“And stole that very singular collection,” said Holmes thoughtfully.
“Hum! It may prove the simplest matter in the world, but all the same at first glance this is just a little curious, is it not? A gang of burglars acting in the country might be expected to vary the scene of their operations, and not to crack two cribs in the same district within a few days. When you spoke last night of taking precautions I remember that it passed through my mind that this was probably the last parish in England to which the thief or thieves would be likely to turn their attention — which shows that I have still much to learn.”
“I fancy it’s some local practitioner,” said the colonel. “In that case, of course, Acton’s and Cunningham’s are just the places he would go for, since they are far the largest about here.”
“Well, they ought to be, but they’ve had a lawsuit for some years which has sucked the blood out of both of them, I fancy. Old Acton has some claim on half Cunningham’s estate, and the lawyers have been at it with both hands.”
“If it’s a local villain there should not be much difficulty in running him down,” said Holmes with a yawn. “All right, Watson, I don’t intend to meddle.”
“Inspector Forrester, sir,” said the butler, throwing open the door.
The official, a smart, keen-faced young fellow, stepped into the room. “Good-morning, Colonel,” said he. “I hope I don’t intrude, but we hear that Mr. Holmes of Baker Street is here.”
The colonel waved his hand towards my friend, and the inspector bowed.
“We thought that perhaps you would care to step across, Mr. Holmes.”
“The fates are against you, Watson,” said he, laughing. “We were chatting about the matter when you came in, Inspector. Perhaps you can let us have a few details.” As he leaned back in his chair in the familiar attitude I knew that the case was hopeless.
“We had no clue in the Acton affair. But here we have plenty to go on, and there’s no doubt it is the same party in each case. The man was seen.”
“Yes, sir. But he was off like a deer after the shot that killed poor William Kirwan was fired. Mr. Cunningham saw him from the bedroom window, and Mr. Alec Cunningham saw him from the back passage. It was quarter to twelve when the alarm broke out. Mr. Cunningham had just got into bed, and Mr. Alec was smoking a pipe in his dressing-gown. They both heard William, the coachman, calling for help, and Mr. Alec ran down to see what was the matter. The back door was open, and as he came to the foot of the stairs he saw two men wrestling together outside. One of them fired a shot, the other dropped, and the murderer rushed across the garden and over the hedge. Mr. Cunningham, looking out of his bedroom, saw the fellow as he gained the road, but lost sight of him at once. Mr. Alec stopped to see if he could help the dying man, and so the villain got clean away. Beyond the fact that he was a middle-sized man and dressed in some dark stuff, we have no personal clue; but we are making energetic inquiries, and if he is a stranger we shall soon find him out.”
“What was this William doing there? Did he say anything before he died?”
“Not a word. He lives at the lodge with his mother, and as he was a very faithful fellow we imagine that he walked up to the house with the intention of seeing that all was right there. Of course this Acton business has put everyone on their guard. The robber must have just burst open the door — the lock has been forced — when William came upon him.”
“Did William say anything to his mother before going out?”
“She is very old and deaf, and we can get no information from her. The shock has made her half-witted, but I understand that she was never very bright. There is one very important circumstance, however. Look at this!”
He took a small piece of torn paper from a notebook and spread it out upon his knee.
“This was found between the finger and thumb of the dead man. It appears to be a fragment torn from a larger sheet. You will observe that the hour mentioned upon it is the very time at which the poor fellow met his fate. You see that his murderer might have torn the rest of the sheet from him or he might have taken this fragment from the murderer. It reads almost as though it were an appointment.”
Holmes took up the scrap of paper, a facsimile of which is here reproduced.
At quarter to twelve