We followed the Indian down a sordid and common passage, ill-lit and wors_urnished, until he came to a door upon the right, which he threw open. _laze of yellow light streamed out upon us, and in the centre of the glar_here stood a small man with a very high head, a bristle of red hair all roun_he fringe of it, and a bald, shining scalp which shot out from among it lik_ mountain-peak from fir-trees. He writhed his hands together as he stood, an_is features were in a perpetual jerk — now smiling, now scowling, but neve_or an instant in repose. Nature had given him a pendulous lip, and a to_isible line of yellow and irregular teeth, which he strove feebly to concea_y constantly passing his hand over the lower part of his face. In spite o_is obtrusive baldness he gave the impression of youth. In point of fact, h_ad just turned his thirtieth year.
"Your servant, Miss Morstan," he kept repeating in a thin, high voice. "You_ervant, gentlemen. Pray step into my little sanctum. A small place, miss, bu_urnished to my own liking. An oasis of art in the howling desert of Sout_ondon."
We were all astonished by the appearance of the apartment into which h_nvited us. In that sorry house it looked as out of place as a diamond of th_irst water in a setting of brass. The richest and glossiest of curtains an_apestries draped the walls, looped back here and there to expose some richl_ounted painting or Oriental vase. The carpet was of amber and black, so sof_nd so thick that the foot sank pleasantly into it, as into a bed of moss. Tw_reat tiger-skins thrown athwart it increased the suggestion of Easter_uxury, as did a huge hookah which stood upon a mat in the corner. A lamp i_he fashion of a silver dove was hung from an almost invisible golden wire i_he centre of the room. As it burned it filled the air with a subtle an_romatic odour.
"Mr. Thaddeus Sholto," said the little man, still jerking and smiling. "Tha_s 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 _sk you — would you have the kindness? I have grave doubts as to my mitra_alve, if you would be so very good. The aortic I may rely upon, but I shoul_alue 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 t_oot.
"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 grea_ufferer, and I have long had suspicions as to that valve. I am delighted t_ear that they are unwarranted. Had your father, Miss Morstan, refrained fro_hrowing 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 an_ffhand reference to so delicate a matter. Miss Morstan sat down, and her fac_rew 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 yo_ustice; and I will, too, whatever Brother Bartholomew may say. I am so gla_o have your friends here not only as an escort to you but also as witnesse_o what I am about to do and say. The three of us can show a bold front t_rother Bartholomew. But let us have no outsiders — no police or officials. W_an settle everything satisfactorily among ourselves without any interference.
Nothing would annoy Brother Bartholomew 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 n_urther."
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 th_alsamic odour of the Eastern tobacco. I am a little nervous, and I find m_ookah an invaluable sedative."
He applied a taper to the great bowl, and the smoke bubbled merrily throug_he rose-water. We sat all three in a semicircle, with our heads advanced an_ur chins upon our hands, while the strange, jerky little fellow, with hi_igh, shining head, puffed uneasily in the centre.
"When I first determined to make this communication to you," said he, "I migh_ave given you my address; but I feared that you might disregard my reques_nd bring unpleasant people with you. I took the liberty, therefore, of makin_n appointment in such a way that my man Williams might be able to see yo_irst. I have complete confidence in his discretion, and he had orders, if h_ere dissatisfied, to proceed no further in the matter. You will excuse thes_recautions, but I am a man of somewhat retiring, and I might even sa_efined, tastes, and there is nothing more unaesthetic than a policeman. _ave a natural shrinking from all forms of rough materialism. I seldom come i_ontact with the rough crowd. I live, as you see, with some little atmospher_f elegance around me. I may call myself a patron of the arts. It is m_eakness. The landscape is a genuine Corot, and though a connoisseur migh_erhaps throw a doubt upon that Salvator Rosa, there cannot be the leas_uestion 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 you_equest to learn something which you desire to tell me. It is very late, and _hould desire the interview to be as short as possible."
"At the best it must take some time," he answered; "for we shall certainl_ave to go to Norwood and see Brother Bartholomew. We shall all go and try i_e can get the better of Brother Bartholomew. He is very angry with me fo_aking the course which has seemed right to me. I had quite high words wit_im last night. You cannot imagine what a terrible fellow he is when he i_ngry."
"If we are to go to Norwood, it would perhaps be as well to start at once," _entured 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 brough_ou in that sudden way. No, I must prepare you by showing you how we all stan_o each other. In the first place, I must tell you that there are severa_oints in the story of which I am myself ignorant. I can only lay the fact_efore you as far as I know them myself.
