I have remarked elsewhere that my friend Sherlock Holmes, like all great artists, lived for his art's sake and, save in the case of the Duke of Holderness, I have seldom known him claim any substantial reward. However powerful or wealthy the client, he would refuse to undertake any problem that lacked appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote his most intense energies to the affairs of some humble person whose case contained those singular and remarkable qualities which struck a responsive chord in his imagination.
On glancing through my notes for that memorable year '95, I find recorded the details of a case which may be taken as a typical instance of this disinterested and even altruistic attitude of mind which placed the rendering of a kindly service above that of material reward. I refer, of course, to the dreadful affair of the canaries and the soot-marks on the ceiling.
It was early in June that my friend completed his investigations into the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca, an enquiry which he had undertaken at the special request of the Pope. The case had demanded the most exacting work on Holmes's part and, as I had feared at the time, the aftermath had left him in a highly nervous and restless state that caused me some concern both as his friend and his medical adviser.
One rainy night towards the end of the same month, I persuaded him to dine with me at Frascatti's and thereafter we had gone on to the Cafe Royal for our coffee and liquors. As I had hoped, the bustle of the great room, with its red plush seats and stately palms bathed in the glow of numerous crystal chandeliers, drew him out of his introspective mood and as he leaned back on our sofa, his fingers playing with the stem of his glass, I noted with satisfaction a gleam of interest in those keen grey eyes as he studied the somewhat Bohemian clientele that thronged the tables and alcoves.
I was in the act of replying to some remark when Holmes nodded suddenly in the direction of the door.
"Lestrade," said he. "What can he be doing here?"
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the lean, rat-faced figure of the Scotland Yard man standing in the entrance, his dark eyes roving slowly around the room.
"He may be seeking you," I remarked. "Probably on some urgent case."
"Hardly, Watson. His wet boots show that he has walked. If there was urgency, he would have taken a cab. But here he comes."
The police agent had caught sight of us and, at Holmes's gesture, he pushed his way through the throng and drew up a chair to the table.
"Only a routine check," said he, in reply to my friend's query. "But duty's duty, Mr. Holmes, and I can tell you that I've netted some strange fish before now in these respectable places. While you are comfortably dreaming up your theories in Baker Street, we poor devils at Scotland Yard are doing the practical work. No thanks to us from Popes and Kings but a bad hour on the Superintendent's carpet if we fail."
"Tut," smiled Holmes good-humouredly. "Your superiors must surely hold you in some esteem since I solved the Ronald Adair murder, the Bruce-Partington theft, the—"
"Quite so, quite so," interrupted Lestrade hurriedly. "And now," he added, with a heavy wink at me, "I have something for you."
"Of course, a young woman who starts at shadows may be more in Dr. Watson's line."
"Really, Lestrade," I protested warmly, "I cannot approve your—"
"One moment, Watson. Let us hear the facts."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, they are absurd enough," continued Lestrade, "and I would not waste your time were it not that I have known you to do a kindness or two before now and your word of advice may in this instance prevent a young woman from acting foolishly. Now, here's the position.
"Down Deptford way, along the edge of the river, there are some of the worst slums in the East End of London but, right in the middle of them, you can still find some fine old houses which were once the homes of wealthy merchants centuries ago. One of these tumbledown mansions has been occupied by a family named Wilson for the past hundred years and more. I understand that they were originally in the China trade and when that went to the dogs a generation back, they got out in time and remained on in the old home. The recent household consisted of Horatio Wilson and his wife, with one son and a daughter, and Horatio's younger brother Theobold who had gone to live with them on his return from foreign parts.
"Some three years ago, the body of Horatio Wilson was hooked out of the river. He had been drowned and, as he was known to have been a hard-drinking man, it was generally accepted that he had missed his step in the fog and fallen into the water. A year later, his wife, who suffered from a weak heart, died from a heart attack. We know this to be the case, because the doctor made a very careful examination following the statements of a police-constable and a night-watchman employed on a Thames barge."
"Statements to what effect?" interposed Holmes.
"Well, there was talk of some noise rising apparently from the old Wilson house. But the nights are often foggy along Thames-side and the men were probably misled. The constable described the sound as a dreadful yell that froze the blood in his veins. If I had him in my division, I'd teach him that such words should never pass the lips of an officer of the law."
"What time was this?"
"Ten o'clock at night, the hour of the old lady's death. It's merely a coincidence, for there is no doubt that she died of heart."
Lestrade consulted his note-book for a moment. "I've been digging up the facts," he continued. "On the night of May 17th last, the daughter went to a magic-lantern entertainment accompanied by a woman servant. On her return, she found her brother, Phineas Wilson, dead in his arm-chair. He had inherited a bad heart and insomnia from his mother. This time there were no rumours of shrieks and yells, but owing to the expression on the dead man's face, the local doctor called in the police-surgeon to assist in the examination. It was heart, all right, and our man confirmed that this can sometimes cause a distortion of the features that will convey an impression of stark terror."
"That is perfectly true," I remarked.
"Now, it seems that the daughter Janet has become so overwrought that, according to her uncle, she proposes to sell up the property and go abroad," went on Lestrade.
"Her feelings are, I suppose, natural. Death has been busy with the Wilson family."
