“Hum!” said Holmes. “I think I see how things worked, and I can understand how this message would, as you say, bring them to a head. But while you wait, you might tell me what you can.”
The old reprobate with the surplice burst into a volley of bad language.
“By heaven!” said he, “if you squeal on us, Bob Carruthers, I’ll serve you as you served Jack Woodley. You can bleat about the girl to your heart’s content, for that’s your own affair, but if you round on your pals to this plain-clothes copper, it will be the worst day’s work that ever you did.”
“Your reverence need not be excited,” said Holmes, lighting a cigarette. “The case is clear enough against you, and all I ask is a few details for my private curiosity. However, if there’s any difficulty in your telling me, I’ll do the talking, and then you will see how far you have a chance of holding back your secrets. In the first place, three of you came from South Africa on this game–you Williamson, you Carruthers, and Woodley.”
“Lie number one,” said the old man; “I never saw either of them until two months ago, and I have never been in Africa in my life, so you can put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Busybody Holmes!”
“What he says is true,” said Carruthers.
“Well, well, two of you came over. His reverence is our own homemade article. You had known Ralph Smith in South Africa. You had reason to believe he would not live long. You found out that his niece would inherit his fortune. How’s that–eh?”
Carruthers nodded and Williamson swore.
“She was next of kin, no doubt, and you were aware that the old fellow would make no will.”
“Couldn’t read or write,” said Carruthers.
“So you came over, the two of you, and hunted up the girl. The idea was that one of you was to marry her, and the other have a share of the plunder. For some reason, Woodley was chosen as the husband. Why was that?”
“We played cards for her on the voyage. He won.”
“I see. You got the young lady into your service, and there Woodley was to do the courting. She recognized the drunken brute that he was, and would have nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, your arrangement was rather upset by the fact that you had yourself fallen in love with the lady. You could no longer bear the idea of this ruffian owning her?”
“No, by George, I couldn’t!”
“There was a quarrel between you. He left you in a rage, and began to make his own plans independently of you.”
“It strikes me, Williamson, there isn’t very much that we can tell this gentleman,” cried Carruthers, with a bitter laugh. “Yes, we quarreled, and he knocked me down. I am level with him on that, anyhow. Then I lost sight of him. That was when he picked up with this outcast padre here. I found that they had set up housekeeping together at this place on the line that she had to pass for the station. I kept my eye on her after that, for I knew there was some devilry in the wind. I saw them from time to time, for I was anxious to know what they were after. Two days ago Woodley came up to my house with this cable, which showed that Ralph Smith was dead. He asked me if I would stand by the bargain. I said I would not. He asked me if I would marry the girl myself and give him a share. I said I would willingly do so, but that she would not have me. He said, ‘Let us get her married first, and after a week or two she may see things a bit different.’ I said I would have nothing to do with violence. So he went off cursing, like the foul-mouthed blackguard that he was, and swearing that he would have her yet. She was leaving me this week-end, and I had got a trap to take her to the station, but I was so uneasy in my mind that I followed her on my bicycle. She had got a start, however, and before I could catch her, the mischief was done. The first thing I knew about it was when I saw you two gentlemen driving back in her dog-cart.”