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Adventure VI. The Reigate Puzzle

It was some time before the health of my friend Mr.

  Sherlock Holmes recovered from the strain caused by

  his immense exertions in the spring of ’87. The whole

  question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company and of the

  colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis are too recent in

  the minds of the public, and are too intimately

  concerned with politics and finance to be fitting

  subjects for this series of sketches. They led,

  however, in an indirect fashion to a singular and

  complex problem which gave my friend an opportunity of

  demonstrating the value of a fresh weapon among the

  many with which he waged his life-long battle against

  crime.

  On referring to my notes I see that it was upon the

  14th of April that I received a telegram from Lyons

  which informed me that Holmes was lying ill in the

  Hotel Dulong. Within twenty-four hours I was in his

  sick-room, and was relieved to find that there was

  nothing formidable in his symptoms. Even his iron

  constitution, however, had broken down under the

  strain of an investigation which had extended over two

  months, during which period he had never worked less

  than fifteen hours a day, and had more than once, as

  he assured me, kept to his task for five days at a

  stretch. Even the triumphant issue of his labors

  could not save him from reaction after so terrible an

  exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with

  his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep

  with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to

  the blackest depression. Even the knowledge that he

  had succeeded where the police of three countries had

  failed, and that he had outmanoeuvred at every point

  the most accomplished swindler in Europe, was

  insufficient to rouse him from his nervous

  prostration.

  Three days later we were back in Baker Street

  together; but it was evident that my friend would be

  much the better for a change, and the thought of a

  week of spring time in the country was full of

  attractions to me also. My old friend, Colonel

  Hayter, who had come under my professional care in

  Afghanistan, had now taken a house near Reigate in

  Surrey, and had frequently asked me to come down to

  him upon a visit. On the last occasion he had

  remarked that if my friend would only come with me he

  would be glad to extend his hospitality to him also. 

  A little diplomacy was needed, but when Holmes

  understood that the establishment was a bachelor one,

  and that he would be allowed the fullest freedom, he

  fell in with my plans and a week after our return from

  Lyons we were under the Colonel’s roof. Hayter was a

  fine old soldier who had seen much of the world, and

  he soon found, as I had expected, that Holmes and he

  had much in common.

  On the evening of our arrival we were sitting in the

  Colonel’s gun-room after dinner, Holmes stretched upon

  the sofa, while Hayter and I looked over his little

  armory of Eastern weapons.

  “By the way,” said he suddenly, “I think I’ll take one

  of these pistols upstairs with me in case we have an

  alarm.”

  “An alarm!” said I.

  “Yes, we’ve had a scare in this part lately. Old

  Acton, who is one of our county magnates, had his

  house broken into last Monday. No great damage done,

  but the fellows are still at large.”

  “No clue?” asked Holmes, cocking his eye at the

  Colonel.

  “None as yet. But the affair is a pretty one, one of

  our little country crimes, which must seem too small

  for your attention, Mr. Holmes, after this great

  international affair.”

  Holmes waved away the compliment, though his smile

  showed that it had pleased him.

  “Was there any feature of interest?”

  “I fancy not. The thieves ransacked the library and

  got very little for their pains. The whole place was

  turned upside down, drawers burst open, and presses

  ransacked, with the result that an odd volume of

  Pope’s ‘Homer,’ two plated candlesticks, an ivory

  letter-weight, a small oak barometer, and a ball of

  twine are all that have vanished.”

  “What an extraordinary assortment!” I exclaimed.

  “Oh, the fellows evidently grabbed hold of everything

  they could get.”

  Holmes grunted from the sofa.

  “The county police ought to make something of that,”

  said he; “why, it is surely obvious that–“

  But I held up a warning finger.

  “You are here for a rest, my dear fellow. For

  Heaven’s sake don’t get started on a new problem when

  your nerves are all in shreds.”

  Holmes shrugged his shoulders with a glance of comic

  resignation towards the Colonel, and the talk drifted

  away into less dangerous channels.

  It was destined, however, that all my professional

  caution should be wasted, for next morning the problem

  obtruded itself upon us in such a way that it was

  impossible to ignore it, and our country visit took a

  turn which neither of us could have anticipated. We

  were at breakfast when the Colonel’s butler rushed in

  with all his propriety shaken out of him.

  “Have you heard the news, sir?” he gasped. “At the

  Cunningham’s sir!”

  “Burglary!” cried the Colonel, with his coffee-cup in

  mid-air.

“Murder!”

  The Colonel whistled. “By Jove!” said he. “Who’s

  killed, then? The J.P. or his son?”

