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Title: The New Jersey Sphinx

Date of first publication: 1929

Author: Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943)

Date first posted: Oct. 18, 2018

Date last updated: Oct. 18, 2018

Faded Page eBook #20181033

This ebook was produced by: Delphine Lettau, Mark Akrigg, Jen Haines & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net


A rather curious neighbourhood this, Jervis,” my friend Thorndyke remarked as we turned into Upper Bedford Place; “a sort of temporary aviary for cosmopolitan birds of passage, especially those of the Oriental variety. The Asiatic and African faces that one sees at the windows of these Bloomsbury boarding-houses almost suggest an overflow from the ethnographical galleries of the adjacent British Museum.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “there must be quite a considerable population of Africans, Japanese and Hindus in Bloomsbury; particularly Hindus.”

As I spoke, and as if in illustration of my statement, a dark-skinned man rushed out of one of the houses farther down the street and began to advance towards us in a rapid, bewildered fashion, stopping to look at each street door as he came to it. His hatless condition—though he was exceedingly well dressed—and his agitated manner immediately attracted my attention, and Thorndyke’s too, for the latter remarked, “Our friend seems to be in trouble. An accident, perhaps, or a case of sudden illness.”

Here the stranger, observing our approach, ran forward to meet us and asked in an agitated tone, “Can you tell me, please, where I can find a doctor?”

“I am a medical man,” replied Thorndyke, “and so is my friend.”

Our acquaintance grasped Thorndyke’s sleeve and exclaimed eagerly:

“Come with me, then, quickly, if you please. A most dreadful thing has happened.”

He hurried us along at something between a trot and a quick walk, and as we proceeded he continued excitedly, “I am quite confused and terrified; it is all so strange and sudden and terrible.”

“Try,” said Thorndyke, “to calm yourself a little and tell us what has happened.”

“I will,” was the agitated reply. “It is my cousin, Dinanath Byramji—his surname is the same as mine. Just now I went to his room and was horrified to find him lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling and blowing—like this,” and he puffed out his cheeks with a soft blowing noise. “I spoke to him and shook his hand, but he was like a dead man. This is the house.”

He darted up the steps to an open door at which a rather scared page-boy was on guard, and running along the hall, rapidly ascended the stairs. Following him closely, we reached a rather dark first-floor landing where, at a half-open door, a servant-maid stood listening with an expression of awe to a rhythmical snoring sound that issued from the room.

The unconscious man lay as Mr. Byramji had said, staring fixedly at the ceiling with wide-open, glazy eyes, puffing out his cheeks slightly at each breath. But the breathing was shallow and slow, and it grew perceptibly slower, with lengthening pauses. And even as I was timing it with my watch while Thorndyke examined the pupils with the aid of a wax match, it stopped. I laid my finger on the wrist and caught one or two slow, flickering beats. Then the pulse stopped too.

“He is gone,” said I. “He must have burst one of the large arteries.”

“Apparently,” said Thorndyke, “though one would not have expected it at his age. But wait! What is this?”

He pointed to the right ear, in the hollow of which a few drops of blood had collected, and as he spoke he drew his hand gently over the dead man’s head and moved it slightly from side to side.

“There is a fracture of the base of the skull,” said he, “and quite distinct signs of contusion of the scalp.” He turned to Mr. Byramji, who stood wringing his hands and gazing incredulously at the dead man, and asked:

“Can you throw any light on this?”

The Indian looked at him vacantly. The sudden tragedy seemed to have paralysed his brain. “I don’t understand,” said he. “What does it mean?”

“It means,” replied Thorndyke, “that he has received a heavy blow on the head.”

For a few moments Mr. Byramji continued to stare vacantly at my colleague. Then he seemed suddenly to realise the import of Thorndyke’s reply, for he started up excitedly and turned to the door, outside which the two servants were hovering.

“Where is the person gone who came in with my cousin?” he demanded.

“You saw him go out, Albert,” said the maid. “Tell Mr. Byramji where he went to.”

The page tiptoed into the room with a fearful eye fixed on the corpse, and replied falteringly, “I only see the back of him as he went out, and all I know is that he turned to the left. P’raps he’s gone for a doctor.”

“Can you give us any description of him?” asked Thorndyke.

“I only see the back of him,” repeated the page. “He was a shortish gentleman and he had on a dark suit of clothes and a hard felt hat. That’s all I know.”

“Thank you,” said Thorndyke. “We may want to ask you some more questions presently,” and having conducted the page to the door, he shut it and turned to Mr. Byramji.

“Have you any idea who it was that was with your cousin?” he asked.

“None at all,” was the reply. “I was sitting in my room opposite, writing, when I heard my cousin come up the stairs with another person, to whom he was talking. I could not hear what he was saying. They went into his room—this room—and I could occasionally catch the sound of their voices. In about a quarter of an hour I heard the door open and shut, and then someone went downstairs, softly and rather quickly. I finished the letter that I was writing, and when I had addressed it I came in here to ask my cousin who the visitor was. I thought it might be someone who had come to negotiate for the ruby.”

“The ruby!” exclaimed Thorndyke. “What ruby do you refer to?”

“The great ruby,” replied Byramji. “But of course you have not——” He broke off suddenly and stood for a few moments staring at Thorndyke with parted lips and wide-open eyes; then abruptly he turned, and kneeling beside the dead man he began, in a curious, caressing, half-apologetic manner, first to pass his hand gently over the body at the waist and then to unfasten the clothes. This brought into view a handsome, soft leather belt, evidently of native workmanship, worn next to the skin and furnished with three pockets. Mr. Byramji unbuttoned and explored them in quick succession, and it was evident that they were all empty.

“It is gone!” he exclaimed in low, intense tones. “Gone! Ah! But how little would it signify! But thou, dear Dinanath, my brother, my friend, thou art gone, too!”

