“My dear Watson,” said he, as he rose from the table and paced up and down the room, “You are most long-suffering, but if I have told you nothing in the last three days, it is because there is nothing to tell. Even now this report from Paris does not help us much.”
“Surely it is final as regards the man’s death.”
“The man’s death is a mere incident—a trivial episode—in comparison with our real task, which is to trace this document and save a European catastrophe. Only one important thing has happened in the last three days, and that is that nothing has happened. I get reports almost hourly from the government, and it is certain that nowhere in Europe is there any sign of trouble. Now, if this letter were loose—no, it CAN’T be loose—but if it isn’t loose, where can it be? Who has it? Why is it held back? That’s the question that beats in my brain like a hammer. Was it, indeed, a coincidence that Lucas should meet his death on the night when the letter disappeared? Did the letter ever reach him? If so, why is it not among his papers? Did this mad wife of his carry it off with her? If so, is it in her house in Paris? How could I search for it without the French police having their suspicions aroused? It is a case, my dear Watson, where the law is as dangerous to us as the criminals are. Every man’s hand is against us, and yet the interests at stake are colossal. Should I bring it to a successful conclusion, it will certainly represent the crowning glory of my career. Ah, here is my latest from the front!” He glanced hurriedly at the note which had been handed in. “Halloa! Lestrade seems to have observed something of interest. Put on your hat, Watson, and we will stroll down together to Westminster.”
It was my first visit to the scene of the crime—a high, dingy, narrow-chested house, prim, formal, and solid, like the century which gave it birth. Lestrade’s bulldog features gazed out at us from the front window, and he greeted us warmly when a big constable had opened the door and let us in. The room into which we were shown was that in which the crime had been committed, but no trace of it now remained save an ugly, irregular stain upon the carpet. This carpet was a small square drugget in the centre of the room, surrounded by a broad expanse of beautiful, old-fashioned wood-flooring in square blocks, highly polished. Over the fireplace was a magnificent trophy of weapons, one of which had been used on that tragic night. In the window was a sumptuous writing-desk, and every detail of the apartment, the pictures, the rugs, and the hangings, all pointed to a taste which was luxurious to the verge of effeminacy.
“Seen the Paris news?” asked Lestrade.
“Our French friends seem to have touched the spot this time. No doubt it’s just as they say. She knocked at the door—surprise visit, I guess, for he kept his life in water-tight compartments—he let her in, couldn’t keep her in the street. She told him how she had traced him, reproached him. One thing led to another, and then with that dagger so handy the end soon came. It wasn’t all done in an instant, though, for these chairs were all swept over yonder, and he had one in his hand as if he had tried to hold her off with it. We’ve got it all clear as if we had seen it.”
Holmes raised his eyebrows.
“And yet you have sent for me?”
“Ah, yes, that’s another matter—a mere trifle, but the sort of thing you take an interest in—queer, you know, and what you might call freakish. It has nothing to do with the main fact—can’t have, on the face of it.”
“What is it, then?”
“Well, you know, after a crime of this sort we are very careful to keep things in their position. Nothing has been moved. Officer in charge here day and night. This morning, as the man was buried and the investigation over—so far as this room is concerned—we thought we could tidy up a bit. This carpet. You see, it is not fastened down, only just laid there. We had occasion to raise it. We found——”
“Yes? You found——”
Holmes’s face grew tense with anxiety.
“Well, I’m sure you would never guess in a hundred years what we did find. You see that stain on the carpet? Well, a great deal must have soaked through, must it not?”
“Undoubtedly it must.”
“Well, you will be surprised to hear that there is no stain on the white woodwork to correspond.”
“No stain! But there must——”
“Yes, so you would say. But the fact remains that there isn’t.”
He took the corner of the carpet in his hand and, turning it over, he showed that it was indeed as he said.
“But the under side is as stained as the upper. It must have left a mark.”
Lestrade chuckled with delight at having puzzled the famous expert.
“Now, I’ll show you the explanation. There IS a second stain, but it does not correspond with the other. See for yourself.” As he spoke he turned over another portion of the carpet, and there, sure enough, was a great crimson spill upon the square white facing of the old-fashioned floor. “What do you make of that, Mr. Holmes?”
“Why, it is simple enough. The two stains did correspond, but the carpet has been turned round. As it was square and unfastened it was easily done.”
“The official police don’t need you, Mr. Holmes, to tell them that the carpet must have been turned round. That’s clear enough, for the stains lie above each other—if you lay it over this way. But what I want to know is, who shifted the carpet, and why?”
