“Presuming that it is an appointment,” continued the inspector, “it is of course a conceivable theory that this William Kirwan, though he had the reputation of being an honest man, may have been in league with the thief. He may have met him there, may even have helped him to break in the door, and then they may have fallen out between themselves.”
“This writing is of extraordinary interest,” said Holmes, who had been examining it with intense concentration. “These are much deeper waters than I had thought.” He sank his head upon his hands, while the inspector smiled at the effect which his case had had upon the famous London specialist.
“Your last remark,” said Holmes presently, “as to the possibility of there being an understanding between the burglar and the servant, and this being a note of appointment from one to the other, is an ingenious and not entirely impossible supposition. But this writing opens up –” He sank his head into his hands again and remained for some minutes in the deepest thought. When he raised his face again I was surprised to see that his cheek was tinged with colour, and his eyes as bright as before his illness. He sprang to his feet with all his old energy.
“I’ll tell you what,” said he, “I should like to have a quiet little glance into the details of this case. There is something in it which fascinates me extremely. If you will permit me, Colonel, I will leave my friend Watson and you, and I will step round with the inspector to test the truth of one or two little fancies of mine. I will be with you again in half an hour.”
An hour and a half had elapsed before the inspector returned alone.
“Mr. Holmes is walking up and down in the field outside, said he. “He wants us all four to go up to the house together.”
“To Mr. Cunningham’s?”
The inspector shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t quite know sir. Between ourselves, I think Mr. Holmes has not quite got over his illness yet. He’s been behaving very queerly, and he is very much excited.” “I don’t think you need alarm yourself,” said I. “I have usually found that there was method in his madness.”
“Some folk might say there was madness in his method,” muttered the inspector. “But he’s all on fire to start, Colonel, so we had best go out if you are ready.” We found Holmes pacing up and down in the field, his chin sunk upon his breast, and his hands thrust into his trousers pockets.
“The matter grows in interest,” said he. “Watson, your country trip has been a distinct success. I have had a charming morning.”
“You have been up to the scene of the crime, I understand,” said the colonel.
“Yes, the inspector and I have made quite a little reconnaissance together.”
“Well, we have seen some very interesting things. I’ll tell you what we did as we walk. First of all, we saw the body of this unfortunate man. He certainly died from a revolver wound as reported.”
“Had you doubted it, then?”
“Oh, it is as well to test everything. Our inspection was not wasted. We then had an interview with Mr. Cunningham and his son, who were able to point out the exact spot where the murderer had broken through the garden-hedge in his flight. That was of great interest.”
“Then we had a look at this poor fellow’s mother. We could get no information from her, however, as she is very old and feeble.”
“And what is the result of your investigations?”
“The conviction that the crime is a very peculiar one. Perhaps our visit now may do something to make it less obscure. I think that we are both agreed, Inspector, that the fragment of paper in the dead man’s hand, bearing, as it does, the very hour of his death written upon it, is of extreme importance.”
“It should give a clue, Mr. Holmes.”
“It does give a clue. Whoever wrote that note was the man who brought William Kirwan out of his bed at that hour. But where is the rest of that sheet of paper?”
“I examined the ground carefully in the hope of finding it.” said the inspector.
“It was torn out of the dead man’s hand. Why was someone so anxious to get possession of it? Because it incriminated him. And what would he do with it? Thrust it into his pocket, most likely, never noticing that a corner of it had been left in the grip of the corpse. If we could get the rest of that sheet it is obvious that we should have gone a long way towards solving the mystery.”
“Yes, but how can we get at the criminal’s pocket before we catch the criminal?”
“Well, well, it was worth thinking over. Then there is another obvious point. The note was sent to William. The man who wrote it could not have taken it; otherwise, of course, he might have delivered his own message by word of mouth. Who brought the note, then? Or did it come through the post?”
“I have made inquiries,” said the inspector. “William received a letter by the afternoon post yesterday. The envelope was destroyed by him.”
“Excellent!” cried Holmes, clapping the inspector on the back. “You’ve seen the postman. It is a pleasure to work with you. Well, here is the lodge, and if you will come up, Colonel, I will show you the scene of the crime.”
We passed the pretty cottage where the murdered man had lived and walked up an oak-lined avenue to the fine old Queen Anne house, which bears the date of Malplaquet upon the lintel of the door. Holmes and the inspector led us round it until we came to the side gate, which is separated by a stretch of garden from the hedge which lines the road. A constable was standing at the kitchen door.
“Throw the door open, officer,” said Holmes. “Now, it was on those stairs that young Mr. Cunningham stood and saw the two men struggling just where we are. Old Mr. Cunningham was at that window — the second on the left — and he saw the fellow get away just to the left of that bush. So did the son. They are both sure of it on account of the bush. Then Mr. Alec ran out and knelt beside the wounded man. The ground is very hard, you see, and there are no marks to guide us.” As he spoke two men came down the garden path, from round the angle of the house. The one was an elderly man, with a strong, deep-lined, heavyeyed face; the other a dashing young fellow, whose bright, smiling expression and showy dress were in strange contrast with the business which had brought us there.
“Still at it, then?” said he to Holmes. “I thought you Londoners were never at fault. You don’t seem to be so very quick, after all.”
“Ah, you must give us a little time,” said Holmes goodhumouredly.
“You’ll want it,” said young Alec Cunningham. “Why, I don’t see that we have any clue at all.”
“There’s only one,” answered the inspector. “We thought that if we could only find — Good heavens. Mr. Holmes! what is the matter?”
My poor friend’s face had suddenly assumed the most dreadful expression. His eyes rolled upward, his features writhed in agony, and with a suppressed groan he dropped on his face upon the ground. Horrified at the suddenness and severity of the attack, we carried him into the kitchen, where he lay back in a large chair and breathed heavily for some minutes. Finally, with a shamefaced apology for his weakness, he rose once more.
“Watson would tell you that I have only just recovered from a severe illness,” he explained. “I am liable to these sudden nervous attacks.”
“Shall I send you home in my trap?” asked old Cunningham.
“Well, since I am here, there is one point on which I should like to feel sure. We can very easily verify it.”
“What is it?”
“Well, it seems to me that it is just possible that the arrival of this poor fellow William was not before, but after, the entrance of the burglar into the house. You appear to take it for granted that although the door was forced the robber never got in.”
“I fancy that is quite obvious,” said Mr. Cunningham gravely. “Why, my son Alec had not yet gone to bed, and he would certainly have heard anyone moving about.”
“Where was he sitting?”
“I was smoking in my dressing-room.”
“Which window is that?”
“The last on the left, next my father’s.”
“Both of your lamps were lit, of course?”
“There are some very singular points here,” said Holmes, smiling. “Is it not extraordinary that a burglar — and a burglar who had some previous experience — should deliberately break into a house at a time when he could see from the lights that two of the family were still afoot?”
“He must have been a cool hand.”
“Well, of course, if the case were not an odd one we should not have been driven to ask you for an explanation,” said young Mr. Alec. “But as to your ideas that the man had robbed the house before William tackled him, I think it a most absurd notion. Wouldn’t we have found the place disarranged and missed the things which he had taken?”
“It depends on what the things were,” said Holmes. “You must remember that we are dealing with a burglar who is a very peculiar fellow, and who appears to work on lines of his own. Look, for example, at the queer lot of things which he took from Acton’s — what was it? — a ball of string, a letter-weight, and I don’t know what other odds and ends.”