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The Sign of the Four

Chapter VIII
The Baker Street Irregulars


  "What now?" I asked. "Toby has lost his character for
infallibility. "
  "He acted according to his lights," said Holmes, lifting him
down from the barrel and walking him out of the timber-yard.
"If you consider how much creosote is carted about London in
one day, it is no great wonder that our trail should have been
crossed. It is much used now, especially for the seasoning of
wood. Poor Toby is not to blame."
  "We must get on the main scent again, I suppose."
  "Yes. And, fortunately, we have no distance to go. Evidently
what puzzled the dog at the corner of Knight's Place was that
there were two different trails running in opposite directions. We
took the wrong one. It only remains to follow the other."
  There was no difficulty about this. On leading Toby to the
place where he had committed his fault, he cast about in a wide
circle and finally dashed off in a fresh direction.
  "We must take care that he does not now bring us to the place
where the creosote-barrel came from," I observed.
  "I had thought of that. But you notice that he keeps on the
pavement, whereas the barrel passed down the roadway. No, we
are on the true scent now."
  It tended down towards the riverside, running through Bel-
mont Place and Prince's Street. At the end of Broad Street it ran
right down to the water's edge, where there was a small wooden
wharf. Toby led us to the very edge of this and there stood
whining, looking out on the dark current beyond.
  "We are out of luck," said Holmes. "They have taken to a
boat-here. "
  Several small punts and skiffs were lying about in the water
and on the edge of the wharf. We took Toby round to each in
turn, but though he sniffed earnestly he made no sign.
  Close to the rude landing-stage was a small brick house, with
a wooden placard slung out through the second window. "Mordecai
Smith" was printed across it in large letters, and, underneath,
"Boats to hire by the hour or day." A second inscription above
the door informed us that a steam launch was kept -- a statement
which was confirmed by a great pile of coke upon the jetty.
Sherlock Holmes looked slowly round, and his face assumed an
ominous expression.
  "This looks bad," said he. "These fellows are sharper than I
expected. They seem to have covered their tracks. There has, I
fear, been preconcerted management here."
  He was approaching the door of the house, when it opened,
and a little curly-headed lad of six came running out, followed by
a stoutish, red-faced woman with a large sponge in her hand.
  "You come back and be washed, Jack," she shouted. "Come
back, you young imp; for if your father comes home and finds
you like that he'll let us hear of it."
  "Dear little chap!" said Holmes strategically. "What a rosy-
cheeked young rascal! Now, Jack, is there anything you would
like?"
  The youth pondered for a moment.
  "I'd like a shillin'," said he.
  "Nothing you would like better?"
  "I'd like two shillin' better," the prodigy answered after some
thought.
  "Here you are, then! Catch! -- A fine child, Mrs. Smith!"
  "Lor' bless you, sir, he is that, and forward. He gets a'most
too much for me to manage, 'specially when my man is away
days at a time."
  "Away, is he?" said Holmes in a disappointed voice. "I am
sorry for that, for I wanted to speak to Mr. Smith."
  "He's been away since yesterday mornin', sir, and, truth to
tell, I am beginnin' to feel frightened about him. But if it was
about a boat, sir, maybe I could serve as well."
  "I wanted to hire his steam launch."
  "Why, bless you, sir, it is in the steam launch that he has
gone. That's what puzzles me, for I know there ain't more coals
in her than would take her to about Woolwich and back. If he's
been away in the barge I'd ha' thought nothin'; for many a time
a job has taken him as far as Gravesend, and then if there was
much doin' there he might ha' stayed over. But what good is a
steam launch without coals?"
  "He might have bought some at a wharf down the river."
  "He might, sir, but it weren't his way. Many a time I've
heard him call out at the prices they charge for a few odd bags.
Besides, I don't like that wooden-legged man, wi' his ugly face
and outlandish talk. What did he want always knockin' about
here for?"
  "A wooden-legged man?" said Holmes with bland surprise.
  "Yes, sir, a brown, monkey-faced chap that's called more'n
once for my old man. It was him that roused him up yesternight
and, what's more, my man knew he was comin', for he had
steam up in the launch. I tell you straight, sir, I don't feel easy in
my mind about it."
  "But, my dear Mrs. Smith," said Holmes, shrugging his
shoulders, "you are frightening yourself about nothing. How
could you possibly tell that it was the wooden-legged man who
came in the night? I don't quite understand how you can be so
sure."
  "His voice, sir. I knew his voice, which is kind o' thick and
