"I should do so," Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I'll admi_hat I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. "Really, Holmes," said _everely, "you are a little trying at times."
He was too much absorbed with his own thoughts to give any immediate answer t_y remonstrance. He leaned upon his hand, with his untasted breakfast befor_im, and he stared at the slip of paper which he had just drawn from it_nvelope. Then he took the envelope itself, held it up to the light, and ver_arefully studied both the exterior and the flap.
"It is Porlock's writing," said he thoughtfully. "I can hardly doubt that i_s Porlock's writing, though I have seen it only twice before. The Greek _ith the peculiar top flourish is distinctive. But if it is Porlock, then i_ust be something of the very first importance."
He was speaking to himself rather than to me; but my vexation disappeared i_he interest which the words awakened.
"Who then is Porlock?" I asked.
"Porlock, Watson, is a nom-de-plume, a mere identification mark; but behind i_ies a shifty and evasive personality. In a former letter he frankly informe_e that the name was not his own, and defied me ever to trace him among th_eeming millions of this great city. Porlock is important, not for himself, but for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself the pilo_ish with the shark, the jackal with the lion—anything that is insignifican_n companionship with what is formidable: not only formidable, Watson, bu_inister—in the highest degree sinister. That is where he comes within m_urview. You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?"
"The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as—"
"My blushes, Watson!" Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
"I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public."
"A touch! A distinct touch!" cried Holmes. "You are developing a certai_nexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guar_yself. But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eye_f the law—and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest scheme_f all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of th_nderworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny o_ations—that's the man! But so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immun_rom criticism, so admirable in his management and self-effacement, that fo_hose very words that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerg_ith your year's pension as a solatium for his wounded character. Is he no_he celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book which ascends t_uch rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was n_an in the scientific press capable of criticizing it? Is this a man t_raduce? Foul-mouthed doctor and slandered professor—such would be you_espective roles! That's genius, Watson. But if I am spared by lesser men, ou_ay will surely come."
"May I be there to see!" I exclaimed devoutly. "But you were speaking of thi_an Porlock."
"Ah, yes—the so-called Porlock is a link in the chain some little way from it_reat attachment. Porlock is not quite a sound link—between ourselves. He i_he only flaw in that chain so far as I have been able to test it."
"But no chain is stronger than its weakest link."
"Exactly, my dear Watson! Hence the extreme importance of Porlock. Led on b_ome rudimentary aspirations towards right, and encouraged by the judiciou_timulation of an occasional ten-pound note sent to him by devious methods, h_as once or twice given me advance information which has been of value—tha_ighest value which anticipates and prevents rather than avenges crime. _annot doubt that, if we had the cipher, we should find that thi_ommunication is of the nature that I indicate."
Again Holmes flattened out the paper upon his unused plate. I rose and, leaning over him, stared down at the curious inscription, which ran a_ollows:
"It is obviously an attempt to convey secret information."
"But what is the use of a cipher message without the cipher?"
"In this instance, none at all."
"Why do you say 'in this instance'?"
"Because there are many ciphers which I would read as easily as I do th_pocrypha of the agony column: such crude devices amuse the intelligenc_ithout fatiguing it. But this is different. It is clearly a reference to th_ords in a page of some book. Until I am told which page and which book I a_owerless."
"But why 'Douglas' and 'Birlstone'?"
"Clearly because those are words which were not contained in the page i_uestion."
"Then why has he not indicated the book?"
"Yow native shrewdness, my dear Watson, that innate cunning which is th_elight of your friends, would surely prevent you from inclosing cipher an_essage in the same envelope. Should it miscarry, you are undone. As it is, both have to go wrong before any harm comes from it. Our second post is no_verdue, and I shall be surprised if it does not bring us either a furthe_etter of explanation, or, as is more probable, the very volume to which thes_igures refer."
Holmes's calculation was fulfilled within a very few minutes by the appearanc_f Billy, the page, with the very letter which we were expecting.
"The same writing," remarked Holmes, as he opened the envelope, "and actuall_igned," he added in an exultant voice as he unfolded the epistle. "Come, w_re getting on, Watson." His brow clouded, however, as he glanced over th_ontents.
"Dear me, this is very disappointing! I fear, Watson, that all ou_xpectations come to nothing. I trust that the man Porlock will come to n_arm.
"DEAR MR. HOLMES [he says]:
"I will go no further in this matter. It is too dangerous—he suspects me. _an see that he suspects me. He came to me quite unexpectedly after I ha_ctually addressed this envelope with the intention of sending you the key t_he cipher. I was able to cover it up. If he had seen it, it would have gon_ard with me. But I read suspicion in his eyes. Please burn the ciphe_essage, which can now be of no use to you.
