IX. THE ADVENTURE OF THE ENGINEER’S THUMB – III.
Republished: Apr 07, 2020
“And then suddenly in the silence I heard a sound which sent my heart into my mouth. It was the clank of the levers and the swish of the leaking cylinder. He had set the engine at work. The lamp still stood upon the floor where I had placed it when examining the trough. By its light I saw that the black ceiling was coming down upon me, slowly, jerkily, but, as none knew better than myself, with a force which must within a minute grind me to a shapeless pulp. I threw myself, screaming, against the door, and dragged with my nails at the lock. I implored the colonel to let me out, but the remorseless clanking of the levers drowned my cries. The ceiling was only a foot or two above my head, and with my hand upraised I could feel its hard, rough surface. Then it flashed through my mind that the pain of my death would depend very much upon the position in which I met it. If I lay on my face the weight would come upon my spine, and I shuddered to think of that dreadful snap. Easier the other way, perhaps; and yet, had I the nerve to lie and look up at that deadly black shadow wavering down upon me? Already I was unable to stand erect, when my eye caught something which brought a gush of hope back to my heart.
“I have said that though the floor and ceiling were of iron, the walls were of wood. As I gave a last hurried glance around, I saw a thin line of yellow light between two of the boards, which broadened and broadened as a small panel was pushed backward. For an instant I could hardly believe that here was indeed a door which led away from death. The next instant I threw myself through, and lay half-fainting upon the other side. The panel had closed again behind me, but the crash of the lamp, and a few moments afterwards the clang of the two slabs of metal, told me how narrow had been my escape.
“I was recalled to myself by a frantic plucking at my wrist, and I found myself lying upon the stone floor of a narrow corridor, while a woman bent over me and tugged at me with her left hand, while she held a candle in her right. It was the same good friend whose warning I had so foolishly rejected.
“‘Come! come!’ she cried breathlessly. ‘They will be here in a moment. They will see that you are not there. Oh, do not waste the so-precious time, but come!’
“This time, at least, I did not scorn her advice. I staggered to my feet and ran with her along the corridor and down a winding stair. The latter led to another broad passage, and just as we reached it we heard the sound of running feet and the shouting of two voices, one answering the other from the floor on which we were and from the one beneath. My guide stopped and looked about her like one who is at her wit’s end. Then she threw open a door which led into a bedroom, through the window of which the moon was shining brightly.
“‘It is your only chance,’ said she. ‘It is high, but it may be that you can jump it.’
“As she spoke a light sprang into view at the further end of the passage, and I saw the lean figure of Colonel Lysander Stark rushing forward with a lantern in one hand and a weapon like a butcher’s cleaver in the other. I rushed across the bedroom, flung open the window, and looked out. How quiet and sweet and wholesome the garden looked in the moonlight, and it could not be more than thirty feet down. I clambered out upon the sill, but I hesitated to jump until I should have heard what passed between my saviour and the ruffian who pursued me. If she were ill-used, then at any risks I was determined to go back to her assistance. The thought had hardly flashed through my mind before he was at the door, pushing his way past her; but she threw her arms round him and tried to hold him back.
“‘Fritz! Fritz!’ she cried in English, ‘remember your promise after the last time. You said it should not be again. He will be silent! Oh, he will be silent!’
“‘You are mad, Elise!’ he shouted, struggling to break away from her. ‘You will be the ruin of us. He has seen too much. Let me pass, I say!’ He dashed her to one side, and, rushing to the window, cut at me with his heavy weapon. I had let myself go, and was hanging by the hands to the sill, when his blow fell. I was conscious of a dull pain, my grip loosened, and I fell into the garden below.
“I was shaken but not hurt by the fall; so I picked myself up and rushed off among the bushes as hard as I could run, for I understood that I was far from being out of danger yet. Suddenly, however, as I ran, a deadly dizziness and sickness came over me. I glanced down at my hand, which was throbbing painfully, and then, for the first time, saw that my thumb had been cut off and that the blood was pouring from my wound. I endeavoured to tie my handkerchief round it, but there came a sudden buzzing in my ears, and next moment I fell in a dead faint among the rose-bushes.