He lifted the dead man’s hand and pressed it to his cheek, murmuring endearments in his own tongue. Presently he laid it down reverently, and sprang up, and I was startled at the change in his aspect. The delicate, gentle, refined face had suddenly become the face of a Fury—fierce, sinister, vindictive.

“This wretch must die!” he exclaimed huskily. “This sordid brute who, without compunction, has crushed out a precious life as one would carelessly crush a fly, for the sake of a paltry crystal—he must die, if I have to follow him and strangle him with my own hands!”

Thorndyke laid his hand on Byramji’s shoulder. “I sympathise with you most cordially,” said he. “If it is as you think, and appearances suggest, that your cousin has been murdered as a mere incident of robbery, the murderer’s life is forfeit, and Justice cries aloud for retribution. The fact of murder will be determined, for or against, by a proper inquiry. Meanwhile we have to ascertain who this unknown man is and what happened while he was with your cousin.”

Byramji made a gesture of despair. “But the man has disappeared, and nobody has seen him! What can we do?”

“Let us look around us,” replied Thorndyke, “and see if we can judge what has happened in this room. What, for instance, is this?”

He picked up from a corner near the door a small leather object, which he handed to Mr. Byramji. The Indian seized it eagerly, exclaiming:

“Ah! It is the little bag in which my cousin used to carry the ruby. So he had taken it from his belt.”

“It hasn’t been dropped, by any chance?” I suggested.

In an instant Mr. Byramji was down on his knees, peering and groping about the floor, and Thorndyke and I joined in the search. But, as might have been expected, there was no sign of the ruby, nor, indeed, of anything else, excepting a hat which I picked up from under the table.

“No,” said Mr. Byramji, rising with a dejected air. “It is gone—of course it is gone, and the murderous villain——”

Here his glance fell on the hat, which I had laid on the table, and he bent forward to look at it.

“Whose hat is this?” he demanded, glancing at the chair on which Thorndyke’s hat and mine had been placed.

“Is it not your cousin’s?” asked Thorndyke.

“No, certainly not. His hat was like mine—we bought them both together. It had a white silk lining with his initials, D. B., in gold. This has no lining and is a much older hat. It must be the murderer’s hat.”

“If it is,” said Thorndyke, “that is a most important fact—important in two respects. Could you let us see your hat?”

“Certainly,” replied Byramji, walking quickly, but with a soft tread, to the door. As he went out, shutting the door silently behind him, Thorndyke picked up the derelict hat and swiftly tried it on the head of the dead man. As far as I could judge, it appeared to fit, and this Thorndyke confirmed as he replaced it on the table.

“As you see,” said he, “it is at least a practicable fit, which is a fact of some significance.”

Here Mr. Byramji returned with his own hat, which he placed on the table by the side of the other, and thus placed, crown uppermost, the two hats were closely similar. Both were black, hard felts of the prevalent “bowler” shape, and of good quality, and the difference in their age and state of preservation was not striking; but when Byramji turned them over and exhibited their interiors it was seen that whereas the strange hat was unlined save for the leather head-band, Byramji’s had a white silk lining and bore the owner’s initials in embossed gilt letters.

“What happened,” said Thorndyke, when he had carefully compared the two hats, “seems fairly obvious. The two men, on entering, placed their hats crown upwards on the table. In some way—perhaps during a struggle—the visitor’s hat was knocked down and rolled under the table. Then the stranger, on leaving, picked up the only visible hat—almost identically similar to his own—and put it on.”

“Is it not rather singular,” I asked, “that he should not have noticed the different feel of a strange hat?”

“I think not,” Thorndyke replied. “If he noticed anything unusual he would probably assume that he had put it on the wrong way round. Remember that he would be extremely hurried and agitated. And when once he had left the house he would not dare to take the risk of returning, though he would doubtless realise the gravity of the mistake. And now,” he continued, “would you mind giving us a few particulars? You have spoken of a great ruby, which your cousin had, and which seems to be missing.”

“Yes. You shall come to my room and I will tell you about it; but first let us lay my poor cousin decently on his bed.”

“I think,” said Thorndyke, “the body ought not to be moved until the police have seen it.”

“Perhaps you are right,” Byramji agreed reluctantly, “though it seems callous to leave him lying there.” With a sigh he turned to the door, and Thorndyke followed, carrying the two hats.

“My cousin and I,” said our host, when we were seated in his own large bed-sitting-room, “were both interested in gem-stones. I deal in all kinds of stones that are found in the East, but Dinanath dealt almost exclusively in rubies. He was a very fine judge of those beautiful gems, and he used to make periodical tours in Burma in search of uncut rubies of unusual size or quality. About four months ago he acquired at Mogok, in Upper Burma, a magnificent specimen over twenty-eight carats in weight, perfectly flawless and of the most gorgeous colour. It had been roughly cut, but my cousin was intending to have it recut unless he should receive an advantageous offer for it in the meantime.”

“What would be the value of such a stone?” I asked.

“It is impossible to say. A really fine large ruby of perfect colour is far, far more valuable than the finest diamond of the same size. It is the most precious of all gems, with the possible exception of the emerald. A fine ruby of five carats is worth about three thousand pounds, but of course, the value rises out of all proportion with increasing size. Fifty thousand pounds would be a moderate price for Dinanath’s ruby.”

During this recital I noticed that Thorndyke, while listening attentively, was turning the stranger’s hat over in his hands, narrowly scrutinising it both inside and outside. As Byramji concluded, he remarked:

“We shall have to let the police know what has happened, but, as my friend and I will be called as witnesses, I should like to examine this hat a little more closely before you hand it over to them. Could you let me have a small, hard brush? A dry nail-brush would do.”

Our host complied readily—in fact eagerly. Thorndyke’s authoritative, purposeful manner had clearly impressed him, for he said as he handed my colleague a new nail-brush: “I thank you for your help and value it. We must not depend on the police only.”

