“The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A man named Victor Hatherley comes to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson because of his missing thumb, and explains to them how it came to be that way.
The Engineer’s Thumb
The exciting affair of Mr Hatherley’s thumb happened in the summer of 1889, not long after my marriage. I was in practice as a doctor, but I often visited my friend Sherlock Holmes at his Baker Street rooms, and I sometimes even managed to persuade him to come and visit my wife and me. My practice had steadily become more successful, and as I happened to live near Paddington Station, I got a few patients from among the railway workers there. One of these, a guard whom I had cured of a painful disease, was always praising my skill and trying to persuade new patients to come to me.
One morning, a little before seven o’clock, I was woken by our servant knocking at the bedroom door. She said that two men had come from Paddington Station and were waiting in my office. I dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. I knew from experience that railway cases were usually serious. Before I had reached the office, my old friend the guard came out and closed the door tightly behind him.
‘I’ve got him here,’ he whispered, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb, as if he had caught some strange wild animal for me.‘It’s a new patient. I thought I’d bring him here myself, so that he couldn’t run away. I must go now, Doctor. I have my duties, just as you have.’ And he was out of the house before I could thank him.
I entered my office, and found a gentleman seated by the table. He was dressed in a country suit, with a soft cloth cap, which he had put down on top of my books. There was a bloody cloth wrapped round one of his hands. He was young — not more than twenty-five, I thought. He had a strong face, but he was extremely pale, and seemed to be in a state of almost uncontrollable anxiety.
‘I’m sorry to get you out of bed so early, Doctor,’ he began. ‘But I had a very serious accident during the night. I came back to London by train this morning, and at Paddington I asked the railway people where I could find a doctor. One good man very kindly brought me here. I gave your servant a card, but I see that she has left it over there on the side table.’
I picked it up and looked at it. ‘Mr Victor Hatherley,’ I read. ‘Engineer, third floor, 16A Victoria Street.’
‘I am sorry you have had to wait so long,’ I said, sitting down. ‘Your night journey must have been dull too.’
‘Oh, my experiences during the night could not be called dull!’ he said, and laughed. In fact he shook with such unnatural laughter that he sounded a little crazy.
‘Stop it!’ I cried. ‘Control yourself!’ I poured out a glass of water for him.
But it was useless. He went on laughing for some time. When at last he stopped he was very tired and ashamed of himself.
‘It was stupid of me to laugh like that,’ he said in a weak voice.
‘Not at all.’ I poured some brandy into the water. ‘Drink this!’ Soon the colour began to return to his pale face. ‘That’s better!’ he said. ‘And now, doctor, would you mind looking at my thumb, or rather at the place where my thumb used to be?’
He took off the cloth and held out his hand. It was a terrible sight, and although I had been an army doctor I could hardly bear to look at it. Instead of a thumb there was only an uneven, swollen red surface. The thumb had been completely cut — or torn – off.
‘Good heavens!’ I cried.‘This is a terrible wound. It must have bled a great deal.’
‘Yes, it did. I fainted when it happened; and I think I must have been unconscious for a long time. When I returned to consciousness, I found that it was still bleeding. So I tied one end of this cloth very tightly round my wrist, and used a small piece of wood to make it even tighter.’
‘Excellent! You should have been a doctor.’
‘I’m an engineer, you see: the force of liquids is my subject.’
‘This has been done,’ I said, examining the wound, ‘by a very sharp, heavy instrument.’
‘An axe,’ he said.
‘It was an accident, I suppose?’’
‘Was somebody trying to murder you, then?’
I cleaned the wound and bandaged it. He did not cry out as I worked on his hand, though he bit his lip from time to time.
‘How are you feeling now?’ I asked, when I had finished.
‘I feel fine! Your brandy and your bandage have made me feel like a new man. I was very weak, but I have had some terrible experiences.’
‘Perhaps you had better not speak of the matter. It upsets you too much.’
‘Oh no! Not now. I shall have to tell everything to the police. But really, if I did not have this wound, the police might not believe my statement. It is a very strange story and I have not much proof of it. And I doubt whether justice will ever be done, because I can give the detectives so few clues.’
