“Whatever were you doing with that bird, Jem?” says she.
“Well,’ said I, ‘you said you’d give me one for Christmas, and I was feeling which was the fattest.”
“Oh,’ says she, ‘we’ve set yours aside for you — Jem’s bird, we call it. It’s the big white one over yonder. There’s twenty-six of them, which makes one for you, and one for us, and two dozen for the market.”
“Thank you, Maggie,’ says l; ‘but if it is all the same to you, I’d rather have that one I was handling just now.”
“The other is a good three pound heavier,’ said she, ‘and we fattened it expressly for you.”
“Never mind. I’ll have the other, and I’ll take it now,’ said I.
“Oh, just as you like,’ said she, a little huffed. ‘Which is it you want, then?”
“That white one with the barred tail, right in the middle of the flock.”
“Oh, very well. Kill it and take it with you.”
“Well, I did what she said, Mr. Holmes, and I carried the bird all the way to Kilburn. I told my pal what I had done, for he was a man that it was easy to tell a thing like that to. He laughed until he choked, and we got a knife and opened the goose. My heart turned to water, for there was no sign of the stone, and I knew that some terrible mistake had occurred. I left the bird rushed back to my sister’s, and hurried into the back yard. There was not a bird to be seen there.
“Where are they all, Maggie?’ I cried.
“Gone to the dealer’s, Jem.”
“Breckinridge, of Covent Garden.”
“But was there another with a barred tail?’ I asked, ‘the same as the one I chose?”
“Yes, Jem; there were two barred-tailed ones, and I could never tell them apart.”
“Well, then, of course I saw it all, and I ran off as hard as my feet would carry me to this man Breckinridge; but he had sold the lot at once, and not one word would he tell me as to where they had gone. You heard him yourselves to-night. Well, he has always answered me like that. My sister thinks that I am going mad. Sometimes I think that I am myself. And now — and now I am myself a branded thief, without ever having touched the wealth for which I sold my character. God help me! God help me!” He burst into convulsive sobbing, with his face buried in his hands.
There was a long silence, broken only by his heavy breathing and by the measured tapping of Sherlock Holmes’s finger-tips upon the edge of the table. Then my friend rose and threw open the door.
“Get out!” said he.
“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”
“No more words. Get out!”
And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.
“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony. but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”