"It's wonderful," said Polton, gazing at the now distant figure; "perfectly wonderful. I should never have known he was a stationmaster." With this and a glance of deep admiration at his employer, he took his departure.
"You will also observe," said Thorndyke, with a smile, "that a fortunate guess often brings more credit than a piece of sound reasoning with a less striking result."
"Yes, that is unfortunately the case, and it is certainly true in the present instance. Your reputation, as far as Polton is concerned, is now firmly established even if it was not before. In his eyes you are a wizard from whom nothing is hidden. But to return to these little pieces, as I must call them, for the lack of a better name. I can form no hypothesis as to their use. I seem to have no 'departure,' as the nautical phrase goes, from which to start an inquiry. I haven't even the material for guess-work. Ought I to be able to arrive at any opinion on the subject?"
Thorndyke picked up one of the pieces, fingering it delicately and inspecting with a critical eye the flat base on which it stood, and reflected for a few moments.
"It is easy to trace a connection when one knows all the facts," he said at length, "but it seems to me that you have the materials from which to form a conjecture. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think, when you have had more experience, you will find yourself able to work out a problem of this kind. What is required is constructive imagination and a rigorous exactness in reasoning. Now, you are a good reasoner, and you have recently shown me that you have the necessary imagination; you merely lack experience in the use of your faculties. When you learn my purpose in having these things made—as you will before long—you will probably be surprised that their use did not occur to you. And now let us go forth and take a brisk walk to refresh ourselves (or perhaps I should say myself) after the day's labour.
"I am going to ask for your collaboration in another case," said Thorndyke, a day or two later. "It appears to be one of suicide, but the solicitors to the 'Griffin' office have asked me to go down to the place, which is in the neighbourhood of Barnet, and be present at the post-mortem and the inquest. They have managed to arrange that the inquest shall take place directly after the post-mortem, so that we shall be able to do the whole business in a single visit."
"Is the case one of any intricacy?" I asked.
"I don't think so," he answered. "It looks like a common suicide; but you can never tell. The importance of the case at present arises entirely from the heavy insurance; a verdict of suicide will mean a gain of ten thousand pounds to the 'Griffin,' so, naturally, the directors are anxious to get the case settled and not inclined to boggle over a little expense."
"Naturally. And when will the expedition take place?" I asked.
"The inquest is fixed for to-morrow—what is the matter? Does that fall foul of any arrangement of yours?"
"Oh, nothing of any importance," I replied hastily, deeply ashamed of the momentary change of countenance that my friend had been so quick to observe.
"Well, what is it?" persisted Thorndyke. "You have got something on."
"It is nothing, I tell you, but what can be quite easily arranged to suit your plans."
"Cherchez la—h'm?" queried Thorndyke, with an exasperating grin.
"Yes," I answered, turning as red as a pickled cabbage; "since you are so beastly inquisitive. Miss Gibson wrote, on behalf of Mrs. Hornby, asking me to dine with them en famille to-morrow evening, and I sent off an acceptance an hour ago."
"And you call that 'nothing of any importance'!" exclaimed Thorndyke. "Alas! and likewise alackaday (which is an approximately synonymous expression)! The age of chivalry is past, indeed. Of course you must keep your appointment; I can manage quite well alone."
"We shouldn't be back early enough for me to go to Kensington from the station, I suppose?"
"No; certainly not. I find that the trains are very awkward; we should not reach King's Cross until nearly one in the morning."
"Then, in that case, I shall write to Miss Gibson and excuse myself."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that," said Thorndyke; "it will disappoint them, and really it is not necessary."
"I shall write forthwith," I said firmly, "so please don't try to dissuade me. I have been feeling quite uncomfortable at the thought that, all the time I have been in your employ, I seem to have done nothing but idle about and amuse myself. The opportunity of doing something tangible for my wage is too precious to be allowed to slip."
Thorndyke chuckled indulgently. "You shall do as you please, my dear boy," he said; "but don't imagine that you have been eating the bread of idleness. When you see this Hornby case worked out in detail, you will be surprised to find how large a part you have taken in unravelling it. Your worth to me has been far beyond your poor little salary, I can assure you."
"It is very handsome of you to say that," I said, highly gratified to learn that I was really of use, and not, as I had begun to suspect, a mere object of charity.
"It is perfectly true," he answered; "and now, since you are going to help me in this case, I will set you your task. The case, as I have said, appears to be quite simple, but it never does to take the simplicity for granted. Here is the letter from the solicitors giving the facts as far as they are known at present. On the shelves there you will find Casper, Taylor, Guy and Ferrier, and the other authorities on medical jurisprudence, and I will put out one or two other books that you may find useful. I want you to extract and make classified notes of everything that may bear on such a case as the present one may turn out to be. We must go prepared to meet any contingency that may arise. This is my invariable practice, and even if the case turns out to be quite simple, the labour is never wasted, for it represents so much experience gained."
"Casper and Taylor are pretty old, aren't they?" I objected.
"So is suicide," he retorted drily. "It is a capital mistake to neglect the old authorities. 'There were strong men before Agamemnon,' and some of them were uncommonly strong, let me tell you. Give your best attention to the venerable Casper and the obsolete Taylor and you will not be without your reward."
As a result of these injunctions, I devoted the remainder of the day to the consideration of the various methods by which a man might contrive to effect his exit from the stage of human activities. And a very engrossing study I found it, and the more interesting in view of the problem that awaited solution on the morrow; but yet not so engrossing but that I was able to find time to write a long, rather intimate and minutely explanatory letter to Miss Gibson, in which I even mentioned the hour of our return as showing the impossibility of my keeping my engagement. Not that I had the smallest fear of her taking offence, for it is an evidence of my respect and regard for her that I cancelled the appointment without a momentary doubt that she would approve of my action; but it was pleasant to write to her at length and to feel the intimacy of keeping her informed of the details of my life.
The case, when we came to inquire into it on the spot, turned out to be a suicide of the most transparent type; whereat both Thorndyke and I were, I think, a little disappointed—he at having apparently done so little for a very substantial fee, and I at having no opportunity for applying my recently augmented knowledge.
"Yes," said my colleague, as we rolled ourselves up in our rugs in adjacent corners of the railway carriage, "it has been a flat affair, and the whole thing could have been managed by the local solicitor. But it is not a waste of time after all, for, you see, I have to do many a day's work for which I get not a farthing of payment, nor even any recognition, so that I do not complain if I occasionally find myself receiving more payment than my actual services merit. And as to you, I take it that you have acquired a good deal of valuable knowledge on the subject of suicide, and knowledge, as the late Lord Bacon remarked with more truth than originality, is power."
To this I made no reply, having just lit my pipe and feeling uncommonly drowsy; and, my companion having followed my example, we smoked in silence, becoming more and more somnolent, until the train drew up in the terminus and we turned out, yawning and shivering, on to the platform.
"Bah!" exclaimed Thorndyke, drawing his rug round his shoulders; "this is a cheerless hour—a quarter past one. See how chilly and miserable all these poor devils of passengers look. Shall we cab it or walk?"
"I think a sharp walk would rouse our circulation after sitting huddled up in the carriage for so long," I answered.
"So do I," said Thorndyke, "so let us away; hark forward! and also Tally Ho! In fact one might go so far as to say Yoicks! That gentleman appears to favour the strenuous life, if one may judge by the size of his sprocket-wheel."
He pointed to a bicycle that was drawn up by the kerb in the approach—a machine of the road-racer type, with an enormous sprocket-wheel, indicating a gear of, at least, ninety.
"Some scorcher or amateur racer, probably," I said, "who takes the opportunity of getting a spin on the wood pavement when the streets are empty." I looked round to see if I could identify the owner, but the machine appeared to be, for the moment, taking care of itself. King's Cross is one of those districts of which the inhabitants are slow in settling down for the night, and even at a quarter past one in the morning its streets are not entirely deserted. Here and there the glimmer of a street lamp or the far-reaching ray from a tall electric light reveals the form of some nocturnal prowler creeping along with cat-like stealthiness, or bursting, cat-like, into unmelodious song. Not greatly desirous of the society of these roysterers, we crossed quickly from the station into the Gray's Inn Road, now silent and excessively dismal in aspect, and took our way along the western side. We had turned the curve and were crossing Manchester Street, when a series of yelps from ahead announced the presence of a party of merry-makers, whom we were not yet able to see, however, for the night was an exceptionally dark one; but the sounds of revelry continued to increase in volume as we proceeded, until, as we passed Sidmouth Street, we came in sight of the revellers. They were some half-dozen in number, all of them roughs of the hooligan type, and they were evidently in boisterous spirits, for, as they passed the entrance to the Royal Free Hospital, they halted and battered furiously at the gate. Shortly after this exploit they crossed the road on to our side, whereupon Thorndyke caught my arm and slackened his pace.
"Let them draw ahead," said he. "It is a wise precaution to give all hooligan gangs a very wide berth at this time of night. We had better turn down Heathcote Street and cross Mecklenburgh Square."
We continued to walk on at reduced speed until we reached Heathcote Street, into which we turned and so entered Mecklenburgh Square, where we mended our pace once more.
