“Yes, I saw him at his work. But I will tell you everything in order. When I got back after my visit to you, the very first thing I saw next morning was a fresh crop of dancing men. They had been drawn in chalk upon the black wooden door of the toolhouse, which stands beside the lawn in full view of the front windows. I took an exact copy, and here it is.” He unfolded a paper and laid it upon the table. Here is a hieroglyphics:
“Excellent!” said Holmes. “Excellent! Pray continue.”
“When I had taken the copy, I rubbed out the marks, but, two mornings later, a fresh inscription had appeared. I have a copy of it here”:
Holmes rubbed his hands and chuckled with delight.
“Our material is rapidly accumulating,” said he.
“Three days later a message was left scrawled upon paper, and placed under a pebble upon the sundial. Here it is. The characters are, as you see, exactly the same as the last one. After that I determined to lie in wait, so I got out my revolver and I sat up in my study, which overlooks the lawn and garden. About two in the morning I was seated by the window, all being dark save for the moonlight outside, when I heard steps behind me, and there was my wife in her dressing-gown. She implored me to come to bed. I told her frankly that I wished to see who it was who played such absurd tricks upon us. She answered that it was some senseless practical joke, and that I should not take any notice of it.
” ‘If it really annoys you, Hilton, we might go and travel, you and I, and so avoid this nuisance.’
“‘What, be driven out of our own house by a practical joker?’ said I. ‘Why, we should have the whole county laughing at us.’
” ‘Well, come to bed.’ said she, ‘and we can discuss it in the morning.’
“Suddenly, as she spoke, I saw her white face grow whiter yet in the moonlight, and her hand tightened upon my shoulder. Something was moving in the shadow of the tool-house. I saw a dark, creeping figure which crawled round the corner and squatted in front of the door. Seizing my pistol, I was rushing out, when my wife threw her arms round me and held me with convulsive strength. I tried to throw her off, but she clung to me most desperately. At last I got clear, but by the time I had opened the door and reached the house the creature was gone. He had left a trace of his presence, however, for there on the door was the very same arrangement of dancing men which had already twice appeared, and which I have copied on that paper. There was no other sign of the fellow anywhere, though I ran all over the grounds. And yet the amazing thing is that he must have been there all the time, for when I examined the door again in the morning, he had scrawled some more of his pictures under the line which I had already seen.”
“Have you that fresh drawing?”
“Yes, it is very short, but I made a copy of it, and here it is.”
Again he produced a paper. The new dance was in this form:
“Tell me,” said Holmes — and I could see by his eyes that he was much excited — “was this a mere addition to the first or did it appear to be entirely separate?”
“It was on a different panel of the door.”
“Excellent! This is far the most important of all for our purpose. It fills me with hopes. Now, Mr. Hilton Cubitt, please continue your most interesting statement.”
“I have nothing more to say, Mr. Holmes, except that I was angry with my wife that night for having held me back when I might have caught the skulking rascal. She said that she feared that I might come to harm. For an instant it had crossed my mind that perhaps what she really feared was that he might come to harm, for I could not doubt that she knew who this man was, and what he meant by these strange signals. But there is a tone in my wife’s voice, Mr. Holmes, and a look in her eyes which forbid doubt, and I am sure that it was indeed my own safety that was in her mind. There’s the whole case, and now I want your advice as to what I ought to do. My own inclination is to put half a dozen of my farm lads in the shrubbery, and when this fellow comes again to give him such a hiding that he will leave us in peace for the future.”
“I fear it is too deep a case for such simple remedies,” said Holmes. “How long can you stay in London?”
“I must go back today. I would not leave my wife alone all night for anything. She is very nervous, and begged me to come back.”
“I daresay you are right. But if you could have stopped. I might possibly have been able to return with you in a day or two. Meanwhile you will leave me these papers, and I think that it is very likely that I shall be able to pay you a visit shortly and to throw some light upon your case.”
Sherlock Holmes preserved his calm professional manner until our visitor had left us, although it was easy for me, who knew him so well, to see that he was profoundly excited. The moment that Hilton Cubitt’s broad back had disappeared through the door my comrade rushed to the table, laid out all the slips of paper containing dancing men in front of him, and threw himself into an intricate and elaborate calculation. For two hours I watched him as he covered sheet after sheet of paper with figures and letters, so completely absorbed in his task that he had evidently forgotten my presence. Sometimes he was making progress and whistled and sang at his work; sometimes he was puzzled, and would sit for long spells with a furrowed brow and a vacant eye. Finally he sprang from his chair with a cry of satisfaction, and walked up and down the room rubbing his hands together. Then he wrote a long telegram upon a cable form. “If my answer to this is as I hope, you will have a very pretty case to add to your collection, Watson,” said he. “I expect that we shall be able to go down to Norfolk tomorrow, and to take our friend some very definite news as to the secret of his annoyance.”
I confess that I was filled with curiosity, but I was aware that Holmes liked to make his disclosures at his own time and in his own way, so I waited until it should suit him to take me into his confidence.
But there was a delay in that answering telegram, and two days of impatience followed, during which Holmes pricked up his ears at every ring of the bell. On the evening of the second there came a letter from Hilton Cubitt. All was quiet with him, save that a long inscription had appeared that morning upon the pedestal of the sundial. He inclosed a copy of it, which is here reproduced:
Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. His face was haggard with anxiety.