Accustomed as I was to Thorndyke’s methods, his procedure was not unexpected, but Mr. Byramji watched him with breathless interest and no little surprise as, laying a sheet of notepaper on the table, he brought the hat close to it and brushed firmly but slowly, so that the dust dislodged should fall on it. As it was not a very well-kept hat, the yield was considerable, especially when the brush was drawn under the curl of the brim, and very soon the paper held quite a little heap. Then Thorndyke folded the paper into a small packet and having written “outside” on it, put it in his pocket-book.

“Why do you do that?” Mr. Byramji asked. “What will the dust tell you?”

“Probably nothing,” Thorndyke replied. “But this hat is our only direct clue to the identity of the man who was with your cousin, and we must make the most of it. Dust, you know, is only a mass of fragments detached from surrounding objects. If the objects are unusual the dust may be quite distinctive. You could easily identify the hat of a miller or a cement worker.” As he was speaking he reversed the hat and turned down the leather head-lining, whereupon a number of strips of folded paper fell down into the crown.

“Ah!” exclaimed Byramji, “perhaps we shall learn something now.”

He picked out the folded slips and began eagerly to open them out, and we examined them systematically, one by one. But they were singularly disappointing and uninforming. Mostly they consisted of strips of newspaper, with one or two circulars, a leaf from a price list of gas stoves, a portion of a large envelope on which were the remains of an address which read “—n—don, W.C.,” and a piece of paper, evidently cut down vertically and bearing the right-hand half of some kind of list. This read:

“—el 3 oz. 5 dwts.

 —eep 9½ oz.”

“Can you make anything of this?” I asked, handing the paper to Thorndyke.

He looked at it reflectively, and answered, as he copied it into his notebook: “It has, at least, some character. If we consider it with the other data we should get some sort of hint from it. But these scraps of paper don’t tell us much. Perhaps their most suggestive feature is their quantity and the way in which, as you have no doubt noticed, they were arranged at the sides of the hat. We had better replace them as we found them for the benefit of the police.”

The nature of the suggestion to which he referred was not very obvious to me, but the presence of Mr. Byramji rendered discussion inadvisable; nor was there any opportunity, for we had hardly reconstituted the hat when we became aware of a number of persons ascending the stairs, and then we heard the sound of rather peremptory rapping at the door of the dead man’s room.

Mr. Byramji opened the door and went out on to the landing, where several persons had collected, including the two servants and a constable.

“I understand,” said the policeman, “that there is something wrong here. Is that so?”

“A very terrible thing has happened,” replied Byramji. “But the doctors can tell you better than I can.” Here he looked appealingly at Thorndyke, and we both went out and joined him.

“A gentleman—Mr. Dinanath Byramji—has met with his death under somewhat suspicious circumstances,” said Thorndyke, and, glancing at the knot of naturally curious persons on the landing, he continued: “If you will come into the room where the death occurred, I will give you the facts so far as they are known to us.”

With this he opened the door and entered the room with Mr. Byramji, the constable, and me. As the door opened, the bystanders craned forward and a middle-aged woman uttered a cry of horror and followed us into the room.

“This is dreadful!” she exclaimed, with a shuddering glance at the corpse. “The servants told me about it when I came in just now and I sent Albert for the police at once. But what does it mean? You don’t think poor Mr. Dinanath has been murdered?”

“We had better get the facts, ma’am,” said the constable, drawing out a large black notebook and laying his helmet on the table. He turned to Mr. Byramji, who had sunk into a chair and sat, the picture of grief, gazing at his dead cousin. “Would you kindly tell me what you know about how it happened?”

Byramji repeated the substance of what he had told us, and when the constable had taken down his statement, Thorndyke and I gave the few medical particulars that we could furnish and handed the constable our cards. Then, having helped to lay the corpse on the bed and cover it with a sheet, we turned to take our leave.

“You have been very kind,” Mr. Byramji said as he shook our hands warmly. “I am more than grateful. Perhaps I may be permitted to call on you and hear if—if you have learned anything fresh,” he concluded discreetly.

“We shall be pleased to see you,” Thorndyke replied, “and to give you any help that we can”; and with this we took our departure, watched inquisitively down the stairs by the boarders and the servants who still lurked in the vicinity of the chamber of death.

“If the police have no more information than we have,” I remarked as we walked homeward, “they won’t have much to go on.”

“No,” said Thorndyke. “But you must remember that this crime—as we are justified in assuming it to be—is not an isolated one. It is the fourth of practically the same kind within the last six months. I understand that the police have some kind of information respecting the presumed criminal, though it can’t be worth much, seeing that no arrest has been made. But there is some new evidence this time. The exchange of hats may help the police considerably.”

“In what way? What evidence does it furnish?”

“In the first place it suggests a hurried departure, which seems to connect the missing man with the crime. Then, he is wearing the dead man’s hat, and though he is not likely to continue wearing it, it may be seen and furnish a clue. We know that that hat fits him fairly and we know its size, so that we know the size of his head. Finally, we have the man’s own hat.”

“I don’t fancy the police will get much information from that,” said I.

“Probably not,” he agreed. “Yet it offered one or two interesting suggestions, as you probably observed.”

“It made no suggestions whatever to me,” said I.

“Then,” said Thorndyke, “I can only recommend you to recall our simple inspection and consider the significance of what we found.”

This I had to accept as closing the discussion for the time being, and as I had to make a call at my bookseller’s concerning some reports that I had left to be bound, I parted from Thorndyke at the corner of Chichester Rents and left him to pursue his way alone.

My business with the bookseller took me longer than I had expected, for I had to wait while the lettering on the backs was completed, and when I arrived at our chambers in King’s Bench Walk, I found Thorndyke apparently at the final stage of some experiment evidently connected with our late adventure. The microscope stood on the table with one slide on the stage and a second one beside it; but Thorndyke had apparently finished his microscopical researches, for as I entered he held in his hand a test-tube filled with a smoky-coloured fluid.

