The Reigate Puzzle is one of the short stories about Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in The Strand Magazine in 1894. It is now in the public domain. It has been transferred to electronic text by optical character recognition, and this copy has been reformatted for E2 and cleaned of OCR errors by rootbeer277. A paper version can be found in a collection of short stories called Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
After a particularly grueling (and unchronicled) mystery, during which Holmes has outwitted and captured a noteworthy criminal, Sherlock is bed-ridden with exhaustion. When he is engaged in a fascinating mystery, he often works day and night with boundless energy, only to collapse into a lethargic heap when it's over — and this was his longest stretch yet. Unfortunately during a much-needed country vacation, Holmes and Watson stumble across yet another mystery which Holmes just can't pass up. But how will taking on another case so soon affect his already troubled health?
The Reigate Puzzle involves a pair of bizarre burglaries, during which nothing of any real value seemed to have been stolen but the second of which ended in murder. The only clue is a scrap of paper taken from the dead man's hand, bearing an oddly hand-written portion of a note. Sherlock Holmes masterfully outsmarts and manipulates the criminals into admitting their guilt while Watson and a local detective look on befuddled at his eccentric behavior. Just how badly has his exhaustion affected his brilliant mind?
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The Reigate Puzzle
It was some time before the health of my friend Mr. Sherlock
Holmes recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of '87. The whole question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company and of the colossal schemes of Baron
Maupertuis are too recent in the minds of the public, and are too
intimately concerned with politics and finance to be fitting subjects for this series of sketches. They led, however, in an indirect
fashion to a singular and complex problem which gave my friend
an opportunity of demonstrating the value of a fresh weapon
among the many with which he waged his lifelong battle against
On referring to my notes I see that it was upon the fourteenth
of April that I received a telegram from Lyons which informed
me that Holmes was lying ill in the Hotel Dulong. Within
twenty-four hours I was in his sick-room and was relieved to find
that there was nothing formidable in his symptoms. Even his iron
constitution, however, had broken down under the strain of an
investigation which had extended over two months, during which
period he had never worked less than fifteen hours a day and had
more than once, as he assured me, kept to his task for five days
at a stretch. Even the triumphant issue of his labours could not
save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time
when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was
literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a
prey to the blackest depression. Even the knowledge that he had
succeeded where the police of three countries had failed, and that
he had outmanoeuvred at every point the most accomplished
swindler in Europe, was insufficient to rouse him from his
Three days later we were back in Baker Street together; but it
was evident that my friend would be much the better for a
change, and the thought of a week of springtime in the country
was full of attractions to me also. My old friend, Colonel
Hayter, who had come under my professional care in Afghanistan, had now taken a house near Reigate in Surrey and had
frequently asked me to come down to him upon a visit. On the
last occasion he had remarked that if my friend would only come
with me he would be glad to extend his hospitality to him also.
A little diplomacy was needed, but when Holmes understood that
the establishment was a bachelor one, and that he would be
allowed the fullest freedom, he fell in with my plans and a week
after our return from Lyons we were under the colonel's roof.
Hayter was a fine old soldier who had seen much of the world,
and he soon found, as I had expected, that Holmes and he had
much in common.
On the evening of our arrival we were sitting in the colonel's
gun-room after dinner, Holmes stretched upon the sofa, while
Hayter and I looked over his little armory of Eastern weapons.
"By the way," said he suddenly, "I think I'll take one of
these pistols upstairs with me in case we have an alarm."
"An alarm!" said I.
"Yes, we've had a scare in this part lately. Old Acton, who is
one of our county magnates, had his house broken into last
Monday. No great damage done, but the fellows are still at
"No clue?" asked Holmes, cocking his eye at the colonel.
"None as yet. But the affair is a petty one, one of our little
country crimes, which must seem too small for your attention,
Mr. Holmes, after this great international affair."
Holmes waved away the compliment, though his smile showed
that it had pleased him.
"Was there any feature of interest?"
"I fancy not. The thieves ransacked the library and got very
little for their pains. The whole place was turned upside down,
drawers burst open, and presses ransacked, with the result that
an odd volume of Pope's Homer, two plated candlesticks, an
ivory letter-weight, a small oak barometer, and a ball of twine
are all that have vanished."
"What an extraordinary assortment!" I exclaimed.