  “Neither, sir. It was William the coachman. Shot

  through the heart, sir, and never spoke again.”

  “Who shot him, then?”

  “The burglar, sir. He was off like a shot and got

  clean away. He’d just broke in at the pantry window

  when William came on him and met his end in saving his

  master’s property.”

  “What time?”

  “It was last night, sir, somewhere about twelve.”

  “Ah, then, we’ll step over afterwards,” said the

  Colonel, coolly settling down to his breakfast again. 

  “It’s a baddish business,” he added when the butler

  had gone; “he’s our leading man about here, is old

  Cunningham, and a very decent fellow too. He’ll be

  cut up over this, for the man has been in his service

  for years and was a good servant. It’s evidently the

  same villains who broke into Acton’s.”

  “And stole that very singular collection,” said

  Holmes, thoughtfully.

  “Precisely.”

  “Hum! It may prove the simplest matter in the world,

  but all the same at first glance this is just a little

  curious, is it not? A gang of burglars acting in the

  country might be expected to vary the scene of their

  operations, and not to crack two cribs in the same

  district within a few days. When you spoke last night

  of taking precautions I remember that it passed

  through my mind that this was probably the last parish

  in England to which the thief or thieves would be

  likely to turn their attention–which shows that I

  have still much to learn.”

  “I fancy it’s some local practitioner,” said the

  Colonel. “In that case, of course, Acton’s and

  Cunningham’s are just the places he would go for,

  since they are far the largest about here.”

  “And richest?”

  “Well, they ought to be, but they’ve had a lawsuit for

  some years which has sucked the blood out of both of

  them, I fancy. Old Acton has some claim on half

  Cunningham’s estate, and the lawyers have been at it

  with both hands.”

  “If it’s a local villain there should not be much

  difficulty in running him down,” said Holmes with a

  yawn. “All right, Watson, I don’t intend to meddle.”

  “Inspector Forrester, sir,” said the butler, throwing

  open the door.

  The official, a smart, keen-faced young fellow,

  stepped into the room. “Good-morning, Colonel,” said

  he; “I hope I don’t intrude, but we hear that Mr.

  Holmes of Baker Street is here.”

  The Colonel waved his hand towards my friend, and the

  Inspector bowed.

  “We thought that perhaps you would care to step

  across, Mr. Holmes.”

  “The fates are against you, Watson,” said he,

  laughing. “We were chatting about the matter when you

  came in, Inspector. Perhaps you can let us have a few

  details.” As he leaned back in his chair in the

  familiar attitude I knew that the case was hopeless.

  “We had no clue in the Acton affair. But here we have

  plenty to go on, and there’s no doubt it is the same

  party in each case. The man was seen.”

  “Ah!”

  “Yes, sir. But he was off like a deer after the shot

  that killed poor William Kirwan was fired. Mr.

  Cunningham saw him from the bedroom window, and Mr.

  Alec Cunningham saw him from the back passage. It was

  quarter to twelve when the alarm broke out. Mr.

  Cunningham had just got into bed, and Mr. Alec was

  smoking a pipe in his dressing-gown. They both heard

  William the coachman calling for help, and Mr. Alec

  ran down to see what was the matter. The back door

  was open, and as he came to the foot of the stairs he

  saw two men wrestling together outside. One of them

  fired a shot, the other dropped, and the murderer

  rushed across the garden and over the hedge. Mr.

  Cunningham, looking out of his bedroom, saw the fellow

  as he gained the road, but lost sight of him at once. 

  Mr. Alec stopped to see if he could help the dying

  man, and so the villain got clean away. Beyond the

  fact that he was a middle-sized man and dressed in

  some dark stuff, we have no personal clue; but we are

  making energetic inquiries, and if he is a stranger we

  shall soon find him out.”

  “What was this William doing there? Did he say

anything before he died?”

  “Not a word. He lives at the lodge with his mother,

  and as he was a very faithful fellow we imagine that

  he walked up to the house with the intention of seeing

  that all was right there. Of course this Acton

  business has put every one on their guard. The robber

  must have just burst open the door–the lock has been

  forced–when William came upon him.”

  “Did William say anything to his mother before going

  out?”

  “She is very old and deaf, and we can get no

  information from her. The shock has made her

  half-witted, but I understand that she was never very

  bright. There is one very important circumstance,

  however. Look at this!”

  He took a small piece of torn paper from a note-book

  and spread it out upon his knee.

