"I am afraid, Watson, that the Nordic temperament offers little scope for the student of crime. It tends towards an altogether deplorable banality," remarked Holmes, as we turned from Oxford Street towards the less crowded pavements of Baker Street. It was a clear, crisp morning in May of 1901 and the uniforms of the lean, bronzed men who were flocking the streets on leave from the South African war struck a note of welcome gaiety against the sombre dresses of the women who were still in mourning for the death of the late Queen.
"I can remind you, Holmes, of a dozen instances among your own cases that disprove your assertion," I replied, noting with some satisfaction that our morning walk had brought a touch of colour to my friend's sallow cheeks.
"For instance?" he asked.
"Well, Dr. Grimesby Roylott of infamous memory. The use of a tame snake for the purpose of murder cannot be lightly dismissed as a banality."
"My dear fellow, your example proves my contention. From some fifty cases, we recall Dr. Roylott, 'Holy' Peters and one or two others merely for the reason that they employed an imaginative approach to crime which was startlingly at variance with the normal practice. Indeed, I am sometimes tempted to think that, just as Cuvier could reconstruct the complete animal from one bone, so the logical reasoner could tell from a nation's cooking the prevailing characteristics of the nation's criminals."
"I can observe no parallel," I laughed.
"Think it over, Watson. There, incidentally," he continued, gesturing with his stick towards a chocolate-coloured omnibus which, with a grinding of brakes and a merry jingle from the horses' harness, had drawn up on the opposite side, "you have a good example. It is one of the French omnibuses. Look at the driver, Watson, all fire and nerves and concentrated emotion as he argues with the petty officer on long leave from a naval shore station. It is the difference between the subtle and the positive, French sauce and English gravy. How could two such men approach crime from the same angle?"
"Be that as it may," I replied, "I fail to see how you can tell that the man in the check coat is a petty officer on long leave."
"Tut, Watson, when a man wearing a Crimea ribbon on his waistcoat, and therefore too old for active service, is shod in comparatively new naval boots, it is surely obvious that he has been recalled from retirement. His air of authority is above that of the ordinary sailor and yet his complexion is no more bronzed or wind-roughened than that of the bus-driver. The man is a naval petty officer attached to a shore station or training camp."
"And the long leave?"
"He is in civilian clothes and yet has not been discharged, for you will observe that he is filling his pipe from a plug of regulation naval twist which is unobtainable at tobacconists. But here we are at 221-B and in time, I trust, to catch the visitor who has called during our absence."
I surveyed the blank door of the house. "Really, Holmes!" I protested. "You go a little too far."
"Very seldom, Watson. The wheels of most public carriages are repainted at this time of the year and if you will bother to glance at the kerb you will perceive a long green mark where a wheel has scraped the edge and which was not there when we departed an hour ago. The cab was kept waiting for sometime, for the driver has twice knocked out the dottle from his pipe. We can but hope that the fare decided to await our return after dismissing the vehicle."
As we mounted the stairs, Mrs. Hudson appeared from the lower regions.
"There's been a visitor here nigh on an hour, Mr. Holmes," she stated. "She is waiting in your sitting-room, and that tired she looked, the poor pretty creature, that I took the liberty of bringing her a nice strong cup of tea."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. You did very well."
My friend glanced at me and smiled but there was a gleam in his deep-set eyes. "The game's afoot, Watson," he said quietly.
Upon our entering the sitting-room, our visitor rose to meet us. She was a fair-haired young lady, still in her early twenties, slim and dainty, with a delicate complexion and large blue eyes that contained a hint of violet in their depths. She was plainly but neatly dressed in a fawn-coloured travelling-costume with a hat of the same colour relieved by a small mauve feather. I noted these details almost unconsciously for, as a medical man, my attention was arrested at once by the dark shadows lurking beneath her eyes and the quiver of her lips that betrayed an intensity of nervous tension perilously near the breaking-point.
With an apology for his absence, Holmes ushered her to a chair before the fireplace, and then sinking into his own surveyed her searchingly from beneath his heavy lids.
"I perceive that you are deeply troubled," he said kindly. "Rest assured that Dr. Watson and I are here to serve you, Miss..."
