A minute later we were in the street once more. Holmes was as cool as ever, but I was hot with anger and humiliation. The sergeant had followed us.
“Sorry, Mr. Holmes, but that’s the law.”
“Exactly, Sergeant, you could not do otherwise.”
“I expect there was good reason for your presence there. If there is anything I can do–”
“It’s a missing lady, Sergeant, and we think she is in that house. I expect a warrant presently.”
“Then I’ll keep my eye on the parties, Mr. Holmes. If anything comes along, I will surely let you know.”
It was only nine o’clock, and we were off full cry upon the trail at once. First we drove to Brixton Workhouse Infirmary, where we found that it was indeed the truth that a charitable couple had called some days before, that they had claimed an imbecile old woman as a former servant, and that they had obtained permission to take her away with them. No surprise was expressed at the news that she had since died.
The doctor was our next goal. He had been called in, had found the woman dying of pure senility, had actually seen her pass away, and had signed the certificate in due form. “I assure you that everything was perfectly normal and there was no room for foul play in the matter,” said he. Nothing in the house had struck him as suspicious save that for people of their class it was remarkable that they should have no servant. So far and no further went the doctor.
Finally we found our way to Scotland Yard. There had been difficulties of procedure in regard to the warrant. Some delay was inevitable. The magistrate’s signature might not be obtained until next morning. If Holmes would call about nine he could go down with Lestrade and see it acted upon. So ended the day, save that near midnight our friend, the sergeant, called to say that he had seen flickering lights here and there in the windows of the great dark house, but that no one had left it and none had entered. We could but pray for patience and wait for the morrow.
Sherlock Holmes was too irritable for conversation and too restless for sleep. I left him smoking hard, with his heavy, dark brows knotted together, and his long, nervous fingers tapping upon the arms of his chair, as he turned over in his mind every possible solution of the mystery. Several times in the course of the night I heard him prowling about the house. Finally, just after I had been called in the morning, he rushed into my room. He was in his dressing-gown, but his pale, hollow-eyed face told me that his night had been a sleepless one.
“What time was the funeral? Eight, was it not?” he asked eagerly. “Well, it is 7:20 now. Good heavens, Watson, what has become of any brains that God has given me? Quick, man, quick! It’s life or death–a hundred chances on death to one on life. I’ll never forgive myself, never, if we are too late!”
Five minutes had not passed before we were flying in a hansom down Baker Street. But even so it was twenty-five to eight as we passed Big Ben, and eight struck as we tore down the Brixton Road. But others were late as well as we. Ten minutes after the hour the hearse was still standing at the door of the house, and even as our foaming horse came to a halt the coffin, supported by three men, appeared on the threshold. Holmes darted forward and barred their way.
“Take it back!” he cried, laying his hand on the breast of the foremost. “Take it back this instant!”
“What the devil do you mean? Once again I ask you, where is your warrant?” shouted the furious Peters, his big red face glaring over the farther end of the coffin.
“The warrant is on its way. The coffin shall remain in the house until it comes.”
The authority in Holmes’s voice had its effect upon the bearers. Peters had suddenly vanished into the house, and they obeyed these new orders. “Quick, Watson, quick! Here is a screw-driver!” he shouted as the coffin was replaced upon the table. “Here’s one for you, my man! A sovereign if the lid comes off in a minute! Ask no questions–work away! That’s good! Another! And another! Now pull all together! It’s giving! It’s giving! Ah, that does it at last.”
With a united effort we tore off the coffin-lid. As we did so there came from the inside a stupefying and overpowering smell of chloroform. A body lay within, its head all wreathed in cotton-wool, which had been soaked in the narcotic. Holmes plucked it off and disclosed the statuesque face of a handsome and spiritual woman of middle age. In an instant he had passed his arm round the figure and raised her to a sitting position.
“Is she gone, Watson? Is there a spark left? Surely we are not too late!”
For half an hour it seemed that we were. What with actual suffocation, and what with the poisonous fumes of the chloroform, the Lady Frances seemed to have passed the last point of recall. And then, at last, with artificial respiration, with injected ether, and with every device that science could suggest, some flutter of life, some quiver of the eyelids, some dimming of a mirror, spoke of the slowly returning life. A cab had driven up, and Holmes, parting the blind, looked out at it. “Here is Lestrade with his warrant,” said he. “He will find that his birds have flown. And here,” he added as a heavy step hurried along the passage, “is someone who has a better right to nurse this lady than we have. Good morning, Mr. Green; I think that the sooner we can move the Lady Frances the better. Meanwhile, the funeral may proceed, and the poor old woman who still lies in that coffin may go to her last resting-place alone.”
“Should you care to add the case to your annals, my dear Watson,” said Holmes that evening, “it can only be as an example of that temporary eclipse to which even the best-balanced mind may be exposed. Such slips are common to all mortals, and the greatest is he who can recognize and repair them. To this modified credit I may, perhaps, make some claim. My night was haunted by the thought that somewhere a clue, a strange sentence, a curious observation, had come under my notice and had been too easily dismissed. Then, suddenly, in the gray of the morning, the words came back to me. It was the remark of the undertaker’s wife, as reported by Philip Green. She had said, ‘It should be there before now. It took longer, being out of the ordinary.’ It was the coffin of which she spoke. It had been out of the ordinary. That could only mean that it had been made to some special measurement. But why? Why? Then in an instant I remembered the deep sides, and the little wasted figure at the bottom. Why so large a coffin for so small a body? To leave room for another body. Both would be buried under the one certificate. It had all been so clear, if only my own sight had not been dimmed. At eight the Lady Frances would be buried. Our one chance was to stop the coffin before it left the house.
“It was a desperate chance that we might find her alive, but it WAS a chance, as the result showed. These people had never, to my knowledge, done a murder. They might shrink from actual violence at the last. The could bury her with no sign of how she met her end, and even if she were exhumed there was a chance for them. I hoped that such considerations might prevail with them. You can reconstruct the scene well enough. You saw the horrible den upstairs, where the poor lady had been kept so long. They rushed in and overpowered her with their chloroform, carried her down, poured more into the coffin to insure against her waking, and then screwed down the lid. A clever device, Watson. It is new to me in the annals of crime. If our ex-missionary friends escape the clutches of Lestrade, I shall expect to hear of some brilliant incidents in their future career.”
Images courtesy Pinacotheca Holmesiana