  “This was found between the finger and thumb of the

  dead man. It appears to be a fragment torn from a

  larger sheet. You will observe that the hour

  mentioned upon it is the very time at which the poor

  fellow met his fate. You see that his murderer might

  have torn the rest of the sheet from him or he might

  have taken this fragment from the murderer. It reads

  almost as though it were an appointment.”

  Holmes took up the scrap of paper, a fac-simile of

  which is here reproduced.

  d at quarter to twelve

  learn what

  maybe

  “Presuming that it is an appointment,” continued the

  Inspector, “it is of course a conceivable theory that

  this William Kirwan–though he had the reputation of

  being an honest man, may have been in league with the

  thief. He may have met him there, may even have

  helped him to break in the door, and then they may

  have fallen out between themselves.”

  “This writing is of extraordinary interest,” said

  Holmes, who had been examining it with intense

  concentration. “These are much deeper waters than I

  had though.” He sank his head upon his hands, while

  the Inspector smiled at the effect which his case had

  had upon the famous London specialist.

  “Your last remark,” said Holmes, presently, “as to the

  possibility of there being an understanding between

  the burglar and the servant, and this being a note of

  appointment from one to the other, is an ingenious and

  not entirely impossible supposition. But this writing

  opens up–” He sank his head into his hands again and

  remained for some minutes in the deepest thought. 

  When he raised his face again, I was surprised to see

  that his cheek was tinged with color, and his eyes as

  bright as before his illness. He sprang to his feet

  with all his old energy.

  “I’ll tell you what,” said he, “I should like to have

  a quiet little glance into the details of this case. 

  There is something in it which fascinates me

  extremely. If you will permit me, Colonel, I will

  leave my friend Watson and you, and I will step round

  with the Inspector to test the truth of one or two

  little fancies of mine. I will be with you again in

  half an hour.”

  An hour and half had elapsed before the Inspector

  returned alone.

  “Mr. Holmes is walking up and down in the field

  outside,” said he. “He wants us all four to go up to

  the house together.”

  “To Mr. Cunningham’s?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “What for?”

  The Inspector shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t quite

  know, sir. Between ourselves, I think Mr. Holmes had

  not quite got over his illness yet. He’s been

  behaving very queerly, and he is very much excited.”

  “I don’t think you need alarm yourself,” said I. “I

  have usually found that there was method in his

  madness.”

  “Some folks might say there was madness in his

  method,” muttered the Inspector. “But he’s all on

  fire to start, Colonel, so we had best go out if you

  are ready.”

  We found Holmes pacing up and down in the field, his

  chin sunk upon his breast, and his hands thrust into

  his trousers pockets.

  “The matter grows in interest,” said he. “Watson,

  your country-trip has been a distinct success. I have

  had a charming morning.”

  “You have been up to the scene of the crime, I

  understand,” said the Colonel.

  “Yes; the Inspector and I have made quite a little

  reconnaissance together.”

  “Any success?”

  “Well, we have seen some very interesting things. 

  I’ll tell you what we did as we walk. First of all,

  we saw the body of this unfortunate man. He certainly

  died from a revolved wound as reported.”

  “Had you doubted it, then?”

  “Oh, it is as well to test everything. Our inspection

  was not wasted. We then had an interview with Mr.

  Cunningham and his son, who were able to point out the

  exact spot where the murderer had broken through the

  garden-hedge in his flight. That was of great

  interest.”

  “Naturally.”

  “Then we had a look at this poor fellow’s mother. We

  could get no information from her, however, as she is

  very old and feeble.”

  “And what is the result of your investigations?”

  “The conviction that the crime is a very peculiar one. 

  Perhaps our visit now may do something to make it less

  obscure. I think that we are both agreed, Inspector

  that the fragment of paper in the dead man’s hand,

  bearing, as it does, the very hour of his death

  written upon it, is of extreme importance.”

  “It should give a clue, Mr. Holmes.”

  “It does give a clue. Whoever wrote that note was the

  man who brought William Kirwan out of his bed at that

  hour. But where is the rest of that sheet of paper?”

  “I examined the ground carefully in the hope of

  finding it,” said the Inspector.

  “It was torn out of the dead man’s hand. Why was some

  one so anxious to get possession of it? Because it

  incriminated him. And what would he do with it? 

  Thrust it into his pocket, most likely, never noticing

  that a corner of it had been left in the grip of the

  corpse. If we could get the rest of that sheet it is

  obvious that we should have gone a long way towards

  solving the mystery.”

  “Yes, but how can we get at the criminal’s pocket

  before we catch the criminal?”

