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The Sign of the Four

Chapter IX
A Break in the Chain


   It was late in the afternoon before I woke, strengthened and
refreshed. Sherlock Holmes still sat exactly as I had left him
save that he had laid aside his violin and was deep in a book. He
looked across at me as I stirred, and I noticed that his face was
dark and troubled.
  "You have slept soundly," he said. "I feared that our talk
would wake you."
  "I heard nothing," I answered. "Have you had fresh news,
then?"
  "Unfortunately, no. I confess that I am surprised and disap-
pointed. I expected something definite by this time. Wiggins has
just been up to report. He says that no trace can be found of the
launch. It is a provoking check, for every hour is of importance."
  "Can I do anything? I am perfectly fresh now, and quite ready
for another night's outing."
  "No; we can do nothing. We can only wait. If we go our-
selves the message might come in our absence and delay be
caused. You can do what you will. but I must remain on guard."
  "Then I shall run over to Camberwell and call upon Mrs.
Cecil Forrester. She asked me to, yesterday."
  "On Mrs. Cecil Forrester?" asked Holmes with the twinkle of
a smile in his eyes.
  "Well, of course on Miss Morstan, too. They were anxious to
hear what happened."
  "I would not tell them too much," said Holmes. "Women
are never to be entirely trusted -- not the best of them."
  I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.
  "I shall be back in an hour or two," I remarked.
  "All right! Good luck! But, I say, if you are crossing the river
you may as well return Toby, for I don't think it is at all likely
that we shall have any use for him now."
  I took our mongrel accordingly and left him, together with a
half-sovereign, at the old naturalist's in Pinchin Lane. At
Camberwell I found Miss Morstan a little weary after her night's
adventures but very eager to hear the news. Mrs. Forrester, too,
was full of curiosity. I told them all that we had done, suppress-
ing, however, the more dreadful parts of the tragedy. Thus
although I spoke of Mr. Sholto's death, I said nothing of the
exact manner and method of it. With all my omissions, however,
there was enough to startle and amaze them.
  "It is a romance!" cried Mrs. Forrester. "An injured lady,
half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged
ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked
earl."
  "And two knight-errants to the rescue," added Miss Morstan
with a bright glance at me.
  "Why, Mary, your fortune depends upon the issue of this
search. I don't think that you are nearly excited enough. Just
imagine what it must be to be so rich and to have the world at
your feet!"
  It sent a little thrill of joy to my heart to notice that she
showed no sign of elation at the prospect. On the contrary, she
gave a toss of her proud head, as though the matter were one in
which she took small interest.
  "It is for Mr. Thaddeus Sholto that I am anxious," she said.
"Nothing else is of any consequence; but I think that he has
behaved most kindly and honourably throughout. It is our duty to
clear him of this dreadful and unfounded charge."
  It was evening before I left Camberwell, and quite dark by the
time I reached home. My companion's book and pipe lay by his
chair, but he had disappeared. I looked about in the hope of
seeing a note, but there was none.
  "I suppose that Mr. Sherlock Holmes has gone out," I said to
Mrs. Hudson as she came up to lower the blinds.
  "No, sir. He has gone to his room, sir. Do you know, sir,"
sinking her voice into an impressive whisper, "I am afraid for
his health."
  "Why so, Mrs. Hudson?"
  "Well, he's that strange, sir. After you was gone he walked
and he walked, up and down, and up and down, until I was
weary of the sound of his footstep. Then I heard him talking to
himself and muttering, and every time the bell rang out he came
on the stairhead, with 'What is that, Mrs. Hudson?' And now he
has slammed off to his room, but I can hear him walking away
the same as ever. I hope he's not going to be ill, sir. I ventured
to say something to him about cooling medicine, but he turned
on me, sir, with such a look that I don't know how ever I got out
of the room."
  "I don't think that you have any cause to be uneasy, Mrs.
Hudson," I answered. "I have seen him like this before. He has
some small matter upon his mind which makes him restless."
  I tried to speak lightly to our worthy landlady, but I was
myself somewhat uneasy when through the long night I still from
time to time heard the dull sound of his tread, and knew how his
keen spirit was chafing against this involuntary inaction.
  At breakfast-time he looked worn and haggard, with a little
fleck of feverish colour upon either cheek.
  "You are knocking yourself up, old man," I remarked. "I
heard you marching about in the night."
  "No, I could not sleep," he answered. "This infernal prob-
lem is consuming me. It is too much to be balked by so petty an
obstacle, when all else had been overcome. I know the men, the
launch, everything; and yet I can get no news. I have set other
agencies at work and used every means at my disposal. The
whole river has been searched on either side, but there is no
news, nor has Mrs. Smith heard of her husband. I shall come to
the conclusion soon that they have scuttled the craft. But there
are objections to that."
  "Or that Mrs. Smith has put us on a wrong scent."
  "No, I think that may be dismissed. I had inquiries made, and
there is a launch of that description."
  "Could it have gone up the river?"
  "I have considered that possibility, too, and there is a search-
party who will work up as far as Richmond. If no news comes
to-day I shall start off myself tomorrow and go for the men
rather than the boat. But surely, surely, we shall hear something."
  We did not, however. Not a word came to us either from
Wiggins or from the other agencies. There were articles in most
of the papers upon the Norwood tragedy. They all appeared to be
rather hostile to the unfortunate Thaddeus Sholto. No fresh
details were to be found, however, in any of them, save that an
inquest was to be held upon the following day. I walked over to
Camberwell in the evening to report our ill-success to the ladies,
and on my return I found Holmes dejected and somewhat mo-
rose. He would hardly reply to my questions and busied himself
all the evening in an abstruse chemical analysis which involved
much heating of retorts and distilling of vapours, ending at last
in a smell which fairly drove me out of the apartment. Up to the
small hours of the morning I could hear the clinking of his
test-tubes which told me that he was still engaged in his mal-
odorous experiment.
  In the early dawn I woke with a start and was surprised to find
him standing by my bedside, clad in a rude sailor dress with a
peajacket and a coarse red scarf round his neck.
  "I am off down the river, Watson," said he. "I have been
turning it over in my mind, and I can see only one way out of it.
It is worth trying, at all events."
  "Surely I can come with you, then?" said I.
  "No; you can be much more useful if you will remain here as
my representative. I am loath to go, for it is quite on the cards
that some message may come during the day, though Wiggins
was despondent about it last night. I want you to open all notes
and telegrams, and to act on your own judgment if any news
should come. Can I rely upon you?"
  "Most certainly."
  "I am afraid that you will not be able to wire to me, for I can
hardly tell yet where I may find myself. If I am in luck,
however, I may not be gone so very long. I shall have news of
some sort or other before I get back."
  I had heard nothing of him by breakfast time. On opening the
Standard, however, I found that there was a fresh allusion to the
business.