"My father was, as you may have guessed, Major John Sholto, once of the India_rmy. He retired some eleven years ago and came to live at Pondicherry Lodg_n Upper Norwood. He had prospered in India and brought back with him _onsiderable sum of money, a large collection of valuable curiosities, and _taff of native servants. With these advantages he bought himself a house, an_ived in great luxury. My twin-brother Bartholomew and I were the onl_hildren.
"I very well remember the sensation which was caused by the disappearance o_aptain Morstan. We read the details in the papers, and knowing that he ha_een a friend of our father's we discussed the case freely in his presence. H_sed to join in our speculations as to what could have happened. Never for a_nstant 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 ou_ather. He was very fearful of going out alone, and he always employed tw_rize-fighters to act as porters at Pondicherry Lodge. Williams, who drove yo_onight, was one of them. He was once lightweight champion of England. Ou_ather would never tell us what it was he feared, but he had a most marke_version to men with wooden legs. On one occasion he actually fired hi_evolver at a wooden-legged man, who proved to be a harmless tradesma_anvassing for orders. We had to pay a large sum to hush the matter up. M_rother and I used to think this a mere whim of my father's, but events hav_ince led us to change our opinion.
"Early in 1882 my father received a letter from India which was a great shoc_o him. He nearly fainted at the breakfast-table when he opened it, and fro_hat day he sickened to his death. What was in the letter we could neve_iscover, but I could see as he held it that it was short and written in _crawling hand. He had suffered for years from an enlarged spleen, but he no_ecame rapidly worse, and towards the end of April we were informed that h_as 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 breathin_eavily. He besought us to lock the door and to come upon either side of th_ed. Then grasping our hands he made a remarkable statement to us in a voic_hich was broken as much by emotion as by pain. I shall try and give it to yo_n his own very words.
" 'I have only one thing,' he said, 'which weighs upon my mind at this suprem_oment. It is my treatment of poor Morstan's orphan. The cursed greed whic_as 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 i_yself, so blind and foolish a thing is avarice. The mere feeling o_ossession has been so dear to me that I could not bear to share it wit_nother. See that chaplet tipped with pearls beside the quinine-bottle. Eve_hat I could not bear to part with, although I had got it out with the desig_f sending it to her. You, my sons, will give her a fair share of the Agr_reasure. But send her nothing — not even the chaplet — until I am gone. Afte_ll, men have been as bad as this and have recovered.
" 'I will tell you how Morstan died,' he continued. 'He had suffered for year_rom a weak heart, but he concealed it from every one. I alone knew it. Whe_n India, he and I, through a remarkable chain of circumstances, came int_ossession of a considerable treasure. I brought it over to England, and o_he 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 La_howdar, who is now dead. Morstan and I had a difference of opinion as to th_ivision of the treasure, and we came to heated words. Morstan had sprung ou_f his chair in a paroxysm of anger, when he suddenly pressed his hand to hi_ide, his face turned a dusky hue, and he fell backward, cutting his hea_gainst the corner of the treasure-chest. When I stooped over him I found, t_y horror, that he was dead.
" 'For a long time I sat half distracted, wondering what I should do. My firs_mpulse was, of course, to call for assistance; but I could not but recogniz_hat there was every chance that I would be accused of his murder. His deat_t the moment of a quarrel, and the gash in his head, would be black agains_e. Again, an official inquiry could not be made without bringing out som_acts about the treasure, which I was particularly anxious to keep secret. H_ad told me that no soul upon earth knew where he had gone. There seemed to b_o 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. "D_ot fear, sahib," he said; "no one need know that you have killed him. Let u_ide him away, and who is the wiser?" "I did not kill him," said I. La_howdar shook his head and smiled. "I heard it all, sahib," said he; "l hear_ou quarrel, and I heard the blow. But my lips are sealed. All are asleep i_he house. Let us put him away together." That was enough to decide me. If m_wn servant could not believe my innocence, how could I hope to make it goo_efore twelve foolish tradesmen in a jury-box? Lal Chowdar and I disposed o_he body that night, and within a few days the London papers were full of th_ysterious disappearance of Captain Morstan. You will see from what I say tha_ can hardly be blamed in the matter. My fault lies in the fact that w_oncealed not only the body but also the treasure and that I have clung t_orstan's share as well as to my own. I wish you, therefore, to mak_estitution. Put your ears down to my mouth. The treasure is hidden in —'
"At this instant a horrible change came over his expression; his eyes stare_ildly, 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 th_indow behind us upon which his gaze was fixed. A face was looking in at u_ut of the darkness. We could see the whitening of the nose where it wa_ressed against the glass. It was a bearded, hairy face, with wild cruel eye_nd an expression of concentrated malevolence. My brother and I rushed toward_he window, but the man was gone. When we returned to my father his head ha_ropped and his pulse had ceased to beat.
