The Story of the Bald-Headed Man

We followed the Indian down a sordid and common passage, ill lit and
worse furnished, until he came to a door upon the right, which he threw
open. A blaze of yellow light streamed out upon us, and in the centre
of the glare there stood a small man with a very high head, a bristle
of red hair all round the fringe of it, and a bald, shining scalp which
shot out from among it like a mountain-peak from fir-trees. He writhed
his hands together as he stood, and his features were in a perpetual
jerk, now smiling, now scowling, but never for an instant in repose.
Nature had given him a pendulous lip, and a too visible line of yellow
and irregular teeth, which he strove feebly to conceal by constantly
passing his hand over the lower part of his face. In spite of his
obtrusive baldness, he gave the impression of youth. In point of fact
he had just turned his thirtieth year.

“Your servant, Miss Morstan,” he kept repeating, in a thin, high voice.
“Your servant, gentlemen. Pray step into my little sanctum. A small
place, miss, but furnished to my own liking. An oasis of art in the
howling desert of South London.”

We were all astonished by the appearance of the apartment into which he
invited us. In that sorry house it looked as out of place as a diamond
of the first water in a setting of brass. The richest and glossiest of
curtains and tapestries draped the walls, looped back here and there to
expose some richly-mounted painting or Oriental vase. The carpet was
of amber-and-black, so soft and so thick that the foot sank pleasantly
into it, as into a bed of moss. Two great tiger-skins thrown athwart
it increased the suggestion of Eastern luxury, as did a huge hookah
which stood upon a mat in the corner. A lamp in the fashion of a
silver dove was hung from an almost invisible golden wire in the centre
of the room. As it burned it filled the air with a subtle and aromatic
odor.

“Mr. Thaddeus Sholto,” said the little man, still jerking and smiling.
“That is my name. You are Miss Morstan, of course. And these
gentlemen–”

“This is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and this is Dr. Watson.”

“A doctor, eh?” cried he, much excited. “Have you your stethoscope?
Might I ask you–would you have the kindness? I have grave doubts as
to my mitral valve, if you would be so very good. The aortic I may
rely upon, but I should value your opinion upon the mitral.”

I listened to his heart, as requested, but was unable to find anything
amiss, save indeed that he was in an ecstasy of fear, for he shivered
from head to foot. “It appears to be normal,” I said. “You have no
cause for uneasiness.”

“You will excuse my anxiety, Miss Morstan,” he remarked, airily. “I am
a great sufferer, and I have long had suspicions as to that valve. I
am delighted to hear that they are unwarranted. Had your father, Miss
Morstan, refrained from throwing a strain upon his heart, he might have
been alive now.”

I could have struck the man across the face, so hot was I at this
callous and off-hand reference to so delicate a matter. Miss Morstan
sat down, and her face grew white to the lips. “I knew in my heart
that he was dead,” said she.

“I can give you every information,” said he, “and, what is more, I can
do you justice; and I will, too, whatever Brother Bartholomew may say.
I am so glad to have your friends here, not only as an escort to you,
but also as witnesses to what I am about to do and say. The three of
us can show a bold front to Brother Bartholomew. But let us have no
outsiders,–no police or officials. We can settle everything
satisfactorily among ourselves, without any interference. Nothing
would annoy Brother Bartholomew more than any publicity.” He sat down
upon a low settee and blinked at us inquiringly with his weak, watery
blue eyes.

“For my part,” said Holmes, “whatever you may choose to say will go no
further.”

I nodded to show my agreement.

“That is well! That is well!” said he. “May I offer you a glass of
Chianti, Miss Morstan? Or of Tokay? I keep no other wines. Shall I
open a flask? No? Well, then, I trust that you have no objection to
tobacco-smoke, to the mild balsamic odor of the Eastern tobacco. I am
a little nervous, and I find my hookah an invaluable sedative.” He
applied a taper to the great bowl, and the smoke bubbled merrily
through the rose-water. We sat all three in a semicircle, with our
heads advanced, and our chins upon our hands, while the strange, jerky
little fellow, with his high, shining head, puffed uneasily in the
centre.