"The hooligan," pursued Thorndyke, as we walked briskly across the silent square, "covers a multitude of sins, ranging from highway robbery with violence and paid assassination (technically known as 'bashing') down to the criminal folly of the philanthropic magistrate, who seems to think that his function in the economy of nature is to secure the survival of the unfittest. There goes a cyclist along Guildford Street. I wonder if that is our strenuous friend from the station. If so, he has slipped past the hooligans."
We were just entering Doughty Street, and, as Thorndyke spoke, a man on a bicycle was visible for an instant at the crossing of the two streets. When we reached Guildford Street we both looked down the long, lamp-lighted vista, but the cyclist had vanished.
"We had better go straight on into Theobald's Road," said Thorndyke, and we accordingly pursued our way up the fine old-world street, from whose tall houses our footfalls echoed, so that we seemed to be accompanied by an invisible multitude, until we reached that part where it unaccountably changes its name and becomes John Street.
"There always seems to me something very pathetic about these old Bloomsbury streets," said Thorndyke, "with their faded grandeur and dignified seediness. They remind me of some prim and aged gentlewoman in reduced circumstances who—Hallo! What was that?"
A faint, sharp thud from behind had been followed instantly by the shattering of a ground-floor window in front.
We both stopped dead and remained, for a couple of seconds, staring into the gloom, from whence the first sound had come; then Thorndyke darted diagonally across the road at a swift run and I immediately followed.
At the moment when the affair happened we had gone about forty yards up John Street, that is, from the place where it is crossed by Henry Street, and we now raced across the road to the further corner of the latter street. When we reached it, however, the little thoroughfare was empty, and, as we paused for a moment, no sound of retreating footsteps broke the silence.
"The shot certainly came from here!" said Thorndyke; "come on," and he again broke into a run. A few yards up the street a mews turns off to the left, and into this my companion plunged, motioning me to go straight on, which I accordingly did, and in a few paces reached the top of the street. Here a narrow thoroughfare, with a broad, smooth pavement, bears off to the left, parallel with the mews, and, as I arrived at the corner and glanced up the little street, I saw a man on a bicycle gliding swiftly and silently towards Little James' Street.
With a mighty shout of "Stop thief!" I started in hot pursuit, but, though the man's feet were moving in an apparently leisurely manner, he drew ahead at an astonishing pace, in spite of my efforts to overtake him; and it then dawned upon me that the slow revolutions of his feet were due, in reality, to the unusually high gear of the machine that he was riding. As I realised this, and at the same moment recalled the bicycle that we had seen in the station, the fugitive swung round into Little James' Street and vanished.
The speed at which the man was travelling made further pursuit utterly futile, so I turned and walked back, panting and perspiring from the unwonted exertion. As I re-entered Henry Street, Thorndyke emerged from the mews and halted on seeing me.
"Cyclist?" he asked laconically, as I came up.
"Yes," I answered; "riding a machine geared up to about ninety."
"Ah! he must have followed us from the station," said Thorndyke. "Did you notice if he was carrying anything?"
"He had a walking-stick in his hand. I didn't see anything else."
"What sort of walking-stick?"
"I couldn't see very distinctly. It was a stoutish stick—I should say a Malacca, probably—and it had what looked like a horn handle. I could see that as he passed a street lamp."
"What kind of lamp had he?"
"I couldn't see; but, as he turned the corner, I noticed that it seemed to burn very dimly."
"A little vaseline, or even oil, smeared on the outside of the glass will reduce the glare of a lamp very appreciably," my companion remarked, "especially on a dusty road. Ha! here is the proprietor of the broken window. He wants to know, you know."
We had once more turned into John Street and now perceived a man, standing on the wide doorstep of the house with the shattered window, looking anxiously up and down the street.
"Do either of you gents know anything about this here?" he asked, pointing to the broken pane.
"Yes," said Thorndyke, "we happened to be passing when it was done; in fact," he added, "I rather suspect that the missile, whatever it was, was intended for our benefit."
"Oh!" said the man. "Who done it?"
"That I can't say," replied Thorndyke. "Whoever he was, he made off on a bicycle and we were unable to catch him."
"Oh!" said the man once more, regarding us with growing suspicion. "On a bicycle, hay! Dam funny, ain't it? What did he do it with?"
"That is what I should like to find out," said Thorndyke. "I see this house is empty."
"Yes, it's empty—leastways it's to let. I'm the caretaker. But what's that got to do with it?"
"Merely this," answered Thorndyke, "that the object—stone, bullet or whatever it may have been—was aimed, I believe, at me, and I should like to ascertain its nature. Would you do me the favour of permitting me to look for it?"
The caretaker was evidently inclined to refuse this request, for he glanced suspiciously from my companion to me once or twice before replying, but, at length, he turned towards the open door and gruffly invited us to enter.
A paraffin lamp was on the floor in a recess of the hall, and this our conductor took up when he had elosed the street door.
"This is the room," he said, turning the key and thrusting the door open; "the library they call it, but it's the front parlour in plain English." He entered and, holding the lamp above his head, stared balefully at the broken window.
Thorndyke glanced quickly along the floor in the direction that the missile would have taken, and then said—
"Do you see any mark on the wall there?"
As he spoke, he indicated the wall opposite the window, which obviously could not have been struck by a projectile entering with such extreme obliquity; and I was about to point out this fact when I fortunately remembered the great virtue of silence.
Our friend approached the wall, still holding up the lamp, and scrutinised the surface with close attention; and while he was thus engaged, I observed Thorndyke stoop quickly and pick up something, which he deposited carefully, and without remark, in his waistcoat pocket.
"I don't see no bruise anywhere," said the caretaker, sweeping his hand over the wall.
"Perhaps the thing struck this wall," suggested Thorndyke, pointing to the one that was actually in the line of fire. "Yes, of course," he added, "it would be this one—the shot came from Henry Street."
The caretaker crossed the room and threw the light of his lamp on the wall thus indicated.
"Ah! here we are!" he exclaimed, with gloomy satisfaction, pointing to a small dent in which the wall-paper was turned back and the plaster exposed; "looks almost like a bullet mark, but you say you didn't hear no report."
"No," said Thorndyke, "there was no report; it must have been a catapult."
The caretaker set the lamp down on the floor and proceeded to grope about for the projectile, in which operation we both assisted; and I could not suppress a faint smile as I noted the earnestness with which Thorndyke peered about the floor in search of the missile that was quietly reposing in his waistcoat pocket.
We were deep in our investigations when there was heard an uncompromising double knock at the street door, followed by the loud pealing of a bell in the basement.
"Bobby, I suppose," growled the caretaker. "Here's a blooming fuss about nothing." He caught up the lamp and went out, leaving us in the dark.
"I picked it up, you know," said Thorndyke, when we were alone.
"I saw you," I answered.
"Good; I applaud your discretion," he rejoined. The caretaker's supposition was correct. When he returned, he was accompanied by a burly constable, who saluted us with a cheerful smile and glanced facetiously round the empty room.
"Our boys," said he, nodding towards the broken window; "they're playful lads, that they are. You were passing when it happened, sir, I hear." "Yes," answered Thorndyke; and he gave the constable a brief account of the occurrence, which the latter listened to, notebook in hand.
"Well," said he when the narrative was concluded, "if those hooligan boys are going to take to catapults they'll make things lively all round."
"You ought to run some of 'em in," said the caretaker.
"Run 'em in!" exclaimed the constable in a tone of disgust; "yes! And then the magistrate will tell 'em to be good boys and give 'em five shillings out of the poor-box to buy illustrated Testaments. I'd Testament them, the worthless varmints!"
He rammed his notebook fiercely into his pocket and stalked out of the room into the street, whither we followed.
"You'll find that bullet or stone when you sweep up the room," he said, as he turned on to his beat; "and you'd better let us have it. Good night, sir."
He strolled off towards Henry Street, while Thorndyke and I resumed our journey southward.
"Why were you so secret about that projectile?" I asked my friend as we walked up the street.
"Partly to avoid discussion with the caretaker," he replied; "but principally because I thought it likely that a constable would pass the house and, seeing the light, come in to make inquiries."
"Then I should have had to hand over the object to him." "And why not? Is the object a specially interesting one?"
"It is highly interesting to me at the present moment," replied Thorndyke, with a chuckle, "because I have not examined it. I have a theory as to its nature, which theory I should like to test before taking the police into my confidence."
"Are you going to take me into your confidence?" I asked.
"When we get home, if you are not too sleepy," he replied.
On our arrival at his chambers, Thorndyke desired me to light up and clear one end of the table while he went up to the workshop to fetch some tools. I turned back the table cover, and, having adjusted the gas so as to light this part of the table, waited in some impatience for my colleague's return. In a few minutes he re-entered bearing a small vice, a metal saw and a wide-mouthed bottle.
"What have you got in that bottle?" I asked, perceiving a metal object inside it.
"That is the projectile, which I have thought fit to rinse in distilled water, for reasons that will presently appear."
He agitated the bottle gently for a minute or so, and then, with a pair of dissecting forceps, lifted out the object and held it above the surface of the water to drain, after which he laid it carefully on a piece of blotting-paper.
I stooped over the projectile and examined it with great curiosity, while Thorndyke stood by regarding me with almost equal interest.
