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The Sign of the Four

Chapter IV
The Story of the Bald-Headed Man


  We followed the Indian down a sordid and common passage,
ill-lit and worse furnished, until he came to a door upon the
right, which he threw open. A blaze of yellow light streamed out
upon us, and in the centre of the glare there stood a small man
with a very high head, a bristle of red hair all round the fringe of
it, and a bald, shining scalp which shot out from among it like a
mountain-peak from fir-trees. He writhed his hands together as
he stood, and his features were in a perpetual jerk -- now smiling,
now scowling, but never for an instant in repose. Nature had
given him a pendulous lip, and a too visible line of yellow and
irregular teeth, which he strove feebly to conceal by constantly
passing his hand over the lower part of his face. In spite of his
obtrusive baldness he gave the impression of youth. In point of
fact, he had just turned his thirtieth year.
  "Your servant, Miss Morstan," he kept repeating in a thin,
high voice. "Your servant, gentlemen. Pray step into my little
sanctum. A small place, miss, but furnished to my own liking.
An oasis of art in the howling desert of South London."
  We were all astonished by the appearance of the apartment
into which he invited us. In that sorry house it looked as out of
place as a diamond of the first water in a setting of brass. The
richest and glossiest of curtains and tapestries draped the walls,
looped back here and there to expose some richly mounted
painting or Oriental vase. The carpet was of amber and black, so
soft and so thick that the foot sank pleasantly into it, as into a
bed of moss. Two great tiger-skins thrown athwart it increased
the suggestion of Eastern luxury, as did a huge hookah which
stood upon a mat in the corner. A lamp in the fashion of a silver
dove was hung from an almost invisible golden wire in the centre
of the room. As it burned it filled the air with a subtle and
aromatic odour.
  "Mr. Thaddeus Sholto," said the little man, still jerking and
smiling. "That is my name. You are Miss Morstan, of course.
And these gentlemen --"
  "This is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and this Dr. Watson."
  "A doctor, eh?" cried he, much excited. "Have you your
stethoscope? Might I ask you -- would you have the kindness? I
have grave doubts as to my mitral valve, if you would be so very
good. The aortic I may rely upon, but I should value your
opinion upon the mitral."
  I listened to his heart, as requested, but was unable to find
anything amiss, save, indeed, that he was in an ecstasy of fear,
for he shivered from head to foot.
  "It appears to be normal," I said. "You have no cause for
uneasiness."
  "You will excuse my anxiety, Miss Morstan," he remarked
airily. "I am a great sufferer, and I have long had suspicions as
to that valve. I am delighted to hear that they are unwarranted.
Had your father, Miss Morstan, refrained from throwing a strain
upon his heart, he might have been alive now."
  I could have struck the man across the face, so hot was I at
this callous and offhand reference to so delicate a matter. Miss
Morstan sat down, and her face grew white to the lips.
  "I knew in my heart that he was dead," said she.
  "I can give you every information," said he; "and, what is
more, I can do you justice; and I will, too, whatever Brother
Bartholomew may say. I am so glad to have your friends here
not only as an escort to you but also as witnesses to what I am
about to do and say. The three of us can show a bold front to
Brother Bartholomew. But let us have no outsiders -- no police or
officials. We can settle everything satisfactorily among ourselves
without any interference. Nothing would annoy Brother Bart-
holomew more than any publicity."
  He sat down upon a low settee and blinked at us inquiringly with
his weak, watery blue eyes.
  "For my part," said Holmes, "whatever you may choose to
say will go no further."
  I nodded to show my agreement.
  "That is well! That is well" said he. "May I offer you a
glass of Chianti, Miss Morstan? Or of Tokay? I keep no other
wines. Shall I open a flask? No? Well, then, I trust that you have
no objection to tobacco-smoke, to the balsamic odour of the
Eastern tobacco. I am a little nervous, and I find my hookah an
invaluable sedative."
  He applied a taper to the great bowl, and the smoke bubbled
merrily through the rose-water. We sat all three in a semicircle,
with our heads advanced and our chins upon our hands, while
the strange, jerky little fellow, with his high, shining head,
puffed uneasily in the centre.