“When I first determined to make this communication to you,” said he,
“I might have given you my address, but I feared that you might
disregard my request and bring unpleasant people with you. I took the
liberty, therefore, of making an appointment in such a way that my man
Williams might be able to see you first. I have complete confidence in
his discretion, and he had orders, if he were dissatisfied, to proceed
no further in the matter. You will excuse these precautions, but I am
a man of somewhat retiring, and I might even say refined, tastes, and
there is nothing more unaesthetic than a policeman. I have a natural
shrinking from all forms of rough materialism. I seldom come in contact
with the rough crowd. I live, as you see, with some little atmosphere
of elegance around me. I may call myself a patron of the arts. It is
my weakness. The landscape is a genuine Corot, and, though a
connoisseur might perhaps throw a doubt upon that Salvator Rosa, there
cannot be the least question about the Bouguereau. I am partial to the
modern French school.”

“You will excuse me, Mr. Sholto,” said Miss Morstan, “but I am here at
your request to learn something which you desire to tell me. It is
very late, and I should desire the interview to be as short as
possible.”

“At the best it must take some time,” he answered; “for we shall
certainly have to go to Norwood and see Brother Bartholomew. We shall
all go and try if we can get the better of Brother Bartholomew. He is
very angry with me for taking the course which has seemed right to me.
I had quite high words with him last night. You cannot imagine what a
terrible fellow he is when he is angry.”

“If we are to go to Norwood it would perhaps be as well to start at
once,” I ventured to remark.

He laughed until his ears were quite red. “That would hardly do,” he
cried. “I don’t know what he would say if I brought you in that sudden
way. No, I must prepare you by showing you how we all stand to each
other. In the first place, I must tell you that there are several
points in the story of which I am myself ignorant. I can only lay the
facts before you as far as I know them myself.

“My father was, as you may have guessed, Major John Sholto, once of the
Indian army. He retired some eleven years ago, and came to live at
Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood. He had prospered in India, and
brought back with him a considerable sum of money, a large collection
of valuable curiosities, and a staff of native servants. With these
advantages he bought himself a house, and lived in great luxury. My
twin-brother Bartholomew and I were the only children.

“I very well remember the sensation which was caused by the
disappearance of Captain Morstan. We read the details in the papers,
and, knowing that he had been a friend of our father’s, we discussed
the case freely in his presence. He used to join in our speculations
as to what could have happened. Never for an instant did we suspect
that he had the whole secret hidden in his own breast,–that of all men
he alone knew the fate of Arthur Morstan.

“We did know, however, that some mystery–some positive
danger–overhung our father. He was very fearful of going out alone,
and he always employed two prize-fighters to act as porters at
Pondicherry Lodge. Williams, who drove you to-night, was one of them.
He was once light-weight champion of England. Our father would never
tell us what it was he feared, but he had a most marked aversion to men
with wooden legs. On one occasion he actually fired his revolver at a
wooden-legged man, who proved to be a harmless tradesman canvassing for
orders. We had to pay a large sum to hush the matter up. My brother
and I used to think this a mere whim of my father’s, but events have
since led us to change our opinion.

“Early in 1882 my father received a letter from India which was a great
shock to him. He nearly fainted at the breakfast-table when he opened
it, and from that day he sickened to his death. What was in the letter
we could never discover, but I could see as he held it that it was
short and written in a scrawling hand. He had suffered for years from
an enlarged spleen, but he now became rapidly worse, and towards the
end of April we were informed that he was beyond all hope, and that he
wished to make a last communication to us.

“When we entered his room he was propped up with pillows and breathing
heavily. He besought us to lock the door and to come upon either side
of the bed. Then, grasping our hands, he made a remarkable statement
to us, in a voice which was broken as much by emotion as by pain. I
shall try and give it to you in his own very words.

“‘I have only one thing,’ he said, ‘which weighs upon my mind at this
supreme moment. It is my treatment of poor Morstan’s orphan. The
cursed greed which has been my besetting sin through life has withheld
from her the treasure, half at least of which should have been hers.
And yet I have made no use of it myself,–so blind and foolish a thing
is avarice. The mere feeling of possession has been so dear to me that
I could not bear to share it with another. See that chaplet dipped
with pearls beside the quinine-bottle. Even that I could not bear to
part with, although I had got it out with the design of sending it to
her. You, my sons, will give her a fair share of the Agra treasure. But
send her nothing–not even the chaplet–until I am gone. After all, men
have been as bad as this and have recovered.