‘In that case,’ I said, ‘I strongly advise you to see my friend Sherlock Holmes before you go to the police.’
‘Oh, I have heard of Mr Holmes,’ said my visitor, ‘and I should be very glad if he would look into the matter, though of course I must inform the police as well. Would you write me a letter of introduction to him?’
‘I’ll do better than that. I’ll take you round to him myself.’
‘You’re very kind.’
‘We’ll call a carriage and go together. We shall arrive just in time to have breakfast with him. Do you feel strong enough to go out?’
‘Oh yes! I shall not feel comfortable in my mind until I have told my story.’
‘Then my servant will Gall a carriage, and I shall be with you in a moment.’ I rushed upstairs and quickly explained everything to my wife. Five minutes later Mr Hatherley and I were in a carriage on our way to Baker Street.
As I had expected, Sherlock Holmes was in his sitting room reading the small personal advertisements in The Times and smoking his pipe. For this early-morning smoke he used all the half-smoked lumps of tobacco from the day before, all carefully dried and collected together. He welcomed US in his usual quiet, pleasant way, and ordered more food for US.Then we all sat round the table and had a good breakfast. When we had finished, Holmes made Mr Hatherley lie down with a glass of brandy and water within reach.
‘It is easy to see that your experience has been a strange and terrible one, Mr Hatherley,’ he said. ‘Please lie down there and make yourself completely at home. Tell US what you can, but stop and have a drink when you are tired.’
‘Thank you,’ said my patient, ‘but I have been feeling quite fresh since the doctor bandaged me, and I think that your excellent breakfast has completed the cure. So I will begin the story of my strange experiences immediately.’
Holmes sat down in his big armchair. As usual, the sleepy expression on his face, and his half-closed eyes, hid his eagerness. I sat opposite him, and we listened in silence to the strange story our visitor told.
‘My parents are dead,’ he said, ‘and I am unmarried. I live alone in rooms in London. By profession I am an engineer, and I have had seven years of training with Venner and Matheson of Greenwich, the well-known engineers. I completed my training two years ago. Not long before that, my father had died and I received some of his money So I decided to go into business on my own, and took an office in Victoria Street.
‘The first few years of independent practice are often disappointing. I myself have had an extremely disappointing start. In two years I have had only three or four jobs and have earned only twenty-seven pounds. Every day, from nine o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon, I waited in my little office, until at last I began to lose heart. I thought that I would never get any work.
‘But yesterday my clerk came in to say that a gentleman was waiting to see me on business. He brought in a card, too, with the name ‘Captain Lysander Stark’ printed on it. The Captain followed him into the room almost immediately. He was a tall, thin man. I do not think I have ever seen a thinner man than Captain Stark. He had a sharp nose and the skin of his face was pulled very tightly over the bones. But his thinness did not seem to be the result of any disease. His back was straight and his eyes were bright. He was plainly but neatly dressed, and seemed to be about thirty-five or forty years old.
‘ “Mr Hatherley?” he said, and I thought he sounded like a German. “You have been recommended to me, Mr Hatherley, not only as an excellent engineer, but also as a man who can keep a secret.”
‘This polite remark pleased me. “May I ask who it was who spoke so well of me?” I said.
‘ “Well, perhaps I had better not tell you that just now. I have also heard that your parents are dead, and that you are unmarried and five alone in London.”
‘ “That is quite correct,” I answered. “But I do not see what connection these things have with my professional ability. My clerk told me that you wished to speak to me about a professional matter.”
‘ “Yes, certainly. But everything I have said is important. I have work for you, but secrecy is necessary — complete secrecy. And of course we can expect greater secrecy from a man who is alone in the world than from one who lives with his family.”
‘ “If I promise to keep a secret,” I said, “you can trust me to do so.”
‘He looked at me carefully as I spoke. “You do promise, then?” he said at last.
‘ “Yes, I promise.”
‘ “You promise complete silence, both before and after doing the work? You promise not to mention the matter at all, either in speech or in writing?”
