Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
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understand a little more clearly what it is that you wish me to
"'Quite so. It is very natural that the pledge of secrecy which
we have exacted from you should have aroused your curiosity. I
have no wish to commit you to anything without your having it all
laid before you. I suppose that we are absolutely safe from
"'Then the matter stands thus. You are probably aware that
fuller's-earth is a valuable product, and that it is only found
in one or two places in England?'
"'I have heard so.'
"'Some little time ago I bought a small place--a very small
place--within ten miles of Reading. I was fortunate enough to
discover that there was a deposit of fuller's-earth in one of my
fields. On examining it, however, I found that this deposit was a
comparatively small one, and that it formed a link between two
very much larger ones upon the right and left--both of them,
however, in the grounds of my neighbors. These good people were
absolutely ignorant that their land contained that which was
quite as valuable as a gold-mine. Naturally, it was to my
interest to buy their land before they discovered its true value,
but unfortunately I had no capital by which I could do this. I
took a few of my friends into the secret, however, and they
suggested that we should quietly and secretly work our own little
deposit and that in this way we should earn the money which would
enable us to buy the neighboring fields. This we have now been
doing for some time, and in order to help us in our operations we
erected a hydraulic press. This press, as I have already
explained, has got out of order, and we wish your advice upon the
subject. We guard our secret very jealously, however, and if it
once became known that we had hydraulic engineers coming to our
little house, it would soon rouse inquiry, and then, if the facts
came out, it would be good-bye to any chance of getting these
fields and carrying out our plans. That is why I have made you
promise me that you will not tell a human being that you are
going to Eyford to-night. I hope that I make it all plain?'
"'I quite follow you,' said I. 'The only point which I could not
quite understand was what use you could make of a hydraulic press
in excavating fuller's-earth, which, as I understand, is dug out
like gravel from a pit.'
"'Ah!' said he carelessly, 'we have our own process. We compress
the earth into bricks, so as to remove them without revealing
what they are. But that is a mere detail. I have taken you fully
into my confidence now, Mr. Hatherley, and I have shown you how I
trust you.' He rose as he spoke. 'I shall expect you, then, at
Eyford at 11:15.'
"'I shall certainly be there.'
"'And not a word to a soul.' He looked at me with a last long,
questioning gaze, and then, pressing my hand in a cold, dank
grasp, he hurried from the room.
"Well, when I came to think it all over in cool blood I was very
much astonished, as you may both think, at this sudden commission
which had been intrusted to me. On the one hand, of course, I was
glad, for the fee was at least tenfold what I should have asked
had I set a price upon my own services, and it was possible that
this order might lead to other ones. On the other hand, the face
and manner of my patron had made an unpleasant impression upon
me, and I could not think that his explanation of the
fuller's-earth was sufficient to explain the necessity for my
coming at midnight, and his extreme anxiety lest I should tell
anyone of my errand. However, I threw all fears to the winds, ate
a hearty supper, drove to Paddington, and started off, having
obeyed to the letter the injunction as to holding my tongue.
"At Reading I had to change not only my carriage but my station.
However, I was in time for the last train to Eyford, and I
reached the little dim-lit station aher eleven o'clock. I was the
only passenger who got out there, and there was no one upon the
platform save a single sleepy porter with a lantern. As I passed
out through the wicket gate, however, I found my acquaintance of
the morning waiting in the shadow upon the other side. Without a
word he grasped my arm and hurried me into a carriage, the door
of which was standing open. He drew up the windows on either
side, tapped on the wood-work, and away we went as fast as the
horse could go."
"One horse?" interjected Holmes.
"Yes, only one."
"Did you observe the color?"
"Yes, I saw it by the side-lights when I was stepping into the
carriage. It was a chestnut."
"Tired-looking or fresh?"
"Oh, fresh and glossy."
"Thank you. I am sorry to have interrupted you. Pray continue
your most interesting statement."