       With reference to the Upper Norwood tragedy [it remarked]
     we have reason to believe that the matter promises to be
     even more complex and mysterious than was originally
     supposed. Fresh evidence has shown that it is quite impossi-
     ble that Mr. Thaddeus Sholto could have been in any way
     concerned in the matter. He and the housekeeper, Mrs.
     Bernstone, were both released yesterday evening. It is be-
     lieved, however, that the police have a clue as to the real
     culprits, and that it is being prosecuted by Mr. Athelney
     Jones, of Scotland Yard, with all his well-known energy
     and sagacity. Further arrests may be expected at any
     moment.

  "That is satisfactory so far as it goes," thought I. "Friend
Sholto is safe, at any rate. I wonder what the fresh clue may be
though it seems to be a stereotyped form whenever the police
have made a blunder."
  I tossed the paper down upon the table, but at that moment my
eye caught an advertisement in the agony column. It ran in this
way:

      LOST -- Whereas Mordecai Smith, boatman, and his son Jim
   left Smith's Wharf at or about three o'clock last Tuesday
   morning in the steam launch Aurora, black with two red
   stripes, funnel black with a white band, the sum of five
   pounds will be paid to anyone who can give information to
   Mrs. Smith, at Smith's Wharf, or at 22lB, Baker Street, as
   to the whereabouts of the said Mordecai Smith and the
   launch Aurora.