‘ “I have already given you my word.”
‘“Very good!” He suddenly jumped up, rushed across the room, and threw open the door. The passage outside was empty.
‘ “That’s all right,” he said, coming back. “I know that clerks are sometimes eager to know about their masters’ affairs. Now it is safe to talk.” He pulled his chair up very close to mine, and once again began looking thoughtfully at me.
‘I did not like this. I was beginning to feel impatient with this strange man.
‘ “Please tell me why you have come to see me, sir.” I said. “My time is valuable.” Of course this was not really true!
‘ “Would fifty pounds for a night’s work suit you?” he asked.
‘ “Yes, very well!”
‘ “I said a night’s work, but in fact the work would hardly take an hour. I only want your opinion about a machine which is not working properly. If you show US what is wrong, we shall soon be able to put it right ourselves. Will you do it?”
‘ “Yes, I will,” I said. “The work appears to be easy and the pay extremely generous.”
‘ “Yes. We want you to come tonight, by the last train.” “‘Where to?” I asked.
‘ “To Eyford, in Berkshire. It is a little village about seven miles from Reading. There is a train from Paddington which will get you there at about a quarter past eleven.”
‘ “Very good.”
‘ “I will come to Eyford Station in a carriage to meet you.”
‘ “Do you live far from the station, then?” I asked.
‘ “Yes, our house is right out in the country – more than seven miles away.”
‘“Then we shall not reach your house before midnight. I suppose there are no trains back from Eyford to London in the middle of the night. I should have to sleep at your house.”
‘ “Oh yes, we can easily give you a bed.”
‘ “That is not very convenient. Couldn’t I come at some other time?”
‘“We have decided that the night is the best time. The unusually high pay will be your reward for the trouble. But of course you are perfectly free to refuse the work if you wish.”
‘I thought of the fifty pounds – I thought how very useful the money would be to me. “I do not want to refuse,” I said. “I will do whatever you want. But I should like to understand a little more clearly what it is you wish me to do.”
‘ “Of course. I will explain everything to you. But it is very secret. Are you quite sure that nobody can hear what we are saying?”
“‘Quite sure,” I replied.
‘ “Then I will explain. A few years ago I bought a house and a small piece of land, about ten miles from Reading. I discovered that the soil in one of my fields contained Fuller’s earth. Fuller’s earth, as you probably know, is a valuable substance, and is only found in one or two places in England. Unfortunately the amount of Fuller’s earth in my field was rather small. But to the right and left of it, in fields belonging to my neighbours, there were much larger quantities of the substance. My neighbours had no idea that their land was as valuable as a gold mine. Naturally it was in my interest to buy their land before they discovered its true value; but unfortunately I had no capital with which to do this. So I told the secret to a few of my friends and they suggested that we should quietly and secretly dig out our own small quantity of Fuller’s earth; and that in this way we would earn enough money to buy the neighbouring fields. We have been working secretly like this for some time. One of the machines we use is a press. This press, as I have already explained, is not working properly, and we want your advice on the subject. We guard our secret very carefully, and if our neighbours found out that an engineer had visited our little house, our discovery about the Fuller’s earth would not be a secret any longer and we would have no chance at all of buying those fields and carrying out our plans.That is why I have made you promise me that you will not tell a single human being that you are going to Eyford tonight. Do you understand?”
‘“Yes,” I answered. “But one point that I do not quite understand is this: how can a press be of any use to you in digging Fuller’s earth out of the ground?”
‘ “Ah!” he said carelessly.“We have our own special way.We use the press to turn the Fuller’s earth into bricks so that we can remove the substance without letting the neighbours know what it is. But that is just a detail. I have taken you into my confidence now, Mr Hatherley, and have shown you that I trust you.” He rose as he spoke. “I shall expect you, then, at Eyford at 11.15.”
‘ “I will certainly be there.”
‘ “And do not say a word about it to anybody!” He gave me a last long, questioning look, and then, pressing my hand in his, he hurried from the room.