"Well," he said, after watching me in silence for some time, "what do you see?"
"I see a small brass cylinder," I answered, "about two inches long and rather thicker than an ordinary lead pencil. One end is conical, and there is a small hole at the apex which seems to contain a steel point; the other end is flat, but has in the centre a small square projection such as might fit a watch-key. I notice also a small hole in the side of the cylinder close to the flat end. The thing looks like a miniature shell, and appears to be hollow."
"It is hollow," said Thorndyke. "You must have observed that, when I held it up to drain, the water trickled out through the hole at the pointed end."
"Yes, I noticed that."
"Now take it up and shake it."
I did so and felt some heavy object rattle inside it.
"There is some loose body inside it," I said, "which fits it pretty closely, as it moves only in the long diameter."
"Quite so; your description is excellent. And now, what is the nature of this projectile?"
"I should say it is a miniature shell or explosive bullet."
"Wrong!" said Thorndyke. "A very natural inference, but a wrong one."
"Then what is the thing?" I demanded, my curiosity still further aroused.
"I will show you," he replied. "It is something much more subtle than an explosive bullet—which would really be a rather crude appliance—admirably thought out and thoroughly well executed. We have to deal with a most ingenious and capable man."
I was fain to laugh at his enthusiastic appreciation of the methods of his would-be assassin, and the humour of the situation then appeared to dawn on him, for he said, with an apologetic smile—
"I am not expressing approval, you must understand, but merely professional admiration. It is this class of criminal that creates the necessity for my services. He is my patron, so to speak; my ultimate employer. For the common crook can be dealt with quite efficiently by the common policeman!"
While he was speaking he had been fitting the little cylinder between two pads of tissue-paper in the vice, which he now screwed up tight. Then, with the fine metal saw, he began to cut the projectile, lengthwise, into two slightly unequal parts. This operation took some time, especially since he was careful not to cut the loose body inside, but at length the section was completed and the interior of the cylinder exposed, when he released it from the vice and held it up before me with an expression of triumph.
"Now, what do you make it?" he demanded.
I took the object in my fingers and looked at it closely, but was at first more puzzled than before. The loose body I now saw to be a cylinder of lead about half an inch long, accurately fitting the inside of the cylinder but capable of slipping freely backwards and forwards. The steel point which I had noticed in the hole at the apex of the conical end, was now seen to be the pointed termination of a slender steel rod which projected fully an inch into the cavity of the cylinder, and the conical end itself was a solid mass of lead.
"Well?" queried Thorndyke, seeing that I was still silent.
"You tell me it is not an explosive bullet," I replied, "otherwise I should have been confirmed in that opinion. I should have said that the percussion cap was carried by this lead plunger and struck on the end of that steel rod when the flight of the bullet was suddenly arrested."
"Very good indeed," said Thorndyke. "You are right so far that this is, in fact, the mechanism of a percussion shell.
"But look at this. You see this little rod was driven inside the bullet when the latter struck the wall. Let us replace it in its original position."
He laid the end of a small flat file against the end of the rod and pressed it firmly, when the rod slid through the hole until it projected an inch beyond the apex of the cone. Then he handed the projectile back to me.
A single glance at the point of the steel rod made the whole thing clear, and I gave a whistle of consternation; for the "rod" was a fine tube with a sharply pointed end.
"The infernal scoundrel!" I exclaimed; "it is a hypodermic needle."
"Yes. A veterinary hypodermic, of extra large bore. Now you see the subtlety and ingenuity of the whole thing. If he had had a reasonable chance he would certainly have succeeded."
"You speak quite regretfully," I said, laughing again at the oddity of his attitude towards the assassin.
"Not at all," he replied. "I have the character of a single-handed player, but even the most self-reliant man can hardly make a post-mortem on himself. I am merely appreciating an admirable piece of mechanical design most efficiently carried out. Observe the completeness of the thing, and the way in which all the necessities of the case are foreseen and met. This projectile was discharged from a powerful air-gun—the walking-stick form—provided with a force-pump and key. The barrel of that gun was rifled."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Well, to begin with, it would be useless to fit a needle to the projectile unless the latter was made to travel with the point forwards; but there is direct evidence that the barrel was rifled. You notice the little square projection on the back surface of the cylinder. That was evidently made to fit a washer or wad—probably a thin plate of soft metal which would be driven by the pressure from behind into the grooves of the rifling and thus give a spinning motion to the bullet. When the latter left the barrel, the wad would drop off, leaving it free."
"I see. I was wondering what the square projection was for. It is, as you say, extremely ingenious."
"Highly ingenious," said Thorndyke, enthusiastically, "and so is the whole device. See how perfectly it would have worked but for a mere fluke and for the complication of your presence. Supposing that I had been alone, so that he could have approached to a shorter distance. In that case he would not have missed, and the thing would have been done. You see how it was intended to be done, I suppose?"
"I think so," I answered; "but I should like to hear your account of the process."
"Well, you see, he first finds out that I am returning by a late train—which he seems to have done—and he waits for me at the terminus. Meanwhile he fills the cylinder with a solution of a powerful alkaloidal poison, which is easily done by dipping the needle into the liquid and sucking at the small hole near the back end, when the piston will be drawn up and the liquid will follow it. You notice that the upper side of the piston is covered with vaseline—introduced through the hole, no doubt—which would prevent the poison from coming out into the mouth, and make the cylinder secure from leakage. On my arrival, he follows me on his bicycle until I pass through a sufficiently secluded neighbourhood. Then he approaches me, or passes me and waits round a corner, and shoots at pretty close range. It doesn't matter where he hits me; all parts are equally vital, so he can aim at the middle of my back. Then the bullet comes spinning through the air point foremost; the needle passes through the clothing and enters the flesh, and, as the bullet is suddenly stopped, the heavy piston flies down by its own great momentum and squirts out a jet of the poison into the tissues. The bullet then disengages itself and drops on to the ground.
"Meanwhile, our friend has mounted his bicycle and is off, and when I feel the prick of the needle, I turn, and, without stopping to look for the bullet, immediately give chase. I am, of course, not able to overtake a man on a racing machine, but still I follow him some distance. Then the poison begins to take effect—the more rapidly from the violent exercise—and presently I drop insensible. Later on, my body is found. There are no marks of violence, and probably the needle-puncture escapes observation at the post-mortem, in which case the verdict will be death from heart-failure. Even if the poison and the puncture are discovered, there is no clue. The bullet lies some streets away, and is probably picked up by some boy or passing stranger, who cannot conjecture its use, and who would never connect it with the man who was found dead. You will admit that the whole plan has been worked out with surprising completeness and foresight." "Yes," I answered; "there is no doubt that the fellow is a most infernally clever scoundrel. May I ask if you have any idea who he is?"
"Well," Thorndyke replied, "seeing that, as Carlyle has unkindly pointed out, clever people are not in an overwhelming majority, and that, of the clever people whom I know, only a very few are interested in my immediate demise, I am able to form a fairly probable conjecture."
"And what do you mean to do?"
"For the present I shall maintain an attitude of masterly inactivity and avoid the night air."
"But, surely," I exclaimed, "you will take some measures to protect yourself against attempts of this kind. You can hardly doubt now that your accident in the fog was really an attempted murder."
"I never did doubt it, as a matter of fact, although I prevaricated at the time. But I have not enough evidence against this man at present, and, consequently, can do nothing but show that I suspect him, which would be foolish. Whereas, if I lie low, one of two things will happen; either the occasion for my removal (which is only a temporary one) will pass, or he will commit himself—will put a definite clue into my hands. Then we shall find the air-cane, the bicycle, perhaps a little stock of poison, and certain other trifles that I have in my mind, which will be good confirmatory evidence, though insufficient in themselves. And now, I think, I must really adjourn this meeting, or we shall be good for nothing to-morrow."
IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
It was now only a week from the date on which the trial was to open. In eight days the mystery would almost certainly be solved (if it was capable of solution), for the trial promised to be quite a short one, and then Reuben Hornby would be either a convicted felon or a free man, clear of the stigma of the crime.
For several days past, Thorndyke had been in almost constant possession of the laboratory, while his own small room, devoted ordinarily to bacteriology and microscopical work was kept continually locked; a state of things that reduced Polton to a condition of the most extreme nervous irritation, especially when, as he told me indignantly, he met Mr. Anstey emerging from the holy of holies, grinning and rubbing his hands and giving utterance to genial but unparliamentary expressions of amused satisfaction.
I had met Anstey on several occasions lately, and each time liked him better than the last; for his whimsical, facetious manner covered a nature (as it often does) that was serious and thoughtful; and I found him, not only a man of considerable learning, but one also of a lofty standard of conduct. His admiration for Thorndyke was unbounded, and I could see that the two men collaborated with the utmost sympathy and mutual satisfaction.
But although I regarded Mr. Anstey with feelings of the liveliest friendship, I was far from gratified when, on the morning of which I am writing, I observed him from our sitting-room window crossing the gravelled space from Crown Office Row and evidently bearing down on our chambers. For the fact is that I was awaiting the arrival of Juliet, and should greatly have preferred to be alone at the moment, seeing that Thorndyke had already gone out. It is true that my fair enslaver was not due for nearly half-an-hour, but then, who could say how long Anstey would stay, or what embarrassments might arise from my efforts to escape? By all of which it may be perceived that my disease had reached a very advanced stage, and that I was unequal to those tactics of concealment that are commonly attributed to the ostrich.
