“I gave it to him, and he read it over very carefully.
” ‘You seem to have made a vast impression upon my brother Arthur,’ said he, ‘and I know that he is a pretty shrewd judge. He swears by London, you know; and I by Birmingham; but this time I shall follow his advice. Pray consider yourself definitely engaged.’
” ‘What are my duties?’ I asked.
” ‘You will eventually manage the great depot in Paris, which will pour a flood of English crockery into the shops of a hundred and thirty-four agents in France. The purchase will be completed in a week, and meanwhile you will remain in Birmingham and make yourself useful.’
“For answer, he took a big red book out of a drawer.
” ‘This is a directory of Paris,’ said he, ‘with the trades after the names of the people. I want you to take it home with you and to mark off all the hardware-sellers, with their addresses. It would be of the greatest use to me to have them.’
” ‘Surely, there are classified lists?’ I suggested.
” ‘Not reliable ones. Their system is different from ours. Stick at it, and let me have the lists by Monday, at twelve. Good-day, Mr. Pycroft. If you continue to show zeal and intelligence you will find the company a good master.’
“I went back to the hotel with the big book under my arm, and with very conflicting feelings in my breast. On the one hand, I was definitely engaged and had a hundred pounds in my pocket; on the other, the look of the offices, the absence of name on the wall, and other of the points which would strike a business man had left a bad impression as to the position of my employers. However, come what might, I had my money, so l settled down to my task. All Sunday I was kept hard at work, and yet by Monday I had only got as far as H. I went round to my employer, found him in the same dismantled kind of room, and was told to keep at it until Wednesday, and then come again. On Wednesday it was still unfinished, so I hammered away until Friday — that is, yesterday. Then I brought it round to Mr. Harry Pinner.
” ‘Thank you very much,’ said he, ‘I fear that I underrated the difficulty of the task. This list will be of very material assistance to me.’
” ‘It took some time,’ said I.
” ‘And now,’ said he, ‘I want you to make a list of the furniture shops, for they all sell crockery.’
” ‘Very good.’
” ‘And you can come up to-morrow evening at seven and let me know how you are getting on. Don’t overwork yourself. A couple of hours at Day’s Music Hall in the evening would do you no harm after your labours.’ He laughed as he spoke, and I saw with a thrill that his second tooth upon the left-hand side had been very badly stuffed with gold.”
Sherlock Holmes rubbed his hands with delight, and I stared with astonishment at our client.
“You may well look surprised, Dr. Watson, but it is this way,” said he: “When I was speaking to the other chap in London, at the time that he laughed at my not going to Mawson’s, I happened to notice that his tooth was stuffed in this very identical fashion. The glint of the gold in each case caught my eye, you see. When I put that with the voice and figure being the same, and only those things altered which might be changed by a razor or a wig, I could not doubt that it was the same man. Of course you expect two brothers to be alike, but not that they should have the same tooth stuffed in the same way. He bowed me out, and I found myself in the street, hardly knowing whether I was on my head or my heels. Back I went to my hotel, put my head in a basin of cold water, and tried to think it out. Why had he sent me from London to Birmingham? Why had he got there before me? And why had he written a letter from himself to himself? It was altogether too much for me, and I could make no sense of it. And then suddenly it struck me that what was dark to me might be very light to Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I had just time to get up to town by the night train to see him this morning, and to bring you both back with me to Birmingham.”
There was a pause after the stock-broker’s clerk had concluded his surprising experience. Then Sherlock Holmes cocked his eye at me, leaning back on the cushions with a pleased and yet critical face, like a connoisseur who has just taken his first sip of a comet vintage.
“Rather fine, Watson, is it not?” said he. “There are points in it which please me. I think that you will agree with me that an interview with Mr. Arthur Harry Pinner in the temporary offices of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited, would be a rather interesting experience for both of us.”
“But how can we do it?” I asked.
“Oh, easily enough,” said Hall Pycroft cheerily. “You are two friends of mine who are in want of a billet, and what could be more natural than that I should bring you both round to the managing direetor?”
“Quite so, of course,” said Holmes. “I should like to have a look at the gentleman and see if I can make anything of his little game. What qualities have you, my friend, which would make your services so valuable? Or is it possible that –” He began biting his nails and staring blankly out of the window, and we hardly drew another word from him until we were in New Street.
At seven o’clock that evening we were walking, the three of us, down Corporation Street to the company’s offices.
“It is no use our being at all before our time,” said our client. “He only comes there to see me, apparently, for the place is deserted up to the very hour he names.”
“That is suggestive,” remarked Holmes.
“By Jove, I told you so!” cried the clerk. “That’s he walking ahead of us there.”
He pointed to a smallish, dark, well-dressed man who was bustling along the other side of the road. As we watched him he looked across at a boy who was bawling out the latest edition of the evening paper, and, running over among the cabs and busses, he bought one from him. Then, clutching it in his hand, he vanished through a doorway.
“There he goes!” cried Hall Pycroft. “These are the company’s offices into which he has gone. Come with me, and I’ll fix it up as easily as possible.”
Following his lead, we ascended five stories, until we found ourselves outside a half-opened door, at which our client tapped. A voice within bade us enter, and we entered a bare, unfurnished room such as Hall Pycroft had described. At the single table sat the man whom we had seen in the street, with his evening paper spread out in front of him, and as he looked up at us it seemed to me that I had never looked upon a face which bore such marks of grief, and of something beyond grief — of a horror such as comes to few men in a lifetime. His brow glistened with perspiration, his cheeks were of the dull, dead white of a fish’s belly, and his eyes were wild and staring. He looked at his clerk as though he failed to recognize him, and I could see by the astonishment depicted upon our conductor’s face that this was by no means the usual appearance of his employer.
“You look ill, Mr. Pinner!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, I am not very well,” answered the other, making obvious efforts to pull himself together and licking his dry lips before he spoke. “Who are these gentlemen whom you have brought with you?”
“One is Mr. Harris, of Bermondsey, and the other is Mr. Price, of this town,” said our clerk glibly. “They are friends of mine and gentlemen of experience, but they have been out of a place for some little time, and they hoped that perhaps you might find an opening for them in the company’s employment.”
“Very possibly! very possibly!” cried Mr. Pinner with a ghastly smile. “Yes, I have no doubt that we shall be able to do something for you. What is your particular line, Mr. Harris?”
“I am an accountant,” said Holmes.
“Ah, yes, we shall want something of the sort. And you. Mr. Price? ”
“A clerk,” said I.
“I have every hope that the company may accommodate you. I will let you know about it as soon as we come to any conclusion. And now I beg that you will go. For God’s sake leave me to myself!”
These last words were shot out of him, as though the constraint which he was evidently setting upon himself had suddenly and utterly burst asunder. Holmes and I glanced at each other, and Hall Pycroft took a step towards the table.
“You forget, Mr. Pinner, that I am here by appointment to receive some directions from you,” said he.