  “Well, well, it was worth thinking over. Then there

  is another obvious point. The note was sent to

  William. The man who wrote it could not have taken

  it; otherwise, of course, he might have delivered his

  own message by word of mouth. Who brought the note,

  then? Or did it come through the post?”

  “I have made inquiries,” said the Inspector. “William

  received a letter by the afternoon post yesterday. 

  The envelope was destroyed by him.”

  “Excellent!” cried Holmes, clapping the Inspector on

  the back. “You’ve seen the postman. It is a pleasure

  to work with 

you. Well, here is the lodge, and if you

  will come up, Colonel, I will show you the scene of

  the crime.”

  We passed the pretty cottage where the murdered man

  had lived, and walked up an oak-lined avenue to the

  fine old Queen Anne house, which bears the date of

  Malplaquet upon the lintel of the door. Holmes and

  the Inspector led us round it until we came to the

  side gate, which is separated by a stretch of garden

  from the hedge which lines the road. A constable was

  standing at the kitchen door.

  “Throw the door open, officer,” said Holmes. “Now, it

  was on those stairs that young Mr. Cunningham stood

  and saw the two men struggling just where we are. Old

  Mr. Cunningham was at that window–the second on the

  left–and he saw the fellow get away just to the left

  of that bush. Then Mr. Alec ran out and knelt beside

  the wounded man. The ground is very hard, you see,

  and there are no marks to guide us.” As he spoke two

  men came down the garden path, from round the angle of

  the house. The one was an elderly man, with a strong,

  deep-lined, heavy-eyed face; the other a dashing young

  fellow, whose bright, smiling expression and showy

  dress were in strange contract with the business which

  had brought us there.

  “Still at it, then?” said he to Holmes. “I thought

  you Londoners were never at fault. You don’t seem to

  be so very quick, after all.”

  “Ah, you must give us a little time,” said Holmes

  good-humoredly.

  “You’ll want it,” said young Alec Cunningham. “Why, I

  don’t see that we have any clue at all.”

  “There’s only one,” answered the Inspector. “We

  thought that if we could only find–Good heavens, Mr.

  Holmes! What is the matter?”

  My poor friend’s face had suddenly assumed the most

  dreadful expression. His eyes rolled upwards, his

  features writhed in agony, and with a suppressed groan

  he dropped on his face upon the ground. Horrified at

  the suddenness and severity of the attack, we carried

  him into the kitchen, where he lay back in a large

  chair, and breathed heavily for some minutes. 

  Finally, with a shamefaced apology for his weakness,

  he rose once more.

  “Watson would tell you that I have only just recovered

  from a severe illness,” he explained. “I am liable to

  these sudden nervous attacks.”

  “Shall I send you home in my trap?” asked old

  Cunningham.

  “Well, since I am here, there is one point on which I

  should like to feel sure. We can very easily verify

  it.”

  “What was it?”

  “Well, it seems to me that it is just possible that

  the arrival of this poor fellow William was not

  before, but after, the entrance of the burglary into

  the house. You appear to take it for granted that,

  although the door was forced, the robber never got

  in.”

  “I fancy that is quite obvious,” said Mr. Cunningham,

  gravely. “Why, my son Alec had not yet gone to bed,

  and he would certainly have heard any one moving

  about.”

  “Where was he sitting?”

  “I was smoking in my dressing-room.”

  “Which window is that?”

  “The last on the left next my father’s.”

  “Both of your lamps were lit, of course?”

  “Undoubtedly.”

  “There are some very singular points here,” said

  Holmes, smiling. “Is it not extraordinary that a

  burglary–and a burglar who had had some previous

  experience–should deliberately break into a house at

  a time when he could see from the lights that two of

  the family were still afoot?”

  “He must have been a cool hand.”

  “Well, of course, if the case were not an odd one we

  should not have been driven to ask you for an

  explanation,” said young Mr. Alec. “But as to your

  ideas that the man had robbed the house before William

  tackled him, I think it a most absurd notion. 

  Wouldn’t we have found the place disarranged, and

  missed the things which he had taken?”

  “It depends on what the things were,” said Holmes. 

  “You must remember that we are dealing with a burglar

  who is a very peculiar fellow, and who appears to work

  on lines of his own. Look, for example, at the queer

  lot of things which he took from Acton’s–what was

  it?–a ball of string, a letter-weight, and I don’t

  know what other odds and ends.”

  “Well, we are quite in your hands, Mr. Holmes,” said

  old Cunningham. “Anything which you or the Inspector

  may suggest will most certainly be done.”

