“You seem agitated, Mr. Bates,” said Holmes. “Pray sit down. I fear I can only give you a short time, for I have an appointment at eleven.”
“I know you have,” our visitor gasped, shooting out short sentences like a man who is out of breath. “Mr. Gibson is coming. Mr. Gibson is my employer. I am manager of his estate. Mr. Holmes, he is a villain– an infernal villain.”
“Strong language, Mr. Bates.”
“I have to be emphatic, Mr. Holmes, for the time is so limited. I would not have him find me here for the world. He is almost due now. But I was so situated that I could not come earlier. His secretary, Mr. Ferguson, only told me this morning of his appointment with you.”
“And you are his manager?”
“I have given him notice. In a couple of weeks I shall have shaken off his accursed slavery. A hard man, Mr. Holmes, hard to all about him. Those public charities are a screen to cover his private iniquities. But his wife was his chief victim. He was brutal to her–yes, sir, brutal! How she came by her death I do not know, but I am sure that he had made her life a misery to her. She was a creature of the tropics, a Brazilian by birth, as no doubt you know.”
“No, it had escaped me.”
“Tropical by birth and tropical by nature. A child of the sun and of passion. She had loved him as such women can love, but when her own physical charms had faded–I am told that they once were great– there was nothing to hold him. We all liked her and felt for her and hated him for the way that he treated her. But he is plausible and cunning. That is all I have to say to you. Don’t take him at his face value. There is more behind. Now I’ll go. No, no, don’t detain me! He is almost due.”
With a frightened look at the clock our strange visitor literally ran to the door and disappeared.
“Well! Well!” said Holmes after an interval of silence. “Mr. Gibson seems to have a nice loyal household. But the warning is a useful one, and now we can only wait till the man himself appears.”
Sharp at the hour we heard a heavy step upon the stairs, and the famous millionaire was shown into the room. As I looked upon him I understood not only the fears and dislike of his manager but also the execrations which so many business rivals have heaped upon his head. If I were a sculptor and desired to idealize the successful man of affairs, iron of nerve and leathery of conscience, I should choose Mr. Neil Gibson as my model. His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man. His face might have been chiselled in granite, hard-set, craggy, remorseless, with deep lines upon it, the scars of many a crisis. Cold gray eyes, looking shrewdly out from under bristling brows, surveyed us each in turn. He bowed in perfunctory fashion as Holmes mentioned my name, and then with a masterful air of possession he drew a chair up to my companion and seated himself with his bony knees almost touching him.
“Let me say right here, Mr. Holmes,” he began, “that money is nothing to me in this case. You can burn it if it’s any use in lighting you to the truth. This woman is innocent and this woman has to be cleared, and it’s up to you to do it. Name your figure!”
“My professional charges are upon a fixed scale,” said Holmes coldly. “I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether.”
“Well, if dollars make no difference to you, think of the reputation. If you pull this off every paper in England and America will be booming you. You’ll be the talk of two continents.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gibson, I do not think that I am in need of booming. It may surprise you to know that I prefer to work anonymously, and that it is the problem itself which attracts me. But we are wasting time. Let us get down to the facts.”
“I think that you will find all the main ones in the press reports. I don’t know that I can add anything which will help you. But if there is anything you would wish more light upon–well, I am here to give it.”
“Well, there is just one point.”
“What is it?”
“What were the exact relations between you and Miss Dunbar?”
The Gold King gave a violent start and half rose from his chair. Then his massive calm came back to him.
“I suppose you are within your rights–and maybe doing your duty– in asking such a question, Mr. Holmes.”
“We will agree to suppose so,” said Holmes.
“Then I can assure you that our relations were entirely and always those of an employer towards a young lady whom he never conversed with, or ever saw, save when she was in the company of his children.”
Holmes rose from his chair.
“I am a rather busy man, Mr. Gibson,” said he, “and I have no time or taste for aimless conversations. I wish you goodmorning.”
Our visitor had risen also, and his great loose figure towered above Holmes. There was an angry gleam from under those bristling brows and a tinge of colour in the sallow cheeks.
“What the devil do you mean by this, Mr. Holmes? Do you dismiss my case?”
“Well, Mr. Gibson, at least I dismiss you. I should have thought my words were plain.”
“Plain enough, but what’s at the back of it? Raising the price on me, or afraid to tackle it, or what? I’ve a right to a plain answer.”
“Well, perhaps you have,” said Holmes. “I’ll give you one. This case is quite sufficiently complicated to start with without the further difficulty of false information.”
“Meaning that I lie.”
“Well, I was trying to express it as delicately as I could, but if you insist upon the word I will not contradict you.”
I sprang to my feet, for the expression upon the millionaire’s face was fiendish in its intensity, and he had raised his great knotted fist. Holmes smiled languidly and reached his hand out for his pipe.
“Don’t be noisy, Mr. Gibson. I find that after breakfast even the smallest argument is unsettling. I suggest that a stroll in the morning air and a little quiet thought will be greatly to your advantage.”
With an effort the Gold King mastered his fury. I could not but admire him, for by a supreme self-command he had turned in a minute from a hot flame of anger to a frigid and contemptuous indifference.
“Well, it’s your choice. I guess you know how to run your own business. I can’t make you touch the case against your will. You’ve done yourself no good this morning, Mr. Holmes, for I have broken stronger men than you. No man ever crossed me and was the better for it.”
“So many have said so, and yet here I am,” said Holmes, smiling. “Well, good-morning, Mr. Gibson. You have a good deal yet to learn.”
Our visitor made a noisy exit, but Holmes smoked in imperturbable silence with dreamy eyes fixed upon the ceiling.
“Any views, Watson?” he asked at last.
“Well, Holmes, I must confess that when I consider that this is a man who would certainly brush any obstacle from his path, and when I remember that his wife may have been an obstacle and an object of dislike, as that man Bates plainly told us, it seems to me–”
“Exactly. And to me also.”
“But what were his relations with the governess, and how did you discover them?”