"My name is Daphne Ferrers," supplied our visitor. Then, leaning forward suddenly in her chair, she stared up into Holmes's face with a singular intentness. "Would you say that the heralds of death are dark angels?" she whispered.
Holmes shot me a swift glance.
"You have no objection to my pipe, I trust, Miss Ferrers," said he, stretching out an arm towards the mantelpiece. "Now, young lady, we have all to meet a Dark Angel eventually, but that is hardly an adequate reason for consulting two middle-aged gentlemen in Baker Street. You would do far better to tell me your story from the beginning."
"How foolish you must think me," cried Miss Ferrers, the pallor of her cheeks giving place to a faint but becoming blush. "And yet, when you have heard my story, when you have heard the very facts that are driving me slowly mad with fear, you may only laugh at me."
"Rest assured that I shall not."
Our visitor paused for a moment as though marshalling her thoughts, and then plunged forthwith into her strange narrative.
"You must know, then, that I am the daughter and only child of Josua Ferrers of Abbotstanding in Hampshire," she began. "My father's cousin is Sir Robert Norburton of Shoscombe Old Place, with whom you were acquainted some years ago, and it was on his recommendation that I have rushed to you at the climax of my troubles."
Holmes, who had been leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, took his pipe from his mouth.
"Why, then, did you not come to me last night when you arrived in town instead of waiting until this morning?" he interposed.
Miss Ferrers started visibly.
"It was only when I dined with Sir Robert last night that he advised me to see you. But I do not understand, Mr. Holmes, how could you know ..."
"Tut, young lady, it is simple enough. The right cuff and elbow of your jacket bear slight but unmistakable traces of sooty dust inseparable from a window-seat in a railway carriage. Your shoes, on the other hand, are perfectly cleaned and burnished to that high degree of polish that is characteristic of a good hotel."
"Do you not think, Holmes," I interrupted, "that we should listen without further ado to Miss Ferrers' story. Speaking as a medical man, it is high time that her troubles were lifted from her shoulders."
Our fair visitor thanked me prettily with a glance from her blue eyes.
"As you should know by now, Watson, I have my methods," said Holmes with some asperity. "However, Miss Ferrers, we are all attention. Pray continue."
"I should explain," she went on "that the earlier part of my father's life was spent in Sicily where he had inherited large interests in vineyards and olive groves. Following my mother's death, he seemed to tire of the country and, having amassed a considerable fortune, my father sold his interests and retired to England. For more than a year, we moved from county to county in search of a house that should suit my father's somewhat peculiar requirements before deciding at length on Abbotstanding near Beaulieu in the New Forest."
"One moment, Miss Ferrers. Pray enumerate these peculiar requirements."
"My father is of a singularly retiring disposition, Mr. Holmes. Above all else, he insisted on a sparsely populated locality, and an estate that should lie at some miles' distance from the nearest railway station. In Abbotstanding, an almost ruinous castellated mansion of great antiquity and once the hunting-lodge of the Abbots of Beaulieu, he found what he sought and, certain necessary repairs having been effected, we settled finally into our home. That, Mr. Holmes, was five years ago, and from that day to this we have lived under the shadow of a nameless, shapeless dread."
"If nameless and shapeless, then how were you aware of its existence?"
"Through the circumstances governing our lives. My father would permit no social contact with our few neighbours and even our household needs were supplied not from the nearest village but by carrier's van from Lyndhurst. The staff consists of the butler McKinney, a surly, morose man whom my father hired in Glasgow, and his wife and her sister who share the domestic work between them."
"And the outside staff?"
"There are none. The grounds were permitted to become a wilderness and the place is already overrun with vermin of all descriptions."
"I see nothing alarming in these circumstances, Miss Ferrers," remarked Holmes. "Indeed, if I lived in the country, I should probably create around me very similar conditions to discourage unprofitable intercourse with my neighbours. The household consists, then, of yourself and your father and the three servants?"
"The household, yes. But there is a cottage on the estate occupied by Mr. James Tonston who for many years managed our Sicilian vineyards before accompanying my father on his return to England. He acts as bailiff."
Holmes raised his eyebrows. "Indeed," said he. "An estate that is allowed to grow into a wilderness, no tenants and a bailiff. Surely a somewhat curious anomaly?"
