“Have you a clue?” I asked, at last.
“It depends upon those cigarettes that I smoked,” said he. “It is possible that I am utterly mistaken. The cigarettes will show me.”
“My dear Holmes,” I exclaimed, “how on earth——”
“Well, well, you may see for yourself. If not, there’s no harm done. Of course, we always have the optician clue to fall back upon, but I take a short cut when I can get it. Ah, here is the good Mrs. Marker! Let us enjoy five minutes of instructive conversation with her.”
I may have remarked before that Holmes had, when he liked, a peculiarly ingratiating way with women, and that he very readily established terms of confidence with them. In half the time which he had named, he had captured the housekeeper’s goodwill and was chatting with her as if he had known her for years.
“Yes, Mr. Holmes, it is as you say, sir. He does smoke something terrible. All day and sometimes all night, sir. I’ve seen that room of a morning—well, sir, you’d have thought it was a London fog. Poor young Mr. Smith, he was a smoker also, but not as bad as the professor. His health—well, I don’t know that it’s better nor worse for the smoking.”
“Ah!” said Holmes, “but it kills the appetite.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, sir.”
“I suppose the professor eats hardly anything?”
“Well, he is variable. I’ll say that for him.”
“I’ll wager he took no breakfast this morning, and won’t face his lunch after all the cigarettes I saw him consume.”
“Well, you’re out there, sir, as it happens, for he ate a remarkable big breakfast this morning. I don’t know when I’ve known him make a better one, and he’s ordered a good dish of cutlets for his lunch. I’m surprised myself, for since I came into that room yesterday and saw young Mr. Smith lying there on the floor, I couldn’t bear to look at food. Well, it takes all sorts to make a world, and the professor hasn’t let it take his appetite away.”
We loitered the morning away in the garden. Stanley Hopkins had gone down to the village to look into some rumours of a strange woman who had been seen by some children on the Chatham Road the previous morning. As to my friend, all his usual energy seemed to have deserted him. I had never known him handle a case in such a half-hearted fashion. Even the news brought back by Hopkins that he had found the children, and that they had undoubtedly seen a woman exactly corresponding with Holmes’s description, and wearing either spectacles or eyeglasses, failed to rouse any sign of keen interest. He was more attentive when Susan, who waited upon us at lunch, volunteered the information that she believed Mr. Smith had been out for a walk yesterday morning, and that he had only returned half an hour before the tragedy occurred. I could not myself see the bearing of this incident, but I clearly perceived that Holmes was weaving it into the general scheme which he had formed in his brain. Suddenly he sprang from his chair and glanced at his watch. “Two o’clock, gentlemen,” said he. “We must go up and have it out with our friend, the professor.”
The old man had just finished his lunch, and certainly his empty dish bore evidence to the good appetite with which his housekeeper had credited him. He was, indeed, a weird figure as he turned his white mane and his glowing eyes towards us. The eternal cigarette smouldered in his mouth. He had been dressed and was seated in an armchair by the fire.
“Well, Mr. Holmes, have you solved this mystery yet?” He shoved the large tin of cigarettes which stood on a table beside him towards my companion. Holmes stretched out his hand at the same moment, and between them they tipped the box over the edge. For a minute or two we were all on our knees retrieving stray cigarettes from impossible places. When we rose again, I observed Holmes’s eyes were shining and his cheeks tinged with colour. Only at a crisis have I seen those battle-signals flying.
“Yes,” said he, “I have solved it.”
Stanley Hopkins and I stared in amazement. Something like a sneer quivered over the gaunt features of the old professor.
“Indeed! In the garden?”
“You are surely joking, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. You compel me to tell you that this is too serious a matter to be treated in such a fashion.”
“I have forged and tested every link of my chain, Professor Coram, and I am sure that it is sound. What your motives are, or what exact part you play in this strange business, I am not yet able to say. In a few minutes I shall probably hear it from your own lips. Meanwhile I will reconstruct what is past for your benefit, so that you may know the information which I still require.
“A lady yesterday entered your study. She came with the intention of possessing herself of certain documents which were in your bureau. She had a key of her own. I have had an opportunity of examining yours, and I do not find that slight discolouration which the scratch made upon the varnish would have produced. You were not an accessory, therefore, and she came, so far as I can read the evidence, without your knowledge to rob you.”
The professor blew a cloud from his lips. “This is most interesting and instructive,” said he. “Have you no more to add? Surely, having traced this lady so far, you can also say what has become of her.”