“I see that you have been examining the dust from the hat,” said I. “Does it throw any fresh light on the case?”

“Very little,” he replied. “It is just common dust—assorted fibres and miscellaneous organic and mineral particles. But there are a couple of hairs from the inside of the hat—both lightish brown, and one of the atrophic, note-of-exclamation type that one finds at the margin of bald patches; and the outside dust shows minute traces of lead, apparently in the form of oxide. What do you make of that?”

“Perhaps the man is a plumber or a painter,” I suggested.

“Either is possible and worth considering,” he replied; but his tone made clear to me that this was not his own inference; and a row of five consecutive Post Office Directories, which I had already noticed ranged along the end of the table, told me that he had not only formed a hypothesis on the subject, but had probably either confirmed or disproved it. For the Post Office Directory was one of Thorndyke’s favourite books of reference; and the amount of curious and recondite information that he succeeded in extracting from its matter-of-fact pages would have surprised no one more than it would the compilers of the work.

At this moment the sound of footsteps ascending our stairs became audible. It was late for business callers, but we were not unaccustomed to late visitors; and a familiar rat-tat of our little brass knocker seemed to explain the untimely visit.

“That sounds like Superintendent Miller’s knock,” said Thorndyke, as he strode across the room to open the door. And the superintendent it turned out to be. But not alone.

As the door opened the officer entered with two gentlemen, both natives of India, and one of whom was our friend Mr. Byramji.

“Perhaps,” said Miller, “I had better look in a little later.”

“Not on my account,” said Byramji. “I have only a few words to say and there is nothing secret about my business. May I introduce my kinsman, Mr. Khambata, a student of the Inner Temple?”

Byramji’s companion bowed ceremoniously. “Byramji came to my chambers just now,” he explained, “to consult me about this dreadful affair, and he chanced to show me your card. He had not heard of you, but supposed you to be an ordinary medical practitioner. He did not realise that he had entertained an angel unawares. But I, who knew of your great reputation, advised him to put his affairs in your hands—without prejudice to the official investigations,” Mr. Khambata added hastily, bowing to the superintendent.

“And I,” said Mr. Byramji, “instantly decided to act on my kinsman’s advice. I have come to beg you to leave no stone unturned to secure the punishment of my cousin’s murderer. Spare no expense. I am a rich man and my poor cousin’s property will come to me. As to the ruby, recover it if you can, but it is of no consequence. Vengeance—justice is what I seek. Deliver this wretch into my hands, or into the hands of justice, and I give you the ruby or its value, freely—gladly.”

“There is no need,” said Thorndyke, “of such extra-ordinary inducement. If you wish me to investigate this case, I will do so and will use every means at my disposal, without prejudice, as your friend says, to the proper claims of the officers of the law. But you understand that I can make no promises. I cannot guarantee success.”

“We understand that,” said Mr. Khambata. “But we know that if you undertake the case, everything that is possible will be done. And now we must leave you to your consultation.”

As soon as our clients had gone, Miller rose from his chair with his hand in his breast pocket. “I dare say, doctor,” said he, “you can guess what I have come about. I was sent for to look into this Byramji case, and I heard from Mr. Byramji that you had been there and that you had made a minute examination of the missing man’s hat. So have I; and I don’t mind telling you that I could learn nothing from it.”

“I haven’t learnt much myself,” said Thorndyke.

“But you’ve picked up something,” urged Miller, “if it is only a hint; and we have just a little clue. There is very small doubt that this is the same man—‘The New Jersey Sphinx,’ as the papers call him—that committed those other robberies; and a very difficult type of criminal he is to get hold of. He is bold, he is wary, he plays a lone hand, and he sticks at nothing. He has no confederates, and he kills every time. The American police never got near him but once; and that once gives us the only clues we have.”

“Finger-prints?” inquired Thorndyke.

“Yes, and very poor ones, too. So rough that you can hardly make out the pattern. And even those are not absolutely guaranteed to be his; but in any case, finger-prints are not much use until you’ve got the man. And there is a photograph of the fellow himself. But it is only a snapshot, and a poor one at that. All it shows is that he has a mop of hair and a pointed beard—or at least he had when the photograph was taken. But for identification purposes it is practically worthless. Still, there it is; and what I propose is this: we want this man and so do you; we’ve worked together before and can trust one another. I am going to lay my cards on the table and ask you to do the same.”

“But, my dear Miller,” said Thorndyke, “I haven’t any cards. I haven’t a single solid fact.”

The detective was visibly disappointed. Nevertheless, he laid two photographs on the table and pushed them towards Thorndyke, who inspected them through his lens and passed them to me.

“The pattern is very indistinct and broken up,” he remarked.

“Yes,” said Miller; “the prints must have been made on a very rough surface, though you get prints something like those from fitters or other men who use files and handle rough metal. And now, doctor, can’t you give us a lead of any kind?”

Thorndyke reflected a few moments. “I really have not a single real fact,” said he, “and I am unwilling to make merely speculative suggestions.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Miller replied cheerfully. “Give us a start. I shan’t complain if it comes to nothing.”

“Well,” Thorndyke said reluctantly, “I was thinking of getting a few particulars as to the various tenants of No. 51 Clifford’s Inn. Perhaps you could do it more easily and it might be worth your while.”

“Good!” Miller exclaimed gleefully. “He ‘gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.’ ”

“It is probably the wrong name,” Thorndyke reminded him.

“I don’t care,” said Miller. “But why shouldn’t we go together? It’s too late to-night, and I can’t manage to-morrow morning. But say to-morrow afternoon. Two heads are better than one, you know, especially when the second one is yours. Or perhaps,” he added, with a glance at me, “three would be better still.”

Thorndyke considered for a moment or two and then looked at me.