A sharp rap of the knocker announced the arrival of the disturber of my peace, and when I opened the door Anstey walked in with the air of a man to whom an hour more or less is of no consequence whatever. He shook my hand with mock solemnity, and, seating himself upon the edge of the table, proceeded to roll a cigarette with exasperating deliberation.
"I infer," said he, "that our learned brother is practising parlour magic upstairs, or peradventure he has gone on a journey?"
"He has a consultation this morning," I answered. "Was he expecting you?"
"Evidently not, or he would have been here. No, I just looked in to ask a question about the case of your friend Hornby. You know it comes on for trial next week?"
"Yes; Thorndyke told me. What do you think of Hornby's prospects? Is he going to be convicted, or will he get an acquittal?"
"He will be entirely passive," replied Anstey, "but we"—here he slapped his chest impressively—"are going to secure an acquittal. You will be highly entertained, my learned friend, and Mr. The Enemy will be excessively surprised." He inspected the newly-made cigarette with a critical air and chuckled softly.
"You seem pretty confident," I remarked.
"I am," he answered, "though Thorndyke considers failure possible—which, of course, it is if the jury-box should chance to be filled with microcephalic idiots and the judge should prove incapable of understanding simple technical evidence. But we hope that neither of these things will happen, and, if they do not, we feel pretty safe. By the way, I hope I am not divulging your principal's secrets?"
"Well," I replied, with a smile, "you have been more explicit than Thorndyke ever has."
"Have I?" he exclaimed, with mock anxiety; "then I must swear you to secrecy. Thorndyke is so very close—and he is quite right too. I never cease admiring his tactics of allowing the enemy to fortify and barricade the entrance that he does not mean to attack. But I see you are wishing me at the devil, so give me a cigar and I will go—though not to that particular destination."
"Will you have one of Thorndyke's special brand?" I asked malignantly.
"What! those foul Trichinopolies? Not while brown paper is to be obtained at every stationer's; I'd sooner smoke my own wig."
I tendered my own case, from which he selected a cigar with anxious care and much sniffing; then he bade me a ceremonious adieu and departed down the stairs, blithely humming a melody from the latest comic opera.
He had not left more than five minutes when a soft and elaborate rat-tat from the little brass knocker brought my heart into my mouth. I ran to the door and flung it open, revealing Juliet standing on the threshold.
"May I come in?" she asked. "I want to have a few words with you before we start."
I looked at her with some anxiety, for she was manifestly agitated, and the hand that she held out to me trembled.
"I am greatly upset, Dr. Jervis," she said, ignoring the chair that I had placed for her. "Mr. Lawley has been giving us his views of poor Reuben's case, and his attitude fills me with dismay."
"Hang Mr. Lawley!" I muttered, and then apologised hastily. "What made you go to him, Miss Gibson?"
"I didn't go to him; he came to us. He dined with us last night—he and Walter—and his manner was gloomy in the extreme. After dinner Walter took him apart with me and asked him what he really thought of the case. He was most pessimistic. 'My dear sir,' he said, 'the only advice I can give you is that you prepare yourself to contemplate disaster as philosophically as you can. In my opinion your cousin is almost certain to be convicted.' 'But,' said Walter, 'what about the defence? I understood that there was at least a plausible case.' Mr. Lawley shrugged his shoulders. 'I have a sort of alibi that will go for nothing, but I have no evidence to offer in answer to that of the prosecution, and no case; and I may say, speaking in confidence, that I do not believe there is any case. I do not see how there can be any case, and I have heard nothing from Dr. Thorndyke to lead me to suppose that he has really done anything in the matter.' Is this true, Dr. Jervis? Oh! do tell me the real truth about it! I have been so miserable and terrified since I heard this, and I was so full of hope before. Tell me, is it true? Will Reuben be sent to prison after all?"
In her agitation she laid her hands on my arm and looked up into my face with her grey eyes swimming with tears, and was so piteous, so trustful, and, withal, so bewitching that my reserve melted like snow before a July sun.
"It is not true," I answered, taking her hands in mine and speaking perforce in a low tone that I might not betray my emotion. "If it were, it would mean that I have wilfully deceived you, that I have been false to our friendship; and how much that friendship has been to me, no one but myself will ever know."
She crept a little closer to me with a manner at once penitent and wheedling.
"You are not going to be angry with me, are you? It was foolish of me to listen to Mr. Lawley after all you have told me, and it did look like a want of trust in you, I know. But you, who are so strong and wise, must make allowance for a woman who is neither. It is all so terrible that I am quite unstrung; but say you are not really displeased with me, for that would hurt me most of all."
Oh! Delilah! That concluding stroke of the shears severed the very last lock, and left me—morally speaking—as bald as a billiard ball. Henceforth I was at her mercy and would have divulged, without a scruple, the uttermost secrets of my principal, but that that astute gentleman had placed me beyond the reach of temptation.
"As to being angry with you," I answered, "I am not, like Thorndyke, one to essay the impossible, and if I could be angry it would hurt me more than it would you. But, in fact, you are not to blame at all, and I am an egotistical brute. Of course you were alarmed and distressed; nothing could be more natural. So now let me try to chase away your fears and restore your confidence.
"I have told you what Thorndyke said to Reuben: that he had good hopes of making his innocence clear to everybody. That alone should have been enough."
"I know it should," murmured Juliet remorsefully; "please forgive me for my want of faith."
"But," I continued, "I can quote you the words of one to whose opinions you will attach more weight. Mr. Anstey was here less than half-an-hour ago—"
"Do you mean Reuben's counsel?"
"And what did he say? Oh, do tell me what he said."
"He said, in brief, that he was quite confident of obtaining an acquittal, and that the prosecution would receive a great surprise. He seemed highly pleased with his brief, and spoke with great admiration of Thorndyke."
"Did he really say that—that he was confident of an acquittal?" Her voice was breathless and unsteady, and she was clearly, as she had said, quite unstrung. "What a relief it is," she murmured incoherently; "and so very, very kind of you!" She wiped her eyes and laughed a queer, shaky little laugh; then, quite suddenly, she burst into a passion of sobbing.
Hardly conscious of what I did, I drew her gently towards me, and rested her head on my shoulder whilst I whispered into her ear I know not what words of consolation; but I am sure that I called her "dear Juliet," and probably used other expressions equally improper and reprehensible. Presently she recovered herself, and, having dried her eyes, regarded me somewhat shamefacedly, blushing hotly, but smiling very sweetly nevertheless.
"I am ashamed of myself," she said, "coming here and weeping on your bosom like a great baby. It is to be hoped that your other clients do not behave in this way."
Whereat we both laughed heartily, and, our emotional equilibrium being thus restored, we began to think of the object of our meeting.
"I am afraid I have wasted a great deal of time," said Juliet, looking at her watch. "Shall we be too late, do you think?"
"I hope not," I replied, "for Reuben will be looking for us; but we must hurry."
I caught up my hat, and we went forth, closing the oak behind us, and took our way up King's Bench Walk in silence, but with a new and delightful sense of intimate comradeship. I glanced from time to time at my companion, and noted that her cheek still bore a rosy flush, and when she looked at me there was a sparkle in her eye, and a smiling softness in her glance, that stirred my heart until I trembled with the intensity of the passion that I must needs conceal. And even while I was feeling that I must tell her all, and have done with it, tell her that I was her abject slave, and she my goddess, my queen; that in the face of such a love as mine no man could have any claim upon her; even then, there arose the still, small voice that began to call me an unfaithful steward and to remind me of a duty and trust that were sacred even beyond love.
In Fleet Street I hailed a cab, and, as I took my seat beside my fair companion, the voice began to wax and speak in bolder and sterner accents.
"Christopher Jervis," it said, "what is this that you are doing? Are you a man of honour or nought but a mean, pitiful blackguard? You, the trusted agent of this poor, misused gentleman, are you not planning in your black heart how you shall rob him of that which, if he is a man at all, must be more to him than his liberty, or even his honour? Shame on you for a miserable weakling! Have done with these philanderings and keep your covenants like a gentleman—or, at least, an honest man!"
At this point in my meditations Juliet turned towards me with a coaxing smile.
"My legal adviser seems to be revolving some deep and weighty matter," she said.
I pulled myself together and looked at her—at her sparkling eyes and rosy, dimpling cheeks, so winsome and lovely and lovable.
"Come," I thought, "I must put an end to this at once, or I am lost." But it cost me a very agony of effort to do it—which agony, I trust, may be duly set to my account by those who may sit in judgement on me.
"Your legal adviser, Miss Gibson," I said (and at that "Miss Gibson" I thought she looked at me a little queerly), "has been reflecting that he has acted considerably beyond his jurisdiction."
"In what respect?" she asked.
"In passing on to you information which was given to him in very strict confidence, and, in fact, with an implied promise of secrecy on his part."
"But the information was not of a very secret character, was it?"
"More so than it appeared. You see, Thorndyke thinks it so important not to let the prosecution suspect that he has anything up his sleeve, that he has kept even Mr. Lawley in the dark, and he has never said as much to me as Anstey did this morning."