"Oh, the fellows evidently grabbed hold of everything they
Holmes grunted from the sofa.
"The county police ought to make something of that," said
he; "why, it is surely obvious that —"
But I held up a warning finger.
"You are here for a rest, my dear fellow. For heaven's sake
don't get started on a new problem when your nerves are all in
Holmes shrugged his shoulders with a glance of comic resignation towards the colonel, and the talk drifted away into less
It was destined, however, that all my professional caution
should be wasted, for next morning the problem obtruded itself
upon us in such a way that it was impossible to ignore it, and our
country visit took a turn which neither of us could have anticipated. We were at breakfast when the colonel's butler rushed in
with all his propriety shaken out of him.
"Have you heard the news, sir?" he gasped. "At the Cunningham's, sir!"
"Burglary!" cried the colonel, with his coffee-cup in mid-air.
The colonel whistled. "By Jove!" said he. "Who's killed,
then? The J. P. or his son?"
"Neither, sir. It was William the coachman. Shot through the
heart, sir, and never spoke again."
"Who shot him, then?"
"The burglar, sir. He was off like a shot and got clean away.
He'd just broke in at the pantry window when William came on
him and met his end in saving his master's property."
"It was last night, sir, somewhere about twelve."
"Ah, then, we'll step over afterwards," said the colonel
coolly settling down to his breakfast again. "It's a baddish
business," he added when the butler had gone; "he's our leading
man about here, is old Cunningham, and a very decent fellow
too. He'll be cut up over this, for the man has been in his service
for years and was a good servant. It's evidently the same villains
who broke into Acton's."
"And stole that very singular collection," said Holmes
"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
"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
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
"We thought that perhaps you would care to step across, Mr.
"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
"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
"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
"Presuming that it is an appointment," continued the inspector, "it is of course a conceivable theory that this William
Kirwan, though he had the reputation of being an honest man,
may have been in league with the thief. He may have met him
there, may even have helped him to break in the door, and then
they may have fallen out between themselves."
"This writing is of extraordinary interest," said Holmes, who
had been examining it with intense concentration. "These are
much deeper waters than I had thought." He sank his head upon
his hands, while the inspector smiled at the effect which his case
had had upon the famous London specialist.
"Your last remark," said Holmes presently, "as to the possibility of there being an understanding between the burglar and
the servant, and this being a note of appointment from one to the
other, is an ingenious and not entirely impossible supposition.
But this writing opens up —" He sank his head into his hands
again and remained for some minutes in the deepest thought.
When he raised his face again I was surprised to see that his
cheek was tinged with colour, and his eyes as bright as before
his illness. He sprang to his feet with all his old energy.
"I'll tell you what," said he, "I should like to have a quiet
little glance into the details of this case. There is something in it
which fascinates me extremely. If you will permit me, Colonel, I
will leave my friend Watson and you, and I will step round with
the inspector to test the truth of one or two little fancies of mine.
I will be with you again in half an hour."
An hour and a half had elapsed before the inspector returned
"Mr. Holmes is walking up and down in the field outside,
said he. "He wants us all four to go up to the house together."
"To Mr. Cunningham's?"
The inspector shrugged his shoulders. "I don't quite know
sir. Between ourselves, I think Mr. Holmes has not quite got
over his illness yet. He's been behaving very queerly, and he is
very much excited."
"I don't think you need alarm yourself," said I. "I have
usually found that there was method in his madness."
"Some folk might say there was madness in his method,"
muttercd the inspector. "But he's all on fire to start, Colonel, so
we had best go out if you are ready."
We found Holmes pacing up and down in the field, his chin
sunk upon his breast, and his hands thrust into his trousers
"The matter grows in interest," said he. "Watson, your
country trip has been a distinct success. I have had a charming
"You have been up to the scene of the crime, I understand,"
said the colonel.
"Yes, the inspector and I have made quite a little reconnaissance together."
"Well, we have seen some very interesting things. I'll tell you
what we did as we walk. First of all, we saw the body of this
unfortunate man. He certainly died from a revolver wound as
"Had you doubted it, then?"
"Oh, it is as well to test everything. Our inspection was not
wasted. We then had an interview with Mr. Cunningham and his
son, who were able to point out the exact spot where the
murderer had broken through the garden-hedge in his flight. That
was of great interest."
"Then we had a look at this poor fellow's mother. We could
get no information from her, however, as she is very old and
"And what is the result of your investigations?"