‘Well, gentlemen, when I was alone again, I thought a lot about this visitor and his unusual request. Of course I was glad in a way, because the money he had offered was at least ten times as much as the ordinary pay for such a piece of work. And it was possible that this opportunity would lead to others. But the face and manner of this man had given me a strange feeling, and I did not believe that the story of the Fuller’s earth really explained the necessity for a midnight visit, or the conditions of extreme secrecy that were connected with it. But I put my fears to one side, ate a large supper, drove to Paddington, and started off for Eyford. I had obeyed Captain Stark’s instructions and had spoken to nobody.
‘At Reading I had to change stations, and I caught the last train to Eyford. I reached the dark little station after eleven o’clock. I was the only passenger who got out there, and the only person at the station was a single sleepy railwayman, holding an oil lamp. As I passed through the gate from the station I found Captain Stark waiting in the shadows on the other side of the road. Without speaking, he seized me by the arm and hurried me into a carriage. He pulled up the windows on both sides, knocked on the woodwork as a signal to the driver, and we set off as fast as the horse could go.’
‘One horse?’ Holmes interrupted.
‘Yes, only one.’
‘Did you notice what colour it was?’
‘Yes, I saw by the light of the carriage lamps as I was stepping in. It was light brown.’
‘Was it tired-looking, or fresh?’
‘Oh, its coat looked quite fresh.’
‘Thank you. I am sorry to have interrupted you. Please continue your very interesting story.’
‘We drove for at least an hour. Captain Stark had said that it was only about seven miles, but the time the journey took and the speed at which we travelled made me think it was really ten or twelve. He sat at my side in silence, watching me carefully all the time. The country roads must have been rather bad, as the carriage shook and moved violently up and down as we went along. I tried to look out of the windows to see where we were, but they were made of coloured glass and I could see nothing except occasional faint lights. Now and then I spoke to the Captain, but he answered only ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and the conversation went no further. At last, the shaking of the carriage stopped, and we drove over a smooth private road: our journey was over. Captain Stark jumped out, and, as I followed, pulled me quickly through the open front door of the house. We stepped right out of the carriage into the hall, so that I was quite unable to get any idea of what the outside of the house looked like. As soon as I was inside the house the door was shut violently behind US, and I heard the faint sound of wheels as the carriage drove away.
It was completely dark inside the house, and the Captain began looking for matches, talking to himself as he did so. Suddenly a door opened at the other end of the passage, and a golden beam of light appeared. It grew wider, and I saw a woman with a lamp, which she held above her head, pushing her face forward to look at US. I could see that she was pretty, and expensively dressed. She said a few words in a foreign language, and when my companion answered with a single cold word, his reply gave her such a shock that she nearly dropped the lamp. Captain Stark went up to her, whispered something in her ear, and pushed her back into the room she had come out of. Then he walked back towards me with the lamp in his hand, and opened the door of another room.
‘“Please be kind enough to wait in this room for a few minutes,” he said.
‘It was a small, plain room, with a round table in the centre. There were several German books scattered on this table. The Captain put the lamp down on a smaller table by the door. “I will not keep you waiting long,” he said, and disappeared into the darkness.
‘I looked at the books on the table, and although I do not understand German I could see that two of them were on scientific subjects. The others were books of poetry. Then I walked across to the window, hoping to see a little of the surroundings of the house. But strong heavy boards were nailed across the window on the outside. It was an unusually silent house. The only sound came from an old clock somewhere in the passage. I felt myself becoming more and more anxious. Who were these German people, and what were they doing, living in this strange, out-of-the-way place? And where was the place? I only knew that it was ten or twelve miles from Eyford, but I had no idea whether it was north, south, east or west. Of course Reading, and possibly other large towns, were about the same distance away. But the complete stillness made it clear that Captain Starks house was right out in the country. I walked anxiously up and down the room, singing to myself under my breath to give myself courage, and feeling that I was thoroughly earning my fifty pounds!
‘Then, without a sound, the door of the room swung slowly open, and I saw the woman standing there. Behind her was the darkness of the hall, and the yellow fight from my lamp shone on her eager and beautiful face. It was easy to see that she was in a state of extreme fear, and as a result my own blood turned to ice. She held up one shaking finger to warn me to be silent. Her eyes, as she looked back into the dark passage, were like those of a frightened horse.