"And now you are sorry you told me; you think I have led you into a breach of trust. Is it not so?" She spoke without a trace of petulance, and her tone of dignified self-accusation made me feel a veritable worm.
"My dear Miss Gibson," I expostulated, "you entirely misunderstand me. I am not in the least sorry that I told you. How could I have done otherwise under the circumstances? But I want you to understand that I have taken the responsibility of communicating to you what is really a professional secret, and that you are to consider it as such."
"That was how I understood it," replied Juliet; "and you may rely upon me not to utter a syllable on the subject to anyone."
I thanked her for this promise, and then, by way of making conversation, gave her an account in detail of Anstey's visit, not even omitting the incident of the cigar.
"And are Dr. Thorndyke's cigars so extraordinarily bad?" she asked.
"Not at all," I replied; "only they are not to every man's taste. The Trichinopoly cheroot is Thorndyke's one dissipation, and, I must say, he takes it very temperately. Under ordinary circumstances he smokes a pipe; but after a specially heavy day's work, or on any occasion of festivity or rejoicing, he indulges in a Trichinopoly, and he smokes the very best that can be got."
"So even the greatest men have their weaknesses," Juliet moralised; "but I wish I had known Dr. Thorndyke's sooner, for Mr. Hornby had a large box of Trichinopoly cheroots given to him, and I believe they were exceptionally fine ones. However, he tried one and didn't like it, so he transferred the whole consignment to Walter, who smokes all sorts and conditions of cigars."
So we talked on from one commonplace to another, and each more conventional than the last. In my nervousness, I overdid my part, and having broken the ice, proceeded to smash it to impalpable fragments. Endeavouring merely to be unemotional and to avoid undue intimacy of manner, I swung to the opposite extreme and became almost stiff; and perhaps the more so since I was writhing with the agony of repression.
Meanwhile a corresponding change took place in my companion. At first her manner seemed doubtful and bewildered; then she, too, grew more distant and polite and less disposed for conversation. Perhaps her conscience began to rebuke her, or it may be that my coolness suggested to her that her conduct had not been quite of the kind that would have commended itself to Reuben. But however that may have been, we continued to draw farther and farther apart; and in that short half-hour we retraced the steps of our growing friendship to such purpose that, when we descended from the cab at the prison gate, we seemed more like strangers than on the first day that we met. It was a miserable ending to all our delightful comradeship, and yet what other end could one expect in this world of cross purposes and things that might have been? In the extremity of my wretchedness I could have wept on the bosom of the portly warder who opened the wicket, even as Juliet had wept upon mine; and it was almost a relief to me, when our brief visit was over, to find that we should not return together to King's Cross as was our wont, but that Juliet would go back by omnibus that she might do some shopping in Oxford Street, leaving me to walk home alone.
I saw her into her omnibus, and stood on the pavement looking wistfully at the lumbering vehicle as it dwindled in the distance. At last, with a sigh of deepest despondency, I turned my face homeward, and, walking like one in a dream, retraced the route over which I had journeyed so often of late and with such different sensations.
MURDER BY POST
The next few days were perhaps the most unhappy that I have known. My life, indeed, since I had left the hospital had been one of many disappointments and much privation. Unfulfilled desires and ambitions unrealised had combined with distaste for the daily drudgery that had fallen to my lot to embitter my poverty and cause me to look with gloomy distrust upon the unpromising future. But no sorrow that I had hitherto experienced could compare with the grief that I now felt in contemplating the irretrievable ruin of what I knew to be the great passion of my life. For to a man like myself, of few friends and deep affections, one great emotional upheaval exhausts the possibilities of nature; leaving only the capacity for feeble and ineffective echoes. The edifice of love that is raised upon the ruins of a great passion can compare with the original no more than can the paltry mosque that perches upon the mound of Jonah with the glories of the palace that lies entombed beneath. I had made a pretext to write to Juliet and had received a reply quite frank and friendly in tone, by which I knew that she had not—as some women would have done—set the blame upon me for our temporary outburst of emotion. And yet there was a subtle difference from her previous manner of writing that only emphasised the finality of our separation.
I think Thorndyke perceived that something had gone awry, though I was at great pains to maintain a cheerful exterior and keep myself occupied, and he probably formed a pretty shrewd guess at the nature of the trouble; but he said nothing, and I only judged that he had observed some change in my manner by the fact that there was blended with his usual quiet geniality an almost insensible note of sympathy and affection.
A couple of days after my last interview with Juliet, an event occurred which served, certainly, to relieve the tension and distract my thoughts, though not in a very agreeable manner.
It was the pleasant, reposeful hour after dinner when it was our custom to sit in our respective easy chairs and, as we smoked our pipes, discuss some of the many topics in which we had a common interest. The postman had just discharged into the capacious letter-box an avalanche of letters and circulars, and as I sat glancing through the solitary letter that had fallen to my share, I looked from time to time at Thorndyke and noticed, as I had often done before, with some surprise, a curious habit that he had of turning over and closely scrutinising every letter and package before he opened it.
"I observe, Thorndyke," I now ventured to remark, "that you always examine the outside of a letter before looking at the inside. I have seen other people do the same, and it has always appeared to me a singularly foolish proceeding. Why speculate over an unopened letter when a glance at the contents will tell you all there is to know?"
"You are perfectly right," he answered, "if the object of the inspection is to discover who is the sender of the letter. But that is not my object. In my case the habit is one that has been deliberately cultivated—not in reference to letters only, but to everything that comes into my hands—the habit of allowing nothing to pass without a certain amount of conscious attention. The observant man is, in reality, the attentive man, and the so-called power of observation is simply the capacity for continuous attention. As a matter of fact, I have found in practice, that the habit is a useful one even in reference to letters; more than once I have gleaned a hint from the outside of a letter that has proved valuable when applied to the contents. Here, for instance, is a letter which has been opened after being fastened up—apparently by the aid of steam. The envelope is soiled and rubbed, and smells faintly of stale tobacco, and has evidently been carried in a pocket along with a well-used pipe. Why should it have been opened? On reading it I perceive that it should have reached me two days ago, and that the date has been skilfully altered from the thirteenth to the fifteenth. The inference is that my correspondent has a highly untrustworthy clerk."
"But the correspondent may have carried the letter in his own pocket," I objected.
"Hardly," replied Thorndyke. "He would not have troubled to steam his own letter open and close it again; he would have cut the envelope and addressed a fresh one. This the clerk could not do, because the letter was confidential and was addressed in the principal's handwriting. And the principal would have almost certainly added a postscript; and, moreover, he does not smoke. This, however, is all very obvious; but here is something rather more subtle which I have put aside for more detailed examination. What do you make of it?"
He handed me a small parcel to which was attached by string a typewritten address label, the back of which bore the printed inscription, "James Bartlett and Sons, Cigar Manufacturers, London and Havana."
"I am afraid," said I, after turning the little packet over and examining every part of it minutely, "that this is rather too subtle for me. The only thing that I observe is that the typewriter has bungled the address considerably. Otherwise this seems to me a very ordinary packet indeed."
"Well, you have observed one point of interest, at any rate," said Thorndyke, taking the packet from me. "But let us examine the thing systematically and note down what we see. In the first place, you will notice that the label is an ordinary luggage label such as you may buy at any stationer's, with its own string attached. Now, manufacturers commonly use a different and more substantial pattern, which is attached by the string of the parcel. But that is a small matter. What is much more striking is the address on the label. It is typewritten and, as you say, typed very badly. Do you know anything about typewriters?"
"Then you do not recognise the machine? Well, this label was typed with a Blickensderfer—an excellent machine, but not the form most commonly selected for the rough work of a manufacturer's office; but we will let that pass. The important point is this: the Blickensderfer Company make several forms of machine, the smallest and lightest of which is the literary, specially designed for the use of journalists and men of letters. Now this label was typed with the literary machine, or, at least, with the literary typewheel; which is really a very remarkable circumstance indeed."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"By this asterisk, which has been written by mistake, the inexpert operator having pressed down the figure lever instead of the one for capitals. The literary typewheel is the only one that has an asterisk, as I noticed when I was thinking of purchasing a machine. Here, then, we have a very striking fact, for even if a manufacturer chose to use a 'Blick' in his factory, it is inconceivable that he should select the literary form in preference to the more suitable 'commercial' machine."
"Yes," I agreed; "it is certainly very singular."
"And now," pursued Thorndyke, "to consider the writing itself. It has been done by an absolute beginner. He has failed to space in two places, he has written five wrong letters, and he has written figures instead of capitals in two instances."
"Yes; he has made a shocking muddle of it. I wonder he didn't throw the label away and type another."
"Precisely," said Thorndyke. "And if we wish to find out why he did not, we have only to look at the back of the label. You see that the name of the firm, instead of being printed on the label itself in the usual manner, is printed on a separate slip of paper which is pasted on the label—a most foolish and clumsy arrangement, involving an immense waste of time. But if we look closely at the printed slip itself we perceive something still more remarkable; for that slip has been cut down to fit the label, and has been cut with a pair of scissors. The edges are not quite straight, and in one place the 'overlap,' which is so characteristic of the cut made with scissors, can be seen quite plainly."