foggy. He tapped at the winder -- about three it would be. 'Show
a leg, matey,' says he: 'time to turn out guard.' My old man
woke up Jim -- that's my eldest -- and away they went without so
much as a word to me. I could hear the wooden leg clackin' on
the stones."
  "And was this wooden-legged man alone?"
  "Couldn't say, I am sure, sir. I didn't hear no one else."
  "I am sorry, Mrs. Smith, for I wanted a steam launch, and I
have heard good reports of the -- Let me see, what is her name?"
  "The Aurora, sir."
  "Ah! She's not that old green launch with a yellow line, very
broad in the beam?"
  "No, indeed. She's as trim a little thing as any on the river.
She's been fresh painted, black with two red streaks."
  "Thanks. I hope that you will hear soon from Mr. Smith. I am
going down the river, and if I should see anything of the Aurora
I shall let him know that you are uneasy. A black funnel, you
say?"
  "No, sir. Black with a white band."
  "Ah, of course. It was the sides which were black. Good-
morning, Mrs. Smith. There is a boatman here with a wherry,
Watson. We shall take it and cross the river."
  "The main thing with people of that sort," said Holmes as we
sat in the sheets of the wherry, "is never to let them think that
their information can be of the slightest importance to you. If
you do they will instantly shut up like an oyster. If you listen to
them under protest, as it were, you are very likely to get what
you want."
  "Our course now seems pretty clear," said I.
  "What would you do, then?"
  "I would engage a launch and go down the river on the track
of the Aurora."
  "My dear fellow, it would be a colossal task. She may have
touched at any wharf on either side of the stream between here
and Greenwich. Below the bridge there is a perfect labyrinth of
landing-places for miles. It would take you days and days to
exhaust them if you set about it alone."
  "Employ the police, then."
  "No. I shall probably call Athelney Jones in at the last mo-
ment. He is not a bad fellow, and I should not like to do
anything which would injure him professionally. But I have a
fancy for working it out myself, now that we have gone so far."
 "Could we advertise, then, asking for information from
wharfingers?
  "Worse and worse! Our men would know that the chase was
hot at their heels, and they would be off out of the country. As it
is, they are likely enough to leave, but as long as they think they
are perfectly safe they will be in no hurry. Jones's energy will be
of use to us there, for his view of the case is sure to push itself
into the daily press, and the runaways will think that everyone is
off on the wrong scent."
  "What are we to do, then?" I asked as we landed near
Millbank Penitentiary.
  "Take this hansom, drive home, have some breakfast, and get
an hour's sleep. It is quite on the cards that we may be afoot
to-night again. Stop at a telegraph office, cabby! We will keep
Toby, for he may be of use to us yet."
  We pulled up at the Great Peter Street Post-Office, and Holmes
dispatched his wire.
  "Whom do you think that is to?" he asked as we resumed our
journey.
  "I am sure I don't know."
  "You remember the Baker Street division of the detective
police force whom I employed in the Jefferson Hope case?"
  "Well," said I, laughing.
  "This is just the case where they might be invaluable. If they
fail I have other resources, but I shall try them first. That wire
was to my dirty little lieutenant, Wiggins, and I expect that he
and his gang will be with us before we have finished our
breakfast."
  It was between eight and nine o'clock now, and I was con-
scious of a strong reaction after the successive excitements of the
night. I was limp and weary, befogged in mind and fatigued in
body. I had not the professional enthusiasm which carried my
companion on, nor could I look at the matter as a mere abstract
intellectual problem. As far as the death of Bartholomew Sholto
went, I had heard little good of him and could feel no intense
antipathy to his murderers. The treasure, however, was a differ-
ent matter. That, or part of it, belonged rightfully to Miss
Morstan. While there was a chance of recovering it I was ready
to devote my life to the one object. True, if I found it, it would
probably put her forever beyond my reach. Yet it would be a
petty and selfish love which would be influenced by such a
thought as that. If Holmes could work to find the criminals, I
had a tenfold stronger reason to urge me on to find the treasure.
  A bath at Baker Street and a complete change freshened me up
wonderfully. When I came down to our room I found the break-
fast laid and Holmes pouring out the coffee.
  "Here it is," said he, laughing and pointing to an open
newspaper. "The energetic Jones and the ubiquitous reporter
have fixed it up between them. But you have had enough of the
case. Better have your ham and eggs first."
  I took the paper from him and read the short notice, Which
was headed "Mysterious Business at Upper Norwood."

