My case was practically complete, and there was only one small incident needed to round it off. When, after a considerable drive, we arrived at the strange old rambling house which my client had described, it was Ralph, the elderly butler, who opened the door. I had requisitioned the carriage for the day and had asked my elderly friend to remain within it unless we should summon him. Ralph, a little wrinkled old fellow, was in the conventional costume of black coat and pepper-and-salt trousers, with only one curious variant. He wore brown leather gloves, which at sight of us he instantly shuffled off, laying them down on the hall-table as we passed in. I have, as my friend Watson may have remarked, an abnormally acute set of senses, and a faint but incisive scent was apparent. It seemed to centre on the hall table. I turned, placed my hat there, knocked it off, stooped to pick it up, and contrived to bring my nose within a foot of the gloves. Yes, it was undoubtedly from them that the curious tarry odour was oozing. I passed on into the study with my case complete. Alas, that I should have to show my hand so when I tell my own story! It was by concealing such links in the chain that Watson was enabled to produce his meretricious finales.
Colonel Emsworth was not in his room, but he came quickly enough on receipt of Ralph’s message. We heard his quick, heavy step in the passage. The door was flung open and he rushed in with bristling beard and twisted features, as terrible an old man as ever I have seen. He held our cards in his hand, and he tore them up and stamped on the fragments.
“Have I not told you, you infernal busybody, that you are warned off the premises? Never dare to show your damned face here again. If you enter again without my leave I shall be within my rights if I use violence. I’ll shoot you, sir! By God, I will! As to you, sir,” turning upon me, “I extend the same warning to you. I am familiar with your ignoble profession, but you must take your reputed talents to some other field. There is no opening for them here.”
“I cannot leave here,” said my client firmly, “until I hear from Godfrey’s own lips that he is under no restraint.”
Our involuntary host rang the bell.
“Ralph,” he said, “telephone down to the county police and ask the inspector to send up two constables. Tell him there are burglars in the house.”
“One moment,” said I. “You must be aware, Mr. Dodd, that Colonel Emsworth is within his rights and that we have no legal status within his house. On the other hand, he should recognize that your action is prompted entirely by solicitude for his son. I venture to hope that if I were allowed to have five minutes conversation with Colonel Emsworth I could certainly alter his view of the matter.”
“I am not so easily altered,” said the old soldier. “Ralph, do what I have told you. What the devil are you waiting for? Ring up the police!”
“Nothing of the sort,” I said, putting my back to the door. “Any police interference would bring about the very catastrophe which you dread.” I took out my notebook and scribbled one word upon a loose sheet. “That,” said I as I handed it to Colonel Emsworth, “is what has brought us here.”
He stared at the writing with a face from which every expression save amazement had vanished.
“How do you know?” he gasped, sitting down heavily in his chair.
“It is my business to know things. That is my trade.”
He sat in deep thought, his gaunt hand tugging at his straggling beard. Then he made a gesture of resignation.
“Well, if you wish to see Godfrey, you shall. It is no doing of mine, but you have forced my hand. Ralph, tell Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Kent that in five minutes we shall be with them.”
At the end of that time we passed down the garden path and found ourselves in front of the mystery house at the end. A small bearded man stood at the door with a look of considerable astonishment upon his face.
“This is very sudden, Colonel Emsworth,” said he. “This will disarrange all our plans.”
“I can’t help it, Mr. Kent. Our hands have been forced. Can Mr. Godfrey see us?”
“Yes, he is waiting inside.” He turned and led us into a large plainly furnished front room. A man was standing with his back to the fire, and at the sight of him my client sprang forward with outstretched hand.
“Why, Godfrey, old man, this is fine!”
But the other waved him back.
“Don’t touch me, Jimmie. Keep your distance. Yes, you may well stare! I don’t quite look the smart Lance-Corporal Emsworth, of B Squadron, do I?”
His appearance was certainly extraordinary. One could see that he had indeed been a handsome man with clear-cut features sunburned by an African sun, but mottled in patches over this darker surface were curious whitish patches which had bleached his skin.
“That’s why I don’t court visitors,” said he. “I don’t mind you, Jimmie, but I could have done without your friend. I suppose there is some good reason for it, but you have me at a disadvantage.”
“I wanted to be sure that all was well with you, Godfrey. I saw you that night when you looked into my window, and I could not let the matter rest till I had cleared things up.”