“It was merely that I wished to ask a question in your presence. Did you, Mrs. Maberley, mention to anyone that you were going to write to me and consult me?”
“No, Mr. Holmes, I did not.”
“Who posted your letter?”
“Exactly. Now, Susan, to whom was it that you wrote or sent a message to say that your mistress was asking advice from me?”
“It’s a lie. I sent no message.”
“Now, Susan, wheezy people may not live long, you know. It’s a wicked thing to tell fibs. Whom did you tell?”
“Susan!” cried her mistress, “I believe you are a bad, treacherous woman. I remember now that I saw you speaking to someone over the hedge.”
“That was my own business,” said the woman sullenly.
“Suppose I tell you that it was Barney Stockdale to whom you spoke?” said Holmes.
“Well, if you know, what do you want to ask for?”
“I was not sure, but I know now. Well now, Susan, it will be worth ten pounds to you if you will tell me who is at the back of Barney.”
“Someone that could lay down a thousand pounds for every ten you have in the world.”
“So, a rich man? No; you smiled — a rich woman. Now we have got so far, you may as well give the name and earn the tenner.”
“I’ll see you in hell first.”
“Oh, Susan! Language!”
“I am clearing out of here. I’ve had enough of you all. I’ll send for my box to-morrow.” She flounced for the door.
“Good-bye, Susan. Paregoric is the stuff… . Now,” he continued, turning suddenly from lively to severe when the door had closed behind the flushed and angry woman, “this gang means business. Look how close they play the game. Your letter to me had the 10 P.M. postmark. And yet Susan passes the word to Barney. Barney has time to go to his employer and get instructions; he or she — I incline to the latter from Susan’s grin when she thought I had blundered — forms a plan. Black Steve is called in, and I am warned off by eleven o’clock next morning. That’s quick work, you know.”
“But what do they want?”
“Yes, that’s the question. Who had the house before you?”
“A retired sea captain called Ferguson.”
“Anything remarkable about him?”
“Not that ever I heard of.”
“I was wondering whether he could have buried something. Of course, when people bury treasure nowadays they do it in the Post-Office bank. But there are always some lunatics about. It would be a dull world without them. At first I thought of some buried valuable. But why, in that case, should they want your furniture? You don’t happen to have a Raphael or a first folio Shakespeare without knowing it?”
“No, I don’t think I have anything rarer than a Crown Derby tea-set.”
“That would hardly justify all this mystery. Besides, why should they not openly state what they want? If they covet your tea-set, they can surely offer a price for it without buying you out, lock, stock, and barrel. No, as I read it, there is something which you do not know that you have, and which you would not give up if you did know.”
“That is how I read it,” said I.
“Dr. Watson agrees, so that settles it.”
“Well, Mr. Holmes, what can it be?”
“Let us see whether by this purely mental analysis we can get it to a finer point. You have been in this house a year.”
“All the better. During this long period no one wants anything from you. Now suddenly within three or four days you have urgent demands. What would you gather from that?”
“It can only mean,” said I, “that the object, whatever it may be, has only just come into the house.”
“Settled once again,” said Holmes. “Now, Mrs. Maberley has any object just arrived?”
“No, I have bought nothing new this year.”
“Indeed! That is very remarkable. Well, I think we had best let matters develop a little further until we have clearer data. Is that lawyer of yours a capable man?”
“Mr. Sutro is most capable.”
“Have you another maid, or was the fair Susan, who has just banged your front door alone?”
“I have a young girl.”
“Try and get Sutro to spend a night or two in the house. You might possibly want protection.”
“Who knows? The matter is certainly obscure. If I can’t find what they are after, I must approach the matter from the other end and try to get at the principal. Did this house-agent man give any address?”
“Simply his card and occupation. Haines-Johnson, Auctioneer and Valuer.”
“I don’t think we shall find him in the directory. Honest business men don’t conceal their place of business. Well, you will let me know any fresh development. I have taken up your case, and you may rely upon it that I shall see it through.”
As we passed through the hall Holmes’s eyes, which missed nothing, lighted upon several trunks and cases which were piled in a corner. The labels shone out upon them.
” ‘Milano.’ ‘Lucerne.’ These are from Italy.”
“They are poor Douglas’s things.”
“You have not unpacked them? How long have you had them?”
“They arrived last week.”
“But you said — why, surely this might be the missing link. How do we know that there is not something of value there?”
“There could not possibly be, Mr. Holmes. Poor Douglas had only his pay and a small annuity. What could he have of value?”
Holmes was lost in thought.
“Delay no longer, Mrs. Maberley,” he said at last. “Have these things taken upstairs to your bedroom. Examine them as soon as possible and see what they cohtain. I will come tomorrow and hear your report.”
It was quite evident that The Three Gables was under very close surveillance, for as we came round the high hedge at the end of the lane there was the negro prize-fighter standing in the shadow. We came on him quite suddenly, and a grim and menacing figure he looked in that lonely place. Holmes clapped his hand to his pocket.
“Lookin’ for your gun, Masser Holmes?”
“No, for my scent-bottle, Steve.”
“You are funny, Masser Holmes, ain’t you?”
“It won’t be funny for you, Steve, if I get after you. I gave you fair warning this morning.”