“Certainly, Mr. Pycroft, certainly,” the other resumed in a calmer tone. “You may wait here a moment and there is no reason why your friends should not wait with you. I will be entirely at your service in three minutes, if I might trespass upon your patience so far.” He rose with a very courteous air, and, bowing to us, he passed out through a door at the farther end of the room, which he closed behind him.
“What now?” whispered Holmes. “Is he giving us the slip?”
“Impossible,” answered Pycroft.
“That door leads into an inner room.”
“There is no exit?”
“Is it furnished?”
“It was empty yesterday.”
“Then what on earth can he be doing? There is something which I don’t understand in this matter. If ever a man was three parts mad with terror, that man’s name is Pinner. What can have put the shivers on him?”
“He suspects that we are detectives,” I suggested.
“That’s it,” cried Pycroft.
Holmes shook his head. “He did not turn pale. He was pale when we entered the room,” said he. “It is just possible that –”
His words were interrupted by a sharp rat-tat from the direction of the inner door.
“What the deuce is he knocking at his own door for?” cried the clerk.
Again and much louder came the rat-tat-tat. We all gazed expectantly at the closed door. Glancing at Holmes, I saw his face turn rigid, and he leaned forward in intense excitement. Then suddenly came a low guggling, gargling sound, and a brisk drumming upon woodwork. Holmes sprang frantically across the room and pushed at the door. It was fastened on the inner side. Following his example, we threw ourselves upon it with all our weight. One hinge snapped, then the other, and down came the door with a crash. Rushing over it, we found ourselves in the inner room. It was empty.
But it was only for a moment that we were at fault. At one corner, the corner nearest the room which we had left, there was a second door. Holmes sprang to it and pulled it open. A coat and waistcoat were lying on the floor, and from a hook behind the door, with his own braces round his neck, was hanging the managing director of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company. His knees were drawn up, his head hung at a dreadful angle to his body, and the clatter of his heels against the door made the noise which had broken in upon our conversation. In an instant I had caught him round the waist, and held him up while Holmes and Pycroft untied the elastic bands which had disappeared between the livid creases of skin. Then we carried him into the other room, where he lay with a clay-coloured face, puffing his purple lips in and out with every breath — a dreadful wreck of all that he had been but five minutes before.
“What do you think of him, Watson?” asked Holmes.
I stooped over him and examined him. His pulse was feeble and intermittent, but his breathing grew longer, and there was a little shivering of his eyelids, which showed a thin white slit of ball beneath.
“It has been touch and go with him,” said I, “but he’ll live now. Just open that window, and hand me the water carafe.” I undid his collar, poured the cold water over his face, and raised and sank his arms until he drew a long, natural breath. “It’s only a question of time now,” said I as I turned away from him.
Holmes stood by the table, with his hands deep in his trousers’ pockets and his chin upon his breast.
“I suppose we ought to call the police in now,” said he. “And yet I confess that I’d like to give them a complete case when they come.”
“It’s a blessed mystery to me,” cried Pycroft, scratching his head. “Whatever they wanted to bring me all the way up here for, and then –”
“Pooh! All that is clear enough,” said Holmes impatiently. “It is this last sudden move.”
“You understand the rest, then?”
“I think that it is fairly obvious. What do you say, Watson?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I must confess that I am out of my depths,” said I.
“Oh, surely if you consider the events at first they can only point to one conclusion.”
“What do you make of them?”
“Well, the whole thing hinges upon two points. The first is the making of Pycroft write a declaration by which he entered the service of this preposterous company. Do you not see how very suggestive that is?”
“I am afraid I miss the point.”
“Well, why did they want him to do it? Not as a business matter, for these arrangements are usually verbal, and there was no earthly business reason why this should be an exception. Don’t you see, my young friend, that they were very anxious to obtain a specimen of your handwriting, and had no other way of doing it?”
“Quite so. Why? When we answer that we have made some progress with our little problem. Why? There can be only one adequate reason. Someone wanted to learn to imitate your writing and had to procure a specimen of it first. And now if we pass on to the second point we find that each throws light upon the other. That point is the request made by Pinner that you should not resign your place, but should leave the manager of this important business in the full expectation that a Mr. Hall Pycroft, whom he had never seen, was about to enter the office upon the Monday morning.”
“My God!” cried our client, “what a blind beetle I have been!”
“Now you see the point about the handwriting. Suppose that someone turned up in your place who wrote a completely different hand from that in which you had applied for the vacancy, of course the game would have been up. But in the interval the rogue had learned to imitate you, and his position was therefore secure, as I presume that nobody in the office had ever set eyes upon you.
“Not a soul,” groaned Hall Pycroft.