“What do you say, Jervis?” he asked.

As my afternoon was unoccupied, I agreed with enthusiasm, being as curious as the superintendent to know how Thorndyke had connected this particular locality with the vanished criminal, and Miller departed in high spirits with an appointment for the morrow at three o’clock in the afternoon.

For some time after the superintendent’s departure I sat wrapped in profound meditation. In some mysterious way the address, 51 Clifford’s Inn, had emerged from the formless data yielded by the derelict hat. But what had been the connection? Apparently the fragment of the addressed envelope had furnished the clue. But how had Thorndyke extended “——n” into “51 Clifford’s Inn”? It was to me a complete mystery.

Meanwhile, Thorndyke had seated himself at the writing-table, and I noticed that of the two letters which he wrote, one was written on our headed paper and the other on ordinary plain notepaper. I was speculating on the reason for this when he rose, and as he stuck on the stamps, said to me, “I am just going out to post these two letters. Do you care for a short stroll through the leafy shades of Fleet Street? The evening is still young.”

“The rural solitudes of Fleet Street attract me at all hours,” I replied, fetching my hat from the adjoining office, and we accordingly sallied forth together, strolling up King’s Bench Walk and emerging into Fleet Street by way of Mitre Court. When Thorndyke had dropped his letters into the post office box he stood awhile gazing up at the tower of St. Dunstan’s Church.

“Have you ever been in Clifford’s Inn, Jervis?” he inquired.

“Never,” I replied (we passed through it together on an average a dozen times a week), “but it is not too late for an exploratory visit.”

We crossed the road, and entering Clifford’s Inn Passage, passed through the still half-open gate, crossed the outer court and threaded the tunnel-like entry by the hall to the inner court, near the middle of which Thorndyke halted, and looking up at one of the ancient houses, remarked, “No. 51.”

“So that is where our friend hangs out his flag,” said I.

“Oh come, Jervis,” he protested, “I am surprised at you; you are as bad as Miller. I have merely suggested a possible connection between these premises and the hat that was left at Bedford Place. As to the nature of that connection I have no idea, and there may be no connection at all. I assure you, Jervis, that I am on the thinnest possible ice. I am working on a hypothesis which is in the highest degree speculative, and I should not have given Miller a hint but that he was so eager and so willing to help—and also that I wanted his finger-prints. But we are really only at the beginning, and may never get any farther.”

I looked up at the old house. It was all in darkness excepting the top floor, where a couple of lighted windows showed the shadow of a man moving rapidly about the room. We crossed to the entry and inspected the names painted on the door-posts. The ground floor was occupied by a firm of photo-engravers, the first floor by a Mr. Carrington, whose name stood out conspicuously on its oblong of comparatively fresh white paint, while the tenants of the second floor—old residents, to judge by the faded and discoloured paint in which their names were announced—were Messrs. Burt & Highley, metallurgists.

“Burt has departed,” said Thorndyke, as I read out the names; and he pointed to two red lines of erasure which I had not noticed in the dim light, “so the active gentleman above is presumably Mr. Highley, and we may take it that he has residential as well as business premises. I wonder who and what Mr. Carrington is—but I dare say we shall find out to-morrow.”

With this he dismissed the professional aspects of Clifford’s Inn, and, changing the subject to its history and associations, chatted in his inimitable, picturesque manner until our leisurely perambulations brought us at length to the Inner Temple Gate.

On the following morning we bustled through our work in order to leave the afternoon free, making several joint visits to solicitors from whom we were taking instructions. Returning from the last of these—a City lawyer—Thorndyke turned into St. Helen’s Place and halted at a doorway bearing the brass plate of a firm of assayists and refiners. I followed him into the outer office, where, on his mentioning his name, an elderly man came to the counter.

“Mr. Grayson has put out some specimens for you, sir,” said he. “They are about thirty grains to the ton—you said that the content was of no importance—and I am to tell you that you need not return them. They are not worth treating.” He went to a large safe from which he took a canvas bag, and returning to the counter, turned out on it the contents of the bag, consisting of about a dozen good-sized lumps of quartz and a glittering yellow fragment, which Thorndyke picked out and dropped in his pocket.

“Will that collection do?” our friend inquired.

“It will answer my purpose perfectly,” Thorndyke replied, and when the specimens had been replaced in the bag, and the latter deposited in Thorndyke’s handbag, my colleague thanked the assistant and we went on our way.

“We extend our activities into the domain of mineralogy,” I remarked.

Thorndyke smiled an inscrutable smile. “We also employ the suction pump as an instrument of research,” he observed. “However, the strategic uses of chunks of quartz—otherwise than as missiles—will develop themselves in due course, and the interval may be used for reflection.”

It was. But my reflections brought no solution. I noticed, however, that when at three o’clock we set forth in company with the superintendent, the bag went with us; and having offered to carry it and having had my offer accepted with a sly twinkle, its weight assured me that the quartz was still inside.

“Chambers and Offices to let,” Thorndyke read aloud as we approached the porter’s lodge. “That lets us in, I think. And the porter knows Dr. Jervis and me by sight, so he will talk more freely.”

“He doesn’t know me,” said the superintendent, “but I’ll keep in the background, all the same.”

A pull at the bell brought out a clerical-looking man in a tall hat and a frock coat, who regarded Thorndyke and me through his spectacles with an amiable air of recognition.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Larkin,” said Thorndyke. “I am asked to get particulars of vacant chambers. What have you got to let?”

Mr. Larkin reflected. “Let me see. There’s a ground floor at No. 5—rather dark—and a small second-pair set at No. 12. And then there is—oh, yes, there is a good first-floor set at No. 51. They wouldn’t have been vacant until Michaelmas, but Mr. Carrington, the tenant, has had to go abroad suddenly. I had a letter from him this morning, enclosing the key. Funny letter, too.” He dived into his pocket, and hauling out a bundle of letters, selected one and handed it to Thorndyke with a broad smile.