  This was clearly Holmes's doing. The Baker Street address
was enough to prove that. It struck me as rather ingenious
because it might be read by the fugitives without their seeing in
it more than the natural anxiety of a wife for her missing
husband.
  It was a long day. Every time that a knock came to the door or
a sharp step passed in the street, I imagined that it was either
Holmes returning or an answer to his advertisement. I tried to
read, but my thoughts would wander off to our strange quest and
to the ill-assorted and villainous pair whom we were pursuing.
Could there be, I wondered, some radical flaw in my compan-
ion's reasoning? Might he not be suffering from some huge
self-deception? Was it not possible that his nimble and specula-
tive mind had built up this wild theory upon faulty premises? I
had never known him to be wrong, and yet the keenest reasoner
may occasionally be deceived. He was likely, I thought, to fall
into error through the over-refinement of his logic -- his prefer-
ence for a subtle and bizarre explanation when a plainer and
more commonplace one lay ready to his hand. Yet, on the other
hand, I had myself seen the evidence, and I had heard the
reasons for his deductions. When I looked back on the long
chain of curious circumstances, many of them trivial in them-
selves but all tending in the same direction, I could not disguise
from myself that even if Holmes's explanation were incorrect the
true theory must be equally outre and startling.
  At three o'clock on the afternoon there was a loud peal at the
bell, an authoritative voice in the hall, and, to my surprise, no
less a person than Mr. Athelney Jones was shown up to me.
Very different was he, however, from the brusque and masterful
professor of common sense who had taken over the case so
confidently at Upper Norwood. His expression was downcast,
and his bearing meek and even apologetic.
  "Good-day, sir; good-day," said he. "Mr. Sherlock Holmes is
out, I understand."
  "Yes, and I cannot be sure when he will be back. But
perhaps you would care to wait. Take that chair and try one of
these cigars."
  "Thank you; I don't mind if I do," said he, mopping his face
with a red bandanna handkerchief.
  "And a whisky and soda?"
  "Well, half a glass. It is very hot for the time of year, and I
have had a good deal to worry and try me. You know my theory
about this Norwood case?"
  "I remember that you expressed one."
  "Well, I have been obliged to reconsider it. I had my net
drawn tightly round Mr. Sholto, sir, when pop he went through a
hole in the middle of it. He was able to prove an alibi which
could not be shaken. From the time that he left his brother's
room he was never out of sight of someone or other. So it could
not be he who climbed over roofs and through trapdoors. It's a
very dark case, and my professional credit is at stake. I should
be very glad of a little assistance."
  "We all need help sometimes," said I.
  "Your friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, is a wonderful man,
sir," said he in a husky and confidential voice. "He's a man
who is not to be beat. I have known that young man go into a
good many cases, but I never saw the case yet that he could not
throw a light upon. He is irregular in his methods and a little
quick perhaps in jumping at theories, but, on the whole, I think
he would have made a most promising officer, and I don't care
who knows it. I have had a wire from him this morning, by
which I understand that he has got some clue to this Sholto
business. Here is his message."
  He took the telegram out of his pocket and handed it to me. It
was dated from Poplar at twelve o'clock.

      Go to Baker Street at once [it said]. If I have not returned,
    wait for me. I am close on the track of the Sholto gang.
    You can come with us to-night if you want to be in at the
    finish.