  “In the first place,” said Holmes, “I should like you

  to offer a reward–coming from yourself, for the

  officials may take a little time before they would

  agree upon the sum, and these things cannot be done

  too promptly. I have jotted down the form here, if

  you would not mind signing it. Fifty pound was quite

  enough, I thought.”

  “I would willingly give five hundred,” said the J.P.,

  taking the slip of paper and the pencil which Holmes

  handed to him. “This is not quite correct, however,”

  he added, glancing over the document.

  “I wrote it rather hurriedly.”

  “You see you begin, ‘Whereas, at about a quarter to

  one on Tuesday morning an attempt was made,’ and so

  on. It was at a quarter to twelve, as a matter of

  fact.”

  I was pained at the mistake, for I knew how keenly

  Holmes would feel any slip of the kind. It was his

  specialty to be accurate as to fact, but his recent

  illness had shaken him, and this one little incident

  was enough to show me that he was still far from being

  himself. He was obviously embarrassed for an instant,

  while the Inspector raised his eyebrows, and Alec

  Cunningham burst into a laugh. The old gentleman

  corrected the mistake, however, and handed the paper

  back to Holmes.

  “Get it printed as soon as possible,” he said; “I

  think your idea is an excellent one.”

  Holmes put the slip of paper carefully away into his

  pocket-book.

  “And now,” said he, “it really would be a good thing

  that we should all go over the house together and make

  certain that this rather erratic burglar did not,

  after all, carry anything away with him.”

  Before entering, Holmes made an examination of the

  door which had been forced. It was evident that a

  chisel or strong knife had been thrust in, and the

  lock forced back with it. We could see the marks in

  the wood where it had been pushed in.

  “You don’t use bars, then?” he asked.

  “We have never found it necessary.”

  “You don’t keep a dog?”

  “Yes, but he is chained on the other side of the

  house.”

  “When do the servants go to bed?”

  “About ten.”

  “I understand that William was usually in bed also at

  that hour.”

  “Yes.”

  “It is singular that on this parti 

cular night he

  should have been up. Now, I should be very glad if

  you would have the kindness to show us over the house,

  Mr. Cunningham.”

  A stone-flagged passage, with the kitchens branching

  away from it, led by a wooden staircase directly to

  the first floor of the house. It came out upon the

  landing opposite to a second more ornamental stair

  which came up from the front hall. Out of this

  landing opened the drawing-room and several bedrooms,

  including those of Mr. Cunningham and his son. Holmes

  walked slowly, taking keen note of the architecture of

  the house. I could tell from his expression that he

  was on a hot scent, and yet I could not in the least

  imagine in what direction his inferences were leading

  him.

  “My good sir,” said Mr. Cunningham with some

  impatience, “this is surely very unnecessary. That is

  my room at the end of the stairs, and my son’s is the

  one beyond it. I leave it to your judgment whether it

  was possible for the thief to have come up here

  without disturbing us.”

  “You must try round and get on a fresh scent, I

  fancy,” said the son with a rather malicious smile.

  “Still, I must ask you to humor me a little further. 

  I should like, for example, to see how far the windows

  of the bedrooms command the front. This, I understand

  is your son’s room”–he pushed open the door–“and

  that, I presume, is the dressing-room in which he sat

  smoking when the alarm was given. Where does the

  window of that look out to?” He stepped across the

  bedroom, pushed open the door, and glanced round the

  other chamber.

  “I hope that you are satisfied now?” said Mr.

  Cunningham, tartly.

  “Thank you, I think I have seen all that I wished.”

  “Then if it is really necessary we can go into my

  room.”

  “If it is not too much trouble.”

  The J. P. shrugged his shoulders, and led the way into

  his own chamber, which was a plainly furnished and

  commonplace room. As we moved across it in the

  direction of the window, Holmes fell back until he and

  I were the last of the group. Near the foot of the

  bed stood a dish of oranges and a carafe of water. As

  we passed it Holmes, to my unutterable astonishment,

  leaned over in front of me and deliberately knocked

  the whole thing over. The glass smashed into a

  thousand pieces and the fruit rolled about into every

  corner of the room.

  “You’ve done it now, Watson,” said he, coolly. “A

  pretty mess you’ve made of the carpet.”

  I stooped in some confusion and began to pick up the

  fruit, understanding for some reason my companion

  desired me to take the blame upon myself. The others

  did the same, and set the table on its legs again.

  “Hullo!” cried the Inspector, “where’s he got to?”

  Holmes had disappeared.

  “Wait here an instant,” said young Alec Cunningham. 

  “The fellow is off his head, in my opinion. Come with

  me, father, and see where he has got to!”