Thorndyke glanced at the postmark (“London, E.”), and having taken out the key, extracted the letter, which he opened and held so that Miller and I could see it. The paper bore the printed heading, “Baltic Shipping Company, Wapping,” and the further written heading, “s.s. Gothenburg,” and the letter was brief and to the point:

Dear Sir,

I am giving up my chambers at No. 51, as I have been suddenly called abroad. I enclose the key, but am not troubling you with the rent. The sale of my costly furniture will more than cover it, and the surplus can be expended on painting the garden railings.

Yours sincerely,

A. Carrington.

Thorndyke smilingly replaced the letter and the key in the envelope and asked:

“What is the furniture like?”

“You’ll see,” chuckled the porter, “if you care to look at the rooms. And I think they might suit. They’re a good set.”


“Yes, pretty quiet. There’s a metallurgist overhead—Highley—used to be Burt & Highley, but Burt has gone to the City, and I don’t think Highley does much business now.”

“Let me see,” said Thorndyke, “I think I used to meet Highley sometimes—a tall, dark man, isn’t he?”

“No, that would be Burt. Highley is a little, fairish man, rather bald, with a pretty rich complexion”—here Mr. Larkin tapped his nose knowingly and raised his little finger—“which may account for the falling off of business.”

“Hadn’t we better have a look at the rooms?” Miller interrupted a little impatiently.

“Can we see them, Mr. Larkin?” asked Thorndyke.

“Certainly,” was the reply. “You’ve got the key. Let me have it when you’ve seen the rooms; and whatever you do,” he added with a broad grin, “be careful of the furniture.”

“It looks,” the superintendent remarked as we crossed the inner court, “as if Mr. Carrington had done a mizzle. That’s hopeful. And I see,” he continued, glancing at the fresh paint on the door-post as we passed through the entry, “that he hasn’t been here long. That’s hopeful, too.”

We ascended to the first floor, and as Thorndyke unlocked and threw open the door, Miller laughed aloud. The “costly furniture” consisted of a small kitchen table, a Windsor chair and a dilapidated deck-chair. The kitchen contained a gas ring, a small saucepan and a frying-pan, and the bedroom was furnished with a camp-bed devoid of bed-clothes, a wash-hand basin on a packing-case, and a water can.

“Hallo!” exclaimed the superintendent. “He’s left a hat behind. Quite a good hat, too.” He took it down from the peg, glanced at its exterior and then, turning it over, looked inside. And then his mouth opened with a jerk.

“Great Solomon Eagle!” he gasped. “Do you see, doctor? It’s the hat.”

He held it out to us, and sure enough on the white silk lining of the crown were the embossed, gilt letters, D.B., just as Mr. Byramji had described them.

“Yes,” Thorndyke agreed, as the superintendent snatched up a greengrocer’s paper bag from the kitchen floor and persuaded the hat into it, “it is undoubtedly the missing link. But what are you going to do now?”

“Do!” exclaimed Miller. “Why, I am going to collar the man. These Baltic boats put in at Hull and Newcastle—perhaps he didn’t know that—and they are pretty slow boats, too. I shall wire to Newcastle to have the ship detained and take Inspector Badger down to make the arrest. I’ll leave you to explain to the porter, and I owe you a thousand thanks for your valuable tip.”

With this he bustled away, clasping the precious hat and from the window we saw him hurry across the court and dart out through the postern into Fetter Lane.

“I think Miller was rather precipitate,” said Thorndyke. “He should have got a description of the man and some further particulars.”

“Yes,” said I. “Miller had much better have waited until you had finished with Mr. Larkin. But you can get some more particulars when we take back the key.”

“We shall get more information from the gentleman who lives on the floor above, and I think we will go up and interview him now. I wrote to him last night and made a metallurgical appointment, signing myself W. Polton. Your name, if he should ask, is Stevenson.”

As we ascended the stairs to the next floor, I meditated on the rather tortuous proceedings of my usually straightforward colleague. The use of the lumps of quartz was now obvious; but why these mysterious tactics? And why, before knocking at the door, did Thorndyke carefully take the reading of the gas meter on the landing?

The door was opened in response to our knock by a shortish, alert-looking, clean-shaved man in a white overall, who looked at us keenly and rather forbiddingly. But Thorndyke was geniality personified.

“How do you do, Mr. Highley?” said he, holding out his hand, which the metallurgist shook coolly. “You got my letter, I suppose?”

“Yes. But I am not Mr. Highley. He’s away and I am carrying on. I think of taking over his business, if there is any to take over. My name is Sherwood. Have you got the samples?”

Thorndyke produced the canvas bag, which Mr. Sherwood took from him and emptied out on a bench, picking up the lumps of quartz one by one and examining them closely. Meanwhile Thorndyke took a rapid survey of the premises. Against the wall were two cupel furnaces and a third larger furnace like a small pottery kiln. On a set of narrow shelves were several rows of bone-ash cupels, looking like little white flower-pots, and near them was the cupel-press—an appliance into which powdered bone-ash was fed and compressed by a plunger to form the cupels—while by the side of the press was a tub of bone-ash—a good deal coarser, I noticed, than the usual fine powder. This coarseness was also observed by Thorndyke, who edged up to the tub and dipped his hand into the ash and then wiped his fingers on his handkerchief.

“This stuff doesn’t seem to contain much gold,” said Mr. Sherwood. “But we shall see when we make the assay.”

“What do you think of this?” asked Thorndyke, taking from his pocket the small lump of glittering, golden-looking mineral that he had picked out at the assayist’s. Mr. Sherwood took it from him and examined it closely. “This looks more hopeful,” said he; “rather rich, in fact.”

