“Oh, certainly, certainly,” answered Mr. Baker with a sigh of relief.
“Of course, we still have the feathers, legs, crop, and so on of your own bird, so if you wish –“
The man burst into a hearty laugh. “They might be useful to me as relics of my adventure,” said he, “but beyond that I can hardly see what use the disjecta membra of my late acquaintance are going to be to me. No, sir, I think that, with your permission, I will confine my attentions to the excellent bird which I perceive upon the sideboard.”
Sherlock Holmes glanced sharply across at me with a slight shrug of his shoulders.
“There is your hat, then, and there your bird,” said he. “By the way, would it bore you to tell me where you got the other one from? I am somewhat of a fowl fancier, and I have seldom seen a better grown goose.”
“Certainly, sir,” said Baker, who had risen and tucked his newly gained property under his arm. “There are a few of us who frequent the Alpha Inn, near the Museum — we are to be found in the Museum itself during the day, you understand. This year our good host, Windigate by name, instituted a goose club, by which, on consideration of some few pence every week, we were each to receive a bird at Christmas. My pence were duly paid, and the rest is familiar to you. I am much indebted to you, sir, for a Scotch bonnet is fitted neither to my years nor my gravity.” With a comical pomposity of manner he bowed solemnly to both of us and strode off upon his way.
“So much for Mr. Henry Baker,” said Holmes when he had closed the door behind him. “It is quite certain that he knows nothing whatever about the matter. Are you hungry, Watson?”
“Then I suggest that we turn our dinner into a supper and follow up this clue while it is still hot.”
“By all means.”
It was a bitter night, so we drew on our ulsters and wrapped cravats about our throats. Outside, the stars were shining coldly in a cloudless sky, and the breath of the passers-by blew out into smoke like so many pistol shots. Our footfalls rang out crisply and loudly as we swung through the doctors’ quarter, Wimpole Street, Harley Street, and so through Wigmore Street into Oxford Street. In a quarter of an hour we were in Bloomsbury at the Alpha Inn, which is a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn. Holmes pushed open the door of the private bar and ordered two glasses of beer from the ruddy-faced, white-aproned landlord.
“Your beer should be excellent if it is as good as your geese,” said he.
“My geese!” The man seemed surprised.
“Yes. I was speaking only half an hour ago to Mr. Henry Baker, who was a member of your goose club.”
“Ah! yes, I see. But you see, sir, them’s not our geese.”
“Indeed! Whose, then?”
“Well, I got the two dozen from a salesman in Covent Garden.”
“Indeed? I know some of them. Which was it?”
“Breckinridge is his name.”
“Ah! I don’t know him. Well, here’s your good health landlord, and prosperity to your house. Good-night.
“Now for Mr. Breckinridge,” he continued, buttoning up his coat as we came out into the frosty air. “Remember, Watson that though we have so homely a thing as a goose at one end of this chain, we have at the other a man who will certainly get seven years’ penal servitude unless we can establish his innocence. It is possible that our inquiry may but confirm his guilt but, in any case, we have a line of investigation which has been missed by the police, and which a singular chance has placed in our hands. Let us follow it out to the bitter end. Faces to the south, then, and quick march!”
We passed across Holborn, down Endell Street, and so through a zigzag of slums to Covent Garden Market. One of the largest stalls bore the name of Breckinridge upon it, and the proprietor a horsy-looking man, with a sharp face and trim side-whiskers was helping a boy to put up the shutters.
“Good-evening. It’s a cold night,” said Holmes.
The salesman nodded and shot a questioning glance at my companion.
“Sold out of geese, I see,” continued Holmes, pointing at the bare slabs of marble.
“Let you have five hundred to-morrow morning.”
“That’s no good.”
“Well, there are some on the stall with the gas-flare.”
“Ah, but I was recommended to you.”
“The landlord of the Alpha.”
“Oh, yes; I sent him a couple of dozen.”
“Fine birds they were, too. Now where did you get them from?”
To my surprise the question provoked a burst of anger from the salesman.
“Now, then, mister,” said he, with his head cocked and his arms akimbo, “what are you driving at? Let’s have it straight, now.”
“It is straight enough. I should like to know who sold you the geese which you supplied to the Alpha.”
“Well then, I shan’t tell you. So now!”
“Oh, it is a matter of no importance; but I don’t know why you should be so warm over such a trifle.”
“Warm! You’d be as warm, maybe, if you were as pestered as I am. When I pay good money for a good article there should be an end of the business; but it’s ‘Where are the geese?’ and ‘Who did you sell the geese to?’ and ‘What will you take for the geese?’ One would think they were the only geese in the world, to hear the fuss that is made over them.”
“Well, I have no connection with any other people who have been making inquiries,” said Holmes carelessly. “If you won’t tell us the bet is off, that is all. But I’m always ready to back my opinion on a matter of fowls, and I have a fiver on it that the bird I ate is country bred.”
“Well, then, you’ve lost your fiver, for it’s town bred,” snapped the salesman.
“It’s nothing of the kind.”
“I say it is.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“D’you think you know more about fowls than I, who have handled them ever since I was a nipper? I tell you, all those birds that went to the Alpha were town bred.”
“You’ll never persuade me to believe that.”
“Will you bet, then?”
“It’s merely taking your money, for I know that I am right. But I’ll have a sovereign on with you, just to teach you not to be obstinate.”
The salesman chuckled grimly. “Bring me the books, Bill,” said he.
The small boy brought round a small thin volume and a great greasy-backed one, laying them out together beneath the hanging lamp.