  "This sounds well. He has evidently picked up the scent
again," said I.
  "Ah, then he has been at fault too," exclaimed Jones with
evident satisfaction. "Even the best of us are thrown off some-
times. Of course this may prove to be a false alarm but it is my
duty as an officer of the law to allow no chance to slip. But there
is someone at the door. Perhaps this is he."
  A heavy step was heard ascending the stair, with a great
wheezing and rattling as from a man who was sorely put to it for
breath. Once or twice he stopped, as though the climb were too
much for him, but at last he made his way to our door and
entered. His appearance corresponded to the sounds which we
had heard. He was an aged man, clad in seafaring garb, with an
old pea-jacket buttoned up to his throat. His back was bowed
his knees were shaky, and his breathing was painfully asthmatic.
As he leaned upon a thick oaken cudgel his shoulders heaved in
the effort to draw the air into his lungs. He had a coloured scarf
round his chin, and I could see little of his face save a pair of
keen dark eyes, overhung by bushy white brows and long gray
side-whiskers. Altogether he gave me the impression of a re-
spectable master mariner who had fallen into years and poverty.
  "What is it, my man?" I asked.
  He looked about him in the slow methodical fashion of old
age.
  "Is Mr. Sherlock Holmes here?" said he.
  "No; but I am acting for him. You can tell me any message
you have for him."
  "It was to him himself I was to tell it," said he.
  "But I tell you that I am acting for him. Was it about
Mordecai Smith's boat?''
  "Yes. I knows well where it is. An' I knows where the men
he is after are. An' I knows where the treasure is. I knows all
about it."
  "Then tell me, and I shall let him know."
  "It was to him I was to tell it," he repeated with the petulant
obstinacy of a very old man.
  "Well, you must wait for him."
  "No, no; I ain't goin' to lose a whole day to please no one. If
Mr. Holmes ain't here, then Mr. Holmes must find it all out for
himself. I don't care about the look of either of you, and I won't
tell a word."
  He shuffled towards the door, but Athelney Jones got in front
of him.
  "Wait a bit, my friend," said he. "You have important
information, and you must not walk off. We shall keep you,
whether you like or not, until our friend returns."
  The old man made a little run towards the door, but, as
Athelney Jones put his broad back up against it, he recognized
the uselessness of resistance.
  "Pretty sort o' treatment this!" he cried, stamping his stick.
"I come here to see a gentleman, and you two, who I never saw
in my life, seize me and treat me in this fashion!"
  "You will be none the worse," I said. "We shall recompense
you for the loss of your time. Sit over here on the sofa, and you
will not have long to wait."
  He came across sullenly enough and seated himself with his
face resting on his hands. Jones and I resumed our cigars and our
talk. Suddenly, however, Holmes's voice broke in upon us.
  "I think that you might offer me a cigar too," he said.
  We both started in our chairs. There was Holmes sitting close
to us with an air of quiet amusement.
  "Holmes!" I exclaimed. "You here! But where is the old
man?"
  "Here is the old man," said he, holding out a heap of white
hair. "Here he is -- wig, whiskers, eyebrows, and all. I thought
my disguise was pretty good, but I hardly expected that it would
stand that test."
  "Ah, you rogue!" cried Jones, highly delighted. "You would
have made an actor and a rare one. You had the proper work-
house cough, and those weak legs of yours are worth ten pound a
week. I thought I knew the glint of your eye, though. You didn't
get away from us so easily, you see."
  "I have been working in that get-up all day," said he, lighting
his cigar. "You see, a good many of the criminal classes begin
to know me -- especially since our friend here took to publishing
some of my cases: so I can only go on the war-path under some
simple disguise like this. You got my wire?"
  "Yes; that was what brought me here."
  "How has your case prospered?"
  "It has all come to nothing. I have had to release two of my
prisoners, and there is no evidence against the other two."
  "Never mind. We shall give you two others in the place of
them. But you must put yourself under my orders. You are 
welcome to all the official credit, but you must act on the lines
that I point out. Is that agreed?"
  "Entirely, if you will help me to the men."
  "Well, then, in the first place I shall want, a fast police-
boat -- a steam launch -- to be at the Westminster Stairs at seven
o'clock."
  "That is easily managed. There is always one about there, but
I can step across the road and telephone to make sure."
  "Then I shall want two staunch men in case of resistance."
  "There will be two or three in the boat. What else?"
  "When we secure the men we shall get the treasure. I think
that it would be a pleasure to my friend here to take the box
round to the young lady to whom half of it rightfully belongs.
Let her be the first to open it. Eh, Watson?"
  "It would be a great pleasure to me."
  "Rather an irregular proceeding," said Jones, shaking his
head. "However, the whole thing is irregular, and I suppose we
must wink at it. The treasure must afterwards be handed over to
the authorities until after the official investigation."
  "Certainly. That is easily managed. One other point. I should
much like to have a few details about this matter from the lips of
Jonathan Small himself. You know I like to work the details of
my cases out. There is no objection to my having an unofficial
interview with him, either here in my rooms or elsewhere, as
long as he is efficiently guarded?"
  "Well, you are master of the situation. I have had no proof
yet of the existence of this Jonathan Small. However, if you can
catch him, I don't see how I can refuse you an interview with
him."
  "That is understood, then?"
  "Perfectly. Is there anything else?"
  "Only that I insist upon your dining with us. It will be ready
in half an hour. I have oysters and a brace of grouse, with
something a little choice in white wines. -- Watson, you have
never yet recognized my merits as a housekeeper."

 
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