He handed the packet to me with a reading-lens, through which I could distinctly make out the points he had mentioned.
"Now I need not point out to you," he continued, "that these slips would, ordinarily, have been trimmed by the printer to the correct size in his machine, which would leave an absolutely true edge; nor need I say that no sane business man would adopt such a device as this. The slip of paper has been cut with scissors to fit the label, and it has then been pasted on to the surface that it has been made to fit, when all this waste of time and trouble—which, in practice, means money—could have been saved by printing the name on the label itself."
"Yes, that is so; but I still do not see why the fellow should not have thrown away this label and typed another."
"Look at the slip again," said Thorndyke. "It is faintly but evenly discoloured and, to me, has the appearance of having been soaked in water. Let us, for the moment, assume that it has been. That would look as if it had been removed from some other package, which again would suggest that the person using it had only the one slip, which he had soaked off the original package, dried, cut down and pasted on the present label. If he pasted it on before typing the address—which he would most probably have done—he might well be unwilling to risk destroying it by soaking it a second time."
"You think, then, there is a suspicion that the package may have been tampered with?"
"There is no need to jump to conclusions," replied Thorndyke. "I merely gave this case as an instance showing that careful examination of the outside of a package or letter may lead us to bestow a little extra attention on the contents. Now let us open it and see what those contents are."
With a sharp knife he divided the outside cover, revealing a stout cardboard box wrapped in a number of advertisement sheets. The box, when the lid was raised, was seen to contain a single cigar—a large cheroot—packed in cotton wool.
"A 'Trichy,' by Jove!" I exclaimed. "Your own special fancy, Thorndyke."
"Yes; and another anomaly, at once, you see, which might have escaped our notice if we had not been on the qui vive."
"As a matter of fact, I don't see," said I. "You will think me an awful blockhead, but I don't perceive anything singular in a cigar manufacturer sending a sample cigar."
"You read the label, I think?" replied Thorndyke. "However, let us look at one of these leaflets and see what they say. Ah! here we are: 'Messrs. Bartlett and Sons, who own extensive plantations on the island of Cuba, manufacture their cigars exclusively from selected leaves grown by themselves.' They would hardly make a Trichinopoly cheroot from leaf grown in the West Indies, so we have here a striking anomaly of an East Indian cigar sent to us by a West Indian grower."
"And what do you infer from that?"
"Principally that this cigar—which, by the way, is an uncommonly fine specimen and which I would not smoke for ten thousand pounds—is deserving of very attentive examination." He produced from his pocket a powerful doublet lens, with the aid of which he examined every part of the surface of the cigar, and finally, both ends. "Look at the small end," he said, handing me the cigar and the lens, "and tell me if you notice anything."
I focussed the lens on the flush-cut surface of closely-rolled leaf, and explored every part of it minutely.
"It seems to me," I said, "that the leaf is opened slightly in the centre, as if a fine wire had been passed up it."
"So it appeared to me," replied Thorndyke; "and, as we are in agreement so far, we will carry our investigations a step further."
He laid the cigar down on the table, and, with the keen, thin-bladed penknife, neatly divided it lengthwise into two halves.
"Ecce signum!" exclaimed Thorndyke, as the two parts fell asunder; and for a few moments we stood silently regarding the dismembered cheroot. For, about half an inch from the small end, there appeared a little circular patch of white, chalky material which, by the even manner in which it was diffused among the leaf, had evidently been deposited from a solution.
"Our ingenious friend again, I surmise," said Thorndyke at length, taking up one of the halves and examining the white patch through his lens. "A thoughtful soul, Jervis, and original too. I wish his talents could be applied in some other direction. I shall have to remonstrate with him if he becomes troublesome." "It is your duty to society, Thorndyke," I exclaimed passionately, "to have this infernal, cold-blooded scoundrel arrested instantly. Such a man is a standing menace to the community. Do you really know who sent this thing?"
"I can form a pretty shrewd guess, which, however, is not quite the same thing. But, you see, he has not been quite so clever this time, for he has left one or two traces by which his identity might be ascertained."
"Indeed! What traces has he left?"
"Ah! now there is a nice little problem for us to consider." He settled himself in his easy chair and proceeded to fill his pipe with the air of a man who is about to discuss a matter of merely general interest.
"Let us consider what information this ingenious person has given us about himself. In the first place, he evidently has a strong interest in my immediate decease. Now, why should he feel so urgent a desire for my death? Can it be a question of property? Hardly; for I am far from a rich man, and the provisions of my will are known to me alone. Can it then be a question of private enmity or revenge? I think not. To the best of my belief I have no private enemies whatever. There remains only my vocation as an investigator in the fields of legal and criminal research. His interest in my death must, therefore, be connected with my professional activities. Now, I am at present conducting an exhumation which may lead to a charge of murder; but if I were to die to-night the inquiry would be carried out with equal efficiency by Professor Spicer or some other toxicologist. My death would not affect the prospects of the accused. And so in one or two other cases that I have in hand; they could be equally well conducted by someone else. The inference is that our friend is not connected with any of these cases, but that he believes me to possess some exclusive information concerning him—believes me to be the one person in the world who suspects and can convict him. Let us assume the existence of such a person—a person of whose guilt I alone have evidence. Now this person, being unaware that I have communicated my knowledge to a third party, would reasonably suppose that by making away with me he had put himself in a position of security.
"Here, then, is our first point. The sender of this offering is probably a person concerning whom I hold certain exclusive information.
"But see, now, the interesting corollary that follows from this. I, alone, suspect this person; therefore I have not published my suspicions, or others would suspect him too. Why, then, does he suspect me of suspecting him, since I have not spoken? Evidently, he too must be in possession of exclusive information. In other words, my suspicions are correct; for if they were not, he could not be aware of their existence.
"The next point is the selection of this rather unusual type of cigar. Why should he have sent a Trichinopoly instead of an ordinary Havana such as Bartletts actually manufacture? It looks as if he were aware of my peculiar predilection, and, by thus consulting my personal tastes, had guarded against the chance of my giving the cigar to some other person. We may, therefore, infer that our friend probably has some knowledge of my habits.
"The third point is, What is the social standing of this gentle stranger, whom we will call X? Now, Bartletts do not send their advertisements and samples to Thomas, Richard and Henry. They send, chiefly, to members of the professions and men of means and position. It is true that the original package might have been annexed by a clerk, office boy or domestic servant; but the probabilities are that X received the package himself, and this is borne out by the fact that he was able to obtain access to a powerful alkaloidal poison—such as this undoubtedly is."
"In that case he would probably be a medical man or a chemist," I suggested.
"Not necessarily," replied Thorndyke. "The laws relating to poisons are so badly framed and administered that any well-to-do person, who has the necessary knowledge, can obtain almost any poison that he wants. But social position is an important factor, whence we may conclude that X belongs, at least, to the middle class.
"The fourth point relates to the personal qualities of X. Now it is evident, from this instance alone, that he is a man of exceptional intelligence, of considerable general information, and both ingenious and resourceful. This cigar device is not only clever and original, but it has been adapted to the special circumstances with remarkable forethought. Thus the cheroot was selected, apparently, for two excellent reasons: first, that it was the most likely form to be smoked by the person intended, and second, that it did not require to have the end cut off—which might have led to a discovery of the poison. The plan also shows a certain knowledge of chemistry; the poison was not intended merely to be dissolved in the moisture of the mouth. The idea evidently was that the steam generated by the combustion of the leaf at the distal end, would condense in the cooler part of the cigar and dissolve the poison, and the solution would then be drawn into the mouth. Then the nature of the poison and certain similarities of procedure seem to identify X with the cyclist who used that ingenious bullet. The poison in this case is a white, non-crystalline solid; the poison contained in the bullet was a solution of a white, non-crystalline solid, which analysis showed to be the most poisonous of all akaloids.
"The bullet was virtually a hypodermic syringe; the poison in this cigar has been introduced, in the form of an alcoholic or ethereal solution, by a hypodermic syringe. We shall thus be justified in assuming that the bullet and the cigar came from the same person; and, if this be so, we may say that X is a person of considerable knowledge, of great ingenuity and no mean skill as a mechanician—as shown by the manufacture of the bullet.
"These are our principal facts—to which we may add the surmise that he has recently purchased a second-hand Blickensderfer of the literary form or, at least, fitted with a literary typewheel."
"I don't quite see how you arrive at that," I said, in some surprise.
"It is merely a guess, you know," he replied, "though a probable one. In the first place he is obviously unused to typing, as the numerous mistakes show; therefore he has not had the machine very long. The type is that which is peculiar to the Blickensderfer, and, in one of the mistakes, an asterisk has been printed in place of a letter. But the literary typewheel is the only one that has the asterisk. As to the age of the machine, there are evident signs of wear, for some of the letters have lost their sharpness, and this is most evident in the case of those letters which are the most used—the 'e,' you will notice, for instance, is much worn; and 'e' occurs more frequently than any other letter of the alphabet. Hence the machine, if recently purchased, was bought second-hand."
"But," I objected, "it may not have been his own machine at all."
"That is quite possible," answered Thorndyke, "though, considering the secrecy that would be necessary, the probabilities are in favour of his having bought it. But, in any case, we have here a means of identifying the machine, should we ever meet with it."