Thorndyke received this statement with an unmoved countenance; but as for me, I stared at Mr. Sherwood in amazement. For this lump of glittering mineral was simply a fragment of common iron pyrites! It would not have deceived a schoolboy, much less a metallurgist.

Still holding the specimen, and taking a watchmaker’s lens from a shelf, Mr. Sherwood moved over to the window. Simultaneously, Thorndyke stepped softly to the cupel shelves and quickly ran his eye along the rows of cupels. Presently he paused at one, examined it more closely, and then, taking it from the shelf, began to pick at it with his finger-nail.

At this moment Mr. Sherwood turned and observed him; and instantly there flashed into the metallurgist’s face an expression of mingled anger and alarm.

“Put that down!” he commanded peremptorily, and then, as Thorndyke continued to scrape with his finger-nail, he shouted furiously, “Do you hear? Drop it!”

Thorndyke took him literally at his word and let the cupel fall on the floor, when it shattered into innumerable fragments, of which one of the largest separated itself from the rest. Thorndyke pounced upon it, and in an instantaneous glance, as he picked it up, I recognised it as a calcined tooth.

Then followed a few moments of weird, dramatic silence. Thorndyke, holding the tooth between his finger and thumb, looked steadily into the eyes of the metallurgist; and the latter, pallid as a corpse, glared at Thorndyke and furtively unbuttoned his overall.

Suddenly the silence broke into a tumult as bewildering as the crash of a railway collision. Sherwood’s right hand darted under his overall. Instantly, Thorndyke snatched up another cupel and hurled it with such truth of aim that it shattered on the metallurgist’s forehead. And as he flung the missile, he sprang forward, and delivered a swift upper-cut. There was a thunderous crash, a cloud of white dust, and an automatic pistol clattered along the floor.

I snatched up the pistol and rushed to my friend’s assistance. But there was no need. With his great strength and his uncanny skill—to say nothing of the effects of the knock-out blow—Thorndyke had the man pinned down immovably.

“See if you can find some cord, Jervis,” he said in a calm, quiet tone that seemed almost ridiculously out of character with the circumstances.

There was no difficulty about this, for several corded boxes stood in a corner of the laboratory. I cut off two lengths, with one of which I secured the prostrate man’s arms and with the other fastened his knees and ankles.

“Now,” said Thorndyke, “if you will take charge of his hands, we will make a preliminary inspection. Let us first see if he wears a belt.”

Unbuttoning the man’s waistcoat, he drew up the shirt, disclosing a broad, webbing belt furnished with several leather pockets, the buttoned flaps of which he felt carefully, regardless of the stream of threats and imprecations that poured from our victim’s swollen lips. From the front pockets he proceeded to the back, passing an exploratory hand under the writhing body.

“Ah!” he exclaimed suddenly, “just turn him over, and look out for his heels.”

We rolled our captive over, and as Thorndyke “skinned the rabbit,” a central pocket came into view, into which, when he had unbuttoned it, he inserted his fingers. “Yes,” he continued, “I think this is what we are looking for.” He withdrew his fingers, between which he held a small packet of Japanese paper, and with feverish excitement I watched him open out layer after layer of the soft wrapping. As he turned back the last fold a wonderful crimson sparkle told me that the “great ruby” was found.

“There, Jervis,” said Thorndyke, holding the magnificent gem towards me in the palm of his hand, “look on this beautiful, sinister thing, charged with untold potentialities of evil—and thank the gods that it is not yours.”

He wrapped it up again carefully and, having bestowed it in an inner pocket, said, “And now give me the pistol and run down to the telegraph office and see if you can stop Miller. I should like him to have the credit for this.”

I handed him the pistol and made my way out into Fetter Lane and so down to Fleet Street, where at the post office my urgent message was sent off to Scotland Yard immediately. In a few minutes the reply came that Superintendent Miller had not yet left and that he was starting immediately for Clifford’s Inn. A quarter of an hour later he drove up in a hansom to the Fetter Lane gate and I conducted him up to the second floor, where Thorndyke introduced him to his prisoner and witnessed the official arrest.

“You don’t see how I arrived at it,” said Thorndyke as we walked homeward after returning the key. “Well, I am not surprised. The initial evidence was of the weakest; it acquired significance only by cumulative effect. Let us reconstruct it as it developed.

“The derelict hat was, of course, the starting-point. Now the first thing one noticed was that it appeared to have had more than one owner. No man would buy a new hat that fitted so badly as to need all that packing; and the arrangement of the packing suggested a long-headed man wearing a hat that had belonged to a man with a short head. Then there were the suggestions offered by the slips of paper. The fragmentary address referred to a place the name of which ended in ‘n’ and the remainder was evidently ‘London, W.C.’ Now what West Central place names end in ‘n’? It was not a street, a square or a court, and Barbican is not in the W.C. district. It was almost certainly one of the half-dozen surviving Inns of Court or Chancery. But, of course, it was not necessarily the address of the owner of the hat.

“The other slip of paper bore the end of a word ending in ‘el,’ and another word ending in ‘eep,’ and connected with these were quantities stated in ounces and pennyweights troy weight. But the only persons who use troy weight are those who deal in precious metals. I inferred therefore that the ‘el’ was part of ‘lemel,’ and that the ‘eep’ was part of ‘floor-sweep,’ an inference that was supported by the respective quantities, three ounces five pennyweights of lemel and nine and a half ounces of floor-sweep.”

“What is lemel?” I asked.

“It is the trade name for the gold or silver filings that collect in the ‘skin’ of a jeweller’s bench. Floor-sweep is, of course, the dust swept up on the floor of a jeweller’s or goldsmith’s workshop. The lemel is actual metal, though not of uniform fineness, but the ‘sweep’ is a mixture of dirt and metal. Both are saved and sent to the refiners to have the gold and silver extracted.

