If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there — a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible. He was ill-advised to train his moustache away from it, for it was Nature’s danger-signal, set as a warning to his victims. His voice was engaging and his manners perfect. In age I should have put him at little over thirty, though his record afterwards showed that he was forty-two.
“Very fine — very fine indeed!” he said at last. “And you say you have a set of six to correspond. What puzzles me is that I should not have heard of such magnificent specimens. I only know of one in England to match this, and it is certainly not likely to be in the market. Would it be indiscreet if I were to ask you, Dr. Hill Barton, how you obtained this?”
“Does it really matter?” I asked with as careless an air as I could muster.
“You can see that the piece is genuine, and, as to the value, I am content to take an expert’s valuation.”
“Very mysterious,” said he with a quick, suspicious flash of his dark eyes. “In dealing with objects of such value, one naturally wishes to know all about the transaction. That the piece is genuine is certain. I have no doubts at all about that. But suppose — I am bound to take every possibility into account — that it should prove afterwards that you had no right to sell?”
“I would guarantee you against any claim of the son.”
“That, of course, would open up the question as to what your guarantee was worth.”
“My bankers would answer that.”
“Quite so. And yet the whole transaction strikes me as rather unusual.”
“You can do business or not,” said I with indifference. “I have given you the first offer as I understood that you were a connoisseur, but I shall have no difficulty in other quaerers.”
“Who told you I was a connoisseur?”
“I was aware that you had written a book upon the subject.”
“Have you read the book?”
“Dear me, this becomes more and more difficult for me to understand! You are a connoisseur and collector with a very valuable piece in your collection, and yet you have never troubled to consult the one book which would have told you of the real meaning and value of what you held. How do you explain that?”
“I am a very busy man. I am a doctor in practice.”
“That is no answer. If a man has a hobby he follows it up, whatever his other pursuits may be. You said in your note that you were a connoisseur.”
“So I am.”
“Might I ask you a few questions to test you? I am obliged to tell you, Doctor — if you are indeed a doctor — that the incident becomes more and more suspicious. I would ask you what do you know of the Emperor Shomu and how do you associate him with the Shoso-in near Nara? Dear me, does that puzzle you? Tell me a little about the Nonhern Wei dynasty and its place in the history of ceramics.”
I sprang from my chair in simulated anger.
“This is intolerable, sir,” said I. “I came here to do you a favour, and not to be examined as if I were a schoolboy. My knowledge on these subjects may be second only to your own, but I certainly shall not answer questions which have been put in so offensive a way.”
He looked at me steadily. The languor had gone from his eyes. They suddenly glared. There was a gleam of teeth from between those cruel lips.
“What is the game? You are here as a spy. You are an emissary of Holmes. This is a trick that you are playing upon me. The fellow is dying I hear, so he sends his tools to keep watch upon me. You’ve made your way in here without leave, and, by God! you may find it harder to get out than to get in.”
He had sprung to his feet, and I stepped back, bracing myself for an attack, for the man was beside himself with rage. He may have suspected me from the first; certainly this cross-examination had shown him the truth; but it was clear that I could not hope to deceive him. He dived his hand into a side-drawer and rummaged furiously. Then something struck upon his ear, for he stood listening intently.
“Ah!” he cried. “Ah!” and dashed into the room behind him.
Two steps took me to the open door, and my mind will ever carry a clear picture of the scene within.