Holmes sat for some little time twisting this letter between his fingers, an_rowning, as he stared into the fire.
"After all," he said at last, "there may be nothing in it. It may be only hi_uilty conscience. Knowing himself to be a traitor, he may have read th_ccusation in the other's eyes."
"The other being, I presume, Professor Moriarty."
"No less! When any of that party talk about 'He' you know whom they mean.
There is one predominant 'He' for all of them."
"But what can he do?"
"Hum! That's a large question. When you have one of the first brains of Europ_p against you, and all the powers of darkness at his back, there are infinit_ossibilities. Anyhow, Friend Porlock is evidently scared out of hi_enses—kindly compare the writing in the note to that upon its envelope; whic_as done, he tells us, before this ill-omened visit. The one is clear an_irm. The other hardly legible."
"Why did he write at all? Why did he not simply drop it?"
"Because he feared I would make some inquiry after him in that case, an_ossibly bring trouble on him."
"No doubt," said I. "Of course." I had picked up the original cipher messag_nd was bending my brows over it. "It's pretty maddening to think that a_mportant secret may lie here on this slip of paper, and that it is beyon_uman power to penetrate it."
Sherlock Holmes had pushed away his untasted breakfast and lit the unsavour_ipe which was the companion of his deepest meditations. "I wonder!" said he, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. "Perhaps there are points which hav_scaped your Machiavellian intellect. Let us consider the problem in the ligh_f pure reason. This man's reference is to a book. That is our point o_eparture."
"A somewhat vague one."
"Let us see then if we can narrow it down. As I focus my mind upon it, i_eems rather less impenetrable. What indications have we as to this book?"
"Well, well, it is surely not quite so bad as that. The cipher message begin_ith a large 534, does it not? We may take it as a working hypothesis that 53_s the particular page to which the cipher refers. Soour book has alread_ecome a LARGE book, which is surely something gained. What other indication_ave we as to the nature of this large book? The next sign is C2. What do yo_ake of that, Watson?"
"Chapter the second, no doubt."
"Hardly that, Watson. You will, I am sure, agree with me that if the page b_iven, the number of the chapter is immaterial. Also that if page 534 finds u_nly in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been reall_ntolerable."
"Column!" I cried.
"Brilliant, Watson. You are scintillating this morning. If it is not column, then I am very much deceived. So now, you see, we begin to visualize a larg_ook printed in double columns which are each of a considerable iength, sinc_ne of the words is numbered in the document as the two hundred and ninety- third. Have we reached the limits of what reasoncan supply?"
"I fear that we have."
"Surely you do yourself an injustice. One more coruscation, my dear Watson—ye_nother brain-wave! Had the volume been an unusual one, he would have sent i_o me. Instead of that, he had intended, before his plans were nipped, to sen_e the clue in this envelope. He says so in his note. This would seem t_ndicate that the book is one which he thought I would have no difficulty i_inding for myself. He had it—and he imagined that I would have it, too. I_hort, Watson, it is a very common book."
"What you say certainly sounds plausible."
"So we have contracted our field of search to a large book, printed in doubl_olumns and in common use."
"The Bible!" I cried triumphantly.
"Good, Watson, good! But not, if I may say so, quite good enough! Even if _ccepted the compliment for myself I could hardly name any volume which woul_e less likely to lie at the elbow of one of Moriarty's associates. Besides, the editions of Holy Writ are so numerous that he could hardly suppose tha_wo copies would have the same pagination. This is clearly abook which i_tandardized. He knows for certain that his page 534 will exactly agree wit_y page 534."
"But very few books would correspond with that."
"Exactly. Therein lies our salvation. Our search is narrowed down t_tandardized books which anyone may be supposed to possess."
"There are difficulties, Watson. The vocabulary of Bradshaw is nervous an_erse, but limited. The selection of words would hardly lend itself to th_ending of general messages. We will eliminate Bradshaw. The dictionary is, _ear, inadmissible for the same reason. What then is left?"
"Excellent, Watson! I am very much mistaken if you have not touched the spot.
An almanac! Let us consider the claims of Whitaker's Almanac. It is in commo_se. It has the requisite number of pages. It is in double column. Thoug_eserved in its earlier vocabulary, it becomes, if I remember right, quit_arrulous towards the end." He picked the volume from his desk. "Here is pag_34, column two, a substantial block of print dealing, I perceive, with th_rade and resources of British India. Jot down the words, Watson! Numbe_hirteen is 'Mahratta.' Not, I fear, a very auspicious beginning. Number on_undred and twenty-seven is 'Government'; which at least makes sense, thoug_omewhat irrelevant to ourselves and Professor Moriarty. Now let us try again.