“I will endeavour to do so. In the first place she was seized by your secretary, and stabbed him in order to escape. This catastrophe I am inclined to regard as an unhappy accident, for I am convinced that the lady had no intention of inflicting so grievous an injury. An assassin does not come unarmed. Horrified by what she had done, she rushed wildly away from the scene of the tragedy. Unfortunately for her, she had lost her glasses in the scuffle, and as she was extremely short-sighted she was really helpless without them. She ran down a corridor, which she imagined to be that by which she had come—both were lined with cocoanut matting—and it was only when it was too late that she understood that she had taken the wrong passage, and that her retreat was cut off behind her. What was she to do? She could not go back. She could not remain where she was. She must go on. She went on. She mounted a stair, pushed open a door, and found herself in your room.”
The old man sat with his mouth open, staring wildly at Holmes. Amazement and fear were stamped upon his expressive features. Now, with an effort, he shrugged his shoulders and burst into insincere laughter.
“All very fine, Mr. Holmes,” said he. “But there is one little flaw in your splendid theory. I was myself in my room, and I never left it during the day.”
“I am aware of that, Professor Coram.”
“And you mean to say that I could lie upon that bed and not be aware that a woman had entered my room?”
“I never said so. You WERE aware of it. You spoke with her. You recognized her. You aided her to escape.”
Again the professor burst into high-keyed laughter. He had risen to his feet, and his eyes glowed like embers.
“You are mad!” he cried. “You are talking insanely. I helped her to escape? Where is she now?”
“She is there,” said Holmes, and he pointed to a high bookcase in the corner of the room.
I saw the old man throw up his arms, a terrible convulsion passed over his grim face, and he fell back in his chair. At the same instant the bookcase at which Holmes pointed swung round upon a hinge, and a woman rushed out into the room. “You are right!” she cried, in a strange foreign voice. “You are right! I am here.”
She was brown with the dust and draped with the cobwebs which had come from the walls of her hiding-place. Her face, too, was streaked with grime, and at the best she could never have been handsome, for she had the exact physical characteristics which Holmes had divined, with, in addition, a long and obstinate chin. What with her natural blindness, and what with the change from dark to light, she stood as one dazed, blinking about her to see where and who we were. And yet, in spite of all these disadvantages, there was a certain nobility in the woman’s bearing—a gallantry in the defiant chin and in the upraised head, which compelled something of respect and admiration.
Stanley Hopkins had laid his hand upon her arm and claimed her as his prisoner, but she waved him aside gently, and yet with an over-mastering dignity which compelled obedience. The old man lay back in his chair with a twitching face, and stared at her with brooding eyes.
“Yes, sir, I am your prisoner,” she said. “From where I stood I could hear everything, and I know that you have learned the truth. I confess it all. It was I who killed the young man. But you are right—you who say it was an accident. I did not even know that it was a knife which I held in my hand, for in my despair I snatched anything from the table and struck at him to make him let me go. It is the truth that I tell.”
“Madam,” said Holmes, “I am sure that it is the truth. I fear that you are far from well.”
She had turned a dreadful colour, the more ghastly under the dark dust-streaks upon her face. She seated herself on the side of the bed; then she resumed.
“I have only a little time here,” she said, “but I would have you to know the whole truth. I am this man’s wife. He is not an Englishman. He is a Russian. His name I will not tell.”
For the first time the old man stirred. “God bless you, Anna!” he cried. “God bless you!”
She cast a look of the deepest disdain in his direction. “Why should you cling so hard to that wretched life of yours, Sergius?” said she. “It has done harm to many and good to none—not even to yourself. However, it is not for me to cause the frail thread to be snapped before God’s time. I have enough already upon my soul since I crossed the threshold of this cursed house. But I must speak or I shall be too late.
“I have said, gentlemen, that I am this man’s wife. He was fifty and I a foolish girl of twenty when we married. It was in a city of Russia, a university—I will not name the place.”
“God bless you, Anna!” murmured the old man again.
“We were reformers—revolutionists—Nihilists, you understand. He and I and many more. Then there came a time of trouble, a police officer was killed, many were arrested, evidence was wanted, and in order to save his own life and to earn a great reward, my husband betrayed his own wife and his companions. Yes, we were all arrested upon his confession. Some of us found our way to the gallows, and some to Siberia. I was among these last, but my term was not for life. My husband came to England with his ill-gotten gains and has lived in quiet ever since, knowing well that if the Brotherhood knew where he was not a week would pass before justice would be done.”
The old man reached out a trembling hand and helped himself to a cigarette. “I am in your hands, Anna,” said he. “You were always good to me.”
“I have not yet told you the height of his villainy,” said she. “Among our comrades of the Order, there was one who was the friend of my heart. He was noble, unselfish, loving—all that my husband was not. He hated violence. We were all guilty—if that is guilt—but he was not. He wrote forever dissuading us from such a course. These letters would have saved him. So would my diary, in which, from day to day, I had entered both my feelings towards him and the view which each of us had taken. My husband found and kept both diary and letters. He hid them, and he tried hard to swear away the young man’s life. In this he failed, but Alexis was sent a convict to Siberia, where now, at this moment, he works in a salt mine. Think of that, you villain, you villain!—now, now, at this very moment, Alexis, a man whose name you are not worthy to speak, works and lives like a slave, and yet I have your life in my hands, and I let you go.”