“Very good. Of course it was of the utmost importance to prevent you from thinking better of it, and also to keep you from coming into contact with anyone who might tell you that your double was at work in Mawson’s office. Therefore they gave you a handsome advance on your salary, and ran you off to the Midllands, where they gave you enough work to do to prevent your going to London, where you might have burst their little game up. That is all plain enough.”
“But why should this man pretend to be his own brother?”
“Well, that is pretty clear also. There are evidently only two of them in it. The other is impersonating you at the office. This one acted as your engager, and then found that he could not find you an employer without admitting a third person into his plot. That he was most unwilling to do. He changed his appearance as far as he could, and trusted that the likeness, which you could not fail to observe, would be put down to a family resemblance. But for the happy chance of the gold stuffing, your suspicions would probably never have been aroused.”
Hall Pycroft shook his clenched hands in the air. “Good Lord!” he cried, “while I have been fooled in this way, what has this other Hall Pycroft been doing at Mawson’s? What should we do, Mr. Holmes? Tell me what to do.”
“We must wire to Mawson’s.”
“They shut at twelve on Saturdays.”
“Never mind. There may be some door-keeper or attendant –”
“Ah, yes, they keep a permanent guard there on account of the value of the securities that they hold. I remember hearing it talked of in the City.”
“Very good, we shall wire to him and see if all is well, and if a clerk of your name is working there. That is clear enough, but what is not so clear is why at sight of us one of the rogues should instantly walk out of the room and hang himself.”
“The paper!” croaked a voice behind us. The man was sitting up, blanched and ghastly, with returning reason in his eyes, and hands which rubbed nervously at the broad red band which still encircled his throat.
“The paper! Of course!” yelled Holmes in a paroxysm of excitement. “Idiot that I was! I thought so much of our visit that the paper never entered my head for an instant. To be sure, the secret must lie there.” He flattened it out upon the table, and a cry of triumph burst from his lips. “Look at this, Watson,” he cried. “It is a London paper, an early edition of the Evening Standard. Here is what we want. Look at the headlines: ‘Crime in the City. Murder at Mawson & Williams’s. Gigantic Attempted Robbery. Capture of the Criminal.’ Here, Watson, we are all equally anxious to hear it, so kindly read it aloud to us.”
It appeared from its position in the paper to have been the one event of importance in town, and the account of it ran in this way:
“A desperate attempt at robbery, culminating in the death of one man and the capture of the criminal, occurred this afternoon in the City. For some time back Mawson & Williams, the famous financial house, have been the guard ians of securities which amount in the aggregate to a sum of considerably over a million sterling. So conscious was the manager of the responsibility which devolved upon him in consequence of the great interests at stake that safes of the very latest construction have been employed, and an armed watchman has been left day and night in the building. It appears that last week a new clerk named Hall Pycroft was engaged by the firm. This person appears to have been none other than Beddington, the famous forger and cracksman, who, with his brother, has only recently emerged from a five years’ spell of penal servitude. By some means, which are not yet clear, he succeeded in winning, under a false name, this official position in the office, which he utilized in order to obtain mouldings of various locks, and a thor ough knowledge of the position of the strongroom and the safes. “It is customary at Mawson’s for the clerks to leave at midday on Saturday. Sergeant Tuson, of the City police, was somewhat surprised, therefore, to see a gentleman with a carpet-bag come down the steps at twenty minutes past one. His suspicions being aroused, the sergeant followed the man, and with the aid of Constable Pollock succeeded, after a most desperate resistance, in arresting him. It was at once clear that. a daring and gigantic robbery had been committed. Nearly a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of American railway bonds, with a large amount of scrip in mines and other companies, was discovered in the bag. On examining the premises the body of the unfortunate watch man was found doubled up and thrust into the largest of the safes, where it would not have been discovered until Mon day morning had it not been for the prompt action of Sergeant Tuson. The man’s-skull had been shattered by a blow from a poker delivered from behind. There could be no doubt that Beddington had obtained entrance by pretending that he had left something behind him, and having murdered the watchman, rapidly rifled the large safe, and then made off with his booty. His brother, who usually works with him, has not appeared in this job as far as can at present be ascertained, although the police are making ener getic inquiries as to his whereabouts.”
“Well, we may save the police some little trouble in that direction,” said Holmes, glancing at the haggard figure huddled up by the window. “Human nature is a strange mixture, Watson. You see that even a villain and murderer can inspire such affection that his brother turns to suicide when he learns that his neck is forfeited. However, we have no choice as to our action. The doctor and I will remain on guard, Mr. Pycroft, if you will have the kindness to step out for the police.”
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