“It is a privilege to be associated with you in the handling of a case,” said the inspector, warmly. “You will excuse me, however, if I speak frankly to you. You are only answerable to yourself, but I have to answer to my superiors. If this Abe Slaney, living at Elrige’s, is indeed the murderer, and if he has made his escape while I am seated here, I should certainly get into serious trouble.”
“You need not be uneasy. He will not try to escape.”
“How do you know?”
“To fly would be a confession of guilt.”
“Then let us go arrest him.”
“I expect him here every instant.”
“But why should he come.”
“Because I have written and asked him.”
“But this is incredible, Mr. Holmes! Why should he come because you have asked him? Would not such a request rather rouse his suspicions and cause him to fly?”
“I think I have known how to frame the letter,” said Sherlock Holmes. “In fact, if I am not very much mistaken, here is the gentleman himself coming up the drive.”
A man was striding up the path which led to the door. He was a tall, handsome, swarthy fellow, clad in a suit of gray flannel, with a Panama hat, a bristling black beard, and a great, aggressive hooked nose, and flourishing a cane as he walked. He swaggered up a path as if as if the place belonged to him, and we heard his loud, confident peal at the bell.
“I think, gentlemen,” said Holmes, quietly, “that we had best take up our position behind the door. Every precaution is necessary when dealing with such a fellow. You will need your handcuffs, Inspector. You can leave the talking to me.”
We waited in silence for a minute—one of those minutes which one can never forget. Then the door opened and the man stepped in. In an instant Holmes clapped a pistol to his head, and Martin slipped the handcuffs over his wrists. It was all done so swiftly and deftly that the fellow was helpless before he knew that he was attacked. He glared from one to the other of us with a pair of blazing black eyes. Then he burst into a bitter laugh.
“Well, gentlemen, you have the drop on me this time. I seem to have knocked up against something hard. But I came here in answer to a letter from Mrs. Hilton Cubitt. Don’t tell me that she is in this? Don’t tell me that she helped to set a trap for me?”
“Mrs. Hilton Cubitt was seriously injured, and is at death’s door.”
The man gave a hoarse cry of grief, which rang through the house.
“You’re crazy!” he cried, fiercely. “It was he that was hurt, not she. Who would have hurt little Elsie? I may have threatened her—God forgive me!—but I would not have touched a hair of her pretty head. Take it back—you! Say that she is not hurt!”
“She was found badly wounded, by the side of her dead husband.”
He sank with a deep groan on the settee and buried his face in his manacled hands. For five minutes he was silent. Then he raised his face once more, and spoke with the cold composure of despair.
“I have nothing to hide from you, gentlemen,” said he. “If I shot the man he had his shot at me, and there’s no murder in that. But if you think I could have hurt that woman, then you don’t know either me or her. I tell you, there was never a man in this world loved a woman more than I loved her. I had a right to her. She was pledged to me years ago. Who was this Englishman that he should come between us? I tell you that I had the first right to her, and that I was only claiming my own.
“She broke away from your influence when she found the man that you are,” said Holmes, sternly. “She fled from America to avoid you, and she married an honourable gentleman in England. You dogged her and followed her and made her life a misery to her, in order to induce her to abandon the husband whom she loved and respected in order to fly with you, whom she feared and hated. You have ended by bringing about the death of a noble man and driving his wife to suicide. That is your record in this business, Mr. Abe Slaney, and you will answer for it to the law.”
“If Elsie dies, I care nothing what becomes of me,” said the American. He opened one of his hands, and looked at a note crumpled up in his palm. “See here, mister! he cried, with a gleam of suspicion in his eyes, “you’re not trying to scare me over this, are you? If the lady is hurt as bad as you say, who was it that wrote this note?” He tossed it forward on to the table.
“I wrote it, to bring you here.”
“You wrote it? There was no one on earth outside the Joint who knew the secret of the dancing men. How came you to write it?”
“What one man can invent another can discover,” said Holmes. There is a cab coming to convey you to Norwich, Mr. Slaney. But meanwhile, you have time to make some small reparation for the injury you have wrought. Are you aware that Mrs. Hilton Cubitt has herself lain under grave suspicion of the murder of her husband, and that it was only my presence here, and the knowledge which I happened to possess, which has saved her from the accusation? The least that you owe her is to make it clear to the whole world that she was in no way, directly or indirectly, responsible for his tragic end.”
“I ask nothing better,” said the American. “I guess the very best case I can make for myself is the absolute naked truth.”
“It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,” cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.
Slaney shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ll chance that,” said he. “First of all, I want you gentlemen to understand that I have known this lady since she was a child. There were seven of us in a gang in Chicago, and Elsie’s father was the boss of the Joint. He was a clever man, was old Patrick. It was he who invented that writing, which would pass as a child’s scrawl unless you just happened to have the key to it. Well, Elsie learned some of our ways, but she couldn’t stand the business, and she had a bit of honest money of her own, so she gave us all the slip and got away to London. She had been engaged to me, and she would have married me, I believe, if I had taken over another profession, but she would have nothing to do with anything on the cross. It was only after her marriage to this Englishman that I was able to find out where she was. I wrote to her, but got no answer. After that I came over, and, as letters were no use, I put my messages where she could read them.
“Well, I have been here a month now. I lived in that farm, where I had a room down below, and could get in and out every night, and no one the wiser. I tried all I could to coax Elsie away. I knew that she read the messages, for once she wrote an answer under one of them. Then my temper got the better of me, and I began to threaten her. She sent me a letter then, imploring me to go away, and saying that it would break her heart if any scandal should come upon her husband. She said that she would come down when her husband was asleep at three in the morning, and speak with me through the end window, if I would go away afterwards and leave her in peace. She came down and brought money with her, trying to bribe me to go. This made me mad, and I caught her arm and tried to pull her through the window. At that moment in rushed the husband with his revolver in his hand. Elsie had sunk down upon the floor, and we were face to face. I was heeled also, and I held up my gun to scare him off and let me get away. He fired and missed me. I pulled off almost at the same instant, and down he dropped. I made away across the garden, and as I went I heard the window shut behind me. That’s God’s truth, gentlemen, every word of it, and I heard no more about it until that lad came riding up with a note which made me walk in here, like a jay, and give myself into your hands.”
A cab had driven up whilst the American had been talking. Two uniformed policemen sat inside. Inspector Martin rose and touched his prisoner on the shoulder.
“It is time for us to go.”
“Can I see her first?”
“No, she is not conscious. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I only hope that if ever again I have an important case, I shall have the good fortune to have you by my side.”
We stood at the window and watched the cab drive away. As I turned back, my eye caught the pellet of paper which the prisoner had tossed upon the table. It was the note with which Holmes had decoyed him.
“See if you can read it, Watson,” said he, with a smile.
It contained no word, but this little line of dancing men:
“If you use the code which I have explained,” said Holmes, “you will find that it simply means ‘Come here at once.’ I was convinced that it was an invitation which he would not refuse, since he could never imagine that it could come from anyone but the lady. And so, my dear Watson, we have ended by turning the dancing men to good when they have so often been the agents of evil, and I think that I have fulfilled my promise of giving you something unusual for your notebook. Three-forty is our train, and I fancy we should be back in Baker Street for dinner.”
Only one word of epilogue. The American, Abe Slaney, was condemned to death at the winter assizes at Norwich, but his penalty was changed to penal servitude in consideration of mitigating circumstances, and the certainty that Hilton Cubitt had fired the first shot. Of Mrs. Hilton Cubitt I only know that I have heard she recovered entirely, and that she still remains a widow, devoting her whole life to the care of the poor and to the administration of her husband’s estate.