"The conviction that the crime is a very peculiar one. Perhaps
our visit now may do something to make it less obscure. I think
that we are both agreed, Inspector, that the fragment of paper in
the dead man's hand, bearing, as it does, the very hour of his
death written upon it, is of extreme importance."
"It should give a clue, Mr. Holmes."
"It does give a clue. Whoever wrote that note was the man
who brought William Kirwan out of his bed at that hour. But
where is the rest of that sheet of paper?"
"I examined the ground carefully in the hope of finding it."
said the inspector.
"It was torn out of the dead man's hand. Why was someone so
anxious to get possession of it? Because it incriminated him.
And what would he do with it? Thrust it into his pocket, most
likely, never noticing that a corner of it had been left in the grip
of the corpse. If we could get the rest of that sheet it is obvious
that we should have gone a long way towards solving the mystery."
"Yes, but how can we get at the criminal's pocket before we
catch the criminal?"
"Well, well, it was worth thinking over. Then there is another
obvious point. The note was sent to William. The man who
wrote it could not have taken it; otherwise, of course, he might
have delivered his own message by word of mouth. Who brought
the note, then? Or did it come through the post?"
"I have made inquiries," said the inspector. "William received a letter by the afternoon post yesterday. The envelope was
destroyed by him."
"Excellent!" cried Holmes, clapping the inspector on the
back. "You've seen the postman. It is a pleasure to work with
you. Well, here is the lodge, and if you will come up, Colonel, I
will show you the scene of the crime."
We passed the pretty cottage where the murdered man had
lived and walked up an oak-lined avenue to the fine old Queen
Anne house, which bears the date of Malplaquet upon the lintel
of the door. Holmes and the inspector led us round it until we
came to the side gate, which is separated by a stretch of garden
from the hedge which lines the road. A constable was standing at
the kitchen door.
"Throw the door open, officer," said Holmes. "Now, it was
on those stairs that young Mr. Cunningham stood and saw the
two men struggling just where we are. Old Mr. Cunningham was
at that window — the second on the left — and he saw the fellow
get away just to the left of that bush. So did the son. They are
both sure of it on account of the bush. Then Mr. Alec ran out
and knelt beside the wounded man. The ground is very hard, you
see, and there are no marks to guide us." As he spoke two men
came down the garden path, from round the angle of the house.
The one was an elderly man, with a strong, deep-lined, heavy-eyed face; the other a dashing young fellow, whose bright,
smiling expression and showy dress were in strange contrast with
the business which had brought us there.
"Still at it, then?" said he to Holmes. "I thought you Londoners were never at fault. You don't seem to be so very quick,
"Ah, you must give us a little time," said Holmes good-humouredly.
"You'll want it," said young Alec Cunningham. "Why, I
don't see that we have any clue at all."
"There's only one," answered the inspector. "We thought
that if we could only find — Good heavens. Mr. Holmes! what is
My poor friend's face had suddenly assumed the most dreadful
expression. His eyes rolled upward, his features writhed in agony, and with a suppressed groan he dropped on his face upon
the ground. Horrified at the suddenness and severity of the
attack, we carried him into the kitchen, where he lay back in a
large chair and breathed heavily for some minutes. Finally, with
a shamefaced apology for his weakness, he rose once more.
"Watson would tell you that I have only just recovered from a
severe illness," he explained. "I am liable to these sudden
"Shall I send you home in my trap?" asked old Cunningham.
"Well, since I am here, there is one point on which I should
like to feel sure. We can very easily verify it."
"What is it?"
"Well, it seems to me that it is just possible that the arrival of
this poor fellow William was not before, but after, the entrance
of the burglar into the house. You appear to take it for granted
that although the door was forced the robber never got in."
"I fancy that is quite obvious," said Mr. Cunningham gravely.
"Why, my son Alec had not yet gone to bed, and he would
certainly have heard anyone moving about."
"Where was he sitting?"
"I was smoking in my dressing-room."
"Which window is that?"
"The last on the left, next my father's."
"Both of your lamps were lit, of course?"
"There are some very singular points here," said Holmes,
smiling. "Is it not extraordinary that a burglar — and a burglar
who had some previous experience — should deliberately break
into a house at a time when he could see from the lights that two
of the family were still afoot?"