  "When I first determined to make this communication to
you," said he, "I might have given you my address; but I feared
that you might disregard my request and bring unpleasant people
with you. I took the liberty, therefore, of making an appointment
in such a way that my man Williams might be able to see you
first. I have complete confidence in his discretion, and he had
orders, if he were dissatisfied, to proceed no further in the
matter. You will excuse these precautions, but I am a man of
somewhat retiring, and I might even say refined, tastes, and
there is nothing more unaesthetic than a policeman. I have a
natural shrinking from all forms of rough materialism. I seldom
come in contact with the rough crowd. I live, as you see, with
some little atmosphere of elegance around me. I may call myself
a patron of the arts. It is my weakness. The landscape is a
genuine Corot, and though a connoisseur might perhaps throw a
doubt upon that Salvator Rosa, there cannot be the least question
about the Bouguereau. I am partial to the modern French school."
  "You will excuse me, Mr. Sholto," said Miss Morstan, "but
I am here at your request to learn something which you desire to
tell me. It is very late, and I should desire the interview to be as
short as possible."
  "At the best it must take some time," he answered; "for we
shall certainly have to go to Norwood and see Brother Barth-
olomew. We shall all go and try if we can get the better of
Brother Bartholomew. He is very angry with me for taking the
course which has seemed right to me. I had quite high words
with him last night. You cannot imagine what a terrible fellow
he is when he is angry."
  "If we are to go to Norwood, it would perhaps be as well to
start at once," I ventured to remark.
  He laughed until his ears were quite red.
  "That would hardly do," he cried. "I don't know what he
would say if I brought you in that sudden way. No, I must
prepare you by showing you how we all stand to each other. In
the first place, I must tell you that there are several points in the
story of which I am myself ignorant. I can only lay the facts
before you as far as I know them myself.
  "My father was, as you may have guessed, Major John
Sholto, once of the Indian Army. He retired some eleven years
ago and came to live at Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood.
He had prospered in India and brought back with him a con-
siderable sum of money, a large collection of valuable curiosi-
ties, and a staff of native servants. With these advantages he
bought himself a house, and lived in great luxury. My twin-
brother Bartholomew and I were the only children.
  "I very well remember the sensation which was caused by the
disappearance of Captain Morstan. We read the details in the
papers, and knowing that he had been a friend of our father's we
discussed the case freely in his presence. He used to join in our
speculations as to what could have happened. Never for an
instant did we suspect that he had the whole secret hidden in his
own breast, that of all men he alone knew the fate of Arthur
Morstan.
  "We did know, however, that some mystery, some positive
danger, overhung our father. He was very fearful of going out
alone, and he always employed two prize-fighters to act as
porters at Pondicherry Lodge. Williams, who drove you tonight,
was one of them. He was once lightweight champion of En-
gland. Our father would never tell us what it was he feared, but
he had a most marked aversion to men with wooden legs. On
one occasion he actually fired his revolver at a wooden-legged
man, who proved to be a harmless tradesman canvassing for
orders. We had to pay a large sum to hush the matter up. My
brother and I used to think this a mere whim of my father's, but
events have since led us to change our opinion.
  "Early in 1882 my father received a letter from India which
was a great shock to him. He nearly fainted at the breakfast-table
when he opened it, and from that day he sickened to his death.
What was in the letter we could never discover, but I could see
as he held it that it was short and written in a scrawling hand. He
had suffered for years from an enlarged spleen, but he now
became rapidly worse, and towards the end of April we were
informed that he was beyond all hope, and that he wished to
make a last communication to us.
  "When we entered his room he was propped up with pillows
and breathing heavily. He besought us to lock the door and to
come upon either side of the bed. Then grasping our hands he
made a remarkable statement to us in a voice which was broken
as much by emotion as by pain. I shall try and give it to you in
his own very words.
  " 'I have only one thing,' he said, 'which weighs upon my
mind at this supreme moment. It is my treatment of poor Morstan's
orphan. The cursed greed which has been my besetting sin
through life has withheld from her the treasure, half at least of
which should have been hers. And yet I have made no use of it
myself, so blind and foolish a thing is avarice. The mere feeling
of possession has been so dear to me that I could not bear to
share it with another. See that chaplet tipped with pearls beside
the quinine-bottle. Even that I could not bear to part with,
although I had got it out with the design of sending it to her.
You, my sons, will give her a fair share of the Agra treasure.
But send her nothing -- not even the chaplet -- until I am gone.
After all, men have been as bad as this and have recovered.
