“Well, well,” said he, at last. “It is, of course, possible that a cunning man might change the tires of his bicycle in order to leave unfamiliar tracks. A criminal who was capable of such a thought is a man whom I should be proud to do business with. We will leave this question undecided and hark back to our morass again, for we have left a good deal unexplored.”
We continued our systematic survey of the edge of the sodden portion of the moor, and soon our perseverance was gloriously rewarded. Right across the lower part of the bog lay a miry path. Holmes gave a cry of delight as he approached it. An impression like a fine bundle of telegraph wires ran down the centre of it. It was the Palmer tires.
“Here is Herr Heidegger, sure enough!” cried Holmes, exultantly. “My reasoning seems to have been pretty sound, Watson.”
“I congratulate you.”
“But we have a long way still to go. Kindly walk clear of the path. Now let us follow the trail. I fear that it will not lead very far.”
We found, however, as we advanced that this portion of the moor is intersected with soft patches, and, though we frequently lost sight of the track, we always succeeded in picking it up once more.
“Do you observe,” said Holmes, “that the rider is now undoubtedly forcing the pace? There can be no doubt of it. Look at this impression, where you get both tires clear. The one is as deep as the other. That can only mean that the rider is throwing his weight on to the handle-bar, as a man does when he is sprinting. By Jove! he has had a fall.”
There was a broad, irregular smudge covering some yards of the track. Then there were a few footmarks, and the tire reappeared once more.
“A side-slip,” I suggested.
Holmes held up a crumpled branch of flowering gorse. To my horror I perceived that the yellow blossoms were all dabbled with crimson. On the path, too, and among the heather were dark stains of clotted blood.
“Bad!” said Holmes. “Bad! Stand clear, Watson! Not an unnecessary footstep! What do I read here? He fell wounded—he stood up—he remounted—he proceeded. But there is no other track. Cattle on this side path. He was surely not gored by a bull? Impossible! But I see no traces of anyone else. We must push on, Watson. Surely, with stains as well as the track to guide us, he cannot escape us now.”
Our search was not a very long one. The tracks of the tire began to curve fantastically upon the wet and shining path. Suddenly, as I looked ahead, the gleam of metal caught my eye from amid the thick gorse-bushes. Out of them we dragged a bicycle, Palmer-tired, one pedal bent, and the whole front of it horribly smeared and slobbered with blood. On the other side of the bushes a shoe was projecting. We ran round, and there lay the unfortunate rider. He was a tall man, full-bearded, with spectacles, one glass of which had been knocked out. The cause of his death was a frightful blow upon the head, which had crushed in part of his skull. That he could have gone on after receiving such an injury said much for the vitality and courage of the man. He wore shoes, but no socks, and his open coat disclosed a nightshirt beneath it. It was undoubtedly the German master.
Holmes turned the body over reverently, and examined it with great attention. He then sat in deep thought for a time, and I could see by his ruffled brow that this grim discovery had not, in his opinion, advanced us much in our inquiry.
“It is a little difficult to know what to do, Watson,” said he, at last. “My own inclinations are to push this inquiry on, for we have already lost so much time that we cannot afford to waste another hour. On the other hand, we are bound to inform the police of the discovery, and to see that this poor fellow’s body is looked after.”
“I could take a note back.”
“But I need your company and assistance. Wait a bit! There is a fellow cutting peat up yonder. Bring him over here, and he will guide the police.”
I brought the peasant across, and Holmes dispatched the frightened man with a note to Dr. Huxtable.
“Now, Watson,” said he, “we have picked up two clues this morning. One is the bicycle with the Palmer tire, and we see what that has led to. The other is the bicycle with the patched Dunlop. Before we start to investigate that, let us try to realize what we do know, so as to make the most of it, and to separate the essential from the accidental.”
“First of all, I wish to impress upon you that the boy certainly left of his own free-will. He got down from his window and he went off, either alone or with someone. That is sure.”
“Well, now, let us turn to this unfortunate German master. The boy was fully dressed when he fled. Therefore, he foresaw what he would do. But the German went without his socks. He certainly acted on very short notice.”
“Why did he go? Because, from his bedroom window, he saw the flight of the boy, because he wished to overtake him and bring him back. He seized his bicycle, pursued the lad, and in pursuing him met his death.”
“So it would seem.”
“Now I come to the critical part of my argument. The natural action of a man in pursuing a little boy would be to run after him. He would know that he could overtake him. But the German does not do so. He turns to his bicycle. I am told that he was an excellent cyclist. He would not do this, if he did not see that the boy had some swift means of escape.”
“The other bicycle.”
“Let us continue our reconstruction. He meets his death five miles from the school—not by a bullet, mark you, which even a lad might conceivably discharge, but by a savage blow dealt by a vigorous arm. The lad, then, HAD a companion in his flight. And the flight was a swift one, since it took five miles before an expert cyclist could overtake them. Yet we survey the ground round the scene of the tragedy. What do we find? A few cattle-tracks, nothing more. I took a wide sweep round, and there is no path within fifty yards. Another cyclist could have had nothing to do with the actual murder, nor were there any human foot-marks.”
“Holmes,” I cried, “this is impossible.”
“Admirable!” he said. “A most illuminating remark. It IS impossible as I state it, and therefore I must in some respect have stated it wrong. Yet you saw for yourself. Can you suggest any fallacy?”
“He could not have fractured his skull in a fall?”
“In a morass, Watson?”
“I am at my wit’s end.”
“Tut, tut, we have solved some worse problems. At least we have plenty of material, if we can only use it. Come, then, and, having exhausted the Palmer, let us see what the Dunlop with the patched cover has to offer us.”