"He must have been a cool hand."
"Well, of course, if the case were not an odd one we should
not have been driven to ask you for an explanation," said young
Mr. Alec. "But as to your ideas that the man had robbed the
house before William tackled him, I think it a most absurd
notion. Wouldn't we have found the place disarranged and missed
the things which he had taken?"
"It depends on what the things were," said Holmes. "You
must remember that we are dealing with a burglar who is a very
peculiar fellow, and who appears to work on lines of his own.
Look, for example, at the queer lot of things which he took from
Acton's — what was it? — a ball of string, a letter-weight, and I
don't know what other odds and ends."
"Well, we are quite in your hands, Mr. Holmes," said old
Cunningham. "Anything which you or the inspector may suggest will most certainly be done."
"In the first place," said Holmes, "I should like you to offer
a reward — coming from yourself, for the officials may take a
little time before they would agree upon the sum, and these
things cannot be done too promptly. I have jotted down the form
here, if you would not mind signing it. Fifty pounds was quite
enough, I thought."
"I would willingly give five hundred," said the J. P., taking
the slip of paper and the pencil which Holmes handed to him.
"This is not quite correct, however," he added, glancing over
"I wrote it rather hurriedly."
"You see you begin, 'Whereas, at about a quarter to one on
Tuesday morning an attempt was made,' and so on. It was at a
quarter to twelve, as a matter of fact."
I was pained at the mistake, for I knew how keenly Holmes
would feel any slip of the kind. It was his specialty to be
accurate as to fact, but his recent illness had shaken him, and
this one little incident was enough to show me that he was still
far from being himself. He was obviously embarrassed for an
instant, while the inspector raised his eyebrows, and Alec Cunningham burst into a laugh. The old gentleman corrected the
mistake, however, and handed the paper back to Holmes.
"Get it printed as soon as possible," he said; "I think your
idea is an excellent one."
Holmes put the slip of paper carefully away into his pocketbook.
"And now," said he, "it really would be a good thing that we
should all go over the house together and make certain that this
rather erratic burglar did not, after all, carry anything away with
Before entering, Holmes made an examination of the door
which had been forced. It was evident that a chisel or strong
knife had been thrust in, and the lock forced back with it. We
could see the marks in the wood where it had been pushed in.
"You don't use bars, then?" he asked.
"We have never found it necessary."
"You don't keep a dog?"
"Yes, but he is chained on the other side of the house."
"When do the servants go to bed?"
"I understand that William was usually in bed also at that
"It is singular that on this particular night he should have been
up. Now, I should be very glad if you would have the kindness
to show us over the house, Mr. Cunningham."
A stone-flagged passage, with the kitchens branching away
from it, led by a wooden staircase directly to the first floor of the
house. It came out upon the landing opposite to a second more
ornamental stair which came up from the front hall. Out of this
landing opened the drawing-room and several bedrooms, including those of Mr. Cunningham and his son. Holmes walked
slowly, taking keen note of the architecture of the house. I could
tell from his expression that he was on a hot scent, and yet I
could not in the least imagine in what direction his inferences
were leading him.
"My good sir," said Mr. Cunningharn, with some impatience, "this is surely very unnecessary. That is my room at the
end of the stairs, and my son's is the one beyond it. I leave it to
your judgment whether it was possible for the thief to have come
up here without disturbing us."
"You must try round and get on a fresh scent, I fancy," said
the son with a rather malicious smile.
"Still, I must ask you to humour me a little further. I should
like, for example, to see how far the windows of the bedrooms
command the front. This, I understand, is your son's room" — he
pushed open the door — "and that, I presume is the dressing-room in which he sat smoking when the alarm was given. Where
does the window of that look out to?" He stepped across the
bedroom, pushed open the door, and glanced round the other
"I hope that you are satisfied now?" said Mr. Cunningham
"Thank you, I think I have seen all that I wished."
"Then if it is really necessary we can go into my room."
"If it is not too much trouble."
The J. P. shrugged his shoulders and led the way into his own
chamber, which was a plainly furnished and commonplace room.
As we moved across it in the direction of the window, Holmes
fell back until he and I were the last of the group. Near the foot
of the bed stood a dish of oranges and a carafe of water. As we
passed it Holmes, to my unutterable astonishment, leaned over in
front of me and deliberately knocked the whole thing over. The
glass smashed into a thousand pieces and the fruit rolled about
into every corner of the room.
