "Mr Lithgow" who abducted Margaret and the mystery sailor seen drinking with Shields on the night of his death might be the same person.
They are, as revealed to the reader: the Hon. Thomas Cranley is keeping Margaret in a house in Victoria Square, Pimlico, S.W., cared for by the violent alcoholic Mrs Darling; Margaret is unaware of Cranley's malicious purposes, and unharmed except that she has been ill for a time. Cranley, for undisclosed reasons, wants her out of the way. Her illness interrupted his first plan, to take her to the Continent; he then tries to murder her with a poisoned orange, but chickens out at the last minute; and finally he conceives the plan of getting an acquaintance, Mrs. St. John Deloraine, to take on her and Mrs Darling to work in her philanthropic cafe, The Bunhouse (seems harmless enough, but read on). He has a brief panic when Maitland turns up during his visit to Mrs Deloraine, but Maitland (unaware of the card scandal) makes polite conversation and leaves.
Barton and Maitland, meanwhile, have found a clue: an advert in a French newspaper referring to "The gentleman travelling with a young lady, who, on Feb. 19th, left a bearskin coat at the Hôtel Alsace and Lorraine, Avenue de l'Opéra, Paris". Maitland goes to Paris to investigate, and promptly falls foul of the police. His enquiries attract attention - the advert was evidently a decoy - and, found to be travelling without a passport, he obtains his release with difficulty. He writes to Barton, saying he's tired of investigation, and is going to Constantinople and the Greek Islands.
Back in England, Barton is investigating for himself Dicky Shields' old lodgings. He finds among Shields' tattooing kit a strange wooden needle ...
"I thought so," he said aloud, as he placed the needle in a pocket instrument-case: "the stem of the leaf of the coucourite palm!"
... but at that point is called in his capacity as a doctor to The Bunhouse nearby, where a young woman has been stabbed by another. As he arrives, the attacker stabs herself in the heart and dies. The young woman is carried to her room, and Barton eventually walks toward home. En route, he sees something amazing:
Through the crepuscular light, bulks of things—big, black, formless—were dimly seen; but nearer the hoarding than the middle of the waste open ground was a spectacle that puzzled the looker-on. Great fans were winnowing the air, a wheel was running at prodigious speed, flaming vapors fled hissing forth, and the figure of a man, attached in some way to the revolving fans, was now lifted several feet from the ground, now dashed to earth again, now caught in and now torn from the teeth of the flying wheel.
It's a crashed flying machine! Barton helps the injured pilot, called Winter, in hiding the machine and getting him to his own lodgings to recuperate. Barton's subsequent enquiries into the recovery of the young woman, "Miss Burnside", reveal Cranley's conspiracy: to place her at the Bunhouse with the violent Mrs Darling, then (having professed affection) telling Mrs Darling he was jilting her in favour of Margaret.
Barton has geeky chats with the recovering Winter about heavier-than-air flight and its mythological precedents (actually rather interesting); and also chats with Margaret, with whom he falls in love, twigging eventually that she is Margaret Shields. The attraction is mutual, and Barton reveals that Maitland is not an impediment to their marriage; his interest in Margaret is purely avuncular. He writes to Maitland to tell him the news.
Shortly after, Barton is called to a lawyer colleague's office on a matter of medical jurisprudence. A Mr Richard Johnson died some time back, and left a large estate to his estranged son. All that is known is that the son travelled widely as a sailor, and had full-body tattoos. Barton has been called, as an expert of tattooing - he wrote a book called Les Tatouages Étude Médico-Légale - to verify the identity of a claimant. When shown a diagram of the tattoos, he recognises Johnson's long-lost son as having been the late Dicky Shields.
After explaining privately to the lawyer, Barton disguises himself as "Professor Lieblein, of Bonn" and examines the claimant, who shows his tattoos.
"That's the Burmese style, sir," he said, pointing to his shoulders and upper arm.
These limbs were tattooed in a beautiful soft blue; the pattern was a series of diminishing squares, from which long narrow triangles ran down to the elbow-joints.
"Sehr schôn, sehr schôn," exclaimed the delighted Professor. "It is very hubsch, very pretty, very well. We cannot now decorate, we Germans. Ach, it is mournful!" and he sighed. "And now, sir, have you to show me any moko? A little moko would be very instructive."