"It is a nominal appointment only, Mr. Holmes. Mr. Tonston enjoys my father's confidence and occupies his position at Abbotstanding in recognition of the earlier years spent in his service in Sicily."
"Ah, quite so."
"My father himself seldom leaves the house and on the few occasions when he does he never goes beyond the confines of his own park walls. Where there is love and understanding and mutual interest, such a life might be tolerable. But, alas, such is not the case at Abbotstanding. My father's character, though God-fearing, is not of a type to encourage affection and, as time went on, his disposition, always severe and retiring, deepened into periods of gloomy, savage brooding when he would lock himself into his study for days on end. As you can imagine, Mr. Holmes, there was little of interest and less of happiness for a young woman isolated from friends of her own age, deprived of all social contacts and foredoomed to spend the best years of her life in the desolate magnificence of a half-ruinous mediaeval hunting-lodge. Our existence was one of absolute monotony and then, some five months ago, occurred an incident which, insignificant enough in itself, formed the first of that singular chain of events which have brought me to lay my problems before you.
"I was returning from an early-morning walk in the park and on entering the avenue leading from the lodge-gates to the house, I observed that there was something nailed to the bole of an oak tree. On closer examination I discovered the object to be an ordinary coloured print of the type used for illustrating Christmas carols or cheap books on religious art. But the theme of the picture was unusual, even arresting.
"It consisted of a night sky broken by a barren hilltop on the brow of which, in two separate groups of six and three, stood nine winged angels. As I stared at the picture, I was puzzled to explain the note of incongruity that jarred through my senses until, in an instant, I perceived the reason. It was the first time that I had beheld angels portrayed not in radiance but in robes of funeral darkness. Across the lower part of the print were scrawled the words 'six and three.' "
As our visitor paused, I glanced across at Sherlock Holmes. His brows were drawn down and his eyes closed, but I could tell from the quick spirals of smoke rising from his pipe that his interest had been deeply stirred.
"My first reaction," she went on, "was that it was a curious way for the carrier-man from Lyndhurst to deliver some new-fangled calendar and so, plucking it down, I took it in with me, and was on my way upstairs to my room when I met my father on the landing.
" 'This was on a tree in the avenue,' I said. 'I think McKinney should tell the Lyndhurst carrier to deliver at the tradesmen's entrance instead of pinning things in odd places. I prefer angels in white, don't you, Papa?"
"The words were hardly out of my mouth before he had snatched the print from me. For a moment, he stood speechless, glaring down at the piece of paper in his shaking hands while the colour ebbed from his face, leaving it drawn and livid.
" 'What is it, Papa?' I cried, clutching him by the arm. " 'The Dark Angels,' he whispered. Then, with a gesture of horror, he shook off my hand and rushing into his study, locked and bolted the door behind him.
"From that day on, my father never left the house. His time was spent in reading and writing in his study or in long conferences with James Tonston whose gloomy and severe character is somewhat akin to his own. I saw him seldom save at meal-times and it would have been unbearable for me were it not for the fact that I had the friendship of one noble-hearted woman, Mrs. Nordham, the wife of the Beaulieu doctor, who perceiving the desolation of my life persisted in calling to see me two or three times a week despite my father's open hostility to what he considered an unwarranted intrusion.
"It was some weeks later, on February 11th, to be precise, that our manservant came to me just after breakfast with a most curious expression on his face.
" 'It's not the Lyndhurst carrier this time,' he announced sourly, 'and I don't like it, miss.'
" 'What is the matter, McKinney?'
" 'Ask the front door,' said he, and went away mumbling and stroking his beard.
"I hastened to the entrance and there, nailed to the front door, was a similar print to that which I had found on the oak tree in the avenue. And yet it was not exactly similar, for this time the angels were only six in number and the figure '6' was marked on the bottom of the page. I tore it down and was gazing at it with an inexplicable chill in my heart when a hand reached out and took it from my fingers. Turning round I found Mr. Tonston standing behind me. 'It is not for you, Miss Ferrers,' he said gravely, 'and for that you can thank your Maker.'
" 'But what does it mean?' I cried wildly. 'If there is danger to my father, then why does he not summon the police?'