"You've done it now, Watson," said he coolly. "A pretty
mess you've made of the carpet."
I stooped in some confusion and began to pick up the fruit,
understanding for some reason my companion desired me to take
the blame upon myself. The others did the same and set the table
on its legs again.
"Hullo!" cried the inspector, "where's he got to?"
Holmes had disappeared.
"Wait here an instant," said young Alec Cunningham. "The
fellow is off his head, in my opinion. Come with me, father, and
see where he has got to!"
They rushed out of the room, leaving the inspector, the colonel, and me staring at each other.
" 'Pon my word, I am inclined to agree with Master Alec,"
said the official. "It may be the effect of this illness, but it
seems to me that —"
His words were cut short by a sudden scream of "Help! Help!
Murder!" With a thrill I recognized the voice as that of my
friend. I rushed madly from the room on to the landing. The cries
which had sunk down into a hoarse, inarticulate shouting, came
from the room which we had first visited. I dashed in, and on
into the dressing-room beyond. The two Cunninghams were
bending over the prostrate figure of Sherlock Holmes, the younger clutching his throat with both hands, while the elder seemed
to be twisting one of his wrists. In an instant the three of us had
torn them away from him, and Holmes staggered to his feet,
very pale and evidently greatly exhausted.
"Arrest these men, Inspector," he gasped.
"On what charge?"
"That of murdering their coachman, William Kirwan."
The inspector stared about him in bewilderment. "Oh, come
now, Mr. Holmes," said he at last, "I'm sure you don't really
mean to —"
"Tut, man, look at their faces!" cried Holmes curtly.
Never certainly have I seen a plainer confession of guilt upon
human countenances. The older man seemed numbed and dazed,
with a heavy, sullen expression upon his strongly marked face.
The son, on the other hand, had dropped all that jaunty, dashing
style which had characterized him, and the ferocity of a dangerous wild beast gleamed in his dark eyes and distorted his handsome features. The inspector said nothing, but, stepping to the
door, he blew his whistle. Two of his constables came at the
"I have no alternative, Mr. Cunningham," said he. "I trust
that this may all prove to be an absurd mistake, but you can see
that— Ah, would you? Drop it!" He struck out with his hand,
and a revolver which the younger man was in the act of cocking
clattered down upon the floor.
"Keep that," said Holmes, quietly putting his foot upon it;
"you will find it useful at the trial. But this is what we really
wanted." He held up a little crumpled piece of paper.
"The remainder of the sheet!" cried the inspector.
"And where was it?"
"Where I was sure it must be. I'll make the whole matter
clear to you presently. I think, Colonel, that you and Watson
might return now, and I will be with you again in an hour at the
furthest. The inspector and I must have a word with the prisoners, but you will certainly see me back at luncheon time."
Sherlock Holmes was as good as his word, for about one
o'clock he rejoined us in the colonel's smoking-room. He was
accompanied by a little elderly gentleman, who was introduced
to me as the Mr. Acton whose house had been the scene of the
"I wished Mr. Acton to be present while I demonstrated this
small matter to you," said Holmes, "for it is natural that he
should take a keen interest in the details. I am afraid, my dear
Colonel, that you must regret the hour that you took in such a
stormy petrel as I am."
"On the contrary," answered the colonel warmly, "I consider
it the greatest privilege to have been permitted to study your
methods of working. I confess that they quite surpass my expectations, and that I am utterly unable to account for your result. I
have not yet seen the vestige of a clue."
"I am afraid that my explanation may disillusion you, but it
has always been my habit to hide none of my methods, either
from my friend Watson or from anyone who might take an
intelligent interest in them. But, first, as I am rather shaken by
the knocking about which I had in the dressing-room. I think that
I shall help myself to a dash of your brandy, Colonel. My
strength has been rather tried of late."
"I trust you had no more of those nervous attacks."
Sherlock Holmes laughed heartily. "We will come to that in
its turn," said he. "I will lay an account of the case before you
in its due order, showing you the various points which guided
me in my decision. Pray interrupt me if there is any inference
which is not perfectly clear to you.
"It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be
able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental
and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be
dissipated instead of being concentrated. Now, in this case there
was not the slightest doubt in my mind from the first that the key
of the whole matter must be looked for in the scrap of paper in
the dead man's hand.