He picked up the label and handed it to me, together with his pocket lens.
"Look closely at the 'e' that we have been discussing; it occurs five times; in 'Thorndyke,' in 'Bench,' in 'Inner,' and in 'Temple.' Now in each case you will notice a minute break in the loop, just at the summit. That break corresponds to a tiny dent in the type—caused, probably, by its striking some small, hard object."
"I can make it out quite distinctly," I said, "and it should be a most valuable point for identification."
"It should be almost conclusive," Thorndyke replied, "especially when joined to other facts that would be elicited by a search of his premises. And now let us just recapitulate the facts which our friend X has placed at our disposal.
"First: X is a person concerning whom I possess certain exclusive information.
"Second: He has some knowledge of my personal habits.
"Third: He is a man of some means and social position.
"Fourth: He is a man of considerable knowledge, ingenuity and mechanical skill.
"Fifth: He has probably purchased, quite recently, a second-hand 'Blick' fitted with a literary typewheel. "Sixth: That machine, whether his own or some other person's property, can be identified by a characteristic mark on the small 'e.'
"If you will note down those six points and add that X is probably an expert cyclist and a fairly good shot with a rifle, you may possibly be able, presently, to complete the equation, X = ?"
"I am afraid," I said, "I do not possess the necessary data; but I suspect you do, and if it is so, I repeat that it is your duty to society—to say nothing of your clients, whose interests would suffer by your death—to have this fellow laid by the heels before he does any mischief."
"Yes; I shall have to interfere if he becomes really troublesome, but I have reasons for wishing to leave him alone at present."
"You do really know who he is, then?"
"Well, I think I can solve the equation that I have just offered to you for solution. You see, I have certain data, as you suggest, which you do not possess. There is, for instance, a certain ingenious gentleman concerning whom I hold what I believe to be exclusive information, and my knowledge of him does not make it appear unlikely that he might be the author of these neat little plans."
"I am much impressed," I said, as I put away my notebook, after having jotted down the points that Thorndyke had advised me to consider—"I am much impressed by your powers of observation and your capacity for reasoning from apparently trivial data; but I do not see, even now, why you viewed that cigar with such immediate and decided suspicion. There was nothing actually to suggest the existence of poison in it, and yet you seemed to form the suspicion at once and to search for it as though you expected to find it."
"Yes," replied Thorndyke; "to a certain extent you are right. The idea of a poisoned cigar was not new to me—and thereby hangs a tale."
He laughed softly and gazed into the fire with eyes that twinkled with quiet amusement. "You have heard me say," he resumed, after a short pause, "that when I first took these chambers I had practically nothing to do. I had invented a new variety of medico-legal practice and had to build it up by slow degrees, and the natural consequence was that, for a long time, it yielded nothing but almost unlimited leisure. Now, that leisure was by no means wasted, for I employed it in considering the class of cases in which I was likely to be employed, and in working out theoretical examples; and seeing that crimes against the person have nearly always a strong medical interest, I gave them special attention. For instance, I planned a series of murders, selecting royal personages and great ministers as the victims, and on each murder I brought to bear all the special knowledge, skill and ingenuity at my command. I inquired minutely into the habits of my hypothetical victims; ascertained who were their associates, friends, enemies and servants; considered their diet, their residences, their modes of conveyance, the source of their clothing and, in fact, everything which it was necessary to know in order to achieve their deaths with certainty and with absolute safety to the murderer."
"How deeply gratified and flattered those great personages would have felt," I remarked, "if they had known how much attention they were receiving."
"Yes; I suppose it would have been somewhat startling, to the Prime Minister, for instance, to have learned that he was being watched and studied by an attentive observer and that the arrangements for his decease had been completed down to the minutest detail. But, of course, the application of the method to a particular case was the essential thing, for it brought into view all the incidental difficulties, in meeting which all the really interesting and instructive details were involved. Well, the particulars of these crimes I wrote out at length, in my private shorthand, in a journal which I kept for the purpose—and which, I need not say, I locked up securely in my safe when I was not using it. After completing each case, it was my custom to change sides and play the game over again from the opposite side of the board; that is to say, I added, as an appendix to each case, an analysis with a complete scheme for the detection of the crime. I have in my safe at the present moment six volumes of cases, fully indexed; and I can assure you that they are not only highly instructive reading, but are really valuable as works of reference."
"That I can readily believe," I replied, laughing heartily, nevertheless, at the grotesqueness of the whole proceeding, "though they might have proved rather incriminating documents if they had passed out of your possession."
"They would never have been read," rejoined Thorndyke. "My shorthand is, I think, quite undecipherable; it has been so made intentionally with a view to secrecy."
"And have any of your theoretical cases ever turned up in real life?"
"Several of them have, though very imperfectly planned and carried out as a rule. The poisoned cigar is one of them, though, of course I should never have adopted such a conspicuous device for presenting it; and the incident of the other night is a modification—for the worse—of another. In fact, most of the intricate and artistic crimes with which I have had to deal professionally have had their more complete and elaborate prototypes in my journals."
I was silent for some time, reflecting on the strange personality of my gifted friend and the singular fitness that he presented for the part he had chosen to play in the drama of social life; but presently my thoughts returned to the peril that overshadowed him, and I came back, once more, to my original question.
"And now, Thorndyke," I said, "that you have penetrated both the motives and the disguise of this villain, what are you going to do? Is he to be put safely under lock and key, or is he to be left in peace and security to plan some other, and perhaps more successful, scheme for your destruction?"
"For the present," replied Thorndyke, "I am going to put these things in a place of safety. To-morrow you shall come with me to the hospital and see me place the ends of the cigar in the custody of Dr. Chandler, who will make an analysis and report on the nature of the poison. After that we shall act in whatever way seems best."
Unsatisfactory as this conclusion appeared, I knew it was useless to raise further objections, and, accordingly, when the cigar with its accompanying papers and wrappings had been deposited in a drawer, we dismissed it, if not from our thoughts, at least from our conversation.
A STARTLING DISCOVERY
The morning of the trial, so long looked forward to, had at length arrived, and the train of events which it has been my business to chronicle in this narrative was now fast drawing to an end. To me those events had been in many ways of the deepest moment. Not only had they transported me from a life of monotonous drudgery into one charged with novelty and dramatic interest; not only had they introduced me to a renascence of scientific culture and revived under new conditions my intimacy with the comrade of my student days; but, far more momentous than any of these, they had given me the vision—all too fleeting—of happiness untold, with the reality of sorrow and bitter regret that promised to be all too enduring.
Whence it happened that on this morning my thoughts were tinged with a certain greyness. A chapter in my life that had been both bitter and sweet was closing, and already I saw myself once more an Ishmaelite and a wanderer among strangers.
This rather egotistical frame of mind, however, was soon dispelled when I encountered Polton, for the little man was in a veritable twitter of excitement at the prospect of witnessing the clearing up of the mysteries that had so severely tried his curiosity; and even Thorndyke, beneath his habitual calm, showed a trace of expectancy and pleasurable anticipation.
"I have taken the liberty of making certain little arrangements on your behalf," he said, as we sat at breakfast, "of which I hope you will not disapprove. I have written to Mrs. Hornby, who is one of the witnesses, to say that you will meet her at Mr. Lawley's office and escort her and Miss Gibson to the court. Walter Hornby may be with them, and, if he is, you had better leave him, if possible, to come on with Lawley."
"You will not come to the office, then?"
"No. I shall go straight to the court with Anstey. Besides, I am expecting Superintendent Miller from Scotland Yard, who will probably walk down with us."
"I am glad to hear that," I said; "for I have been rather uneasy at the thought of your mixing in the crowd without some kind of protection."
"Well, you see that I am taking precautions against the assaults of the too-ingenious X, and, to tell the truth—and also to commit a flagrant bull—I should never forgive myself if I allowed him to kill me before I had completed Reuben Hornby's defence. Ah, here is Polton—that man is on wires this morning; he has been wandering in and out of the rooms ever since he came, like a cat in a new house."
"It's quite true, sir," said Polton, smiling and unabashed, "so it's no use denying it. I have come to ask what we are going to take with us to the court."
"You will find a box and a portfolio on the table in my room," replied Thorndyke. "We had better also take a microscope and the micrometers, though we are not likely to want them; that is all, I think."
"A box and a portfolio," repeated Polton in a speculative tone. "Yes, sir, I will take them with me." He opened the door and was about to pass out, when, perceiving a visitor ascending the stairs, he turned back.
"Here's Mr. Miller, from Scotland Yard, sir; shall I show him in?"
"Yes, do." He rose from his chair as a tall, military-looking man entered the room and saluted, casting, at the same time, an inquiring glance in my direction.
"Good morning, Doctor," he said briskly. "I got your letter and couldn't make such of it, but I have brought down a couple of plain-clothes men and a uniform man, as you suggested. I understand you want a house watched?"
"Yes, and a man, too. I will give you the particulars presently—that is, if you think you can agree to my conditions."
"That I act entirely on my own account and make no communication to anybody? Well, of course, I would rather you gave me all the facts and let me proceed in the regular way; but if you make conditions I have no choice but to accept them, seeing that you hold the cards."
