“Gone to the nearest public-house. That is the centre of country gossip. They would have told you every name, from the master to the scullery-maid. Williamson? It conveys nothing to my mind. If he is an elderly man he is not this active cyclist who sprints away from that young lady’s athletic pursuit. What have we gained by your expedition? The knowledge that the girl’s story is true. I never doubted it. That there is a connection between the cyclist and the Hall. I never doubted that either. That the Hall is tenanted by Williamson. Who’s the better for that? Well, well, my dear sir, don’t look so depressed. We can do little more until next Saturday, and in the meantime I may make one or two inquiries myself.”
Next morning, we had a note from Miss Smith, recounting shortly and accurately the very incidents which I had seen, but the pith of the letter lay in the postscript:
I am sure that you will respect my confidence, Mr. Holmes, when I tell you that my place here has become difficult, owing to the fact that my employer has proposed marriage to me. I am convinced that his feelings are most deep and most honourable. At the same time, my promise is of course given. He took my refusal very seriously, but also very gently. You can understand, however, that the situation is a little strained. “Our young friend seems to be getting into deep waters,” said Holmes, thoughtfully, as he finished the letter. “The case certainly presents more features of interest and more possibility of development than I had originally thought. I should be none the worse for a quiet, peaceful day in the country, and I am inclined to run down this afternoon and test one or two theories which I have formed.”
Holmes’s quiet day in the country had a singular termination, for he arrived at Baker Street late in the evening, with a cut lip and a discoloured lump upon his forehead, besides a general air of dissipation which would have made his own person the fitting object of a Scotland Yard investigation. He was immensely tickled by his own adventures and laughed heartily as he recounted them.
“I get so little active exercise that it is always a treat,” said he. “You are aware that I have some proficiency in the good old British sport of boxing. Occasionally, it is of service, to-day, for example, I should have come to very ignominious grief without it.”
I begged him to tell me what had occurred.
“I found that country pub which I had already recommended to your notice, and there I made my discreet inquiries. I was in the bar, and a garrulous landlord was giving me all that I wanted. Williamson is a white-bearded man, and he lives alone with a small staff of servants at the Hall. There is some rumor that he is or has been a clergyman, but one or two incidents of his short residence at the Hall struck me as peculiarly unecclesiastical. I have already made some inquiries at a clerical agency, and they tell me that there WAS a man of that name in orders, whose career has been a singularly dark one. The landlord further informed me that there are usually week-end visitors—’a warm lot, sir’—at the Hall, and especially one gentleman with a red moustache, Mr. Woodley by name, who was always there. We had got as far as this, when who should walk in but the gentleman himself, who had been drinking his beer in the tap-room and had heard the whole conversation. Who was I? What did I want? What did I mean by asking questions? He had a fine flow of language, and his adjectives were very vigorous. He ended a string of abuse by a vicious backhander, which I failed to entirely avoid. The next few minutes were delicious. It was a straight left against a slogging ruffian. I emerged as you see me. Mr. Woodley went home in a cart. So ended my country trip, and it must be confessed that, however enjoyable, my day on the Surrey border has not been much more profitable than your own.”
The Thursday brought us another letter from our client.
You will not be surprised, Mr. Holmes [said she] to hear that I am leaving Mr. Carruthers’s employment. Even the high pay cannot reconcile me to the discomforts of my situation. On Saturday I come up to town, and I do not intend to return. Mr. Carruthers has got a trap, and so the dangers of the lonely road, if there ever were any dangers, are now over.
As to the special cause of my leaving, it is not merely the strained situation with Mr. Carruthers, but it is the reappearance of that odious man, Mr. Woodley. He was always hideous, but he looks more awful than ever now, for he appears to have had an accident and he is much disfigured. I saw him out of the window, but I am glad to say I did not meet him. He had a long talk with Mr. Carruthers, who seemed much excited afterwards. Woodley must be staying in the neighbourhood, for he did not sleep here, and yet I caught a glimpse of him again this morning, slinking about in the shrubbery. I would sooner have a savage wild animal loose about the place. I loathe and fear him more than I can say. How CAN Mr. Carruthers endure such a creature for a moment? However, all my troubles will be over on Saturday.
