“No good news?”
“Thank God for that. But come in. You must be weary, for you have had a long day.”
“This is my friend, Dr. Watson. He has been of most vital use to me in several of my cases, and a lucky chance has made it possible for me to bring him out and associate him with this investigation.”
“I am delighted to see you,” said she, pressing my hand warmly. “You will, I am sure, forgive anything that may be wanting in our arrangements, when you consider the blow which has come so suddenly upon us.”
“My dear madam,” said I, “I am an old campaigner, and if I were not I can very well see that no apology is needed. If I can be of any assistance, either to you or to my friend here, I shall be indeed happy.”
“Now, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said the lady as we entered a well-lit dining-room, upon the table of which a cold supper had been laid out, “I should very much like to ask you one or two plain questions, to which I beg that you will give a plain answer.”
“Do not trouble about my feelings. I am not hysterical, nor given to fainting. I simply wish to hear your real, real opinion.”
“Upon what point?”
“In your heart of hearts, do you think that Neville is alive?”
Sherlock Holmes seemed to be embarrassed by the question. “Frankly, now!” she repeated, standing upon the rug and look- ing keenly down at him as he leaned back in a basket-chair. “Frankly, then, madam, I do not.”
“You think that he is dead?”
“I don’t say that. Perhaps.”
“And on what day did he meet his death?”
“Then perhaps, Mr. Holmes, you will be good enough to explain how it is that I have received a letter from him to-day.”
Sherlock Holmes sprang out of his chair as if he had been galvanized. “What!” he roared.
“Yes, to-day.” She stood smiling, holding up a little slip of paper in the air. “May I see it?”
He snatched it from her in his eagerness, and smoothing it out upon the table he drew over the lamp and examined it intently. I had left my chair and was gazing at it over his shoulder. The envelope was a very coarse one and was stamped with the Gravesend postmark and with the date of that very day, or rather of the day before, for it was considerably after midnight. “Coarse writing,” murmured Holmes. “Surely this is not your husband’s writing, madam.” “No, but the enclosure is.”
“I perceive also that whoever addressed the envelope had to go and inquire as to the address.”
“How can you tell that?”
“The name, you see, is in perfectly black ink, which has dried itself. The rest is of the grayish colour, which shows that blotting- paper has been used. If it had been written straight off, and then blotted, none would be of a deep black shade. This man has written the name, and there has then been a pause before he wrote the address, which can only mean that he was not familiar with it. It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles. Let us now see the letter. Ha! there has been an enclosure here!”
“Yes, there was a ring. His signet-ring.”
“And you are sure that this is your husband’s hand?”
“One of his hands.”
“His hand when he wrote hurriedly. It is very unlike his usual writing, and yet I know it well.”
“Dearest do not be frightened. All will come well. There
is a huge error which it may take some little time to rectify.
Wait in patience. NEVILLE.” Written in pencil upon the fly-leaf of a book, octavo size, no water-mark. Hum! Posted to-day in Gravesend by a man with a dirty thumb. Ha! And the flap has been gummed, if I am not very much in error, by a person who had been chewing tobacco. And you have no doubt that it is your husband’s hand, madam?”
“None. Neville wrote those words.”
“And they were posted to-day at Gravesend. Well, Mrs. St. Clair, the clouds lighten, though I should not venture to say that the danger is over.”
“But he must be alive, Mr. Holmes.”
“Unless this is a clever forgery to put us on the wrong scent. The ring, after all, proves nothing. It may have been taken from him.
“No, no; it is, it is his very own writing!”
“Very well. It may, however, have been written on Monday and only posted to-day.”
“That is possible.”
“If so, much may have happened between.”
“Oh, you must not discourage me, Mr. Holmes. I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the dining- room rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle and yet be ignorant of his death?”
“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analyti- cal reasoner. And in this letter you certainly have a very strong piece of evidence to corroborate your view. But if your husband is alive and able to write letters, why should he remain away from you?”