“You were always a noble woman, Anna,” said the old man, puffing at his cigarette.
She had risen, but she fell back again with a little cry of pain.
“I must finish,” she said. “When my term was over I set myself to get the diary and letters which, if sent to the Russian government, would procure my friend’s release. I knew that my husband had come to England. After months of searching I discovered where he was. I knew that he still had the diary, for when I was in Siberia I had a letter from him once, reproaching me and quoting some passages from its pages. Yet I was sure that, with his revengeful nature, he would never give it to me of his own free-will. I must get it for myself. With this object I engaged an agent from a private detective firm, who entered my husband’s house as a secretary—it was your second secretary, Sergius, the one who left you so hurriedly. He found that papers were kept in the cupboard, and he got an impression of the key. He would not go farther. He furnished me with a plan of the house, and he told me that in the forenoon the study was always empty, as the secretary was employed up here. So at last I took my courage in both hands, and I came down to get the papers for myself. I succeeded; but at what a cost!
“I had just taken the paper; and was locking the cupboard, when the young man seized me. I had seen him already that morning. He had met me on the road, and I had asked him to tell me where Professor Coram lived, not knowing that he was in his employ.”
“Exactly! Exactly!” said Holmes. “The secretary came back, and told his employer of the woman he had met. Then, in his last breath, he tried to send a message that it was she—the she whom he had just discussed with him.”
“You must let me speak,” said the woman, in an imperative voice, and her face contracted as if in pain. “When he had fallen I rushed from the room, chose the wrong door, and found myself in my husband’s room. He spoke of giving me up. I showed him that if he did so, his life was in my hands. If he gave me to the law, I could give him to the Brotherhood. It was not that I wished to live for my own sake, but it was that I desired to accomplish my purpose. He knew that I would do what I said—that his own fate was involved in mine. For that reason, and for no other, he shielded me. He thrust me into that dark hiding-place—a relic of old days, known only to himself. He took his meals in his own room, and so was able to give me part of his food. It was agreed that when the police left the house I should slip away by night and come back no more. But in some way you have read our plans.” She tore from the bosom of her dress a small packet. “These are my last words,” said she; “here is the packet which will save Alexis. I confide it to your honour and to your love of justice. Take it! You will deliver it at the Russian Embassy. Now, I have done my duty, and——”
“Stop her!” cried Holmes. He had bounded across the room and had wrenched a small phial from her hand.
“Too late!” she said, sinking back on the bed. “Too late! I took the poison before I left my hiding-place. My head swims! I am going! I charge you, sir, to remember the packet.”
“A simple case, and yet, in some ways, an instructive one,” Holmes remarked, as we travelled back to town. “It hinged from the outset upon the pince-nez. But for the fortunate chance of the dying man having seized these, I am not sure that we could ever have reached our solution. It was clear to me, from the strength of the glasses, that the wearer must have been very blind and helpless when deprived of them. When you asked me to believe that she walked along a narrow strip of grass without once making a false step, I remarked, as you may remember, that it was a noteworthy performance. In my mind I set it down as an impossible performance, save in the unlikely case that she had a second pair of glasses. I was forced, therefore, to consider seriously the hypothesis that she had remained within the house. On perceiving the similarity of the two corridors, it became clear that she might very easily have made such a mistake, and, in that case, it was evident that she must have entered the professor’s room. I was keenly on the alert, therefore, for whatever would bear out this supposition, and I examined the room narrowly for anything in the shape of a hiding-place. The carpet seemed continuous and firmly nailed, so I dismissed the idea of a trap-door. There might well be a recess behind the books. As you are aware, such devices are common in old libraries. I observed that books were piled on the floor at all other points, but that one bookcase was left clear. This, then, might be the door. I could see no marks to guide me, but the carpet was of a dun colour, which lends itself very well to examination. I therefore smoked a great number of those excellent cigarettes, and I dropped the ash all over the space in front of the suspected bookcase. It was a simple trick, but exceedingly effective. I then went downstairs, and I ascertained, in your presence, Watson, without your perceiving the drift of my remarks, that Professor Coram’s consumption of food had increased—as one would expect when he is supplying a second person. We then ascended to the room again, when, by upsetting the cigarette-box, I obtained a very excellent view of the floor, and was able to see quite clearly, from the traces upon the cigarette ash, that the prisoner had in our absence come out from her retreat. Well, Hopkins, here we are at Charing Cross, and I congratulate you on having brought your case to a successful conclusion. You are going to headquarters, no doubt. I think, Watson, you and I will drive together to the Russian Embassy.”