“So I trust, Watson, so I trust,” said Holmes, gravely. “There is some deep intrigue going on round that little woman, and it is our duty to see that no one molests her upon that last journey. I think, Watson, that we must spare time to run down together on Saturday morning and make sure that this curious and inclusive investigation has no untoward ending.”
I confess that I had not up to now taken a very serious view of the case, which had seemed to me rather grotesque and bizarre than dangerous. That a man should lie in wait for and follow a very handsome woman is no unheard-of thing, and if he has so little audacity that he not only dared not address her, but even fled from her approach, he was not a very formidable assailant. The ruffian Woodley was a very different person, but, except on one occasion, he had not molested our client, and now he visited the house of Carruthers without intruding upon her presence. The man on the bicycle was doubtless a member of those week-end parties at the Hall of which the publican had spoken, but who he was, or what he wanted, was as obscure as ever. It was the severity of Holmes’s manner and the fact that he slipped a revolver into his pocket before leaving our rooms which impressed me with the feeling that tragedy might prove to lurk behind this curious train of events.
A rainy night had been followed by a glorious morning, and the heath-covered countryside, with the glowing clumps of flowering gorse, seemed all the more beautiful to eyes which were weary of the duns and drabs and slate grays of London. Holmes and I walked along the broad, sandy road inhaling the fresh morning air and rejoicing in the music of the birds and the fresh breath of the spring. From a rise of the road on the shoulder of Crooksbury Hill, we could see the grim Hall bristling out from amidst the ancient oaks, which, old as they were, were still younger than the building which they surrounded. Holmes pointed down the long tract of road which wound, a reddish yellow band, between the brown of the heath and the budding green of the woods. Far away, a black dot, we could see a vehicle moving in our direction. Holmes gave an exclamation of impatience.
“I have given a margin of half an hour,” said he. “If that is her trap, she must be making for the earlier train. I fear, Watson, that she will be past Charlington before we can possibly meet her.”
From the instant that we passed the rise, we could no longer see the vehicle, but we hastened onward at such a pace that my sedentary life began to tell upon me, and I was compelled to fall behind. Holmes, however, was always in training, for he had inexhaustible stores of nervous energy upon which to draw. His springy step never slowed until suddenly, when he was a hundred yards in front of me, he halted, and I saw him throw up his hand with a gesture of grief and despair. At the same instant an empty dog-cart, the horse cantering, the reins trailing, appeared round the curve of the road and rattled swiftly towards us.
“Too late, Watson, too late!” cried Holmes, as I ran panting to his side. “Fool that I was not to allow for that earlier train! It’s abduction, Watson—abduction! Murder! Heaven knows what! Block the road! Stop the horse! That’s right. Now, jump in, and let us see if I can repair the consequences of my own blunder.”
We had sprung into the dog-cart, and Holmes, after turning the horse, gave it a sharp cut with the whip, and we flew back along the road. As we turned the curve, the whole stretch of road between the Hall and the heath was opened up. I grasped Holmes’s arm.
“That’s the man!” I gasped. A solitary cyclist was coming towards us. His head was down and his shoulders rounded, as he put every ounce of energy that he possessed on to the pedals. He was flying like a racer. Suddenly he raised his bearded face, saw us close to him, and pulled up, springing from his machine. That coal-black beard was in singular contrast to eyes were as bright as if he had a fever. He stared at us and at the dog-cart. Then a look of amazement came over his face.
“Halloa! Stop there!” he shouted, holding his bicycle to block our road. “Where did you get that dog-cart? Pull up, man!” he yelled, drawing a pistol from his side “Pull up, I say, or, by George, I’ll put a bullet into your horse.”
Holmes threw the reins into my lap and sprang down from the cart.
“You’re the man we want to see. Where is Miss Violet Smith?” he said, in his quick, clear way.
“That’s what I’m asking you. You’re in her dog-cart. You ought to know where she is.”
“We met the dog-cart on the road. There was no one in it. We drove back to help the young lady.”
“Good Lord! Good Lord! What shall I do?” cried the stranger, in an ecstasy of despair. “They’ve got her, that hell-hound Woodley and the blackguard parson. Come, man, come, if you really are her friend. Stand by me and we’ll save her, if I have to leave my carcass in Charlington Wood.”