“I cannot imagine. It is unthinkable.”
“And on Monday he made no remarks before leaving you?”
“And you were surprised to see him in Swandam Lane?”
“Very much so.”
“Was the window open?”
“Then he might have called to you?”
“He only, as I understand, gave an inarticulate cry?”
“A call for help, you thought?”
“Yes. He waved his hands.”
“But it might have been a cry of surprise. Astonishment at the unexpected sight of you might cause him to throw up his hands?”
“It is possible.”
“And you thought he was pulled back?”
“He disappeared so suddenly.”
“He might have leaped back. You did not see anyone else in the room?”
“No, but this horrible man confessed to having been there, and the lascar was at the foot of the stairs.”
“Quite so. Your husband, as far as you could see, had his ordinary clothes on?”
“But without his collar or tie. I distinctly saw his bare throat.”
“Had he ever spoken of Swandam Lane?”
“Had he ever showed any signs of having taken opium?”
“Thank you, Mrs. St. Clair. Those are the principal points about which I wished to be absolutely clear. We shall now have a little supper and then retire, for we may have a very busy day to-morrow.”
A large and comfortable double-bedded room had been placed at our disposal, and I was quickly between the sheets, for I was weary after my night of adventure. Sherlock Holmes was a man, however, who, when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind, would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over, rearranging his facts, looking at it from every point of view until he had either fathomed it or convinced himself that his data were insufficient. It was soon evident to me that he was now preparing for an all-night sitting. He took off his coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from his bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross- legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him. In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features. So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment. The pipe was still between his lips, the smoke still curled upward, and the room was full of a dense tobacco haze, but nothing remained of the heap of shag which I had seen upon the previous night.
“Awake, Watson?” he asked.
“Game for a morning drive?”
“Then dress. No one is stirring yet, but I know where the stable-boy sleeps, and we shall soon have the trap out.” He chuckled to himself as he spoke, his eyes twinkled, and he seemed a different man to the sombre thinker of the previous night.
As I dressed I glanced at my watch. It was no wonder that no one was stirring. It was twenty-five minutes past four. I had hardly finished when Holmes returned with the news that the boy was putting in the horse.
“I want to test a little theory of mine,” said he, pulling on his boots. “I think, Watson, that you are now standing in the presence of one of the most absolute fools in Europe. I deserve to be kicked from here to Charing Cross. But I think I have the key of the affair now.”
“And where is it?” I asked, smiling.
“In the bathroom,” he answered. “Oh, yes, I am not jok- ing,” he continued, seeing my look of incredulity. “I have just been there, and I have taken it out, and I have got it in this Gladstone bag. Come on, my boy, and we shall see whether it will not fit the lock.”
We made our way downstairs as quietly as possible, and out into the bright morning sunshine. In the road stood our horse and trap, with the half-clad stable-boy waiting at the head. We both sprang in, and away we dashed down the London Road. A few country carts were stirring, bearing in vegetables to the metropo- lis, but the lines of villas on either side were as silent and lifeless as some city in a dream.
“It has been in some points a singular case,” said Holmes, flicking the horse on into a gallop. “I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.”
In town the earliest risers were just beginning to look sleepily from their windows as we drove through the streets of the Surrey side. Passing down the Waterloo Bridge Road we crossed over the river, and dashing up Wellington Street wheeled sharply to the right and found ourselves in Bow Street. Sherlock Holmes was well known to the force, and the two constables at the door saluted him. One of them held the horse’s head while the other led us in.
“Who is on duty?” asked Holmes.
“Inspector Bradstreet, sir.”
“Ah, Bradstreet, how are you?” A tall, stout official had come down the stone-flagged passage, in a peaked cap and frogged jacket. “I wish to have a quiet word with you, Bradstreet.” “Certainly, Mr. Holmes. Step into my room here.” It was a small, office-like room, with a huge ledger upon the table, and a telephone projecting from the wall. The inspector sat down at his desk.