"Before going into this, I would draw your attention to the
fact that, if Alec Cunningham's narrative was correct, and if the
assailant, after shooting William Kirwan, had instantly fled, then
it obviously could not be he who tore the paper from the dead
man's hand. But if it was not he, it must have been Alec
Cunningham himself, for by the time that the old man had
descended several servants were upon the scene. The point is a
simple one, but the inspector had overlooked it because he had
started with the supposition that these county magnates had had
nothing to do with the matter. Now, I make a point of never
having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever fact
may lead me, and so, in the very first stage of the investigation,
I found myself looking a little askance at the part which had been
played by Mr. Alec Cunningham.
"And now I made a very careful examination of the corner of
paper which the inspector had submitted to us. It was at once
clear to me that it formed part of a very remarkable document.
Here it is. Do you not now observe something very suggestive
"It has a very irregular look," said the colonel.
"My dear sir," cried Holmes, "there cannot be the least
doubt in the world that it has been written by two persons doing
alternate words. When I draw your attention to the strong t's of
'AT' and 'TO,' and ask you to compare them with the weak ones of
'quarter' and 'twelve,' you will instantly recognize the fact. A
very brief analysis of these four words would enable you to say
with the utmost confidence that the 'LEARN' and the 'MAY' are
written in the stronger hand, and the 'what' in the weaker."
"By Jove, it's as clear as day!" cried the colonel. "Why on
earth should two men write a letter in such a fashion?"
"Obviously the business was a bad one, and one of the men
who distrusted the other was determined that, whatever was
done, each should have an equal hand in it. Now, of the two
men, it is clear that the one who wrote the 'at' and 'to' was the
"How do you get at that?"
"We might deduce it from the mere character of the one hand
as compared with the other. But we have more assured reasons
than that for supposing it. If you examine this scrap with attention you will come to the conclusion that the man with the
stronger hand wrote all his words first, leaving blanks for the
other to fill up. These blanks were not always sufficient, and you
can see that the second man had a squeeze to fit his 'quarter' in
between the 'AT' and the 'TO,' showing that the latter were already
written. The man who wrote all his words first is undoubtedly
the man who planned the affair."
"Excellent!" cried Mr. Acton.
"But very superficial," said Holmes. "We come now, however, to a point which is of importance. You may not be aware
that the deduction of a man's age from his writing is one which
has been brought to considerable accuracy by experts. In normal
cases one can place a man in his true decade with tolerable
confidence. I say normal cases, because ill-health and physical
weakness reproduce the signs of old age, even when the invalid
is a youth. In this case, looking at the bold, strong hand of the
one, and the rather broken-backed appearance of the other,
which still retains its legibility although the t's have begun to
lose their crossing, we can say that the one was a young man and
the other was advanced in years without being positively decrepit."
"Excellent!" cried Mr. Acton again.
"There is a further point, however, which is subtler and of
greater interest. There is something in common between these
hands. They belong to men who are blood-relatives. It may be
most obvious to you in the Greek e's, but to me there are many
small points which indicate the same thing. I have no doubt at all
that a family mannerism can be traced in these two specimens of
writing. I am only, of course, giving you the leading results now
of my examination of the paper. There were twenty-three other
deductions which would be of more interest to experts than to
you. They all tend to deepen the impression upon my mind that
the Cunninghams, father and son, had written this letter.
"Having got so far, my next step was, of course, to examine
into the details of the crime, and to see how far they would help
us. I went up to the house with the inspector and saw all that was
to be seen. The wound upon the dead man was, as I was able to
determine with absolute confidence, fired from a revolver at the
distance of something over four yards. There was no powder-blackening on the clothes. Evidently, therefore, Alec Cunningham had lied when he said that the two men were struggling
when the shot was fired. Again, both father and son agreed as to
the place where the man escaped into the road. At that point,
however, as it happens, there is a broadish ditch, moist at the
bottom. As there were no indications of boot-marks about this
ditch, I was absolutely sure not only that the Cunninghams had
again lied but that there had never been any unknown man upon
the scene at all.
"And now I have to consider the motive of this singular
crime. To get at this, I endeavoured first of all to solve the
reason of the original burglary at Mr. Acton's. I understood,
from something which the colonel told us, that a lawsuit had
been going on between you, Mr. Acton, and the Cunninghams.