  They rushed out of the room, leaving the Inspector,

  the Colonel, and me staring at each other.

  “‘Pon my word, I am inclined to agree with Master

  Alec,” said the official. “It may be the effect of

  this illness, but it seems to me that–“

  His words were cut short by a sudden scream of “Help! 

  Help! Murder!” With a thrill I recognized the voice

  of that of my friend. I rushed madly from the room on

  to the landing. The cries, which had sunk down into a

  hoarse, inarticulate shouting, came from the room

  which we had first visited. I dashed in, and on into

  the dressing-room beyond. The two Cunninghams were

  bending over the prostrate figure of Sherlock Holmes,

  the younger clutching his throat with both hands,

  while the elder seemed to be twisting one of his

  wrists. In an instant the three of us had torn them

  away from him, and Holmes staggered to his feet, very

  pale and evidently greatly exhausted.

  “Arrest these men, Inspector,” he gasped.

  “On what charge?”

  “That of murdering their coachman, William Kirwan.”

  The Inspector stared about him in bewilderment. “Oh,

  come now, Mr. Holmes,” said he at last, “I’m sure you

don’t really mean to–“

  “Tut, man, look at their faces!” cried Holmes, curtly.

  Never certainly have I seen a plainer confession of

  guilt upon human countenances. The older man seemed

  numbed and dazed with a heavy, sullen expression upon

  his strongly-marked face. The son, on the other hand,

  had dropped all that jaunty, dashing style which had

  characterized him, and the ferocity of a dangerous

  wild beast gleamed in his dark eyes and distorted his

  handsome features. The Inspector said nothing, but,

  stepping to the door, he blew his whistle. Two of his

  constables came at the call.

  “I have no alternative, Mr. Cunningham,” said he. “I

  trust that this may all prove to be an absurd mistake,

  but you can see that–Ah, would you? Drop it!” He

  struck out with his hand, and a revolver which the

  younger man was in the act of cocking clattered down

  upon the floor.

  “Keep that,” said Holmes, quietly putting his foot

  upon it; “you will find it useful at the trial. But

  this is what we really wanted.” He held up a little

  crumpled piece of paper.

  “The remainder of the sheet!” cried the Inspector.

  “Precisely.”

  “And where was it?”

  “Where I was sure it must be. I’ll make the whole

  matter clear to you presently. I think, Colonel, that

  you and Watson might return now, and I will be with

  you again in an hour at the furthest. The Inspector

  and I must have a word with the prisoners, but you

  will certainly see me back at luncheon time.”

  Sherlock Holmes was as good as his word, for about one

  o’clock he rejoined us in the Colonel’s smoking-room. 

  He was accompanied by a little elderly gentleman, who

  was introduced to me as the Mr. Acton whose house had

  been the scene of the original burglary.

  “I wished Mr. Acton to be present while I demonstrated

  this small matter to you,” said Holmes, “for it is

  natural that he should take a keen interest in the

  details. I am afraid, my dear Colonel, that you must

  regret the hour that you took in such a stormy petrel

  as I am.”

  “On the contrary,” answered the Colonel, warmly, “I

  consider it the greatest privilege to have been

  permitted to study your methods of working. I confess

  that they quite surpass my expectations, and that I am

  utterly unable to account for you result. I have not

  yet seen the vestige of a clue.”

  “I am afraid that my explanation may disillusion you

  but it has always been my habit to hide none of my

  methods, either from my friend Watson or from any one

  who might take an intelligent interest in them. But,

  first, as I am rather shaken by the knocking about

  which I had in the dressing-room, I think that I shall

  help myself to a dash of your brandy, Colonel. My

  strength had been rather tried of late.”

  “I trust that you had no more of those nervous

  attacks.”

  Sherlock Holmes laughed heartily. “We will come to

  that in its turn,” said he. “I will lay an account of

  the case before you in its due order, showing you the

  various points which guided me in my decision. Pray

  interrupt me if there is any inference which is not

  perfectly clear to you.

  “It is of the highest importance in the art of

  detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of

  facts, which are incidental and which vital. 

  Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated

  instead of being concentrated. Now, in this case

  there was not the slightest doubt in my mind from the

  first that the key of the whole matter must be looked

  for in the scrap of paper in the dead man’s hand.

  “Before going into this, I would draw your attention

  to the fact that, if Alec Cunningham’s narrative was

  correct, and if the assailant, after shooting William

  Kirwan, had instantly fled, then it obviously could

  not be he who tore the paper from the dead man’s hand. 