“‘I will tell you how Morstan died,’ he continued. ‘He had suffered
for years from a weak heart, but he concealed it from every one. I
alone knew it. When in India, he and I, through a remarkable chain of
circumstances, came into possession of a considerable treasure. I
brought it over to England, and on the night of Morstan’s arrival he
came straight over here to claim his share. He walked over from the
station, and was admitted by my faithful Lal Chowdar, who is now dead.
Morstan and I had a difference of opinion as to the division of the
treasure, and we came to heated words. Morstan had sprung out of his
chair in a paroxysm of anger, when he suddenly pressed his hand to his
side, his face turned a dusky hue, and he fell backwards, cutting his
head against the corner of the treasure-chest. When I stooped over him
I found, to my horror, that he was dead.

“‘For a long time I sat half distracted, wondering what I should do.
My first impulse was, of course, to call for assistance; but I could
not but recognize that there was every chance that I would be accused
of his murder. His death at the moment of a quarrel, and the gash in
his head, would be black against me. Again, an official inquiry could
not be made without bringing out some facts about the treasure, which I
was particularly anxious to keep secret. He had told me that no soul
upon earth knew where he had gone. There seemed to be no necessity why
any soul ever should know.

“‘I was still pondering over the matter, when, looking up, I saw my
servant, Lal Chowdar, in the doorway. He stole in and bolted the door
behind him. “Do not fear, Sahib,” he said. “No one need know that you
have killed him. Let us hide him away, and who is the wiser?” “I did
not kill him,” said I. Lal Chowdar shook his head and smiled. “I
heard it all, Sahib,” said he. “I heard you quarrel, and I heard the
blow. But my lips are sealed. All are asleep in the house. Let us put
him away together.” That was enough to decide me. If my own servant
could not believe my innocence, how could I hope to make it good before
twelve foolish tradesmen in a jury-box? Lal Chowdar and I disposed of
the body that night, and within a few days the London papers were full
of the mysterious disappearance of Captain Morstan. You will see from
what I say that I can hardly be blamed in the matter. My fault lies in
the fact that we concealed not only the body, but also the treasure,
and that I have clung to Morstan’s share as well as to my own. I wish
you, therefore, to make restitution. Put your ears down to my mouth.
The treasure is hidden in–‘ At this instant a horrible change came
over his expression; his eyes stared wildly, his jaw dropped, and he
yelled, in a voice which I can never forget, ‘Keep him out! For
Christ’s sake keep him out!’ We both stared round at the window behind
us upon which his gaze was fixed. A face was looking in at us out of
the darkness. We could see the whitening of the nose where it was
pressed against the glass. It was a bearded, hairy face, with wild
cruel eyes and an expression of concentrated malevolence. My brother
and I rushed towards the window, but the man was gone. When we
returned to my father his head had dropped and his pulse had ceased to
beat.

“We searched the garden that night, but found no sign of the intruder,
save that just under the window a single footmark was visible in the
flower-bed. But for that one trace, we might have thought that our
imaginations had conjured up that wild, fierce face. We soon, however,
had another and a more striking proof that there were secret agencies
at work all round us. The window of my father’s room was found open in
the morning, his cupboards and boxes had been rifled, and upon his
chest was fixed a torn piece of paper, with the words ‘The sign of the
four’ scrawled across it. What the phrase meant, or who our secret
visitor may have been, we never knew. As far as we can judge, none of
my father’s property had been actually stolen, though everything had
been turned out. My brother and I naturally associated this peculiar
incident with the fear which haunted my father during his life; but it
is still a complete mystery to us.”

The little man stopped to relight his hookah and puffed thoughtfully
for a few moments. We had all sat absorbed, listening to his
extraordinary narrative. At the short account of her father’s death
Miss Morstan had turned deadly white, and for a moment I feared that
she was about to faint. She rallied however, on drinking a glass of
water which I quietly poured out for her from a Venetian carafe upon
the side-table. Sherlock Holmes leaned back in his chair with an
abstracted expression and the lids drawn low over his glittering eyes.
As I glanced at him I could not but think how on that very day he had
complained bitterly of the commonplaceness of life. Here at least was
a problem which would tax his sagacity to the utmost. Mr. Thaddeus
Sholto looked from one to the other of us with an obvious pride at the
effect which his story had produced, and then continued between the
puffs of his overgrown pipe.

