The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
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"On the contrary," answered the colonel warmly, "I consider
it the greatest privilege to have been permitted to study your
methods of working. I confess that they quite surpass my expec-
tations, and that I am utterly unable to account for your result. I
have not yet seen the vestige of a clue."
"I am afraid that my explanation may disillusion you, but it
has always been my habit to hide none of my methods, either
from my friend Watson or from anyone who might take an
intelligent interest in them. But, first, as I am rather shaken by
the knocking about which I had in the dressing-room. I think that
I shall help myself to a dash of your brandy, Colonel. My
strength has been rather tried of late."
"I trust you had no more of those nervous attacks.''
Sherlock Holmes laughed heartily. "We will come to that in
its turn," said he. "I will lay an account of the case before you
in its due order, showing you the various points which guided
me in my decision. Pray interrupt me if there is any inference
which is not perfectly clear to you.
"It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be
able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental
and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be
dissipated instead of being concentrated. Now, in this case there
was not the slightest doubt in my mind from the first that the key
of the whole matter must be looked for in the scrap of paper in
the dead man's hand.
"Before going into this, I would draw your attention to the
fact that, if Alec Cunningham's narrative was correct, and if the
assailant, after shooting William Kirwan, had instantly fled, then
it obviously could not be he who tore the paper from the dead
man's hand. But if it was not he, it must have been Alec
Cunningham himself, for by the time that the old man had
descended several servants were upon the scene. The point is a
simple one, but the inspector had overlooked it because he had
started with the supposition that these county magnates had had
nothing to do with the matter. Now, I make a point of never
having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever fact
may lead me, and so, in the very first stage of the investigation,
I found myself looking a little askance at the part which had been
played by Mr. Alec Cunningham.
"And now I made a very careful examination of the corner of
paper which the inspector had submitted to us. It was at once
clear to me that it formed part of a very remarkable document.
Here it is. Do you not now observe something very suggestive
"It has a very irregular look," said the colonel.
"My dear sir," cried Holmes, "there cannot be the least
doubt in the world that it has been written by two persons doing
alternate words. When I draw your attention to the strong t's of
'at' and 'to,' and ask you to compare them with the weak ones of
'quarter' and 'twelve,' you will instantly recognize the fact. A
very brief analysis of these four words would enable you to say
with the utmost confidence that the 'learn' and the 'maybe' are
written in the stronger hand, and the 'what' in the weaker."
"By Jove, it's as clear as day!" cried the colonel. "Why on
earth should two men write a letter in such a fashion?"
"Obviously the business was a bad one, and one of the men
who distrusted the other was determined that, whatever was
done, each should have an equal hand in it. Now, of the two
men, it is clear that the one who wrote the 'at' and 'to' was the
"How do you get at that?"
"We might deduce it from the mere character of the one hand
as compared with the other. But we have more assured reasons
than that for supposing it. If you examine this scrap with atten-
tion you will come to the conclusion that the man with the
stronger hand wrote all his words first, leaving blanks for the
other to fill up. These blanks were not always sufficient, and you
can see that the second man had a squeeze to fit his 'quarter' in
between the 'at' and the 'to,' showing that the latter were already
written. The man who wrote all his words first is undoubtedly
the man who planned the affair."
"Excellent!" cried Mr. Acton.
"But very superficial," said Holmes. "We come now, how-
ever, to a point which is of importance. You may not be aware
that the deduction of a man's age from his writing is one which
has been brought to consideiable accuracy by experts. In normal
cases one can place a man in his true decade with tolerable
confidence. I say normal cases, because ill-health and physical
weakness reproduce the signs of old age, even when the invalid
is a youth. In this case, looking at the bold, strong hand of the
one, and the rather broken-backed appearance of the other,
which still retains its legibility although the t's have begun to
lose their crossing, we can say that the one was a young man and
the other was advanced in years without being positively decrepit."
"Excellent!" cried Mr. Acton again.