" 'Because we do not need the police,' he replied. 'Believe me, your father and I are quite capable of dealing with the situation, my dear young lady.' And, turning on his heel, he vanished into the house. He must have taken the picture to my father, for he kept to his room for a week afterwards."
"One moment," interrupted Holmes. "Can you recall the exact date when you found the picture on the oak tree?"
"It was December 29th."
"And the second appeared on the front door on February 11th, you say. Thank you, Miss Ferrers. Pray proceed with your interesting narrative."
"One evening, it would be about a fortnight later," continued our client, "my father and I were sitting together at the dinner-table. It was a wild, tempestuous night with driving squalls of rain and a wind that sobbed and howled like a lost soul down the great yawning chimney-pieces of the ancient mansion. The meal was over and my father was moodily drinking his port by the light of the heavy candle-branches that illumined the dining-table when, raising his eyes to mine, he was seized with some reflection of the utter horror that was at that very instant freezing the blood in my veins. Immediately in front of me, and behind him, there was a window, the curtains of which were not fully drawn, leaving a space of rain-splashed glass that threw back a dim glow from the candlelight.
"Peering through this glass was a man's face.
"The lower part of his features was covered with his hand, but beneath the rim of a shapeless hat a pair of eyes, grinning and baleful, glared into my own.
"My father must have realized instinctively that the danger lay behind him for, seizing a heavy candelabrum from the table, in one movement he turned and flung it at the window.
"There was an appalling crash of glass, and I caught a glimpse of the curtains streaming like great crimson bat-wings in the wind that howled through the shattered casement. The flame of the remaining candles blew flat and dim, and then I must have fainted. When I came to myself, I was lying on my bed. The next day, my father made no reference to the incident and the window was repaired by a man from the village. And now, Mr. Holmes, my story draws to its close.
"On March 25th, exactly six weeks and three days ago, when my father and I took our places for breakfast, there upon the table lay the print of the demon angels, six and three. But this time there was no number scrawled across the lower portion."
"And your father?" asked Holmes very seriously.
"My father has resigned himself with the calm of a man who waits upon an inescapable destiny. For the first time for many years, he looked at me gently. 'It has come,' said he, 'and it is well.'
"I threw myself on my knees beside him, imploring him to call in the police, to put an end to this mystery that threw its chill shadow over our desolate lives. 'The shadow is nearly lifted, my child,' he replied.
"Then, after a moment's hesitation, he laid his hand upon my head.
" 'If anybody, any stranger, should communicate with you,' said he, 'say only that your father kept you always in ignorance of his affairs and that he bade you state that the name of the maker is in the butt of the gun. Remember those words and forget all else, if you value that happier, better life that will shortly commence for you,' With that he rose and left the room.
"Since that time, I have seen little of him and, at last, taking my courage in both hands, I wrote to Sir Robert that I was in deep trouble and wished to meet him. Then, inventing an excuse, I slipped away yesterday and came up to London where Sir Robert, having heard a little of the story from my lips, advised me to lay my problem frankly before you."
I have never seen my friend more grave. His brows were drawn down over his eyes and he shook his head despondently.
"It is kindest in the long run that I should be frank with you," he said at last. "You must plan a new life for yourself, preferably in London where you will quickly make new friends of your own age."
"But my father?"
Holmes rose to his feet.
"Dr. Watson and I will accompany you at once to Hampshire. If I cannot prevent, at least I may be able to avenge."
"Holmes!" I cried, horror-struck.
"It's no good, Watson," he said, laying his fingers gently on Miss Ferrers' shoulder. "It would be the basest treachery to this brave young lady to arouse hopes that I cannot share. It is better that we face the facts."
"The facts!" I replied. "Why, a man may have a foot in the grave and yet live."
Holmes looked at me curiously for a moment.
"True, Watson," he said thoughtfully. "But we must waste no further time. Unless my memory belies me, there is a train to Hampshire within the hour. A few necessities in a bag should meet the case."
I was hastily gathering my things together when Holmes came into my bedroom.
"It might be advisable to take your revolver," he said softly.
"Then there is danger?"
"Deadly danger, Watson." He smote his forehead with his hand. "My God, what irony. She has come just a day too late."
As we accompanied Miss Ferrers from the sitting-room, Holmes paused at the bookshelf to slip a slim calf-bound volume into the pocket of his Inverness cape and then, scribbling a telegram, he handed the form to Mrs. Hudson in the hallway. "Kindly see that it is dispatched immediately," said he.