“We have let this affair go far enough,” said he. “Is there a train to North Walsham to-night?”
I turned up the time-table. The last had just gone.
“Then we shall breakfast early and take the very first in the morning,” said Holmes. “Our presence is most urgently needed. Ah! here is our expected cablegram. One moment, Mrs. Hudson, there may be an answer. No, that is quite as I expected. This message makes it even more essential that we should not lose an hour in letting Hilton Cubitt know how matters stand, for it is a singular and a dangerous web in which our simple Norfolk squire is entangled.”
So, indeed, it proved, and as I come to the dark conclusion of a story which had seemed to me to be only childish and bizarre, I experience once again the dismay and horror with which I was filled. Would that I had some brighter ending to communicate to my readers, but these are the chronicles of fact, and I must follow to their dark crisis the strange chain of events which for some days made Riding Thorpe Manor a household word through the length and breadth of England.
We had hardly alighted at North Walsham, and mentioned the name of our destination, when the stationmaster hurried towards us. “I suppose that you are the detectives from London?” said he.
A look of annoyance passed over Holmes’s face.
“What makes you think such a thing?”
“Because Inspector Martin from Norwich has just passed through. But maybe you are the surgeons. She’s not dead — or wasn’t by last accounts. You may be in time to save her yet -though it be for the gallows.”
Holmes’s brow was dark with anxiety.
“We are going to Riding Thorpe Manor,” said he, “but we have heard nothing of what has passed there.”
“It’s a terrible business,” said the stationmaster. “They are shot, both Mr. Hilton Cubitt and his wife. She shot him and then herself — so the servants say. He’s dead and her life is despaired of. Dear, dear, one of the oldest families in the county of Norfolk, and one of the most honoured.”
Without a word Holmes hurried to a carriage, and during the long seven miles’ drive he never opened his mouth. Seldom have I seen him so utterly despondent. He had been uneasy during all our journey from town, and I had observed that he had turned over the morning papers with anxious attention, but now this sudden realization of his worst fears left him in a blank melancholy. He leaned back in his seat, lost in gloomy speculation. Yet there was much around to interest us, for we were passing through as singular a countryside as any in England, where a few scattered cottages represented the populatlon of to-day, while on every hand enormous square-towered churches bristled up from the flat green landscape and told of the glory and prosperity of old East Anglia. At last the violet rim of the German Ocean appeared over the green edge of the Norfolk coast, and the driver pointed with his whip to two old brick and timber gables which projected from a grove of trees. “That’s Riding Thorpe Manor,” said he.
As we drove up to the porticoed front door, I observed in front of it, beside the tennis lawn, the black tool-house and the pedestalled sundial with which we had such strange associations. A dapper little man, with a quick, alert manner and a waxed moustache, had just descended from a high dog-cart. He introduced himself as Inspector Martin, of the Norfolk Constabulary and he was considerably astonished when he heard the name of my companion.
“Why, Mr. Holmes, the crime was only committed at three this morning. How could you hear of it in London and get to the spot as soon as l?”
“I anticipated it. I came in the hope of preventing it.”
“Then you must have important evidence, of which we are ignorant, for they were said to be a most united couple.”
“I have only the evidence of the dancing men,” said Holmes. “I will explain the matter to you later. Meanwhile, since it is too late to prevent this tragedy, I am very anxious that I should use the knowledge which I possess in order to insure that justice be done. Will you associate me in your investigation, or will you prefer that I should act independently?”
“I should be proud to feel that we were acting together, Mr. Holmes,” said the inspector, earnestly.
“In that case I should be glad to hear the evidence and to examine the premises without an instant of unnecessary delay.”
Inspector Martin had the good sense to allow my friend to do things in his own fashion, and contented himself with carefully noting the results. The local surgeon, an old, white-haired man, had just come down from Mrs. Hilton Cubitt’s room, and he reported that her injuries were serious, but not necessarily fatal. The bullet had passed through the front of her brain, and it would probably be some time before she could regain consciousness. On the question of whether she had been shot or had shot herself, he would not venture to express any decided opinion. Certainly the bullet had been discharged at very close quarters. There was only the one pistol found in the room, two barrels of which had been emptied. Mr. Hilton Cubitt had been shot through the heart. It was equally conceivable that he had shot her and then himself, or that she had been the criminal, for the revolver lay upon the floor midway between them.
“Has he been moved?” asked Holmes.
“We have moved nothing except the lady. We could not leave her lying wounded upon the floor.”
“How long have you been here, Doctor?”
“Since four o’clock.”
“Yes, the constable here.”
“And you have touched nothing?”
“You have acted with great discretion. Who sent for you?”
“The housemaid, Saunders.”
“Was it she who gave the alarm?”
“She and Mrs. King, the cook.”
“Where are they now?”
“In the kitchen, I believe.”
“Then I think we had better hear their story at once.”
The old hall, oak-panelled and high-windowed, had been turned into a court of investigation. Holmes sat in a great, old-fashioned chair, his inexorable eyes gleaming out of his haggard face. I could read in them a set purpose to devote his life to this quest until the client whom he had failed to save should at last be avenged. The trim Inspector Martin, the old, gray-headed country doctor, myself, and a stolid village policeman made up the rest of that strange company.