  " 'I will tell you how Morstan died,' he continued. 'He had
suffered for years from a weak heart, but he concealed it from
every one. I alone knew it. When in India, he and I, through a
remarkable chain of circumstances, came into possession of a
considerable treasure. I brought it over to England, and on the
night of Morstan's arrival he came straight over here to claim his
share. He walked over from the station and was admitted by my
faithful old Lal Chowdar, who is now dead. Morstan and I had a
difference of opinion as to the division of the treasure, and we
came to heated words. Morstan had sprung out of his chair in a
paroxysm of anger, when he suddenly pressed his hand to his
side, his face turned a dusky hue, and he fell backward, cutting
his head against the corner of the treasure-chest. When I stooped
over him I found, to my horror, that he was dead.
  " 'For a long time I sat half distracted, wondering what I
should do. My first impulse was, of course, to call for assis-
tance; but I could not but recognize that there was every chance
that I would be accused of his murder. His death at the moment
of a quarrel, and the gash in his head, would be black against
me. Again, an official inquiry could not be made without bring-
ing out some facts about the treasure, which I was particularly
anxious to keep secret. He had told me that no soul upon earth
knew where he had gone. There seemed to be no necessity why
any soul ever should know.
  " 'I was still pondering over the matter, when, looking up, I
saw my servant, Lal Chowdar, in the doorway. He stole in and
bolted the door behind him. "Do not fear, sahib," he said; "no
one need know that you have killed him. Let us hide him away,
and who is the wiser?" "I did not kill him," said I. Lal
Chowdar shook his head and smiled. "I heard it all, sahib," said
he; "l heard you quarrel, and I heard the blow. But my lips are
sealed. All are asleep in the house. Let us put him away to-
gether." That was enough to decide me. If my own servant
could not believe my innocence, how could I hope to make it
good before twelve foolish tradesmen in a jury-box? Lal Chowdar
and I disposed of the body that night, and within a few days the
London papers were full of the mysterious disappearance of
Captain Morstan. You will see from what I say that l can hardly
be blamed in the matter. My fault lies in the fact that we
concealed not only the body but also the treasure and that I have
clung to Morstan's share as well as to my own. I wish you,
therefore, to make restitution. Put your ears down to my mouth.
The treasure is hidden in --'
  "At this instant a horrible change came over his expression;
his eyes stared wildly, his jaw dropped, and he yelled in a voice
which I can never forget, 'Keep him out! For Christ's sake keep
him out!' We both stared round at the window behind us upon
which his gaze was fixed. A face was looking in at us out of the
darkness. We could see the whitening of the nose where it was
pressed against the glass. It was a bearded, hairy face, with wild
cruel eyes and an expression of concentrated malevolence. My
brother and I rushed towards the window, but the man was gone.
When we returned to my father his head had dropped and his
pulse had ceased to beat.
  "We searched the garden that night but found no sign of the
intruder save that just under the window a single footmark was
visible in the flower-bed. But for that one trace, we might have
thought that our imaginations had conjured up that wild, fierce
face. We soon, however, had another and a more striking proof
that there were secret agencies at work all round us. The window
of my father's room was found open in the morning, his cup-
boards and boxes had been rifled, and upon his chest was fixed a
torn piece of paper with the words 'The sign of the four'
scrawled across it. What the phrase meant or who our secret
visitor may have been, we never knew. As far as we can judge,
none of my father's property had been actually stolen, though
everything had been turned out. My brother and I naturally
associated this peculiar incident with the fear which haunted my
father during his life, but it is still a complete mystery to us."
  The little man stopped to relight his hookah and puffed thought-
fully for a few moments. We had all sat absorbed, listening to
his extraordinary narrative. At the short account of her father's
death Miss Morstan had turned deadly white, and for a moment I
feared that she was about to faint. She rallied, however, on
drinking a glass of water which I quietly poured out for her from
a Venetian carafe upon the side-table. Sherlock Holmes leaned
back in his chair with an abstracted expression and the lids
drawn low over his glittering eyes. As I glanced at him I could
not but think how on that very day he had complained bitterly of
the commonplaceness of life. Here at least was a problem which
would tax his sagacity to the utmost. Mr. Thaddeus Sholto
looked from one to the other of us with an obvious pride at the
effect which his story had produced and then continued between
the puffs of his overgrown pipe.
  "My brother and I," said he, "were, as you may imagine,
much excited as to the treasure which my father had spoken of.