A four-wheeler carried us to Waterloo, where we were just in time to catch a Bournemouth train stopping at Lyndhurst Road Station.
It was a melancholy journey. Sherlock Holmes leaned back in his corner seat, his ear-flapped travelling-cap drawn over his eyes and his long, thin fingers tapping restlessly on the window-ledge. I tried to engage our companion in conversation and to convey a little of the sympathy that I felt for her in this time of anxiety, but though her replies were gracious and kindly it was obvious that her mind was preoccupied with her own thoughts. I think that we were all glad when, some two hours later, we alighted at the little Hampshire station. As we reached the gates, a pleasant-faced woman hurried forward.
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes?" said she. "Thank heavens that the Beaulieu Post Office delivered your telegram in time. Daphne, my dear!"
"Mrs. Nordham! But—but I don't understand."
"Now, Miss Ferrers," said Holmes soothingly. "It would help us greatly if you will entrust yourself to your friend. Mrs. Nordham, I know that you will take good care of her. Come, Watson."
We hailed a fly in the station yard and, in a few moments, we were free from the hamlet and bowling along a desolate road that stretched away straight as a ribbon, rising and dipping and rising again over lonely expanses of heath broken here and there by clumps of holly and bounded in every direction by the dark out-spurs of a great forest. After some miles, on mounting a long hill, we saw below us a sheet of water and the grey, hoary ruins of Beaulieu Abbey, then the road plunged into the forest and some ten minutes later we wheeled beneath an arch of crumbling masonry into an avenue lined by noble oak trees whose interlocked branches met overhead in a gloomy twilight. Holmes pointed forward. "It is as I feared," he said bitterly. "We are too late."
Riding in the same direction as ourselves but far ahead of us down the avenue, I caught a glimpse of a police-constable on a bicycle.
The drive opened out into a wooded park with a gaunt, battlemented mansion set amid the broken terraces and parterres of that saddest of all spectacles, an old-world garden run to wilderness and bathed in the red glow of the setting sun. At some little distance from the house, a group of men were gathered beside a stunted cedar tree and at a word from Holmes, our driver pulled up and we hurried towards them across the turf.
The group was composed of the policeman, a gentleman with a small bag which I easily recognized and lastly a man in brown country tweeds with a pale, sunken face framed in mutton-chop whiskers. As we drew near, they turned towards us, and I could not repress an exclamation of horror at the spectacle that their movement disclosed to our eyes.
At the foot of the cedar tree lay the body of an elderly man. His arms were outstretched, the fingers gripping the grass and his beard thrust up at so grotesque an angle that his features were hidden from view. The bone gleamed in bis gaping throat while the ground about bis head was stained into one great crimson halo. The doctor stepped forward hurriedly.
"This is a shocking affair, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he cried nervously. "My wife hastened to the station as soon as she received your wire. I trust that she was in time to meet Miss Ferrers?"
"Thank you, yes. Alas, that I could not myself have got here in time."
"It seems that you expected the tragedy, sir," observed the policeman suspiciously.
"I did, constable. Hence my presence."
"Well, I'd like to know . . ." Holmes tapped him on the arm and, leading him to one side, spoke a few words. When they rejoined us, there was a trace of relief in the man's worried face. "It shall be as you wish, sir," he said, "and you can rely on Mr. Tonston repeating his statement to you."
The man in tweeds turned his sunken face and pale grey eyes in our direction. "I don't see why I should," he said tartly. "You're the law, aren't you, Constable Kibble, and you've taken my statement already. I have nothing to add. You would be better employed in sending in your report of Mr. Ferrers' suicide."
"Suicide?" interposed Holmes sharply.
"Aye, what else? He's been glooming for weeks past, as all the household can testify, and now he's cut his throat from ear to ear."
"H'm." Holmes dropped on his knees beside the body. "And this is the weapon, of course. A horn-handled clasp-knife with a retractable blade. Italian, I perceive."
"How do you know that?"
"It has the mark of a Milanese bladesmith. But what is this? Dear me, What a curious object."
