“I’ve less reason to wish the Dook well than most men,” said he, “for I was head coachman once, and cruel bad he treated me. It was him that sacked me without a character on the word of a lying corn-chandler. But I’m glad to hear that the young lord was heard of in Liverpool, and I’ll help you to take the news to the Hall.”
“Thank you,” said Holmes. “We’ll have some food first. Then you can bring round the bicycle.”
“I haven’t got a bicycle.”
Holmes held up a sovereign.
“I tell you, man, that I haven’t got one. I’ll let you have two horses as far as the Hall.”
“Well, well,” said Holmes, “we’ll talk about it when we’ve had something to eat.”
When we were left alone in the stone-flagged kitchen, it was astonishing how rapidly that sprained ankle recovered. It was nearly nightfall, and we had eaten nothing since early morning, so that we spent some time over our meal. Holmes was lost in thought, and once or twice he walked over to the window and stared earnestly out. It opened on to a squalid courtyard. In the far corner was a smithy, where a grimy lad was at work. On the other side were the stables. Holmes had sat down again after one of these excursions, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with a loud exclamation.
“By heaven, Watson, I believe that I’ve got it!” he cried. “Yes, yes, it must be so. Watson, do you remember seeing any cow-tracks to-day?”
“Well, everywhere. They were at the morass, and again on the path, and again near where poor Heidegger met his death.”
“Exactly. Well, now, Watson, how many cows did you see on the moor?”
“I don’t remember seeing any.”
“Strange, Watson, that we should see tracks all along our line, but never a cow on the whole moor. Very strange, Watson, eh?”
“Yes, it is strange.”
“Now, Watson, make an effort, throw your mind back. Can you see those tracks upon the path?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Can you recall that the tracks were sometimes like that, Watson,”—he arranged a number of bread-crumbs in this fashion—: : : : :—”and sometimes like this”—: . : . : . : .—”and occasionally like this”—. : . : . : . “Can you remember that?”
“No, I cannot.”
“But I can. I could swear to it. However, we will go back at our leisure and verify it. What a blind beetle I have been, not to draw my conclusion.”
“And what is your conclusion?”
“Only that it is a remarkable cow which walks, canters, and gallops. By George! Watson, it was no brain of a country publican that thought out such a blind as that. The coast seems to be clear, save for that lad in the smithy. Let us slip out and see what we can see.”
There were two rough-haired, unkempt horses in the tumble-down stable. Holmes raised the hind leg of one of them and laughed aloud.
“Old shoes, but newly shod—old shoes, but new nails. This case deserves to be a classic. Let us go across to the smithy.”
The lad continued his work without regarding us. I saw Holmes’s eye darting to right and left among the litter of iron and wood which was scattered about the floor. Suddenly, however, we heard a step behind us, and there was the landlord, his heavy eyebrows drawn over his savage eyes, his swarthy features convulsed with passion. He held a short, metal-headed stick in his hand, and he advanced in so menacing a fashion that I was right glad to feel the revolver in my pocket.
“You infernal spies!” the man cried. “What are you doing there?”
“Why, Mr. Reuben Hayes,” said Holmes, coolly, “one might think that you were afraid of our finding something out.”
The man mastered himself with a violent effort, and his grim mouth loosened into a false laugh, which was more menacing than his frown.
“You’re welcome to all you can find out in my smithy,” said he. “But look here, mister, I don’t care for folk poking about my place without my leave, so the sooner you pay your score and get out of this the better I shall be pleased.”
“All right, Mr. Hayes, no harm meant,” said Holmes. “We have been having a look at your horses, but I think I’ll walk, after all. It’s not far, I believe.”
“Not more than two miles to the Hall gates. That’s the road to the left.” He watched us with sullen eyes until we had left his premises.
We did not go very far along the road, for Holmes stopped the instant that the curve hid us from the landlord’s view.
“We were warm, as the children say, at that inn,” said he. “I seem to grow colder every step that I take away from it. No, no, I can’t possibly leave it.”
“I am convinced,” said I, “that this Reuben Hayes knows all about it. A more self-evident villain I never saw.”
“Oh! he impressed you in that way, did he? There are the horses, there is the smithy. Yes, it is an interesting place, this Fighting Cock. I think we shall have another look at it in an unobtrusive way.”
A long, sloping hillside, dotted with gray limestone boulders, stretched behind us. We had turned off the road, and were making our way up the hill, when, looking in the direction of Holdernesse Hall, I saw a cyclist coming swiftly along.
“Get down, Watson!” cried Holmes, with a heavy hand upon my shoulder. We had hardly sunk from view when the man flew past us on the road. Amid a rolling cloud of dust, I caught a glimpse of a pale, agitated face—a face with horror in every lineament, the mouth open, the eyes staring wildly in front. It was like some strange caricature of the dapper James Wilder whom we had seen the night before.
“The Duke’s secretary!” cried Holmes. “Come, Watson, let us see what he does.”
We scrambled from rock to rock, until in a few moments we had made our way to a point from which we could see the front door of the inn. Wilder’s bicycle was leaning against the wall beside it. No one was moving about the house, nor could we catch a glimpse of any faces at the windows. Slowly the twilight crept down as the sun sank behind the high towers of Holdernesse Hall. Then, in the gloom, we saw the two side-lamps of a trap light up in the stable-yard of the inn, and shortly afterwards heard the rattle of hoofs, as it wheeled out into the road and tore off at a furious pace in the direction of Chesterfield.
“What do you make of that, Watson?” Holmes whispered.
“It looks like a flight.”
“A single man in a dog-cart, so far as I could see. Well, it certainly was not Mr. James Wilder, for there he is at the door.”
A red square of light had sprung out of the darkness. In the middle of it was the black figure of the secretary, his head advanced, peering out into the night. It was evident that he was expecting someone. Then at last there were steps in the road, a second figure was visible for an instant against the light, the door shut, and all was black once more. Five minutes later a lamp was lit in a room upon the first floor.
“It seems to be a curious class of custom that is done by the Fighting Cock,” said Holmes.
“The bar is on the other side.”
“Quite so. These are what one may call the private guests. Now, what in the world is Mr. James Wilder doing in that den at this hour of night, and who is the companion who comes to meet him there? Come, Watson, we must really take a risk and try to investigate this a little more closely.”