What does the Mahratta government do? Alas! the next word is 'pig's-bristles.'
We are undone, my good Watson! It is finished!"
He had spoken in jesting vein, but the twitching of his bushy eyebrows bespok_is disappointment and irritation. I sat helpless and unhappy, staring int_he fire. A long silence was broken by a sudden exclamation from Holmes, wh_ashed at a cupboard, from which he emerged with a second yellow-covere_olume in his hand.
"We pay the price, Watson, for being too up-to-date!" he cried. "We are befor_ur time, and suffer the usual penalties. Being the seventh ofJanuary, we hav_ery properly laid in the new almanac. It is more than likely that Porloc_ook his message from the old one. No doubt he would have told us so had hi_etter of explanation been written. Now let us see what page 534 has in stor_or us. Number thirteen is 'There,' which is much more promising. Number on_undred and twenty-seven is 'is'—'There is' "—Holmes's eyes were gleaming wit_xcitement, and his thin, nervous fingers twitched as he counted th_ords—"'danger.' Ha! Ha! Capital! Put that down, Watson. 'There i_anger—may—come—very—soon—one.' Then we have the name
There, Watson! What do you think of pure reason and its fruit? If the green- grocer had such a thing as a laurel wreath, I should send Billy round for it."
I was staring at the strange message which I had scrawled, as he deciphere_t, upon a sheet of foolscap on my knee.
"What a queer, scrambling way of expressing his meaning!" said I.
"On the contrary, he has done quite remarkably well," said Holmes. "When yo_earch a single column for words with which to express your meaning, you ca_ardly expect to get everything you want. You are bound to leave something t_he intelligence of your correspondent. The purport is perfectly clear. Som_eviltry is intended against one Douglas, whoever he may be, residing a_tated, a rich country gentleman. He is sure—'confidence' was as near as h_ould get to 'confident'—that it is pressing. There is our result—and a ver_orkmanlike little bit of analysis it was!"
Holmes had the impersonal joy of the true artist in his better work, even a_e mourned darkly when it fell below the high level to which he aspired. H_as still chuckling over his success when Billy swung open the door an_nspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard was ushered into the room.
Those were the early days at the end of the '80's, when Alec MacDonald was fa_rom having attained the national fame which he has now achieved. He was _oung but trusted member of the detective force, who had distinguished himsel_n several cases which had been intrusted to him. His tall, bony figure gav_romise of exceptional physical strength, while his great cranium and deep- set, lustrous eyes spoke no less clearly of the keen intelligence whic_winkled out from behind his bushy eyebrows. He was a silent, precise man wit_ dour nature and a hard Aberdonian accent.
Twice already in his career had Holmes helped him to attain success, his ow_ole reward being the intellectual joy of the problem. For this reason th_ffection and respect of the Scotchman for his amateur colleague wer_rofound, and he showed them by the frankness with which he consulted Holme_n every difficulty. Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talen_nstantly recognizes genius, and MacDonald had talent enough for hi_rofession to enable him to perceive that there was no humiliation in seekin_he assistance of one who already stood alone in Europe, both in his gifts an_n his experience. Holmes was not prone to friendship, but he was tolerant o_he big Scotchman, and smiled at the sight of him.
"You are an early bird, Mr. Mac," said he. "I wish you luck with your worm. _ear this means that there is some mischief afoot."
"If you said 'hope' instead of 'fear,' it would be nearer the truth, I'_hinking, Mr. Holmes," the inspector answered, with a knowing grin. "Well, maybe a wee nip would keep out the raw morning chill. No, I won't smoke, _hank you. I'll have to be pushing on my way; for the early hours of a cas_re the precious ones, as no man knows better than your own self. But—but—"
The inspector had stopped suddenly, and was staring with a look of absolut_mazement at a paper upon the table. It was the sheet upon which I ha_crawled the enigmatic message.
"Douglas!" he stammered. "Birlstone! What's this, Mr. Holmes? Man, it'_itchcraft! Where in the name of all that is wonderful did you get thos_ames?"
"It is a cipher that Dr. Watson and I have had occasion to solve. Bu_hy—what's amiss with the names?"
The inspector looked from one to the other of us in dazed astonishment. "Jus_his," said he, "that Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor House was horribl_urdered last night!"