‘ “You must go away!” she whispered in broken English, with an effort to speak calmly. “There is no good here for you to do.”
‘ “But I have not yet done what I came to do. I cannot possibly leave until I have seen the machine.”
‘ “You will gain nothing by staying,” she went on. “You can pass through the door; nobody prevents you.” And then, seeing that I only smiled and shook my head, she suddenly gave up her attempt to speak calmly, and took a step forward. “For the love of heaven!” she said, stretching out her hands towards me,“Get away from here before it is too late!”
‘But it is not easy to make me change my mind, and difficulties only make me more determined. I thought of my fifty pounds, of the tiring journey I had just made, and of the unpleasant night that was just beginning. Must all this be completely wasted? Why should I run away without carrying out my orders, and without receiving my pay for the night’s work? Maybe this woman was crazy! Though her warning had worried me, I still shook my head firmly, and said I would stay. She would have gone on trying to persuade me, but just then we heard the noisy closing of a door upstairs, and the sound of footsteps on the stairs. She listened for a moment, threw up her hands in hopelessness, and then disappeared as suddenly and silently as she had come.
‘When Captain Stark came back into the room, there was another man with him. This second man was short and fat, with a beard like a goat’s growing out of the folds of his round face. The Captain introduced him to me as Mr Ferguson.
‘ “Mr Ferguson is my secretary and manager” said the Captain. Then he gave me a strange look and said: “Mr Hatherley, I had the idea that I left this door shut just now.”
‘ “Yes,” I replied, “but the room seemed a little airless, and so I opened the door to let some air in.”
‘“Well, perhaps we had better begin our business now. Mr Ferguson and I will take you up to see the machine.”
‘ “I had better put my hat on, I suppose,” I said.
‘ “Oh no, it is in the house.”
‘ “What! Do you dig Fuller’s earth in the house?”
‘ “No, no. This is only where we press it into bricks. But never mind that! All we wish you to do is to examine the machine and to let us know what is wrong with it.”
‘We went upstairs together, the Captain first with the lamp, the fat manager and myself behind him. It was the kind of old house in which it would be easy to get lost – full of passages, narrow stairways, and little low doors. There were no floor coverings, and above the ground floor there seemed to be no furniture at all. I tried to appear calm and cheerful, but I had not forgotten the warnings of the lady, and I watched my two companions anxiously. Ferguson appeared to be a bad-tempered and silent man, but I could tell from his voice that he was at least an Englishman.
‘At last Captain Stark stopped outside a low door, which he unlocked. The room inside was small and square — so small, in fact, that the three of US could hardly have gone inside at the same time. Ferguson remained outside, and I went in with the Captain.
‘ “We are now” he said, “actually inside the press, and it would be extremely unpleasant for US if anyone turned it on. The ceiling of this little room is really the moving part of the press, and it comes down with very great force on this metal floor. The machine still works, but it seems to be sticking and it has lost some of its power. I should Eke you to examine it, please, and to show us how we can put it right.”
‘I took the lamp from him, and examined the machine very thoroughly. It was certainly a very large and powerful one. When I went back outside and pressed down the handles that controlled it, I could tell from the soft whistling sound that there was a slight escape of water from one part into another. This was the explanation for the loss of pressure. A further examination showed that one of the rubber seals in the press had become worn and thin, and this was how the water was escaping. I pointed this out to my companions, who listened very carefully to what I said, and asked several questions about what they should do to put the problem right. When I had made it clear to them, I went back inside the machine, and had another good look at it — to satisfy my own desire to find out what it was. I realized that the story of the Fullers earth was a complete he: it was impossible to believe that such a powerful machine could be intended for such a purpose. The walls were made of wood, but the floor was like a kind of iron bath. When I examined this more closely I saw that it was coated with another sort of metal, in a fine powder. I had bent down and was feeling this to find out exactly what it was, when I heard a few angry words in German and saw the Captain looking down at me.
