Sir George snorted dismissively, but Lestrade considered the suggestion for a moment. “It is certainly possible,” he conceded at length. “But what makes you think so, Mr Holmes?”
“See how thickly the trees are growing just here, and how dense and tall the undergrowth is. It is scarcely conceivable that anyone could have forced a passage through that, or could have had a clear sight of Woodforde Soames if he had done so. Therefore, whoever fired the shot must have been standing upon the path at the time.”
“That seems certain,” said Captain Blake, nodding his head in agreement.
“Now, behind us, in the direction of the house,” Holmes continued, “the path is very winding, whereas ahead of us, away from the house, it is fairly straight for some considerable distance. Whoever fired the shot must have had a clear view of Woodforde Soames’s back. From the direction of the house that is impossible. Immediately before this spot there is a right-angled bend in the path, and before that there are more twists and turns. From the other direction, however, the archer would have had a clear and uninterrupted view. Therefore, Woodforde Soames was shot when returning to the house from somewhere ahead of us. Where does this path lead to?”
“I do not know,” Lestrade admitted. “I saw no reason to explore the path further, as I didn’t believe that the murdered man had been any further along it than the spot we’re now standing on.”
“Does this path go anywhere in particular, Sir George?” queried Holmes.
“Not really,” Kirkman replied. “It meanders on for a mile or so, and comes out by the water-meadows near the river.”
“I understood that this was the way to the folly,” Captain Blake interjected.
“Oh, that old thing!” said Kirkman in a dismissive tone. “It is meant to look like a Roman ruin, so they tell me, but it looks just like a pile of old bricks to me.”
“Let us follow the path a little distance, anyway,” said Holmes, “and see if we can turn up anything of interest.”
“Oh, this is a complete waste of time!” cried Kirkman in an impatient voice. “I shall leave you to it,” he continued, turning on his heel and walking rapidly back towards the house as we followed Holmes further along the path.
At the end of the long straight section, the path again turned sharply to the left, and there, just a few yards further on, on the right-hand side of the path, was the mouldering, ivy-covered ruin to which Kirkman had referred. It appeared little greater in size than a small shed, but it was so smothered in creepers and brambles that its shape was difficult to discern. It was clear, however, that there was a wide arched doorway at the front, and a dark, sepulchral chamber within.
Holmes frowned as we approached this singular structure.
“Halloa!” said he. “Someone has been in here very recently!”
“How can you tell?” asked Blake.
“The cobwebs across the doorway have been recently broken. Let us have a look inside.”
He pushed aside the trailing fronds of ivy, which hung like a curtain across the entrance, and made his way into the gloom within. Captain Blake held the ivy aside, and we watched as Holmes struck a match and looked about him. Then he bent to the floor, where mounds of dead leaves and other vegetation had accumulated. A moment later, he looked round and gestured to us.
“I think you had best all see this,” said he in a grave voice.
We squeezed past the tangle of ivy and dusty cobwebs as Holmes struck another match. There on the floor, partly hidden under the dead leaves and with a longbow lying beside him, was the body of a man.
“Who the devil is it?” cried Lestrade in astonishment.
“My God!” cried Blake. “I know that man! It is Hepplethwaite, Sir George Kirkman’s secretary!”
We lifted the body from its dark resting place and laid it upon the path outside. A brief examination was enough to tell me that he had been killed by a severe blow to the back of the head, where the hair was thickly matted with blood.
“What can it mean?” said Lestrade in a tone of utter stupefaction. “When did he return from visiting his sick relative? What was he doing here in the woods? And why has he got a bow with him?”
“I should say he has been dead at least twenty-four hours,” said I, looking up. “Where is Holmes?” I added in surprise, for he was nowhere to be seen. Even as I spoke, however, he emerged from a narrow gap in the vegetation at the side of the folly.
“There is a way through here to another path, which runs along behind this little building,” said he, “and it is clear that someone has spent some time standing there fairly recently.”
“What does it mean?” said Lestrade again.
“I rather fancy that Hepplethwaite’s sick relative does not exist,” returned Holmes.
“He lied about it?”
“No, not he; Sir George Kirkman.”
“I think I know what’s happened here,” said Captain Blake in a tone of sudden enlightenment. We turned as he continued. “You have probably heard,” said he, “that the Zambezi expedition nearly foundered when many of our stores were washed away by the flooding river. As far as it goes, that is true, but it is only half the story. There had never been sufficient provisions in the first place, and when we returned to our base camp the replacement stores that should have been awaiting us were not there. Although we eventually managed to reach the coast, it was a close-run thing, I can tell you.
“When we arrived back in England, Woodforde Soames at once made enquiries of all our suppliers, and it began to appear that money held by Sir George Kirkman which should have been used for the expedition had not been paid. Why this had happened, we could not discover – various rumours were circulating – so we came down here this weekend determined to get to the bottom of the business, and in no very good humour, as you will imagine. Sir George has been occupied with his guests, however, and it proved impossible to get him on his own to discuss the matter. Then, on Saturday evening, Soames took me to one side and told me that Kirkman’s secretary – this poor devil here – had approached him in confidence, seeking advice. He had recently learned, he said, that money rightfully belonging to the African expedition had been improperly diverted elsewhere by Kirkman, and he was unsure what to do with this information. Torn between loyalty to his employer and his own sense of honesty, he had found his position intolerable, and the strain of it had nearly driven him mad, he said. Moreover, the money dishonestly taken from the expedition’s fund was, he was convinced, but a small part of a very large scheme of fraud. This information certainly bore out the rumours we had heard in London, but had been scarcely able to credit, that Sir George Kirkman is as good as bankrupt and has been engaging in all kinds of financial chicanery to try to conceal the fact.”
“Bankrupt!” cried Lestrade incredulously. “What about his mines?”
“The rumour is that they are all practically worked out.”
“His iron foundries?”
“Running at a loss for several years.”
“His engineering works, then?”
“No orders. Woodforde Soames had the impression, from what Hepplethwaite told him, that Kirkman has been engaged in one financial swindle after another for many years, and there seems a possibility that his entire fortune has been built on such foundations. Soames and Hepplethwaite did not have time to conclude their conversation on Saturday, but the secretary said he would try to speak to my friend again on the subject the next day. That, so far as I know, is how matters stood on Saturday night. It seems to me now that Soames’s death on Sunday afternoon cannot simply be coincidence.”
Holmes nodded. “It is probable, then, that Hepplethwaite arranged to meet Woodforde Soames here at the folly, once the archery competition was finished. But Kirkman must have suspected what was afoot, and followed his secretary, picking up a spare bow and arrow from the archery field on the way, as I suggested earlier. No doubt it was he who hid behind the folly, where he would have been able to overhear their conversation. I imagine that when they had finished speaking, Soames left first, and the secretary stayed behind a few moments so that no suspicion would be aroused by their being seen together. But Kirkman must have slipped through this gap in the undergrowth by the side of the folly, struck his secretary on the head with a stone, and then followed Soames down the path and fired the shot that killed him.”