Perceiving that the matter in hand was of a confidential nature, I thought it best to take my departure, which I accordingly did, as soon as I had ascertained that it wanted yet half-an-hour to the time at which Mrs. Hornby and Juliet were due at the lawyer's office.
Mr. Lawley received me with stiffness that bordered on hostility. He was evidently deeply offended at the subordinate part that he had been compelled to play in the case, and was at no great pains to conceal the fact.
"I am informed," said he, in a frosty tone, when I had explained my mission, "that Mrs. Hornby and Miss Gibson are to meet you here. The arrangement is none of my making; none of the arrangements in this case are of my making. I have been treated throughout with a lack of ceremony and confidence that is positively scandalous. Even now, I—the solicitor for the defence—am completely in the dark as to what defence is contemplated, though I fully expect to be involved in some ridiculous fiasco. I only trust that I may never again be associated with any of your hybrid practitioners. Ne sutor ultra crepidam, sir, is an excellent motto; let the medical cobbler stick to his medical last."
"It remains to be seen what kind of boot he can turn out on the legal last," I retorted.
"That is so," he rejoined; "but I hear Mrs. Hornby's voice in the outer office, and as neither you nor I have any time to waste in idle talk, I suggest that you make your way to the court without delay. I wish you good morning!"
Acting on this very plain hint, I retired to the clerks' office, where I found Mrs. Hornby and Juliet, the former undisguisedly tearful and terrified, and the latter calm, though pale and agitated.
"We had better start at once," I said, when we had exchanged greetings. "Shall we take a cab, or walk?"
"I think we will walk, if you don't mind," said Juliet. "Mrs. Hornby wants to have a few words with you before we go into court. You see, she is one of the witnesses, and she is terrified lest she should say something damaging to Reuben."
"By whom was the subpoena served?" I asked.
"Mr. Lawley sent it," replied Mrs. Hornby, "and I went to see him about it the very next day, but he wouldn't tell me anything—he didn't seem to know what I was wanted for, and he wasn't at all nice—not at all."
"I expect your evidence will relate to the 'Thumbograph,'" I said. "There is really nothing else in connection with the case that you have any knowledge of."
"That is just what Walter said," exclaimed Mrs. Hornby. "I went to his rooms to talk the matter over with him. He is very upset about the whole affair, and I am afraid he thinks very badly of poor Reuben's prospects. I only trust he may be wrong! Oh dear! What a dreadful thing it is, to be sure!" Here the poor lady halted to mop her eyes elaborately, to the surprise and manifest scorn of a passing errand boy.
"He was very thoughtful and sympathetic—Walter, I mean, you know," pursued Mrs. Hornby, "and most helpful. He asked me all I knew about that horrid little book, and took down my answers in writing. Then he wrote out the questions I was likely to be asked, with my answers, so that I could read them over and get them well into my head. Wasn't it good of him! And I made him print them with his machine so that I could read them without my glasses, and he did it beautifully. I have the paper in my pocket now."
"I didn't know Mr. Walter went in for printing," I said. "Has he a regular printing press?"
"It isn't a printing press exactly," replied Mrs. Hornby; "it is a small thing with a lot of round keys that you press down—Dickensblerfer, I think it is called—ridiculous name, isn't it? Walter bought it from one of his literary friends about a week ago; but he is getting quite clever with it already, though he does make a few mistakes still, as you can see." She halted again, and began to search for the opening of a pocket which was hidden away in some occult recess of her clothing, all unconscious of the effect that her explanation had produced on me. For, instantly, as she spoke, there flashed into my mind one of the points that Thorndyke had given me for the identification of the mysterious X. "He has probably purchased, quite recently, a second-hand Blickensderfer, fitted with a literary typewheel." The coincidence was striking and even startling, though a moment's reflection convinced me that it was nothing more than a coincidence; for there must be hundreds of second-hand "Blicks" on the market, and, as to Walter Hornby, he certainly could have no quarrel with Thorndyke, but would rather be interested in his preservation on Reuben's account.
These thoughts passed through my mind so rapidly that by the time Mrs. Hornby had run her pocket to earth I had quite recovered from the momentary shock.
"Ah! here it is," she exclaimed triumphantly, producing an obese Morocco purse. "I put it in here for safety, knowing how liable one is to get one's pocket picked in these crowded London streets." She opened the bulky receptacle and drew it out after the manner of a concertina, exhibiting multitudinous partitions, all stuffed with pieces of paper, coils of tape and sewing silk, buttons, samples of dress materials and miscellaneous rubbish, mingled indiscriminately with gold, silver, and copper coins.
"Now just run your eye through that, Dr. Jervis," she said, handing me a folded paper, "and give me your advice on my answers."
I opened the paper and read: "The Committee of the Society for the Protection of Paralysed Idiots, in submitting this—"
"Oh! that isn't it; I have given you the wrong paper. How silly of me! That is the appeal of—you remember, Juliet, dear, that troublesome person—I had, really, to be quite rude, you know, Dr. Jervis; I had to tell him that charity begins at home, although, thank Heaven! none of us are paralysed, but we must consider our own, mustn't we? And then—"
"Do you think this is the one, dear?" interposed Juliet, in whose pale cheek the ghost of a dimple had appeared. "It looks cleaner than most of the others."
She selected a folded paper from the purse which Mrs. Hornby was holding with both hands extended to its utmost, as though she were about to produce a burst of music, and, opening it, glanced at its contents.
"Yes, this is your evidence," she said, and passed the paper to me.
I took the document from her hand and, in spite of the conclusion at which I had arrived, examined it with eager curiosity. And at the very first glance I felt my head swim and my heart throb violently. For the paper was headed: "Evidence respecting the Thumbograph," and in every one of the five small "e's" that occurred in that sentence I could see plainly by the strong out-door light a small break or interval in the summit of the loop.
I was thunderstruck.
One coincidence was quite possible and even probable; but the two together, and the second one of so remarkable a character, were beyond all reasonable limits of probability. The identification did not seem to admit of a doubt, and yet—
"Our legal adviser appears to be somewhat preoccupied," remarked Juliet, with something of her old gaiety of manner; and, in fact, though I held the paper in my hand, my gaze was fixed unmeaningly on an adjacent lamp-post. As she spoke, I pulled myself together, and, scanning the paper hastily, was fortunate enough to find in the first paragraph matter requiring comment.
"I observe, Mrs. Hornby," I said, "that in answer to the first question, 'Whence did you obtain the "Thumbograph"?' you say, 'I do not remember clearly; I think I must have bought it at a railway bookstall.' Now I understood that it was brought home and given to you by Walter himself."
"That was what I thought," replied Mrs. Hornby, "but Walter tells me that it was not so, and, of course, he would remember better than I should."
"But, my dear aunt, I am sure he gave it to you," interposed Juliet. "Don't you remember? It was the night the Colleys came to dinner, and we were so hard pressed to find amusement for them, when Walter came in and produced the 'Thumbograph.'"
"Yes, I remember quite well now," said Mrs. Hornby. "How fortunate that you reminded me. We must alter that answer at once."
"If I were you, Mrs. Hornby," I said, "I would disregard this paper altogether. It will only confuse you and get you into difficulties. Answer the questions that are put, as well as you can, and if you don't remember, say so."
"Yes, that will be much the wisest plan," said Juliet. "Let Dr. Jervis take charge of the paper and rely on your own memory." "Very well, my dear," replied Mrs. Hornby, "I will do what you think best, and you can keep the paper, Dr. Jervis, or throw it away."
I slipped the document into my pocket without remark, and we proceeded on our way, Mrs. Hornby babbling inconsequently, with occasional outbursts of emotion, and Juliet silent and abstracted. I struggled to concentrate my attention on the elder lady's conversation, but my thoughts continually reverted to the paper in my pocket, and the startling solution that it seemed to offer of the mystery of the poisoned cigar.
Could it be that Walter Hornby was in reality the miscreant X? The thing seemed incredible, for, hitherto, no shadow of suspicion had appeared to fall on him. And yet there was no denying that his description tallied in a very remarkable manner with that of the hypothetical X. He was a man of some means and social position; he was a man of considerable knowledge and mechanical skill, though as to his ingenuity I could not judge. He had recently bought a second-hand Blickensderfer which probably had a literary typewheel, since it was purchased from a literary man; and that machine showed the characteristic mark on the small "e." The two remaining points, indeed, were not so clear. Obviously I could form no opinion as to whether or not Thorndyke held any exclusive information concerning him, and, with reference to his knowledge of my friend's habits, I was at first inclined to be doubtful until I suddenly recalled, with a pang of remorse and self-accusation, the various details that I had communicated to Juliet and that she might easily, in all innocence, have handed on to Walter. I had, for instance, told her of Thorndyke's preference for the Trichinopoly cheroot, and of this she might very naturally have spoken to Walter, who possessed a supply of them. Again, with regard to the time of our arrival at King's Cross, I had informed her of this in a letter which was in no way confidential, and again there was no reason why the information should not have been passed on to Walter, who was to have been one of the party at the family dinner. The coincidence seemed complete enough, in all truth; yet it was incredible that Reuben's cousin could be so blackhearted a villain or could have any motive for these dastardly crimes.