"Away we went then, and we drove for at least an hour. Colonel
Lysander Stark had said that it was only seven miles, but I
should think, from the rate that we seemed to go, and from the
time that we took, that it must have been nearer twelve. He sat
at my side in silence all the time, and I was aware, more than
once when I glanced in his direction, that he was looking at me
with great intensity. The country roads seem to be not very good
in that part of the world, for we lurched and jolted terribly. I
tried to look out of the windows to see something of where we
were, but they were made of frosted glass, and I could make out
nothing save the occasional bright blur of a passing light. Now
and then I hazarded some remark to break the monotony of the
journey, but the colonel answered only in monosyllables, and the
conversation soon flagged. At last, however, the bumping of the
road was exchanged for the crisp smoothness of a gravel-drive,
and the carriage came to a stand. Colonel Lysander Stark sprang
out, and, as I followed after him, pulled me swiftly into a porch
which gaped in front of us. We stepped, as it were, right out of
the carriage and into the hall, so that I failed to catch the
most fleeting glance of the front of the house. The instant that
I had crossed the threshold the door slammed heavily behind us,
and I heard faintly the rattle of the wheels as the carriage
"It was pitch dark inside the house, and the colonel fumbled
about looking for matches and muttering under his breath.
Suddenly a door opened at the other end of the passage, and a
long, golden bar of light shot out in our direction. It grew
broader, and a woman appeared with a lamp in her hand, which she
held above her head, pushing her face forward and peering at us.
I could see that she was pretty, and from the gloss with which
the light shone upon her dark dress I knew that it was a rich
material. She spoke a few words in a foreign tongue in a tone as
though asking a question, and when my companion answered in a
gruff monosyllable she gave such a start that the lamp nearly
fell from her hand. Colonel Stark went up to her, whispered
something in her ear, and then, pushing her back into the room
from whence she had come, he walked towards me again with the
lamp in his hand.
"'Perhaps you will have the kindness to wait in this room for a
few minutes,' said he, throwing open another door. It was a
quiet, little, plainly furnished room, with a round table in the
centre, on which several German books were scattered. Colonel
Stark laid down the lamp on the top of a harmonium beside the
door. 'I shall not keep you waiting an instant,' said he, and
vanished into the darkness.
"I glanced at the books upon the table, and in spite of my
ignorance of German I could see that two of them were treatises
on science, the others being volumes of poetry. Then I walked
across to the window, hoping that I might catch some glimpse of
the country-side, but an oak shutter, heavily barred, was folded
across it. It was a wonderfully silent house. There was an old
clock ticking loudly somewhere in the passage, but otherwise
everything was deadly still. A vague feeling of uneasiness began
to steal over me. 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 was ten miles or so from Eyford, that was
all I knew, but whether north, south, east, or west I had no
idea. For that matter, Reading, and possibly other large towns,
were within that radius, so the place might not be so secluded,
after all. Yet it was quite certain, from the absolute stillness,
that we were in the country. I paced up and down the room,
humming a tune under my breath to keep up my spirits and feeling
that I was thoroughly earning my fifty-guinea fee.
"Suddenly, without any preliminary sound in the midst of the
utter stillness, the door of my room swung slowly open. The woman
was standing in the aperture, the darkness of the hall behind
her, the yellow light from my lamp beating upon her eager and
beautiful face. I could see at a glance that she was sick with
fear, and the sight sent a chill to my own heart. She held up one
shaking finger to warn me to be silent, and she shot a few
whispered words of broken English at me, her eyes glancing back,
like those of a frightened horse, into the gloom behind her.
"'I would go,' said she, trying hard, as it seemed to me, to
speak calmly; 'I would go. I should not stay here. There is no
good for you to do.'
"'But, madam,' said I, 'I have not yet done what I came for. I
cannot possibly leave until I have seen the machine.'
"'It is not worth your while to wait,' she went on. 'You can pass
through the door; no one hinders.' And then, seeing that I smiled
and shook my head, she suddenly threw aside her constraint and
made a step forward, with her hands wrung together. 'For the love
of Heaven!' she whispered, 'get away from here before it is too
"But I am somewhat headstrong by nature, and the more ready to
engage in an affair when there is some obstacle in the way. I
thought of my fifty-guinea fee, of my wearisome journey, and of
the unpleasant night which seemed to be before me. Was it all to
go for nothing? Why should I slink away without having carried
out my commission, and without the payment which was my due? This