‘ “What are you doing in there?” he asked.
‘I was feeling angry with him for telling me lies. “I was admiring your Fullers earth,” I said. “I think you ought to have told me the real purpose of your machine before asking me to advise you about it.”
‘As soon as I had spoken, I wished I had not. A cold, hard expression came into Captain Stark s face, and I saw that his grey eyes were full of hatred.
“‘Very well!” he said. “I will show you everything about the machine!” He took a step backwards, shut the little door and quickly turned the key. I rushed towards it and pulled at the handle. Then I pushed and kicked at the door, but it held firm. “Captain Stark! Captain Stark!” I shouted. “Let me out!”
‘And then suddenly in the silence I heard a sound that sent my heart to my mouth with fear. It was the controlling handles being pressed down, and the slight whistling noise of the water. Captain Stark had turned on the machine. The lamp was still on the iron floor of the press, and by its fight I saw that the black ceiling was coming down on me – slowly and unsteadily, but with enough power to crush me into the floor. With a terrible cry I threw myself against the door and tore with my nails at the lock. I begged the Captain to let me out, but the sounds of the machinery drowned my cries.The ceiling was now only a foot or two above my head, and by raising my arm I could feel its hard rough surface. Then the thought struck me that the pain of my death would depend very much on the position of my body at the last moment. If I lay on my face the weight would come on my backbone, and I trembled to think of the terrible sound of my own back breaking. Perhaps it would be easier the other way — but had I enough courage to he and look up at that fearful black shadow as it came nearer and nearer? Already I was unable to stand up, when I noticed something that brought hope back to my heart.
‘I have said that though the floor and the ceding were made of iron, the walls of the press were wooden. As I gave a last hopeless look around, I saw a thin line of yellow light between two of the boards; and this line became wider and wider as a small door was pushed backwards. For a moment I could hardly believe that here was a door that led away from death. The next moment I threw myself through, and lay half fainting on the other side. The door had closed again behind me, but the crash of the lamp as the ceding struck it, and a few moments afterwards the sound of the top and bottom of the press meeting, made me realize what a narrow escape I had had.
‘Suddenly, as I lay outside the press, I felt somebody pulling at my wrist, and I saw that I was on the stone floor of a narrow passage, and a woman with an od lamp in her hand was bending over me. It was the same good friend whose earlier warning I had so stupidly faded to take seriously.
“Come! Come!” she cried. “They will be here in a moment. They will see that you are not there. Oh, do not waste valuable time, but come with me!”
‘This time, at least, I took her advice. Unsteaddy, I stood up, and ran with her along the passage and down a narrow staircase which led to another broad passage. Just as we reached this second passage, we heard the sound of running feet and the shouting of two voices – one answering the other — from the floor where we were, and from the one below. My guide stopped and looked around her as if she did not know what to do. 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,” she said. “The window is high up, but perhaps you can jump out.”
‘As she spoke a light appeared at the other end of the passage, and I saw the thin figure of Captain Stark rushing forward with a lamp in one hand, and an axe in the other. I rushed across the bedroom, threw open the window, and looked out. How quiet and pleasant the garden looked in the moonlight! It was about thirty feet down. I climbed out, but did not jump immediately, as I wanted to hear what was about to happen between Stark and the lady who had saved me from death. If it were necessary I was determined, whatever the risk, to return and help her. This thought had hardly flashed through my mind before he was at the door, pushing his way past her; but she threw her arms around him, and tried to hold him back.
‘ “Fritz! Fritz! Remember your promise after the last time!” she cried in English. “You said it would never happen again. He will not tell anyone! Oh, I am sure he will not!”
‘ “You are crazy, Elise!” he shouted, struggling to free himself. “You will be the ruin of US. He has seen too much. Let me pass, I say!” He pushed her to one side, rushed to the window, and struck at me with his axe. At that moment I was hanging by my hands to the bottom of the window. I was conscious of a dull pain, and I fell into the garden below.