Of course, it instantly occurred to me that they had broken into
your library with the intention of getting at some document
which might be of importance in the case."
"Precisely so," said Mr. Acton. "There can be no possible
doubt as to their intentions. I have the clearest claim upon half of
their present estate, and if they could have found a single paper —
which, fortunately, was in the strong-box of my solicitors — they
would undoubtedly have crippled our case."
"There you are," said Holmes, smiling. "It was a dangerous,
reckless attempt in which I seem to trace the influence of young
Alec. Having found nothing, they tried to divert suspicion by
making it appear to be an ordinary burglary, to which end they
carried off whatever they could lay their hands upon. That is all
clear enough, but there was much that was still obscure. What I
wanted, above all, was to get the missing part of that note. I was
certain that Alec had torn it out of the dead man's hand, and
almost certain that he must have thrust it into the pocket of his
dressing-gown. Where else could he have put it? The only
question was whether it was still there. It was worth an effort to
find out, and for that object we all went up to the house.
"The Cunninghams joined us, as you doubtless remember
outside the kitchen door. It was, of course, of the very first
importance that they should not be reminded of the existence of
this paper otherwise they would naturally destroy it without
delay. The inspector was about to tell them the importance which
we attached to it when, by the luckiest chance in the world, I
tumbled down in a sort of fit and so changed the conversation."
"Good heavens!" cried the colonel, laughing, "do you mean
to say all our sympathy was wasted and your fit an imposture?"
"Speaking professionally, it was admirably done," cried I,
looking in amazement at this man who was forever confounding
me with some new phase of his astuteness.
"It is an art which is often useful," said he. "When I
recovered I managed, by a device which had perhaps some little
merit of ingenuity, to get old Cunningham to write the word
'twelve,' so that I might compare it with the 'twelve' upon the
"Oh, what an ass I have been!" I exclaimed.
"I could see that you were commiserating me over my weakness," said Holmes, laughing. "I was sorry to cause you the
sympathetic pain which I know that you felt. We then went
upstairs together, and, having entered the room and seen the
dressing-gown hanging up behind the door, I contrived, by
upsetting a table, to engage their attention for the moment and
slipped back to examine the pockets. I had hardly got the paper,
however — which was, as I had expected, in one of them — when
the two Cunninghams were on me, and would, I verily believe,
have murdered me then and there but for your prompt and
friendly aid. As it is, I feel that young man's grip on my throat
now, and the father has twisted my wrist round in the effort to
get the paper out of my hand. They saw that I must know all
about it, you see, and the sudden change from absolute security
to complete despair made them perfectly desperate.
"I had a little talk with old Cunningham afterwards as to the
motive of the crime. He was tractable enough, though his son
was a perfect demon, ready to blow out his own or anybody
else's brains if he could have got to his revolver. When Cunningham saw that the case against him was so strong he lost all heart
and made a clean breast of everything. It seems that William had
secretly followed his two masters on the night when they made
their raid upon Mr. Acton's and, having thus got them into his
power, proceeded, under threats of exposure, to levy blackmail
upon them. Mr. Alec, however, was a dangerous man to play
games of that sort with. It was a stroke of positive genius on his
part to see in the burglary scare which was convulsing the
countryside an opportunity of plausibly getting rid of the man
whom he feared. William was decoyed up and shot, and had
they only got the whole of the note and paid a little more
attention to detail in their accessories, it is very possible that
suspicion might never have been aroused."
"And the note?" I asked.
Sherlock Holmes placed the subjoined paper before us.
IF you WILL only COME around
TO the EAST gate YOU will
WILL very MUCH surprise YOU and
be OF the GREATEST service TO you AND also
TO annie MORRISON. but SAY nothing TO anyone
UPON the MATTER.
"It is very much the sort of thing that I expected," said he.
"Of course, we do not yet know what the relations may have
been between Alec Cunningham, William Kirwan, and Annie
Morrison. The result shows that the trap was skilfully baited. I
am sure that you cannot fail to be delighted with the traces of
heredity shown in the p's and in the tails of the g's. The absence
of the i-dots in the old man's writing is also most characteristic.
Watson, I think our quiet rest in the country has been a distinct
success, and I shall certainly return much invigorated to Baker
Editor's note: For the reader's convenience, I will reproduce here the rest of the torn letter:
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