“How long I remained unconscious I cannot tell. It must have been a very long time, for the moon had sunk, and a bright morning was breaking when I came to myself. My clothes were all sodden with dew, and my coat-sleeve was drenched with blood from my wounded thumb. The smarting of it recalled in an instant all the particulars of my night’s adventure, and I sprang to my feet with the feeling that I might hardly yet be safe from my pursuers. But to my astonishment, when I came to look round me, neither house nor garden were to be seen. I had been lying in an angle of the hedge close by the highroad, and just a little lower down was a long building, which proved, upon my approaching it, to be the very station at which I had arrived upon the previous night. Were it not for the ugly wound upon my hand, all that had passed during those dreadful hours might have been an evil dream.
“Half dazed, I went into the station and asked about the morning train. There would be one to Reading in less than an hour. The same porter was on duty, I found, as had been there when I arrived. I inquired of him whether he had ever heard of Colonel Lysander Stark. The name was strange to him. Had he observed a carriage the night before waiting for me? No, he had not. Was there a police-station anywhere near? There was one about three miles off.
“It was too far for me to go, weak and ill as I was. I determined to wait until I got back to town before telling my story to the police. It was a little past six when I arrived, so I went first to have my wound dressed, and then the doctor was kind enough to bring me along here. I put the case into your hands and shall do exactly what you advise.”
We both sat in silence for some little time after listening to this extraordinary narrative. Then Sherlock Holmes pulled down from the shelf one of the ponderous commonplace books in which he placed his cuttings.
“Here is an advertisement which will interest you,” said he. “It appeared in all the papers about a year ago. Listen to this: ‘Lost, on the 9th inst., Mr. Jeremiah Hayling, aged twenty-six, a hydraulic engineer. Left his lodgings at ten o’clock at night, and has not been heard of since. Was dressed in,’ etc., etc. Ha! That represents the last time that the colonel needed to have his machine overhauled, I fancy.”
“Good heavens!” cried my patient. “Then that explains what the girl said.”
“Undoubtedly. It is quite clear that the colonel was a cool and desperate man, who was absolutely determined that nothing should stand in the way of his little game, like those out-and-out pirates who will leave no survivor from a captured ship. Well, every moment now is precious, so if you feel equal to it we shall go down to Scotland Yard at once as a preliminary to starting for Eyford.”
Some three hours or so afterwards we were all in the train together, bound from Reading to the little Berkshire village. There were Sherlock Holmes, the hydraulic engineer, Inspector Bradstreet, of Scotland Yard, a plain-clothes man, and myself. Bradstreet had spread an ordnance map of the county out upon the seat and was busy with his compasses drawing a circle with Eyford for its centre.
“There you are,” said he. “That circle is drawn at a radius of ten miles from the village. The place we want must be somewhere near that line. You said ten miles, I think, sir.”
“It was an hour’s good drive.”
“And you think that they brought you back all that way when you were unconscious?”
“They must have done so. I have a confused memory, too, of having been lifted and conveyed somewhere.”
“What I cannot understand,” said I, “is why they should have spared you when they found you lying fainting in the garden. Perhaps the villain was softened by the woman’s entreaties.”
“I hardly think that likely. I never saw a more inexorable face in my life.”
“Oh, we shall soon clear up all that,” said Bradstreet. “Well, I have drawn my circle, and I only wish I knew at what point upon it the folk that we are in search of are to be found.”
“I think I could lay my finger on it,” said Holmes quietly.
“Really, now!” cried the inspector, “you have formed your opinion! Come, now, we shall see who agrees with you. I say it is south, for the country is more deserted there.”
“And I say east,” said my patient.
“I am for west,” remarked the plain-clothes man. “There are several quiet little villages up there.”
“And I am for north,” said I, “because there are no hills there, and our friend says that he did not notice the carriage go up any.”
“Come,” cried the inspector, laughing; “it’s a very pretty diversity of opinion. We have boxed the compass among us. Who do you give your casting vote to?”
“You are all wrong.”
“But we can’t all be.”