He rose to his feet and closely examined the thing which he had picked up from the grass. It was a short-barrelled rifle, cut off immediately behind the trigger by a hinged stock, so that the whole weapon folded into two parts. "It was lying by his head," observed the constable. "Seems that he was expecting trouble and took it with him for protection."
Holmes shook his head. "It has not been loaded," he said, "for you will observe that the grease is undisturbed in the breech. But what have we here? Perhaps, Watson, you would lend me your pencil and handkerchief."
"It's only the hole in the stock for the cleaning rod," rapped Mr. Tonston.
"I am aware of that. Tut, this is most curious."
"What then? You stuck the handkerchief wrapped round the pencil into the hole and now you've withdrawn it. There's nothing on the handkerchief, and yet you find it curious. What the devil did you expect?"
"Precisely. Something has been hidden in the hole and hence the fact that the walls are clean. Normally there is always dust in the stock-holes of guns. But I should be glad to hear a few facts from you, Mr. Tonston, as I understand that you were the first to raise the alarm. It will save time if I hear them from your own lips instead of reading through your statement."
"Well, there's little enough to tell," said he. "An hour ago, I strolled out for a breath of air and caught sight of Mr. Ferrers standing under this tree. When I hailed him, he looked round and then, turning away, seemed to put his hand up to his throat. I saw him stagger and fall. When I ran up, he was lying as you see him now, with his throat gaping and the knife on the grass beside him. There was nothing I could do save send the manservant for Dr. Nordham and the constable. That's all."
"Most illuminating. You were with Mr. Ferrers in Sicily, were you not?"
"Well, gentlemen, I shall detain you no longer if you wish to return to the house. Watson, perhaps you would care to remain with me. And you too, Constable."
As the doctor and Tonston vanished through the parterres, Holmes was galvanized into activity. For a while, he circled the grass about the dead man on his hands and knees, like some lean, eager foxhound casting for its scent. Once he stooped and peered at the ground very closely, then rising to his feet, he whipped his lens from his pocket and proceeded to a searching examination of the trunk of the cedar. Suddenly he stiffened and at his gesture the constable and I hastened to his side. Holmes pointed with his finger as he handed the glass to the police-officer. "Examine the edge of that knot," he said quietly. "What do you see?"
"Looks to me like a hair, sir," replied Constable Kibble, gazing through the lens. "No, it's not a hair. It's a brown thread."
"Quite so. Perhaps you would kindly remove it and place it in this envelope. Now Watson, give me a hand up." Holmes scrambled into the fork of the tree and, supporting himself by the branches, peered about him, "Ha, what have we here!" he chuckled. "A fresh scrape on the trunk, traces of mud in the fork and another small thread from some coarse brownish material clinging to the bark where a man might lean his back. Quite a treasure-trove. I am about to jump down and I want you both to watch the exact place where I land. So!" He stepped to one side. "Now, what do you see?"
"Two small indentations."
"Precisely. The marks of my heels. Look wider."
"By Jingo!" cried the constable. "There are four, not two! They are identical."
"Save that the others are not quite so deep."
"The man was lighter!" I ejaculated.
"Bravo, Watson. Well, I think that we have seen all that we need."
The officer fixed Holmes with his earnest eyes. "Look here, sir," he said. "I'm clean out of my depth. What's all this mean?"
"Probably your sergeant's stripes, Constable Kibble. And now, let us join the others."
When we reached the house, the police-officer showed us into a long, sparsely furnished room with a groined roof. Doctor Nordham, who was writing at a table in the window, looked up at our entrance. "Well, Mr. Holmes?"
"You are preparing your report, I perceive," my friend remarked. "May I suggest that you pay particular regard that you do not convey a false impression?"
Dr. Nordham gazed stonily at Holmes. "I fail to understand you," said he. "Can you not be more explicit?"
"Very well. What are your views on the death of Mr. Josua Ferrers of Abbotstanding?"
"Tut, sir, there is no question of views. We have both visual and medical evidence that Josua Ferrers committed suicide by cutting his own throat."
"A remarkable man, this Mr. Ferres," Holmes observed, "who, not content with committing suicide by cutting his jugular vein, must continue to sever the rest of his neck with an ordinary clasp-knife until, in the words of Mr. Tonston here, he had cut his throat literally from ear to ear. I have always felt that, were I to commit murder, I should avoid errors of that kind."