"We searched the garden that night but found no sign of the intruder save tha_ust under the window a single footmark was visible in the flower-bed. But fo_hat one trace, we might have thought that our imaginations had conjured u_hat wild, fierce face. We soon, however, had another and a more strikin_roof that there were secret agencies at work all round us. The window of m_ather's room was found open in the morning, his cupboards and boxes had bee_ifled, and upon his chest was fixed a torn piece of paper with the words 'Th_ign of the four' scrawled across it. What the phrase meant or who our secre_isitor may have been, we never knew. As far as we can judge, none of m_ather's property had been actually stolen, though everything had been turne_ut. My brother and I naturally associated this peculiar incident with th_ear which haunted my father during his life, but it is still a complet_ystery to us."
The little man stopped to relight his hookah and puffed thoughtfully for a fe_oments. We had all sat absorbed, listening to his extraordinary narrative. A_he 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 _enetian carafe upon the side-table. Sherlock Holmes leaned back in his chai_ith 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 ha_omplained bitterly of the commonplaceness of life. Here at least was _roblem which would tax his sagacity to the utmost. Mr. Thaddeus Sholto looke_rom one to the other of us with an obvious pride at the effect which hi_tory 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 th_reasure which my father had spoken of. For weeks and for months we dug an_elved in every part of the garden without discovering its whereabouts. It wa_addening to think that the hiding-place was on his very lips at the momen_hat he died. We could judge the splendour of the missing riches by th_haplet which he had taken out. Over this chaplet my brother Bartholomew and _ad some little discussion. The pearls were evidently of great value, and h_as averse to part with them, for, between friends, my brother was himself _ittle inclined to my father's fault. He thought, too, that if we parted wit_he chaplet it might give rise to gossip and finally bring us into trouble. I_as all that I could do to persuade him to let me find out Miss Morstan'_ddress and send her a detached pearl at fixed intervals so that at least sh_ight never feel destitute."
"It was a kindly thought," said our companion earnestly; "it was extremel_ood 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 ha_lenty of money ourselves. I desired no more. Besides, it would have been suc_ad taste to have treated a young lady in so scurvy a fashion. 'Le mauvai_odt 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 bes_o set up rooms for myself; so I left Pondicherry Lodge, taking the ol_hitmutgar and Williams with me. Yesterday, however, I learned that an even_f extreme importance has occurred. The treasure has been discovered. _nstantly communicated with Miss Morstan, and it only remains for us to driv_ut to Norwood and demand our share. I explained my views last night t_rother Bartholomew, so we shall be expected, if not welcome, visitors."
Mr. Thaddeus Sholto ceased and sat twitching on his luxurious settee. We al_emained silent, with our thoughts upon the new development which th_ysterious 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 tha_e may be able to make you some small return by throwing some light upon tha_hich is still dark to you. But, as Miss Morstan remarked just now, it i_ate, and we had best put the matter through without delay."
Our new acquaintance very deliberately coiled up the tube of his hookah an_roduced from behind a curtain a very long befrogged topcoat with astrakha_ollar and cuffs. This he buttoned tightly up in spite of the extrem_loseness of the night and finished his attire by putting on a rabbit-skin ca_ith hanging lappets which covered the ears, so that no part of him wa_isible save his mobile and peaky face.
"My health is somewhat fragile," he remarked as he led the way down th_assage. "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 talke_ncessantly 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 ou_here the treasure was? He had come to the conclusion that it was somewher_ndoors, so he worked out all the cubic space of the house and mad_easurements everywhere so that not one inch should be unaccounted for. Amon_ther 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 ever_llowance for the space between, which he ascertained by borings, he could no_ring the total to more than seventy feet. There were four feet unaccounte_or. 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 bee_ealed up and was known to no one. In the centre stood the treasure-ches_esting 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 governes_o the richest heiress in England. Surely it was the place of a loyal frien_o rejoice at such news, yet I am ashamed to say that selfishness took me b_he soul and that my heart turned as heavy as lead within me. I stammered ou_ome few halting words of congratulation and then sat downcast, with my hea_rooped, deaf to the babble of our new acquaintance. He was clearly _onfirmed hypochondriac, and I was dreamily conscious that he was pourin_orth interminable trains of symptoms, and imploring information as to th_omposition and action of innumerable quack nostrums, some of which he bor_bout in a leather case in his pocket. I trust that he may not remember any o_he answers which I gave him that night. Holmes declares that he overheard m_aution 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 tha_ay be, I was certainly relieved when our cab pulled up with a jerk and th_oachman sprang down to open the door.
"This, Miss Morstan, is Pondicherry Lodge," said Mr. Thaddeus Sholto as h_anded her out.