“Oh, yes, you can. This is my point.” He placed his finger in the centre of the circle. “This is where we shall find them.”
“But the twelve-mile drive?” gasped Hatherley.
“Six out and six back. Nothing simpler. You say yourself that the horse was fresh and glossy when you got in. How could it be that if it had gone twelve miles over heavy roads?”
“Indeed, it is a likely ruse enough,” observed Bradstreet thoughtfully. “Of course there can be no doubt as to the nature of this gang.”
“None at all,” said Holmes. “They are coiners on a large scale, and have used the machine to form the amalgam which has taken the place of silver.”
“We have known for some time that a clever gang was at work,” said the inspector. “They have been turning out half-crowns by the thousand. We even traced them as far as Reading, but could get no farther, for they had covered their traces in a way that showed that they were very old hands. But now, thanks to this lucky chance, I think that we have got them right enough.”
But the inspector was mistaken, for those criminals were not destined to fall into the hands of justice. As we rolled into Eyford Station we saw a gigantic column of smoke which streamed up from behind a small clump of trees in the neighbourhood and hung like an immense ostrich feather over the landscape.
“A house on fire?” asked Bradstreet as the train steamed off again on its way.
“Yes, sir!” said the station-master.
“When did it break out?”
“I hear that it was during the night, sir, but it has got worse, and the whole place is in a blaze.”
“Whose house is it?”
“Tell me,” broke in the engineer, “is Dr. Becher a German, very thin, with a long, sharp nose?”
The station-master laughed heartily. “No, sir, Dr. Becher is an Englishman, and there isn’t a man in the parish who has a better-lined waistcoat. But he has a gentleman staying with him, a patient, as I understand, who is a foreigner, and he looks as if a little good Berkshire beef would do him no harm.”
The station-master had not finished his speech before we were all hastening in the direction of the fire. The road topped a low hill, and there was a great widespread whitewashed building in front of us, spouting fire at every chink and window, while in the garden in front three fire-engines were vainly striving to keep the flames under.
“That’s it!” cried Hatherley, in intense excitement. “There is the gravel-drive, and there are the rose-bushes where I lay. That second window is the one that I jumped from.”
“Well, at least,” said Holmes, “you have had your revenge upon them. There can be no question that it was your oil-lamp which, when it was crushed in the press, set fire to the wooden walls, though no doubt they were too excited in the chase after you to observe it at the time. Now keep your eyes open in this crowd for your friends of last night, though I very much fear that they are a good hundred miles off by now.”
And Holmes’ fears came to be realised, for from that day to this no word has ever been heard either of the beautiful woman, the sinister German, or the morose Englishman. Early that morning a peasant had met a cart containing several people and some very bulky boxes driving rapidly in the direction of Reading, but there all traces of the fugitives disappeared, and even Holmes’ ingenuity failed ever to discover the least clue as to their whereabouts.
The firemen had been much perturbed at the strange arrangements which they had found within, and still more so by discovering a newly severed human thumb upon a window-sill of the second floor. About sunset, however, their efforts were at last successful, and they subdued the flames, but not before the roof had fallen in, and the whole place been reduced to such absolute ruin that, save some twisted cylinders and iron piping, not a trace remained of the machinery which had cost our unfortunate acquaintance so dearly. Large masses of nickel and of tin were discovered stored in an out-house, but no coins were to be found, which may have explained the presence of those bulky boxes which have been already referred to.
How our hydraulic engineer had been conveyed from the garden to the spot where he recovered his senses might have remained forever a mystery were it not for the soft mould, which told us a very plain tale. He had evidently been carried down by two persons, one of whom had remarkably small feet and the other unusually large ones. On the whole, it was most probable that the silent Englishman, being less bold or less murderous than his companion, had assisted the woman to bear the unconscious man out of the way of danger.
“Well,” said our engineer ruefully as we took our seats to return once more to London, “it has been a pretty business for me! I have lost my thumb and I have lost a fifty-guinea fee, and what have I gained?”
“Experience,” said Holmes, laughing. “Indirectly it may be of value, you know; you have only to put it into words to gain the reputation of being excellent company for the remainder of your existence.”