      About twelve o'clock last night [said the Standard] Mr.
    Bartholomew Sholto, of Pondicherry Lodge, Upper Nor-
    wood, was found dead in his room under circumstances
    which point to foul play. As far as we can learn, no actual
    traces of violence were found upon Mr. Sholto's person, but
    a valuable collection of Indian gems which the deceased
    gentleman had inherited from his father has been carried
    off. The discovery was first made by Mr. Sherlock Holmes
    and Dr. Watson, who had called at the house with Mr.Thad-
    deus Sholto, brother of the deceased. By a singular piece
    of good fortune, Mr. Athelney Jones, the well-known member
    of the detective police force, happened to be at the Norwood
    police station and was on the ground within half an hour of
    the first alarm. His trained and experienced faculties were at
    once directed towards the detection of the criminals, with
    the gratifying result that the brother, Thaddeus Sholto, has
    already been arrested, together with the housekeeper, Mrs.
    Bernstone, an Indian butler named Lal Rao, and a porter, or
    gatekeeper, named McMurdo. It is quite certain that the
    thief or thieves were well acquainted with the house, for
    Mr. Jones's well-known technical knowledge and his powers
    of minute observation have enabled him to prove conclusively
    that the miscreants could not have entered by the door or by
    the window but must have made their way across the roof of
    the building, and so through a trapdoor into a room which
    communicated with that in which the body was found. This
    fact, which has been very clearly made out, proves con-
    clusively that it was no mere haphazard burglary. The prompt
    and energetic action of the officers of the law shows the
    great advantage of the presence on such occasions of a
    single vigorous and masterful mind. We cannot but think
    that it supplies an argument to those who would wish to see
    our detectives more decentralized, and so brought into closer
    and more effective touch with the cases which it is their
    duty to investigate.