  But if it was not he, it must have been Alec

  Cunningham himself, for by the time that the old man

  had descended several servants were upon the scene. 

  The point is a simple one, but the Inspector had

  overlooked it because he had started with the

  supposition that these county magnates had had nothing

  to do with the matter. Now, I make a pint of never

  having any prejudices, and of following docilely

  wherever fact may lead me, and so, in the very first

  stage of the investigation, I found myself looking a

  little askance at the part which had been played by

  Mr. Alec Cunningham.

  “And now I made a very careful examination of the

  corner of paper which the Inspector had submitted to

  us. It was at once clear to me that it formed part of

  a very remarkable document. Here it is. Do you not

  now observed something very suggestive about it?”

  “It has a very irregular look,” said the Colonel.

  “My dear sir,” cried Holmes, “there cannot be the

  least doubt in the world that it has been written by

  two persons doing alternate words. When I draw your

  attention to the strong t’s of ‘at’ and ‘to’, and ask

  you to compare them with the weak ones of ‘quarter’

  and ‘twelve,’ you will instantly recognize the fact. 

  A very brief analysis of these four words would enable

  you to say with the utmost confidence that the ‘learn’

  and the ‘maybe’ are written in the stronger hand, and

  the ‘what’ in the weaker.”

  “By Jove, it’s as clear as day!” cried the Colonel. 

  “Why on earth should two men write a letter in such a

  fashion?”

  “Obviously the business was a bad one, and one of the

  men who distrusted the other was determined that,

  whatever was done, each should have an equal hand in

  it. Now, of the two men, it is clear that the one who

  wrote the ‘at’ and ‘to’ was the ringleader.”

  “How do you get at that?”

  “We might deduce it from the mere character of the one

  hand as compared with the other. But we have more

  assured reasons than that for supposing it. If you

  examine this scrap with attention you will come to the

  conclusion that the man with the stronger hand wrote

  all his words first, leaving blanks for the other to

  fill up. These blanks were not always sufficient, and

  you can see that the second man had a squeeze to fit

  his ‘quarter’ in between the ‘at’ and the ‘to,’

  showing that the latter were already written. The man

  who wrote all his words first in undoubtedly the man

  who planned the affair.”

  “Excellent!” cried Mr. Acton.

  “But very superficial,” said Holmes. “We come now,

  however, to a point which is of importance. You may

  not be aware that the deduction of a man’s age from

  his writing is one which has brought to considerable

  accuracy by experts. In normal cases one can place a

  man in his true decade with tolerable confidence. I

  say normal cases, because ill-health and physical

  weakness reproduce the signs of old age, even when the

  invalid is a youth. In this case, looking at the

  bold, strong hand of the one, and the rather

  broken-backed appearance of the other, which still

  retains its legibility although the t’s have begun to

  lose their crossing, we can say that the one was a

  young man and the other was advanced in years without

  being positively decrepit.”

  “Excellent!” cried Mr. Acton again.

  “There is a further point, however, which is subtler

  and of greater interest. There is something in common

  between these hands. They belong to men who are

  blood-relatives. It may be most obvious to you in the

  Greek e’s, but to me there are many small points which

  indicate the same thing. I have no doubt at all that

  a family mannerism can be traced in these two

  specimens of writing. I am only, of course, giving

  you the leading results now of my examination of the

  paper. There were twenty-three other deductions which

  would be of more interest to experts than to you. 

  They all tend to deepen the impression upon my mind

  that the Cunninghams, father and son, had written this

  letter.

  “Having got so far, my next step was, of course, to

  examine into the details of the crime, and to see how

  far they would help us. I went up to the house with

  the Inspector, and saw all that was to be seen. The

  wound upon the dead man was, as I was able to

  determine with absolute confidence, fired from a

  revolver at the distance of something over four yards. 

  There was no powder-blackening on the clothes. 

  Evidently, therefore, Alec Cunningham had lied when

  he said that the two men were struggling when the shot

  was fired. Again, both father and son agreed as to

  the place where the man escaped into the road. At

  that point, however, as it happens, there is a 

  broadish ditch, moist at the bottom. As there were no

  indications of bootmarks about this ditch, I was

  absolutely sure not only that the Cunninghams had

  again lied, but that there had never been any unknown

  man upon the scene at all.

  “And now I have to consider the motive of this

  singular crime. To get at this, I endeavored first of

  all to solve the reason of the original burglary at

  Mr. Acton’s. I understood, from something which the

  Colonel told us, that a lawsuit had been going on

  between you, Mr. Acton, and the Cunninghams. Of

  course, it instantly occurred to me that they had

  broken into your library with the intention of getting

  at some document which might be of importance in the

  case.”