For weeks and for months we dug and delved in every part of the
garden without discovering its whereabouts. It was maddening to
think that the hiding-place was on his very lips at the moment
that he died. We could judge the splendour of the missing riches
by the chaplet which he had taken out. Over this chaplet my
brother Bartholomew and I had some little discussion. The pearls
were evidently of great value, and he was averse to part with
them, for, between friends, my brother was himself a little
inclined to my father's fault. He thought, too, that if we parted
with the chaplet it might give rise to gossip and finally bring us
into trouble. It was all that I could do to persuade him to let me
find out Miss Morstan's address and send her a detached pearl at
fixed intervals so that at least she might never feel destitute."
  "It was a kindly thought," said our companion earnestly; "it
was extremely good of you."
  The little man waved his hand deprecatingly.
  "We were your trustees," he said; "that was the view which I
took of it, though Brother Bartholomew could not altogether see
it in that light. We had plenty of money ourselves. I desired no
more. Besides, it would have been such bad taste to have treated
a young lady in so scurvy a fashion. 'Le mauvais godt mene au
crime.' The French have a very neat way of putting these things.
Our difference of opinion on this subject went so far that I
thought it best to set up rooms for myself; so I left Pondicherry
Lodge, taking the old khitmutgar and Williams with me. Yester-
day, however, I learned that an event of extreme importance has
occurred. The treasure has been discovered. I instantly commu-
nicated with Miss Morstan, and it only remains for us to drive
out to Norwood and demand our share. I explained my views last
night to Brother Bartholomew, so we shall be expected, if not
welcome, visitors."
  Mr. Thaddeus Sholto ceased and sat twitching on his luxurious
settee. We all remained silent, with our thoughts upon the new
development which the mysterious business had taken. Holmes
was the first to spring to his feet.
  "You have done well, sir, from first to last," said he. "It is
possible that we may be able to make you some small return by
throwing some light upon that which is still dark to you. But, as
Miss Morstan remarked just now, it is late, and we had best put
the matter through without delay."
  Our new acquaintance very deliberately coiled up the tube of
his hookah and produced from behind a curtain a very long
befrogged topcoat with astrakhan collar and cuffs. This he but-
toned tightly up in spite of the extreme closeness of the night and
finished his attire by putting on a rabbit-skin cap with hanging
lappets which covered the ears, so that no part of him was visible
save his mobile and peaky face.
  "My health is somewhat fragile," he remarked as he led the
way down the passage. "I am compelled to be a valetudinarian."
  Our cab was awaiting us outside, and our programme was
evidently prearranged, for the driver started off at once at a rapid
pace. Thaddeus Sholto talked incessantly in a voice which rose
high above the rattle of the wheels.
  "Bartholomew is a clever fellow," said he. "How do you
think he found out where the treasure was? He had come to the
conclusion that it was somewhere indoors, so he worked out all
the cubic space of the house and made measurements everywhere
so that not one inch should be unaccounted for. Among other
things, he found that the height of the building was seventy-four
feet, but on adding together the heights of all the separate rooms
and making every allowance for the space between, which he
ascertained by borings, he could not bring the total to more than
seventy feet. There were four feet unaccounted for. These could
only be at the top of the building. He knocked a hole, therefore,
in the lath and plaster ceiling of the highest room, and there, sure
enough, he came upon another little garret above it, which had
been sealed up and was known to no one. In the centre stood the
treasure-chest resting upon two rafters. He lowered it through the
hole, and there it lies. He computes the value of the jewels at not
less than half a million sterling."
  At the mention of this gigantic sum we all stared at one
another open-eyed. Miss Morstan, could we secure her rights,
would change from a needy governess to the richest heiress in
England. Surely it was the place of a loyal friend to rejoice at
such news, yet I am ashamed to say that selfishness took me by
the soul and that my heart turned as heavy as lead within me. I
stammered out some few halting words of congratulation and
then sat downcast, with my head drooped, deaf to the babble of
our new acquaintance. He was clearly a confirmed hypochondriac,
and I was dreamily conscious that he was pouring forth intermi-
nable trains of symptoms, and imploring information as to the
composition and action of innumerable quack nostrums, some of
which he bore about in a leather case in his pocket. I trust that he
may not remember any of the answers which I gave him that
night. Holmes declares that he overheard me caution him against
the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor-oil,
while I recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative.
However that may be, I was certainly relieved when our cab
pulled up with a jerk and the coachman sprang down to open the
door.
  "This, Miss Morstan, is Pondicherry Lodge," said Mr. Thad-
deus Sholto as he handed her out.
 
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