We sat in silence for some time after the unhappy woman had told her story. Then Holmes stretched out his long arm and patted her hand with such a show of sympathy as I had seldom known him to exhibit.
“Poor girl!” he said. “Poor girl! The ways of fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest. But what of this man Leonardo?”
“I never saw him or heard from him again. Perhaps I have been wrong to feel so bitterly against him. He might as soon have loved one of the freaks whom we carried round the country as the thing which the lion had left. But a woman’s love is not so easily set aside. He had left me under the beast’s claws, he had deserted me in my need, and yet I could not bring myself to give him to the gallows. For myself, I cared nothing what became of me. What could be more dreadful than my actual life? But I stood between Leonardo and his fate.”
“And he is dead?”
“He was drowned last month when bathing near Margate. I saw his death in the paper.”
“And what did he do with this five-clawed club, which is the most singular and ingenious part of all your story?”
“I cannot tell, Mr. Holmes. There is a chalk-pit by the camp, with a deep green pool at the base of it. Perhaps in the depths of that pool –”
“Well, well, it is of little consequence now. The case is closed.”
“Yes,” said the woman, “the case is closed.”
We had risen to go, but there was something in the woman’s voice which arrested Holmes’s attention. He turned swiftly upon her.
“Your life is not your own,” he said. “Keep your hands off it.”
“What use is it to anyone?”
“How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”
The woman’s answer was a terrible one. She raised her veil and stepped forward into the light.
“I wonder if you would bear it,” she said.
It was horrible. No words can describe the framework of a face when the face itself is gone. Two living and beautiful brown eyes looking sadly out from that grisly ruin did but make the view more awful. Holmes held up his hand in a gesture of pity and protest, and together we left the room.
Two days later, when I called upon my friend, he pointed with some pride to a small blue bottle upon his mantelpiece. I picked it up. There was a red poison label. A pleasant almondy odour rose when I opened it.
“Prussic acid?” said I.
“Exactly. It came by post. ‘I send you my temptation. I will follow your advice.’ That was the message. I think, Watson, we can guess the name of the brave woman who sent it.”