‘I was not hurt too much by the fall; so I got to my feet and rushed off among the bushes as fast as I could run — I knew that I was not out of danger yet. Suddenly, as I ran, I began to feel sick and faint. I looked down at my hand, which by now was really painful, and saw for the first time that my thumb had been cut off, and that blood was pouring from the wound. I attempted to tie a piece of cloth round it, but suddenly I seemed to hear a strange singing noise in my ears, and the next moment I fainted and fell.
‘I do not know how long I remained unconscious. It must have been a very long time, as it was daybreak when I woke up. My clothes were wet through, and my coat was covered in blood from my wounded hand. The pain reminded me of all the details of my midnight adventure, and I jumped to my feet with the feeling that even now I might not be safe from my enemies. But, to my surprise, when I looked about me I could see neither the house nor the garden. I had been lying near the side of a country road, and not far off I saw a long low building. I walked along towards this, and found that it was the railway station where I had arrived the night before! Except for the wound on my hand, everything that had happened during those terrible hours might have been a dream.
‘Still only half conscious, I went into the station, and asked about the morning train. There would be one to Reading in less than an hour. The same railwayman was on duty as at the time of my arrival. I asked him whether he had ever heard of Captain Lysander Stark. The name was not familiar to him. Had he noticed a carriage waiting for me the night before? No, he had not. Was there a police station anywhere near? There was one two or three miles away.
‘It was too far for me to go, in my weak state. I decided to wait until I got back to London before telling my story to the police. It was about half past six when I arrived, and I went first to have my wound bandaged. After that, the doctor very kindly brought me along here. I should like to put the case into your hands, and will do exactly what you advise.’
Sherlock Holmes and I sat in silence for some moments after listening to this strange account. Then Holmes pulled down from a shelf one of the thick, heavy books in which it was his habit to stick pieces from the newspapers.
‘Here is an advertisement that will interest you,’ he said. ‘It appeared in all the papers about a year ago. Listen to this: “Lost on the 9th of this month, Mr Jeremiah Hayling, twenty-six years old, an engineer. He left his rooms at ten o’clock at night, and has not been heard of since. He was dressed in . . .” and so on. Yes! That must have been the last time the Captain needed to have his press repaired, I think.’
‘Good heavens!’ cried my patient.‘Then that explains what the woman said.’
‘I have no doubt of it,’ said Holmes. ‘It is quite clear that the Captain is a determined man, who would not allow anything or anybody to stand in his way. Well, every moment is important, and so, if you feel strong enough, Mr Hatherley, we will go to Scotland Yard and then to Eyford.’
Two hours later we were all in the train together, on our way from Reading to the little Berkshire village. There were Sherlock Holmes, Mr Hatherley the engineer, Bradstreet the Scotland Yard detective, a young policeman, and myself. Bradstreet had spread a large-scale map of the Eyford area out on the seat, and was drawing a circle with Eyford at its centre.
‘There!’ he said. ‘That circle is twenty miles across – ten miles from Eyford in every direction. The place we want must be somewhere near that line.You said ten miles, I think, sir?’
‘The drive took more than an hour,’ said Mr Hatherley.
‘And you think that they brought you back all that way while you were unconscious?’
‘They must have done so. I have a confused memory, too, of having been lifted and carried somewhere.’
‘I can’t understand why they didn’t kill you when they found you in the garden,’ I said. ‘Perhaps the woman begged Stark to let you go, and succeeded in softening him?
‘I don’t think that very likely,’ Hatherley answered,‘I never saw a more cruel face than his in my life.’
‘Oh, we shall soon find an explanation for all that,’ said Bradstreet. ‘Well, I have drawn my circle, but I wish I knew at which point on it the wanted men are to be found.’
‘I think I could put my finger on the right point,’ said Holmes quietly.
‘Really?’ cried Bradstreet. ‘So you have formed your opinion? Well, then, we shall see who agrees with you. I say it is to the south, as there are very few houses in that direction.’ ‘And I say east,’ said Hatherley.
‘I think it is to the west,’ said the second policeman. ‘There are several quiet little villages up there.’
‘And I think it is to the north,’ I said, ‘because there are no hills there, and Mr Hatherley says that he did not notice the carriage going up any.’