"Moko? Rather! The Maori pattern, you mean; the New Zealand dodge? Just look between my shoulders," and the seaman turned a broad bare back, whereon were designs of curious involuted spirals.
"That is right, that is right," whispered the Professor. "Moko, schlange, serpent-marks, so they call it in their tongue. Better moko, on an European man, have I never seen. You observe," he remarked to the elder Mr. Wright, waving his hand as he followed the tattooed lines—"you observe the serpentine curves? Very beautiful."
Finally, Barton, having seen the final proof of an Arab tattoo - "the wasm, the sharat, the Semitic tribal mark ... the mark of Cain!" - springs the trap.
"You must be tired, sir," said the Professor, in a very soft voice. "May I offer you a leedle cigarette?"
He drew from his pocket a silver cigarette-case, and, in a thoroughly English accent, he went on:
"I have waited long to give you back your cigarette-case, which you left at your club, Mr. Thomas Cranley!"
Cranley is arrested, and at his trial, the full story comes out. As one of the few people to know the true identity of "Dicky Shields", he aimed to steal the latter's inheritance by getting identical tattoos, killing the original, and then impersonating him; and naturally he wanted Margaret, the real next of kin, out of the way. Barton testifies with forensic evidence that the murder had been committed using curare. And Winter, the flying machine pilot, is carried into court to testify that he actually saw the murder being committed, as at the time he had landed on the roof near the window of Shields' room; his machine was the "big Bird" that frightened Eliza. Cranley, saving the court the problem of further deliberation, drops dead in the dock.
The epilogue tells of the fate of the characters: Barton and Margaret Shields are married, as are Maitland and Mrs. St. John Deloraine. In conclusion:
But Fiction herself is revolted by the improbability of the statement that an Oxford Don has finished his magnum opus!
It's a good story, even if Cranley's plan is rather telegraphed from the start, and an entertaining mix of erudite detective story, romance, and borderline-SF (the flying machine subplot comes as a major surprise). The author too was a surprise: this is by the Andrew Lang, the Scottish poet, novelist, literary critic, and contributor to the field of anthropology, best known as a collector of folk and fairy tales - all of which explains the general erudition and the academic protagonists. The final line is evidently self-referential, as Lang was a fellow of Merton College.
The social history side of the book is quite interesting. Like Maxwell Gray's previously-mentioned The Great Refusal, The Mark of Cain is set in the heyday of the settlement movement, when a strong initiative in help for the urban poor came from rich philanthropists who set up residential and other establishments presided-over by higher-class management. In The Mark of Cain, one central location is Maitland's philanthropic pub, the Hit or Miss ...
"The pothouse? Oh, the Hit or Miss you mean? Well, I'm afraid it's not very successful I took the lease of it, you know, partly by way of doing some good in a practical kind of way. The working men at the waterside won't go to clubs, where there is nothing but coffee to drink, and little but tracts to read. I thought if I gave them sound beer, and looked in among them now and then of an evening, I might help to civilize them a bit, like that fellow who kept the Thieves' Club in the East End.
... and Mrs. St John Deloraine's philanthropic café, the Bunhouse:
At this moment the lady's "favorite vanity," in the matter of good works, was The Bunhouse. This really serviceable, though quaint, institution was not, in idea, quite unlike Maitland's enterprise of the philanthropic public-house, the Hit or Miss. In a slum of Chelsea there might have been observed a modest place of entertainment, in the coffee and bun line, with a highly elaborate Chelsea Bun painted on the sign. This piece of art, which gave its name to the establishment, was the work of one of Mrs. St John Deloraine's friends, an artist of the highest promise, who fell an early victim to arrangements in haschisch and Irish whiskey. In spite of this ill-omened beginning, The Bunhouse did very useful work. It was a kind of unofficial club and home, not for Friendly Girls, nor the comparatively subdued and domesticated slavery of common life, but for the tameless tribes of young women of the metropolis. Those who disdain service, who turn up expressive features at sewing machines, and who decline to stand perpendicularly for fifteen hours a day in shops—all these young female outlaws, not professionally vicious, found in The Bunhouse a kind of charitable shelter and home.