My friend's words were followed by a moment of tense silence. Then Dr. Nordham rose abruptly to his feet, while Tonston, who had been leaning against the wall with his arms folded, lifted his eyes to Holmes's face.
"Murder is an ugly word, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he said quietly.
"And an ugly deed. Though not, perhaps, to the Mala Vita."
"What nonsense is this!"
"Tut, I was relying upon your knowledge of Sicily to fill in any small details that I may have overlooked. However, as you dismiss as nonsense the name of this terrible secret society, it will doubtless interest you to learn a few of the facts."
"Have a care, Mr. Holmes."
"To you, Dr. Nordham, and to Constable Kibble, there will appear to be gaps in my brief account." My friend continued. "But as these can be filled in later, I will address myself to you, Watson, as you were present during Miss Ferrers narrative.
"It was obvious from the first that her father was hiding from some peril of so relentless a nature that even in the depth of this deserted country-side he went in fear of his life. As the man had come from Sicily, an island notorious for the power and vindictiveness of its secret societies, the most likely explanation was that either he had offended some such organization or as a member he had transgressed some vital rule. As he made no attempt to invoke the police, I inclined to the latter supposition and this became a certainty with the first appearance of the Dark Angels. You will recall that they were nine in number, Watson, and that the print, inscribed with the words 'six and three,' was nailed to a tree in the avenue on December 29th.
"The next visitation took place on February 11th, exactly six weeks and three days from December 29th, but this time the angels, six in number, were nailed to the front door.
"On March 24th came the third and last appearance, exactly six weeks after the second. The dreaded herald of death, again nine in number, but now without inscription, lay on the very platter of the master of Abbotstanding.
"As I listened to Miss Ferrers' voice and calculated the dates rapidly in mind, I was dismayed by the discovery that the final nine of the Dark Angels, assuming them to represent the same period of time as the first, brought the date to May 7th. Today!
"I knew then that I was too late. But, if I could not save her father, I might avenge him and, with that object, I attacked the problem from a different angle.
"The face at the window was typical, of course, of perhaps the most barbarous trait in the vengeance of secret societies, the desire to strike horror not only into the victim himself but into his family. But the man had been careful to cover his features with his hands, despite the fact that he was looking not at Josua Ferrers but at his daughter, thereby suggesting to my mind that he feared recognition by Miss Ferrers as much as by her father.
"Next, it seemed to me that the cold, deadly approach of the fatal prints from tree to door, from door to breakfast-table, inferred an intimate knowledge of Josua Ferrers' circumscribed habits, possibly an unchallenged right to enter the house and thereby place the card on the table without the necessity for forced windows and smashed locks.
"From the first, certain features in Miss Ferrers' singular narrative stirred some vague chord in my memory, but it was not until your remark, Watson, about a foot in the open grave that a flood of light burst suddenly into my consciousness."
As Sherlock Holmes paused for a moment to draw something from his cape pocket, I glanced at the others. Though the old room was rapidly deepening into dusk, a sullen red light from the last rays of the sun glimmering through the window illumined the absorbed expressions of Dr. Nordham and the constable. Tonston stood in the shadows, his arms still folded across his chest and his pale, glittering eyes fixed immovably upon Holmes.
"It was to certain passages in this book, a fore-runner of Heckenthorn's Secret Societies, that my memory was recalled by. Dr. Watson's words." My friend continued. "Here is what the author has to say on a certain secret society which was first introduced into Sicily some three centuries ago. 'This formidable organization,' he writes, aptly named the Mala Vita, communicates with its members through a variety of signs including Angels, Demons and the Winged Lion. The candidate for membership, if successful in his trials of initiation which frequently include that of murder, takes oath of fealty with one foot in an open grave. Punishment for infraction of the society's rules is relentless and, where death is the price, three separate warnings are given of the approaching doom, the second following six weeks and three days after the first, and the third six weeks after the second. Following the final warning, a further period of six weeks and three days are allowed to pass before the blow falls. Any member failing to carry out the punitive orders of the society becomes himself liable to the same punishment.' There follows a list of rules of the Mala Vita, together with the penalties for breaking them.