Bradstreet laughed. ‘So we have opinions for north, south, east, and west. Which do you agree with, Mr Holmes?’
‘I don’t agree with any of them,’ Holmes answered.
‘But we can’t all be wrong!’
‘Oh, yes, you can! This is my point,’ he said, placing his finger on the centre of the circle. ‘This is where we shall find them.’
‘But how do you explain the ten-mile drive?’ asked Hatherley in surprise.
‘Five miles out and five back. Nothing could be simpler. You said yourself that the horse was quite fresh when you got in. That would be completely impossible if the horse had just gone ten miles over rough roads.’
‘Yes,’ said Bradstreet thoughtfully. ‘It’s quite a likely explanation. Of course it is not difficult to guess what kind of men these are.’
‘Yes,’ said Holmes. ‘They are forgers of coins on a large scale.
The press is used to form the mixture with which they make a metal that looks like silver.’
‘We have known for some time that a clever group was at work,’ said Bradstreet. ‘They have made many thousands of forged silver coins. We even had clues which led to Reading. But we could get no further — they had covered their tracks too cleverly. But now I think they are about to fall into our hands.’
But Bradstreet was mistaken. Those criminals never fell into the hands of the police. As our train came into Eyford Station, we saw a broad line of smoke rising into the air behind some trees in the neighbourhood of the village.
‘Is there a house on fire?’ Bradstreet asked, as soon as we had got out.
‘Yes, sir,’ said the stationmaster.
‘When did the fire break out?’
‘I hear that it was during the night, sir, but it has got worse, and by now the house is almost completely destroyed.’
‘Whose house is it?’
‘Tell me,’ Hatherley interrupted, ‘is Dr Becher a German, very thin, with a long sharp nose?’
The stationmaster laughed loudly. ‘No, sir, Dr Becher is an Englishman, and he’s the fattest man in the village. But he has a gentleman staying with him – one of his patients, I believe – who is a foreigner, and he is extremely thin.’ The stationmaster had not finished speaking before we were all hurrying in the direction of the fire. In front of US on a low hill there was a large white house. Smoke and flames were coming out of every window, while in the garden in front three fire engines were attempting, with little success, to control the fire.
‘That’s the house!’ cried Hatherley in great excitement.‘There are the bushes where I lay, and that second window is the one that I jumped from.’
‘Well, at least,’ said Holmes, ‘you have had your revenge on them. I have no doubt that it was your oil lamp which, when it was crushed in the press, set fire to the wooden walls — though no doubt Stark and Ferguson were too excited by their hunt for you to notice it at the time. Now keep your eyes open in this crowd for those two men – though I fear that by now they are almost at the other end of England.’ And Holmes was right in his guess. From that day to this nothing has ever been heard of the beautiful woman, the cruel German, or the bad-tempered, silent Englishman. Early that morning a farmer had met a cart containing several people and some very large boxes. They were driving fast in the direction of Reading. But the criminals left no further signs, and even Holmes failed to discover any clues. We learnt that the firemen had found a human thumb, recently cut off, at a window on the second floor of the house. At about sunset they succeeded in putting the fire out, but by that time the roof had fallen in, and almost nothing remained of the forgers’ machinery inside the house. Large amounts of different metals were found in a building behind the house, but it was clear that the criminals had taken their stores of forged coins away with them in the boxes. The mystery of how Mr Hatherley had been carried from the garden to the roadside was quickly solved when Holmes found a double line of footprints in the soft earth. The engineer had been carried out by two people, one of whom had very small feet, and the other unusually large ones. On the whole, it was most likely that the silent Englishman — less fearless or less cruel than the German captain – had helped the woman to carry the unconscious man out of the way of danger.
‘Well,’ said Hatherley a Ettle sadly, ‘it has been a strange affair for me! I have lost my thumb, and I have lost fifty pounds in pay, and what have I gained?’ ‘You have gained experience,’ said Holmes, laughing. ‘And you have now got a true and interesting story of your own, which you will be able to tell every day for the rest of your life!’