I could see from Holmes’s rigid face that he was vibrating with inward excitement.
“Look here, Lestrade,” said he, “has that constable in the passage been in charge of the place all the time?”
“Yes, he has.”
“Well, take my advice. Examine him carefully. Don’t do it before us. We’ll wait here. You take him into the back room. You’ll be more likely to get a confession out of him alone. Ask him how he dared to admit people and leave them alone in this room. Don’t ask him if he has done it. Take it for granted. Tell him you KNOW someone has been here. Press him. Tell him that a full confession is his only chance of forgiveness. Do exactly what I tell you!”
“By George, if he knows I’ll have it out of him!” cried Lestrade. He darted into the hall, and a few moments later his bullying voice sounded from the back room.
“Now, Watson, now!” cried Holmes with frenzied eagerness. All the demoniacal force of the man masked behind that listless manner burst out in a paroxysm of energy. He tore the drugget from the floor, and in an instant was down on his hands and knees clawing at each of the squares of wood beneath it. One turned sideways as he dug his nails into the edge of it. It hinged back like the lid of a box. A small black cavity opened beneath it. Holmes plunged his eager hand into it and drew it out with a bitter snarl of anger and disappointment. It was empty.
“Quick, Watson, quick! Get it back again!” The wooden lid was replaced, and the drugget had only just been drawn straight when Lestrade’s voice was heard in the passage. He found Holmes leaning languidly against the mantelpiece, resigned and patient, endeavouring to conceal his irrepressible yawns.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Holmes, I can see that you are bored to death with the whole affair. Well, he has confessed, all right. Come in here, MacPherson. Let these gentlemen hear of your most inexcusable conduct.”
The big constable, very hot and penitent, sidled into the room.
“I meant no harm, sir, I’m sure. The young woman came to the door last evening—mistook the house, she did. And then we got talking. It’s lonesome, when you’re on duty here all day.”
“Well, what happened then?”
“She wanted to see where the crime was done—had read about it in the papers, she said. She was a very respectable, well-spoken young woman, sir, and I saw no harm in letting her have a peep. When she saw that mark on the carpet, down she dropped on the floor, and lay as if she were dead. I ran to the back and got some water, but I could not bring her to. Then I went round the corner to the Ivy Plant for some brandy, and by the time I had brought it back the young woman had recovered and was off—ashamed of herself, I daresay, and dared not face me.”
“How about moving that drugget?”
“Well, sir, it was a bit rumpled, certainly, when I came back. You see, she fell on it and it lies on a polished floor with nothing to keep it in place. I straightened it out afterwards.”
“It’s a lesson to you that you can’t deceive me, Constable MacPherson,” said Lestrade, with dignity. “No doubt you thought that your breach of duty could never be discovered, and yet a mere glance at that drugget was enough to convince me that someone had been admitted to the room. It’s lucky for you, my man, that nothing is missing, or you would find yourself in Queer Street. I’m sorry to have called you down over such a petty business, Mr. Holmes, but I thought the point of the second stain not corresponding with the first would interest you.”
“Certainly, it was most interesting. Has this woman only been here once, constable?”
“Yes, sir, only once.”
“Who was she?”
“Don’t know the name, sir. Was answering an advertisement about typewriting and came to the wrong number—very pleasant, genteel young woman, sir.”
“Yes, sir, she was a well-grown young woman. I suppose you might say she was handsome. Perhaps some would say she was very handsome. ‘Oh, officer, do let me have a peep!’ says she. She had pretty, coaxing ways, as you might say, and I thought there was no harm in letting her just put her head through the door.”
“How was she dressed?”
“Quiet, sir—a long mantle down to her feet.”
“What time was it?”
“It was just growing dusk at the time. They were lighting the lamps as I came back with the brandy.”
“Very good,” said Holmes. “Come, Watson, I think that we have more important work elsewhere.”
As we left the house Lestrade remained in the front room, while the repentant constable opened the door to let us out. Holmes turned on the step and held up something in his hand. The constable stared intently.
“Good Lord, sir!” he cried, with amazement on his face. Holmes put his finger on his lips, replaced his hand in his breast pocket, and burst out laughing as we turned down the street. “Excellent!” said he. “Come, friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act. You will be relieved to hear that there will be no war, that the Right Honourable Trelawney Hope will suffer no setback in his brilliant career, that the indiscreet Sovereign will receive no punishment for his indiscretion, that the Prime Minister will have no European complication to deal with, and that with a little tact and management upon our part nobody will be a penny the worse for what might have been a very ugly incident.”