“So that’s that!” said Holmes. “And now, if you can spare the time, Watson, we will get upon our way.”
A short railway journey, and a shorter drive, brought us to the house, a brick and timber villa, standing in its own acre of undeveloped grassland. Three small projections above. the upper windows made a feeble attempt to justify its name. Behind was a grove of melancholy, half-grown pines, and the whole aspect of the place was poor and depressing. None the less, we found the house to be well furnished, and the lady who received us was a most engaging elderly person, who bore every mark of refinement and culture.
“I remember your husband well, madam,” said Holmes, “though it is some years since he used my services in some trifling matter.”
“Probably you would be more familiar with the name of my son Douglas.”
Holmes looked at her with great interest.
“Dear me! Are you the mother of Douglas Maberley? I knew him slightly. But of course all London knew him. What a magnificent creature he was! Where is he now?”
“Dead, Mr. Holmes, dead! He was attache at Rome, and he died there of pneumonia last month.”
“I am sorry. One could not connect death with such a man. I have never known anyone so vitally alive. He lived intensely–every fibre of him!”
“Too intensely, Mr. Holmes. That was the ruin of him. You remember him as he was–debonair and splendid. You did not see the moody, morose, brooding creature into which he developed. His heart was broken. In a single month I seemed to see my gallant boy turn into a worn-out cynical man.”
“A love affair–a woman?”
“Or a fiend. Well, it was not to talk of my poor lad that I asked you to come, Mr. Holmes.”
“Dr. Watson and I are at your service.”
“There have been some very strange happenings. I have been in this house more than a year now, and as I wished to lead a retired life I have seen little of my neighbours. Three days ago I had a call from a man who said that he was a house agent. He said that this house would exactly suit a client of his, and that if I would part with it money would be no object. It seemed to me very strange as there are several empty houses on the market which appear to be equally eligible, but naturally I was interested in what he said. I therefore named a price which was five hundred pounds more than I gave. He at once closed with the offer, but added that his client desired to buy the furniture as well and would I put a price upon it. Some of this furniture is from my old home, and it is, as you see, very good, so that I named a good round sum. To this also he at once agreed. I had always wanted to travel, and the bargain was so good a one that it really seemed that I should be my own mistress for the rest of my life.
“Yesterday the man arrived with the agreement all drawn out. Luckily I showed it to Mr. Sutro, my lawyer, who lives in Harrow. He said to me, ‘This is a very strange document. Are you aware that if you sign it you could not legally take anything out of the house–not even your own private possessions?’ When the man came again in the evening I pointed this out, and I said that I meant only to sell the furniture.
“‘No, no, everything,’ said he.
“‘But my clothes? My jewels?’
“‘Well, well, some concession might be made for your personal effects. But nothing shall go out of the house unchecked. My client is a very liberal man, but he has his fads and his own way of doing things. It is everything or nothing with him.’
“‘Then it must be nothing,’ said I. And there the matter was left, but the whole thing seemed to me to be so unusual that I thought–”
Here we had a very extraordinary interruption.
Holmes raised his hand for silence. Then he strode across the room, flung open the door, and dragged in a great gaunt woman whom he had seized by the shoulder. She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.
“Leave me alone! What are you a-doin’ of?” she screeched.
“Why, Susan, what is this?”
“Well, ma’am, I was comin’ in to ask if the visitors was stayin’ for lunch when this man jumped out at me.”
“I have been listening to her for the last five minutes, but did not wish to interrupt your most interesting narrative. Just a little wheezy, Susan, are you not? You breathe too heavily for that kind of work.”
Susan turned a sulky but amazed face upon her captor. “Who be you, anyhow, and what right have you a-pullin’ me about like this?”
“It was merely that I wished to ask a question in your presence. Did you, Mrs. Maberley, mention to anyone that you were going to write to me and consult me?”