“I called this morning, Dr. Huxtable, too late to prevent you from starting for London. I learned that your object was to invite Mr. Sherlock Holmes to undertake the conduct of this case. His Grace is surprised, Dr. Huxtable, that you should have taken such a step without consulting him.”
“When I learned that the police had failed——”
“His Grace is by no means convinced that the police have failed.”
“But surely, Mr. Wilder——”
“You are well aware, Dr. Huxtable, that his Grace is particularly anxious to avoid all public scandal. He prefers to take as few people as possible into his confidence.”
“The matter can be easily remedied,” said the brow-beaten doctor; “Mr. Sherlock Holmes can return to London by the morning train.”
“Hardly that, Doctor, hardly that,” said Holmes, in his blandest voice. “This northern air is invigorating and pleasant, so I propose to spend a few days upon your moors, and to occupy my mind as best I may. Whether I have the shelter of your roof or of the village inn is, of course, for you to decide.”
I could see that the unfortunate doctor was in the last stage of indecision, from which he was rescued by the deep, sonorous voice of the red-bearded Duke, which boomed out like a dinner-gong.
“I agree with Mr. Wilder, Dr. Huxtable, that you would have done wisely to consult me. But since Mr. Holmes has already been taken into your confidence, it would indeed be absurd that we should not avail ourselves of his services. Far from going to the inn, Mr. Holmes, I should be pleased if you would come and stay with me at Holdernesse Hall.”
“I thank your Grace. For the purposes of my investigation, I think that it would be wiser for me to remain at the scene of the mystery.”
“Just as you like, Mr. Holmes. Any information which Mr. Wilder or I can give you is, of course, at your disposal.”
“It will probably be necessary for me to see you at the Hall,” said Holmes. “I would only ask you now, sir, whether you have formed any explanation in your own mind as to the mysterious disappearance of your son?”
“No sir I have not.”
“Excuse me if I allude to that which is painful to you, but I have no alternative. Do you think that the Duchess had anything to do with the matter?”
The great minister showed perceptible hesitation.
“I do not think so,” he said, at last.
“The other most obvious explanation is that the child has been kidnapped for the purpose of levying ransom. You have not had any demand of the sort?”
“One more question, your Grace. I understand that you wrote to your son upon the day when this incident occurred.”
“No, I wrote upon the day before.”
“Exactly. But he received it on that day?”
“Was there anything in your letter which might have unbalanced him or induced him to take such a step?”
“No, sir, certainly not.”
“Did you post that letter yourself?”
The nobleman’s reply was interrupted by his secretary, who broke in with some heat.
“His Grace is not in the habit of posting letters himself,” said he. “This letter was laid with others upon the study table, and I myself put them in the post-bag.”
“You are sure this one was among them?”
“Yes, I observed it.”
“How many letters did your Grace write that day?”
“Twenty or thirty. I have a large correspondence. But surely this is somewhat irrelevant?”
“Not entirely,” said Holmes.
“For my own part,” the Duke continued, “I have advised the police to turn their attention to the south of France. I have already said that I do not believe that the Duchess would encourage so monstrous an action, but the lad had the most wrong-headed opinions, and it is possible that he may have fled to her, aided and abetted by this German. I think, Dr. Huxtable, that we will now return to the Hall.”
I could see that there were other questions which Holmes would have wished to put, but the nobleman’s abrupt manner showed that the interview was at an end. It was evident that to his intensely aristocratic nature this discussion of his intimate family affairs with a stranger was most abhorrent, and that he feared lest every fresh question would throw a fiercer light into the discreetly shadowed corners of his ducal history.
When the nobleman and his secretary had left, my friend flung himself at once with characteristic eagerness into the investigation.
The boy’s chamber was carefully examined, and yielded nothing save the absolute conviction that it was only through the window that he could have escaped. The German master’s room and effects gave no further clue. In his case a trailer of ivy had given way under his weight, and we saw by the light of a lantern the mark on the lawn where his heels had come down. That one dint in the short, green grass was the only material witness left of this inexplicable nocturnal flight.
Sherlock Holmes left the house alone, and only returned after eleven. He had obtained a large ordnance map of the neighbourhood, and this he brought into my room, where he laid it out on the bed, and, having balanced the lamp in the middle of it, he began to smoke over it, and occasionally to point out objects of interest with the reeking amber of his pipe.
“This case grows upon me, Watson,” said he. “There are decidedly some points of interest in connection with it. In this early stage, I want you to realize those geographical features which may have a good deal to do with our investigation.
“Look at this map. This dark square is the Priory School. I’ll put a pin in it. Now, this line is the main road. You see that it runs east and west past the school, and you see also that there is no side road for a mile either way. If these two folk passed away by road, it was THIS road.”
“By a singular and happy chance, we are able to some extent to check what passed along this road during the night in question. At this point, where my pipe is now resting, a county constable was on duty from twelve to six. It is, as you perceive, the first cross-road on the east side. This man declares that he was not absent from his post for an instant, and he is positive that neither boy nor man could have gone that way unseen. I have spoken with this policeman to-night and he appears to me to be a perfectly reliable person. That blocks this end. We have now to deal with the other. There is an inn here, the Red Bull, the landlady of which was ill. She had sent to Mackleton for a doctor, but he did not arrive until morning, being absent at another case. The people at the inn were alert all night, awaiting his coming, and one or other of them seems to have continually had an eye upon the road. They declare that no one passed. If their evidence is good, then we are fortunate enough to be able to block the west, and also to be able to say that the fugitives did NOT use the road at all.”
“But the bicycle?” I objected.