“This paper, then, was connected either with a goldsmith or a gold refiner—who might call himself an assayist or a metallurgist. The connection was supported by the leaf of a price list of gas stoves. A metallurgist would be kept well supplied with lists of gas stoves and furnaces. The traces of lead in the dust from the hat gave us another straw blowing in the same direction, for gold assayed by the dry process is fused in the cupel furnace with lead; and as the lead oxidises and the oxide is volatile, traces of lead would tend to appear in the dust deposited in the laboratory.

“The next thing to do was to consult the directory; and when I did so, I found that there were no goldsmiths in any of the Inns and only one assayist—Mr. Highley, of Clifford’s Inn. The probabilities, therefore, slender as they were, pointed to some connection between this stray hat and Mr. Highley. And this was positively all the information that we had when we came out this afternoon.

“As soon as we got to Clifford’s Inn, however, the evidence began to grow like a rolling snowball. First there was Larkin’s contribution; and then there was the discovery of the missing hat. Now, as soon as I saw that hat my suspicions fell upon the man upstairs. I felt a conviction that the hat had been left there purposely and that the letter to Larkin was just a red herring to create a false trail. Nevertheless, the presence of that hat completely confirmed the other evidence. It showed that the apparent connection was a real connection.”

“But,” I asked, “what made you suspect the man upstairs?”

“My dear Jervis!” he exclaimed, “consider the facts. That hat was enough to hang the man who left it there. Can you imagine this astute, wary villain making such an idiot’s mistake—going away and leaving the means of his conviction for anyone to find? But you are forgetting that whereas the missing hat was found on the first floor, the murderer’s hat was connected with the second floor. The evidence suggested that it was Highley’s hat. And now, before we go on to the next stage, let me remind you of those finger-prints. Miller thought that their rough appearance was due to the surface on which they had been made. But it was not. They were the prints of a person who was suffering from ichthyosis, palmar psoriasis or some dry dermatitis.

“There is one other point. The man we were looking for was a murderer. His life was already forfeit. To such a man another murder more or less is of no consequence. If this man, having laid the false trail, had determined to take sanctuary in Highley’s rooms, it was probable that he had already got rid of Highley. And remember that a metallurgist has unrivalled means of disposing of a body; for not only is each of his muffle furnaces a miniature crematorium, but the very residue of a cremated body—bone-ash—is one of the materials of his trade.

“When we went upstairs, I first took the reading of the gas meter and ascertained that a large amount of gas had been used recently. Then, when we entered I took the opportunity to shake hands with Mr. Sherwood, and immediately I became aware that he suffered from a rather extreme form of ichthyosis. That was the first point of verification. Then we discovered that he actually could not distinguish between iron pyrites and auriferous quartz. He was not a metallurgist at all. He was a masquerader. Then the bone-ash in the tub was mixed with fragments of calcined bone, and the cupels all showed similar fragments. In one of them I could see part of the crown of a tooth. That was pure luck. But observe that by that time I had enough evidence to justify an arrest. The tooth served only to bring the affair to a crisis; and his response to my unspoken accusation saved us the trouble of further search for confirmatory evidence.”

“What is not quite clear to me,” said I, “is when and why he made away with Highley. As the body has been completely reduced to bone-ash, Highley must have been dead at least some days.”

“Undoubtedly,” Thorndyke agreed. “I take it that the course of events was somewhat like this: The police have been searching eagerly for this man, and every new crime must have made his position more unsafe—for a criminal can never be sure that he has not dropped some clue. It began to be necessary for him to make some arrangements for leaving the country and meanwhile to have a retreat in case his whereabouts should chance to be discovered. Highley’s chambers were admirable for both purposes. Here was a solitary man who seldom had a visitor, and who would probably not be missed for some considerable time; and in those chambers were the means of rapidly and completely disposing of the body. The mere murder would be a negligible detail to this ruffian.

“I imagine that Highley was done to death at least a week ago, and that the murderer did not take up his new tenancy until the body was reduced to ash. With that large furnace in addition to the small ones, this would not take long. When the new premises were ready, he could make a sham disappearance to cover his actual flight later; and you must see how perfectly misleading that sham disappearance was. If the police had discovered that hat in the empty room only a week later, they would have been certain that he had escaped to one of the Baltic ports; and while they were following his supposed tracks, he could have gone off comfortably via Folkestone or Southampton.”

“Then you think he had only just moved into Highley’s rooms?”

“I should say he moved in last night. The murder of Byramji was probably planned on some information that the murderer had picked up, and as soon as it was accomplished he began forthwith to lay down the false tracks. When he reached his rooms yesterday afternoon, he must have written the letter to Larkin and gone off at once to the East End to post it. Then he probably had his bushy hair cut short and shaved off his beard and moustache—which would render him quite unrecognisable by Larkin—and moved into Highley’s chambers, from which he would have quietly sallied forth in a few days’ time to take his passage to the Continent. It was quite a good plan, and but for the accident of taking the wrong hat, would almost certainly have succeeded.”

Once every year, on the second of August, there is delivered with unfailing regularity at No. 5A King’s Bench Walk a large box of carved sandal-wood filled with the choicest Trichinopoly cheroots and accompanied by an affectionate letter from our late client, Mr. Byramji. For the second of August is the anniversary of the death (in the execution shed at Newgate) of Cornelius Barnett, otherwise known as the “New Jersey Sphinx.”



This story is Number Thirty Three from the book

“The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke

 Thirty-seven of his criminal

 investigations as set down by

 R. Austin Freeman.”


also known as


“Dr. Thorndyke His Famous Cases as

 Described by R. Austin Freeman”.


First published July 1929

Hodder & Stoughton, London




Misspelled words and printer errors have been corrected. Where multiple spellings occur, majority use has been employed.

Punctuation has been maintained except where obvious printer errors occur.

Book name and author have been added to the original book cover, together with the name and number of this story. The resulting cover is placed in the public domain.

[The end of The New Jersey Sphinx by Richard Austin Freeman]