  "Isn't it gorgeous!" said Holmes, grinning over his coffee
cup. "What do you think of it?"
  "I think that we have had a close shave ourselves of being
arrested for the crime."
  "So do I. I wouldn't answer for our safety now if he should
happen to have another of his attacks of energy."
  At this moment there was a loud ring at the bell, and I could
hear Mrs. Hudson, our landlady, raising her voice in a wail of
expostulation and dismay.
  "By heavens, Holmes," I said, half rising, "I believe that
they are really after us."
  "No, it's not quite so bad as that. It is the unofficial force --
the Baker Street irregulars."
  As he spoke, there came a swift pattering of naked feet upon
the stairs, a clatter of high voices, and in rushed a dozen dirty
and ragged little street Arabs. There was some show of discipline
among them, despite their tumultuous entry, for they instantly
drew up in line and stood facing us with expectant faces. One of
their number, taller and older than the others, stood forward with
an air of lounging superiority which was very funny in such a
disreputable little scarecrow.
  "Got your message, sir," said he, "and brought 'em on sharp.
Three bob and a tanner for tickets."
  "Here you are," said Holmes, producing some silver. "In
future they can report to you, Wiggins, and you to me. I cannot
have the house invaded in this way. However, it is just as well
that you should all hear the instructions. I want to find the
whereabouts of a steam launch called the Aurora, owner Mordecai
Smith, black with two red streaks, funnel black with a white
band. She is down the river somewhere. I want one boy to be at
Mordecai Smith's landing-stage opposite Millbank to say if the
boat comes back. You must divide it out among yourselves and
do both banks thoroughly. Let me know the moment you have
news. Is that all clear?"
  "Yes, guv'nor," said Wiggins.
  "The old scale of pay, and a guinea to the boy who finds the
boat. Here's a day in advance. Now off you go!"
  He handed them a shilling each, and away they buzzed down
the stairs, and I saw them a moment later streaming down the
street.
  "If the launch is above water they will find her," said Holmes
as he rose from the table and lit his pipe. "They can go every-
where, see everything, overhear everyone. I expect to hear be-
fore evening that they have spotted her. In the meanwhile, we
can do nothing but await results. We cannot pick up the broken
trail until we find either the Aurora or Mr. Mordecai Smith."
  "Toby could eat these scraps, I dare say. Are you going to
bed, Holmes?"
  "No: I am not tired. I have a curious constitution. I never
remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me
completely. I am going to smoke and to think over this queer
business to which my fair client has introduced us. If ever man
had an easy task, this of ours ought to be. Wooden-legged men
are not so common, but the other man must, I should think, be
absolutely unique."
  "That other man again!"
  "I have no wish to make a mystery of him to you, anyway.
But you must have formed your own opinion. Now, do consider
the data. Diminutive footmarks, toes never fettered by boots,
naked feet, stone-headed wooden mace, great agility, small poi-
soned darts. What do you make of all this?"
  "A savage!" I exclaimed. "Perhaps one of those Indians who
were the associates of Jonathan Small."
  "Hardly that," said he. "When first I saw signs of strange
weapons I was inclined to think so, but the remarkable character
of the footmarks caused me to reconsider my views. Some of the
inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula are small men, but none
could have left such marks as that. The Hindoo proper has long
and thin feet. The sandal-wearing Mohammedan has the great
toe well separated from the others because the thong is com-
monly passed between. These little darts, too, could only be shot
in one way. They are from a blow-pipe. Now, then, where are
we to find our savage?"
  "South America," I hazarded.
  He stretched his hand up and took down a bulky volume from
the shelf.
  "This is the first volume of a gazetteer which is now being
published. It may be looked upon as the very latest authority.
What have we here?

     "Andaman Islands, situated 340 miles to the north of Su-
   matra, in the Bay of Bengal.

Hum! hum! What's all this? Moist climate, coral reefs, sharks,
Port Blair. convict barracks, Rutland Island, cottonwoods -- Ah
here we are!

      "The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps
    claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this
    earth, though some anthropologists prefer the Bushmen of
    Africa, the Digger Indians of America, and the Terra del
    Fuegians. The average height is rather below four feet,
    although many full-grown adults may be found who are
    very much smaller than this. They are a fierce, morose,
    and intractable people, though capable of forming most
    devoted friendships when their confidence has once been
    gained.

  Mark that, Watson. Now, then listen to this.

      "They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads,
    small fierce eyes, and distorted features. Their feet and
    hands, however, are remarkably small. So intractable and
    fierce are they, that all the efforts of the British officials
    have failed to win them over in any degree. They have
    always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the
    survivors with their stone-headed clubs or shooting them
    with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably
    concluded by a cannibal feast.

Nice, amiable people, Watson! If this fellow had been left to his
own unaided devices, this affair might have taken an even more
ghastly turn. I fancy that, even as it is, Jonathan Small would
give a good deal not to have employed him."
  "But how came he to have so singular a companion?"
  "Ah, that is more than I can tell. Since, however, we had
already determined that Small had come from the Andamans, it
is not so very wonderful that this islander should be with him.
No doubt we shall know all about it in time. Look here, Watson;
you look regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa and see if I
can put you to sleep."
  He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched
myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious
air -- his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvi-
sation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his
earnest face and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be
floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound until I found
myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan
looking down upon me.

 
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