I don't think that any of my adventures with Mr. Sherlock Holmes opened quite so abruptly, or so dramatically, as that which I associate with The Three Gables. I had not seen Holmes for some days, and had no idea of the new channel into which his activities had been directed. He was in a chatty mood that morning, however, and had just settled me into the well-worn low arm-chair on one side of the fire, while he had curled down with his pipe in his mouth upon the opposite chair, when our visitor arrived. If I had said that a mad bull had arrived, it would give a clearer impression of what occurred.
The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room. He would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific, for he was dressed in a very loud grey check suit with a flowing salmon-coloured tie. His broad face and flattened nose were thrust forward, as his sullen dark eyes, with a smouldering gleam of malice in them, turned from one of us to the other.
"Which of you genelmen is Masser Holmes?" he asked.
Holmes raised his pipe with a languid smile.
"Oh! it's you, is it?" said our visitor, coming with an unpleasant, stealthy step round the angle of the table. "See here, Masser Holmes, you keep your hands out of other folks' business. Leave folks to manage their own affairs. Got that, Masser Holmes?"
"Keep on talking," said Holmes. "It's fine."
"Oh! it's fine, is it?" growled the savage. "It won't be so damn fine if I have to trim you up a bit. I've handled your kind before now, and they didn't look fine when I was through with them. Look at that, Masser Holmes!"
He swung a huge knotted lump of a fist under my friend's nose. Holmes examined it closely with an air of great interest. "Were you born so?" he asked. "Or did it come by degrees?"
It may have been the icy coolness of my friend, or it may have been the slight clatter which I made as I picked up the poker. In any case, our visitor's manner became less flamboyant.
"Well, I've given you fair warnin'," said he. "I've a friend that's interested out Harrow way—you know what I'm meaning—and he don't intend to have no buttin' in by you. Got that? You ain't the law, and I ain't the law either, and if you come in I'll be on hand also. Don't you forget it."
"I've wanted to meet you for some time," said Holmes. "I won't ask you to sit down, for I don't like the smell of you, but aren't you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?
"That's my name, Masser Holmes, and you'll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip."
"It is certainly the last thing you need," said Holmes, staring at our visitor's hideous mouth. "But it was the killing of young Perkins outside the Holborn Bar—— What! you're not going?"
The negro had sprung back, and his face was leaden. "I won't listen to no such talk," said he. "What have I to do with this 'ere Perkins, Masser Holmes? I was trainin' at the Bull Ring in Birmingham when this boy done gone get into trouble."
"Yes, you'll tell the magistrate about it, Steve," said Holmes. "I've been watching you and Barney Stockdale——"
"So help me the Lord! Masser Holmes——"
"That's enough. Get out of it. I'll pick you up when I want you."
"Good mornin', Masser Holmes. I hope there ain't no hard feelin's about this 'ere visit?"
"There will be unless you tell me who sent you."
"Why, there ain't no secret about that, Masser Holmes. It was that same genelman that you have just done gone mention."
"And who set him on to it?"
"S'elp me. I don't know, Masser Holmes. He just say, 'Steve, you go see Mr. Holmes, and tell him his life ain't safe if he go down Harrow way.' That's the whole truth."
Without waiting for any further questioning, our visitor bolted out of the room almost as precipitately as he had entered. Holmes knocked out the ashes of his pipe with a quiet chuckle.
"I am glad you were not forced to break his woolly head, Watson. I observed your manoeuvres with the poker. But he is really rather a harmless fellow, a great muscular, foolish, blustering baby, and easily cowed, as you have seen. He is one of the Spencer John gang and has taken part in some dirty work of late which I may clear up when I have time. His immediate principal, Barney, is a more astute person. They specialize in assaults, intimidation, and the like. What I want to know is, who is at the back of them on this particular occasion?"
"But why do they want to intimidate you?"
"It is this Harrow Weald case. It decides me to look into the matter, for if it is worth anyone's while to take so much trouble, there must be something in it."
"But what is it?"
"I was going to tell you when we had this comic interlude. Here is Mrs. Maberley's note. If you care to come with me we will wire her and go out at once."
DEAR MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES, (I read)—
I have had a succession of strange incidents occur to me in connection with this house, and I should much value your advice. You would find me at home any time to-morrow. The house is within a short walk of the Weald Station. I believe that my late husband, Mortimer Maberley, was one of your early clients.
Yours faithfully, MARY MABERLEY.
The address was "The Three Gables, Harrow Weald."
"So that's that!" said Holmes. "And now, if you can spare the time, Watson, we will get upon our way."
A short railway journey, and a shorter drive, brought us to the house, a brick and timber villa, standing in its own acre of undeveloped grassland. Three small projections above the upper windows made a feeble attempt to justify its name. Behind was a grove of melancholy, half-grown pines, and the whole aspect of the place was poor and depressing. None the less, we found the house to be well furnished, and the lady who received us was a most engaging elderly person, who bore every mark of refinement and culture.