  “Precisely so,” said Mr. Acton. “There can be no

  possible doubt as to their intentions. I have the

  clearest claim upon half of their present estate, and

  if they could have found a single paper–which,

  fortunately, was in the strong-box of my

  solicitors–they would undoubtedly have crippled our

  case.”

  “There you are,” said Holmes, smiling. “It was a

  dangerous, reckless attempt, in which I seem to trace

  the influence of young Alec. Having found nothing

  they tried to divert suspicion by making it appear to

  be an ordinary burglary, to which end they carried off

  whatever they could lay their hands upon. That is all

  clear enough, but there was much that was still

  obscure. What I wanted above all was to get the

  missing part of that note. I was certain that Alec

  had torn it out of the dead man’s hand, and almost

  certain that he must have thrust it into the pocket of

  his dressing-gown. Where else could he have put it? 

  The only question was whether it was still there. It

  was worth an effort to find out, and for that object

  we all went up to the house.

  “The Cunninghams joined us, as you doubtless remember,

  outside the kitchen door. It was, of course, of the

  very first importance that they should not be reminded

  of the existence of this paper, otherwise they would

  naturally destroy it without delay. The Inspector was

  about to tell them the importance which we attached to

  it when, by the luckiest chance in the world, I

  tumbled down in a sort of fit and so changed the

  conversation.

  “Good heavens!” cried the Colonel, laughing, “do you

  mean to say all our sympathy was wasted and your fit

  an imposture?”

  “Speaking professionally, it was admirably done,”

  cried I, looking in amazement at this man who was

  forever confounding me with some new phase of his

  astuteness.

  “It is an art which is often useful,” said he. “When

  I recovered I managed, by a device which had perhaps

  some little merit of ingenuity, to get old Cunningham

  to write the word ‘twelve,’ so that I might compare it

  with the ‘twelve’ upon the paper.”

  “Oh, what an ass I have been!” I exclaimed.

  “I could see that you were commiserating me over my

  weakness,” said Holmes, laughing. “I was sorry to

  cause you the sympathetic pain which I know that you

  felt. We then went upstairs together, and having

  entered the room and seen the dressing-gown hanging up

  behind the door, I contrived, by upsetting a table, to

  engage their attention for the moment, and slipped

  back to examine the pockets. I had hardly got the

  paper, however–which was, as I had expected, in one

  of them–when the two Cunninghams were on me, and

  would, I verily believe, have murdered me then and

  there but for your prompt and friendly aid. As it is,

  I feel that young man’s grip on my throat now, and the

  father has twisted my wrist round in the effort to get

  the paper out of my hand. They saw that I must know

  all about it, you see, and the sudden change from

  absolute security to complete despair made them

  perfectly desperate.

  “I had a little talk with old Cunningham afterwards as

  to the motive of the crime. He was tractable enough,

  though his son was a perfect demon, ready to blow out

  his own or anybody else’s brains if he could have got

  to his revolver. When Cunningham saw that the case

  against him was so strong he lost all heart and made a

  clean breast of everything. It seems that William had

  secretly followed his two masters on the night when

  they made their raid upon Mr. Acton’s, and having thus

  got them into his power, proceeded, under threats of

  exposure, to levy black-mail upon them. Mr. Alec,

  however, was a dangerous man to play games of that

  sort with. It was a stroke of positive genius on his

  part to see in the burglary scare which was convulsing

  the country side an opportunity of plausibly getting

  rid of the man whom he feared. William was decoyed up

  and shot, and had they only got the whole of the note

  and paid a little more attention to detail in the

  accessories, it is very possible that suspicion might

  never have been aroused.”

  “And the note?” I asked.

  Sherlock Holmes placed the subjoined paper before us.

  If you will only come around

  to the east gate you will

  will very much surprise you and

  be of the greatest service to you and also

  to Annie Morrison. But say nothing to

  anyone upon the matter

  “It is very much the sort of thing that I expected,”

  said he. “Of course, we do not yet know what the

  relations may have been between Alec Cunningham,

  William Kirwan, and Annie Morrison. The results shows

  that the trap was skillfully baited. I am sure that

  you cannot fail to be delighted with the traces of

  heredity shown in the p’s and in the tails of the g’s. 

  The absence of the i-dots in the old man’s writing is

  also most characteristic. Watson, I think our quiet

  rest in the country has been a distinct success, and I

  shall certainly return much invigorated to Baker

  Street to-morrow.” 

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