"There is a further point, however, which is subtler and of
greater interest. There is something in common between these
hands. They belong to men who are blood-relatives. It may be
most obvious to you in the Greek e's, but to me there are many
small points which indicate the same thing. I have no doubt at all
that a family mannerism can be traced in these two specimens of
writing. I am only, of course, giving you the leading results now
of my examination of the paper. There were twenty-three other
deductions which would be of more interest to experts than to
you. They all tend to deepen the impression upon my mind that
the Cunninghams, father and son, had written this letter.
"Having got so far, my next step was, of course, to examine
into the details of the crime, and to see how far they would help
us. I went up to the house with the inspector and saw all that was
to be seen. The wound upon the dead man was, as I was able to
determine with absolute confidence, fired from a revolver at the
distance of something over four yards. There was no powder-
blackening on the clothes. Evidently, therefore, Alec Cunning-
ham had lied when he said that the two men were struggling
when the shot was fired. Again, both father and son agreed as to
the place where the man escaped into the road. At that point,
however, as it happens, there is a broadish ditch, moist at the
bottom. As there were no indications of boot-marks about this
ditch, I was absolutely sure not only that the Cunninghams had
again lied but that there had never been any unknown man upon
the scene at all.
"And now I have to consider the motive of this singular
crime. To get at this, I endeavoured first of all to solve the
reason of the original burglary at Mr. Acton's. I understood,
from something which the colonel told us, that a lawsuit had
been going on between you, Mr. Acton, and the Cunninghams.
Of course, it instantly occurred to me that they had broken into
your library with the intention of getting at some document
which might be of importance in the case."
"Precisely so," said Mr. Acton. "There can be no possible
doubt as to their intentions. I have the clearest claim upon half of
their present estate, and if they could have found a single paper --
which, fortunately, was in the strong-box of my solicitors -- they
would undoubtedly have crippled our case."
"There you are," said Holmes, smiling. "It was a dangerous,
reckless attempt in which I seem to trace the influence of young
Alec. Having found nothing, they tried to divert suspicion by
making it appear to be an ordinary burglary, to which end they
carried off whatever they could lay their hands upon. That is all
clear enough, but there was much that was still obscure. What I
wanted, above all. was to get the missing part of that note. I was
certain that Alec had torn it out of the dead man's hand, and
almost certain that he must have thrust it into the pocket of his
dressing-gown. Where else could he have put it? The only
question was whether it was still there. It was worth an effort to
find out, and for that object we all went up to the house.
"The Cunninghams joined us. as you doubtless remember
outside the kitchen door. It was, of course, of the very first
importance that they should not be reminded of the existence of
this paper otherwise they would naturally destroy it without
delay. The inspector was about to tell them the importance which
we attached to it when, by the luckiest chance in the world, I
tumbled down in a sort of fit and so changed the conversation."
"Good heavens!" cned the colonel, laughing, "do you mean
to say all our sympathy was wasted and your fit an imposture?"
"Speaking professionally, it was admirably done," cried I,
looking in amazement at this man who was forever confounding
me with some new phase of his astuteness.
"It is an art which is often useful," said he. "When I
recovered I managed, by a device which had perhaps some little
merit of ingenuity, to get old Cunningham to write the word
'twelve,' so that I might compare it with the 'twelve' upon the
"Oh, what an ass I have been!" I exclaimed.
"I could see that you were commiserating me over my weak-
ness," said Holmes, laughing. "I was sorry to cause you the
sympathetic pain which I know that you felt. We then went
upstairs together, and, having entered the room and seen the
dressing-gown hanging up behind the door, I contrived, by
upsetting a table, to engage their attention for the moment and
slipped back to examine the pockets. I had hardly got the paper,
however -- which was, as I had expected, in one of them -- when
the two Cunninghams were on me, and would, I verily believe,
have murdered me then and there but for your prompt and
friendly aid. As it is, I feel that young man's grip on my throat
now, and the father has twisted my wrist round in the effort to
get the paper out of my hand. They saw that I must know all
about it, you see, and the sudden change from absolute security
to complete despair made them perfectly desperate.
"I had a little talk with old Cunningham afterwards as to the
motive of the crime. He was tractable enough, though his son
was a perfect demon. ready to blow out his own or anybody
else's brains if he could have got to his revolver. When Cunning-