"I remember your husband well, madam," said Holmes, "though it is some years since he used my services in some trifling matter."
"Probably you would be more familiar with the name of my son Douglas."
Holmes looked at her with great interest.
"Dear me! Are you the mother of Douglas Maberley? I knew him slightly. But, of course, all London knew him. What a magnificent creature he was! Where is he now?"
"Dead, Mr. Holmes, dead! He was Attaché at Rome, and he died there of pneumonia last month."
"I am sorry. One could not connect death with such a man. I have never known anyone so vitally alive. He lived intensely—every fibre of him!"
"Too intensely, Mr. Holmes. That was the ruin of him. You remember him as he was—debonair and splendid. You did not see the moody, morose, brooding creature into which he developed. His heart was broken. In a single month I seemed to see my gallant boy turn into a worn-out cynical man."
"A love affair—a woman?"
"Or a fiend. Well, it was not to talk of my poor lad that I asked you to come, Mr. Holmes."
"Dr. Watson and I are at your service."
"There have been some very strange happenings. I have been in this house more than a year now, and as I wished to lead a retired life I have seen little of my neighbours. Three days ago I had a call from a man who said that he was a house agent. He said that this house would exactly suit a client of his and that if I would part with it money would be no object. It seemed to me very strange, as there are several empty houses on the market which appear to be equally eligible, but naturally I was interested in what he said. I therefore named a price which was five hundred pounds more than I gave. He at once closed with the offer, but added that his client desired to buy the furniture as well and would I put a price upon it. Some of this furniture is from my old home, and it is, as you see, very good, so that I named a good round sum. To this also he at once agreed. I had always wanted to travel, and the bargain was so good a one that it really seemed that I should be my own mistress for the rest of my life.
"Yesterday the man arrived with the agreement all drawn out. Luckily I showed it to Mr. Sutro, my lawyer, who lives in Harrow. He said to me, 'This is a very strange document. Are you aware that if you sign it you could not legally take anything out of the house—not even your own private possessions?' When the man came again in the evening I pointed this out, and I said that I meant only to sell the furniture.
"'No, no; everything,' said he.
"'But my clothes? My jewels?'
"'Well, well, some concession might be made for your personal effects. But nothing shall go out of the house unchecked. My client is a very liberal man, but he has his fads and his own way of doing things. It is everything or nothing with him.'
"'Then it must be nothing,' said I. And there the matter was left, but the whole thing seemed to me to be so unusual that I thought——"
Here we had a very extraordinary interruption.
Holmes raised his hand for silence. Then he strode across the room, flung open the door, and dragged in a great gaunt woman whom he had seized by the shoulder. She entered with ungainly struggles, like some huge awkward chicken, torn squawking out of its coop.
"Leave me alone! What are you a-doin' of?" she screeched.
"Why, Susan, what is this?"
"Well, ma'am, I was comin' in to ask if the visitors was stayin' for lunch when this man jumped out at me."
"I have been listening to her for the last five minutes, but did not wish to interrupt your most interesting narrative. Just a little wheezy, Susan, are you not? You breathe too heavily for that kind of work."
Susan turned a sulky but amazed face upon her captor. "Who be you, anyhow, and what right have you a-pullin' me about like this?"
"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 the 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 contain. I will come to-morrow 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."
"Well, Masser Holmes, I done gone think over what you said, and I don't want no more talk about that affair of Masser Perkins. S'pose I can help you, Masser Holmes, I will."
"Well, then, tell me who is behind you on this job?"
"So help me the Lord! Masser Holmes, I told you the truth before. I don't know. My boss Barney gives me orders and that's all."
"Well, just bear in mind, Steve, that the lady in that house, and everything under that roof, is under my protection. Don't you forget it."
"All right, Masser Holmes. I'll remember.'
"I've got him thoroughly frightened for his own skin, Watson," Holmes remarked as we walked on. "I think he would double-cross his employer if he knew who he was. It was lucky I had some knowledge of the Spencer John crowd, and that Steve was one of them. Now, Watson, this is a case for Langdale Pike, and I am going to see him now. When I get back I may be clearer in the matter."
I saw no more of Holmes during the day, but I could well imagine how he spent it, for Langdale Pike was his human book of reference upon all matters of social scandal. This strange, languid creature spent his waking hours in the bow window of a St. James's Street club, and was the receiving-station, as well as the transmitter, for all the gossip of the Metropolis. He made, it was said, a four-figure income by the paragraphs which he contributed every week to the garbage papers which cater for an inquisitive public. If ever, far down in the turbid depths of London life, there was some strange swirl or eddy, it was marked with automatic exactness by this human dial upon the surface. Holmes discreetly helped Langdale to knowledge, and on occasion was helped in turn.
When I met my friend in his room early next morning, I was conscious from his bearing that all was well, but none the less a most unpleasant surprise was awaiting us. It took the shape of the following telegram:
"Please come out at once. Client's house burgled in the night. Police in possession.