We picked up the track and followed it onward for some distance, but soon the moor rose into a long, heather-tufted curve, and we left the watercourse behind us. No further help from tracks could be hoped for. At the spot where we saw the last of the Dunlop tire it might equally have led to Holdernesse Hall, the stately towers of which rose some miles to our left, or to a low, gray village which lay in front of us and marked the position of the Chesterfield high road.
As we approached the forbidding and squalid inn, with the sign of a game-cock above the door, Holmes gave a sudden groan, and clutched me by the shoulder to save himself from falling. He had had one of those violent strains of the ankle which leave a man helpless. With difficulty he limped up to the door, where a squat, dark, elderly man was smoking a black clay pipe.
“How are you, Mr. Reuben Hayes?” said Holmes.
“Who are you, and how do you get my name so pat?” the countryman answered, with a suspicious flash of a pair of cunning eyes.
“Well, it’s printed on the board above your head. It’s easy to see a man who is master of his own house. I suppose you haven’t such a thing as a carriage in your stables?”
“No, I have not.”
“I can hardly put my foot to the ground.”
“Don’t put it to the ground.”
“But I can’t walk.”
“Well, then hop.”
Mr. Reuben Hayes’s manner was far from gracious, but Holmes took it with admirable good-humour.
“Look here, my man,” said he. “This is really rather an awkward fix for me. I don’t mind how I get on.”
“Neither do I,” said the morose landlord.
“The matter is very important. I would offer you a sovereign for the use of a bicycle.”
The landlord pricked up his ears.
“Where do you want to go?”
“To Holdernesse Hall.”
“Pals of the Dook, I suppose?” said the landlord, surveying our mud-stained garments with ironical eyes.
Holmes laughed good-naturedly.
“He’ll be glad to see us, anyhow.”
“Because we bring him news of his lost son.”
The landlord gave a very visible start.
“What, you’re on his track?”
“He has been heard of in Liverpool. They expect to get him every hour.”
Again a swift change passed over the heavy, unshaven face. His manner was suddenly genial.
“I’ve less reason to wish the Dook well than most men,” said he, “for I was head coachman once, and cruel bad he treated me. It was him that sacked me without a character on the word of a lying corn-chandler. But I’m glad to hear that the young lord was heard of in Liverpool, and I’ll help you to take the news to the Hall.”
“Thank you,” said Holmes. “We’ll have some food first. Then you can bring round the bicycle.”
“I haven’t got a bicycle.”
Holmes held up a sovereign.
“I tell you, man, that I haven’t got one. I’ll let you have two horses as far as the Hall.”
“Well, well,” said Holmes, “we’ll talk about it when we’ve had something to eat.”
When we were left alone in the stone-flagged kitchen, it was astonishing how rapidly that sprained ankle recovered. It was nearly nightfall, and we had eaten nothing since early morning, so that we spent some time over our meal. Holmes was lost in thought, and once or twice he walked over to the window and stared earnestly out. It opened on to a squalid courtyard. In the far corner was a smithy, where a grimy lad was at work. On the other side were the stables. Holmes had sat down again after one of these excursions, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with a loud exclamation.
“By heaven, Watson, I believe that I’ve got it!” he cried. “Yes, yes, it must be so. Watson, do you remember seeing any cow-tracks to-day?”
“Well, everywhere. They were at the morass, and again on the path, and again near where poor Heidegger met his death.”
“Exactly. Well, now, Watson, how many cows did you see on the moor?”
“I don’t remember seeing any.”
“Strange, Watson, that we should see tracks all along our line, but never a cow on the whole moor. Very strange, Watson, eh?”
“Yes, it is strange.”
“Now, Watson, make an effort, throw your mind back. Can you see those tracks upon the path?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Can you recall that the tracks were sometimes like that, Watson,”—he arranged a number of bread-crumbs in this fashion—: : : : :—”and sometimes like this”—: . : . : . : .—”and occasionally like this”—. : . : . : . “Can you remember that?”
“No, I cannot.”
“But I can. I could swear to it. However, we will go back at our leisure and verify it. What a blind beetle I have been, not to draw my conclusion.”
“And what is your conclusion?”
“Only that it is a remarkable cow which walks, canters, and gallops. By George! Watson, it was no brain of a country publican that thought out such a blind as that. The coast seems to be clear, save for that lad in the smithy. Let us slip out and see what we can see.”
There were two rough-haired, unkempt horses in the tumble-down stable. Holmes raised the hind leg of one of them and laughed aloud.
“Old shoes, but newly shod—old shoes, but new nails. This case deserves to be a classic. Let us go across to the smithy.”
The lad continued his work without regarding us. I saw Holmes’s eye darting to right and left among the litter of iron and wood which was scattered about the floor. Suddenly, however, we heard a step behind us, and there was the landlord, his heavy eyebrows drawn over his savage eyes, his swarthy features convulsed with passion. He held a short, metal-headed stick in his hand, and he advanced in so menacing a fashion that I was right glad to feel the revolver in my pocket.
“You infernal spies!” the man cried. “What are you doing there?”
“Why, Mr. Reuben Hayes,” said Holmes, coolly, “one might think that you were afraid of our finding something out.”
The man mastered himself with a violent effort, and his grim mouth loosened into a false laugh, which was more menacing than his frown.
“You’re welcome to all you can find out in my smithy,” said he. “But look here, mister, I don’t care for folk poking about my place without my leave, so the sooner you pay your score and get out of this the better I shall be pleased.”
“All right, Mr. Hayes, no harm meant,” said Holmes. “We have been having a look at your horses, but I think I’ll walk, after all. It’s not far, I believe.”
“Not more than two miles to the Hall gates. That’s the road to the left.” He watched us with sullen eyes until we had left his premises.
We did not go very far along the road, for Holmes stopped the instant that the curve hid us from the landlord’s view.