“My brother and I,” said he, “were, as you may imagine, much excited as
to the treasure which my father had spoken of. For weeks and for
months we dug and delved in every part of the garden, without
discovering its whereabouts. It was maddening to think that the
hiding-place was on his very lips at the moment that he died. We could
judge the splendor of the missing riches by the chaplet which he had
taken out. Over this chaplet my brother Bartholomew and I had some
little discussion. The pearls were evidently of great value, and he
was averse to part with them, for, between friends, my brother was
himself a little inclined to my father’s fault. He thought, too, that
if we parted with the chaplet it might give rise to gossip and finally
bring us into trouble. It was all that I could do to persuade him to
let me find out Miss Morstan’s address and send her a detached pearl at
fixed intervals, so that at least she might never feel destitute.”

“It was a kindly thought,” said our companion, earnestly. “It was
extremely good of you.”

The little man waved his hand deprecatingly. “We were your trustees,”
he said. “That was the view which I took of it, though Brother
Bartholomew could not altogether see it in that light. We had plenty
of money ourselves. I desired no more. Besides, it would have been
such bad taste to have treated a young lady in so scurvy a fashion. ‘Le
mauvais gout mene au crime.’ The French have a very neat way of
putting these things. Our difference of opinion on this subject went so
far that I thought it best to set up rooms for myself: so I left
Pondicherry Lodge, taking the old khitmutgar and Williams with me.
Yesterday, however, I learn that an event of extreme importance has
occurred. The treasure has been discovered. I instantly communicated
with Miss Morstan, and it only remains for us to drive out to Norwood
and demand our share. I explained my views last night to Brother
Bartholomew: so we shall be expected, if not welcome, visitors.”

Mr. Thaddeus Sholto ceased, and sat twitching on his luxurious settee.
We all remained silent, with our thoughts upon the new development
which the mysterious business had taken. Holmes was the first to
spring to his feet.

“You have done well, sir, from first to last,” said he. “It is
possible that we may be able to make you some small return by throwing
some light upon that which is still dark to you. But, as Miss Morstan
remarked just now, it is late, and we had best put the matter through
without delay.”

Our new acquaintance very deliberately coiled up the tube of his
hookah, and produced from behind a curtain a very long befrogged
topcoat with Astrakhan collar and cuffs. This he buttoned tightly up,
in spite of the extreme closeness of the night, and finished his attire
by putting on a rabbit-skin cap with hanging lappets which covered the
ears, so that no part of him was visible save his mobile and peaky
face. “My health is somewhat fragile,” he remarked, as he led the way
down the passage. “I am compelled to be a valetudinarian.”

Our cab was awaiting us outside, and our programme was evidently
prearranged, for the driver started off at once at a rapid pace.
Thaddeus Sholto talked incessantly, in a voice which rose high above
the rattle of the wheels.

“Bartholomew is a clever fellow,” said he. “How do you think he found
out where the treasure was? He had come to the conclusion that it was
somewhere indoors: so he worked out all the cubic space of the house,
and made measurements everywhere, so that not one inch should be
unaccounted for. Among other things, he found that the height of the
building was seventy-four feet, but on adding together the heights of
all the separate rooms, and making every allowance for the space
between, which he ascertained by borings, he could not bring the total
to more than seventy feet. There were four feet unaccounted for. These
could only be at the top of the building. He knocked a hole,
therefore, in the lath-and-plaster ceiling of the highest room, and
there, sure enough, he came upon another little garret above it, which
had been sealed up and was known to no one. In the centre stood the
treasure-chest, resting upon two rafters. He lowered it through the
hole, and there it lies. He computes the value of the jewels at not
less than half a million sterling.”

At the mention of this gigantic sum we all stared at one another
open-eyed. Miss Morstan, could we secure her rights, would change from
a needy governess to the richest heiress in England. Surely it was the
place of a loyal friend to rejoice at such news; yet I am ashamed to
say that selfishness took me by the soul, and that my heart turned as
heavy as lead within me. I stammered out some few halting words of
congratulation, and then sat downcast, with my head drooped, deaf to
the babble of our new acquaintance. He was clearly a confirmed
hypochondriac, and I was dreamily conscious that he was pouring forth
interminable trains of symptoms, and imploring information as to the
composition and action of innumerable quack nostrums, some of which he
bore about in a leather case in his pocket. I trust that he may not
remember any of the answers which I gave him that night. Holmes
declares that he overheard me caution him against the great danger of
taking more than two drops of castor oil, while I recommended
strychnine in large doses as a sedative. However that may be, I was
certainly relieved when our cab pulled up with a jerk and the coachman
sprang down to open the door.

“This, Miss Morstan, is Pondicherry Lodge,” said Mr. Thaddeus Sholto,
as he handed her out.