"That Josua Ferrers was a member of this dread society there can now be little doubt," Holmes added solemnly, as he closed the book. "What was his offense, we shall probably never know, and yet one may hazard a pretty shrewd guess. Article 16 is surely among the Mala Vita's most singular rules, for it states simply that the penalty for any member who discovers the identity of the Grand Master is death. I would remind you, Watson, that Ferrers laid emphatic instructions on his daughter that her answer to all enquiries must be that she knew nothing of his affairs, adding only that the name of the maker was in the butt of the gun. Not a gun, mark you, but the gun, which clearly indicated that the person receiving the message might be expected to recognize some specific weapon to which the words must refer. It is sufficient to add that the gun found beside the body of Josua Ferrers is unique to the members of the Sicilian secret societies.
"When he went to the assignation Ferrers carried the gun with him, not as a weapon but as a peace-offering valuable only for what it contained rolled up in the butt. Bearing in mind what we now know, I am in no doubt that it was a paper or document that named the Grand Master of the Mala Vita and which by some unhappy chance had fallen into his hands during his Sicilian membership. To destroy it was useless. He had seen the name and he was doomed. But, though his own life was already forfeited, he was playing for the life of his daughter. Ferrers can have had no idea of the actual identity of the assassin who had been selected for the work beyond the fact that the unknown must of necessity be a fellow-member.
"Concealed in the fork of the tree above the prearranged meeting place, the murderer lay in wait as a leopard waits for a sheep and, when his victim halted beneath him, he drew his knife and, leaping to the ground, seized him from behind and cut his throat. When he had searched Ferrers' body for the paper and eventually found it in the butt of the gun, his loathsome task was completed. He forgot, however, that in doing it he had left his heel-marks on the turf and two threads from his brown tweed coat on the rough bark of the tree."
As Sherlock Holmes ceased speaking, the silence of death fell on that darkening room. Then, stretching out one long, thin arm, he pointed silently at the shadowy figure of James Tonston.
"There stands the murderer of Josua Ferrers," he said in a quiet voice.
Tonston stepped forward, a smile upon his pale face.
"You are wrong," he said steadily. "The executioner of Josua Ferrers."
For a moment, he stood before us meeting our horrified stares with the serenity of one whose duty has been meritoriously fulfilled. Then, with a rattle of handcuffs, the constable leapt upon his man.
Tonston made no attempt to struggle, and with his hands manacled before him, he was accompanying his captor to the door when my friend's voice brought them to a halt.
"What have you done with it?" he demanded.
The prisoner looked at him silently.
"I ask," continued Holmes, "because if you have not destroyed it then it is best that I destroy it myself, and that unread."
"Rest assured that the paper is already destroyed," said James Tonston, "and that the Mala Vita preserves the secrets of the Mala Vita. In parting, take this word of warning to heart. It is that you know too much. Though your life may be an honoured one, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, it is most unlikely to be a long one." Then, with a cold smile in his grey eyes, he passed from the room.
It was an hour later and a full moon was rising when my friend and I, after parting from Dr. Nordham, turned our backs upon Abbotstanding, now gaunt and black against the night sky, and set out on foot towards Beaulieu village, where we planned to stay at the inn and take the morning train back to town.
I shall long remember that wonderful five miles' walk along a road all dappled with white fire and deepest shadow where the great trees met above our heads and the forest deer peered at us from the clumps of glistening bracken. Holmes walked with his chin upon his breast and it was not until we were descending the hill above the village that he broke his silence. It was little enough that he said then but for some reason his words have remained in my mind.
"You know me sufficiently well, Watson, to acquit me of all false sentiment," said he, "when I confess that there is an urge upon me tonight to walk for a while in the ruined cloisters of Beaulieu Abbey. It was the abode of men who lived and died at peace with themselves and with each other. We have seen much evil in our time, not least of which is the misuse of noble qualities such as loyalty, courage and determination for purposes that are in themselves ignoble. But the older I grow the more forcibly is it borne in upon me that just as these hills, and moonlit woods have outlived the ruins that now lie before us, so too must our virtues which are sprung from God survive our vices which, like the Dark Angels, spring from man. Surely. Watson, this is the ultimate promise."
I am retained in this case of the Ferrers.
FROM "THE PRIORY SCHOOL"
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