"And what of this uncle? Theobold, I think you said his name was."
"Well, I fancy that you will find him on your doorstep tomorrow morning. He came to me at the Yard in the hope that the official police could put his niece's fears at rest and persuade her to take a more reasonable view. As we are engaged on more important affairs than calming hysterical young women, I advised him to call on you."
"Indeed! Well, it is natural enough that he should resent the unnecessary loss of what is probably a snug corner."
"There is no resentment, Mr. Holmes. Wilson seems to be genuinely attached to his niece and concerned only for her future." Lestrade paused, while a grin spread over his foxy face. "He is not a very worldly person, is Mr. Theobold, and though I've met some queer trades in my time his beats the band. The man trains canaries."
"It is an established profession."
"Is it?" There was an irritating smugness in Lestrade's manner as he rose to his feet and reached for his hat. "It is quite evident that you do not suffer from insomnia, Mr. Holmes," said he, "or you would know that birds trained by Theobold Wilson are different from other canaries. Good night, gentlemen."
"What on earth does the fellow mean?" I asked, as the police-agent threaded his way towards the door.
"Merely that he knows something that we do not," replied Holmes drily. "But, as conjecture is as profitless as it is misleading to the analytical mind, let us wait until tomorrow. I can say, however, that I do not propose to waste my time over a matter that appears to fall more properly within the province of the local vicar."
To my friend's relief, the morning brought no visitor. But when, on my return from an urgent case to which I had been summoned shortly after lunch, I entered our sitting-room, I found that our spare chair was occupied by a bespectacled middle-aged man. As he rose to his feet, I observed that he was of an exceeding thinness and that his face, which was scholarly and even austere in expression, was seamed with countless wrinkles and of that dull parchment-yellow that comes from years under a tropic sun.
"Ah, Watson, you have arrived in time," said Holmes. "This is Mr. Theobold Wilson about whom Lestrade spoke to us last night."
Our visitor wrung my hand warmly. "Your name is, of course, well known to me, Dr. Watson," he cried. "Indeed, if Mr. Sherlock Holmes will pardon me for saying so, it is largely thanks to you that we are aware of his genius. As a medical man doubtless well versed in the handling of nervous cases, your presence should have a most beneficial effect upon my unhappy niece."
Holmes caught my eye resignedly. "I have promised Mr. Wilson to accompany him to Deptford,. Watson," said he, "for it would seem that the young lady is determined to leave her home tomorrow. But I must repeat again, Mr. Wilson, that I fail to see in what way my presence can affect the matter."
"You are over-modest, Mr. Holmes. When I appealed to the official police, I had hoped that they might convince Janet that, terrible though our family losses have been in the past three years, nevertheless they lay in natural causes and that there is no reason why she should flee from her home. I had the impression," he added, with a chuckle, "that the inspector was somewhat chagrined at my ready acceptance of his own suggestion that I should invoke your assistance."
"I shall certainly remember my small debt to Lestrade," replied Holmes drily as he rose to his feet. "Perhaps, Watson, you would ask Mrs. Hudson to whistle a four-wheeler and Mr. Wilson can clarify certain points to my mind as we drive to Deptford."
It was one of those grey, brooding summer days when London is at its worst and, as we rattled over Blackfriars Bridge, I noted that wreaths of mist were rising from the river like the poisonous vapours of some hot jungle swamp. The more spacious streets of the West End had given place to the great commercial thoroughfares, resounding with the stamp and clatter of the dray-horses, and these in turn merged at last into a maze of dingy streets that, following the curve of the river, grew more and more wretched in their squalor the nearer we approached to that labyrinth of tidal basins and dark, evil-smelling lanes that were once the ancient cradle of England's sea trade and of an empire's wealth. I could see that Holmes was listless and bored to a point of irritation and I did my best, therefore, to engage our companion in conversation.
"I understand that you are an expert on canaries," I remarked.
Theobold Wilson's eyes, behind their powerful spectacles, lit with the glow of the enthusiast. "A mere student, sir, but with thirty years of practical research," he cried. "Can it be that you too—? No? A pity! The study, breeding and training of the Fringilla Canaria is a task worthy of a man's lifetime. You would not credit the ignorance, Dr. Watson, that prevails on this subject even in the most enlightened circles. When I read my paper on the 'Crossing of the Madeira and Canary Island Strains' to the British Ornithological Society I was appalled at the puerility of the ensuing questions."
"Inspector Lestrade hinted at some special characteristic in your training of these little songsters."
"Songsters, sir! A thrush is a songster. The Fringilla is the supreme ear of Nature, possessing an unique power of imitation which can be trained for the benefit and edification of the human race. But the inspector was correct," he went on more calmly, "in that I have put my birds to a special effect. They are trained to sing by night in artificial light."
"Surely a somewhat singular pursuit."
"I like to think that it is a kindly one. My birds are trained for the benefit of those who suffer from insomnia and I have clients in all parts of the country. Their tuneful song helps to while away the long night hours and the dousing of the lamplight terminates the concert."
"It seems to me that Lestrade was right," I observed. "Yours is indeed an unique profession."
During our conversation, Holmes, who had idly picked up our companion's heavy stick, had been examining it with some attention.
"I understand that you returned to England some three years ago," he observed.
"From Cuba, I perceive."
Theobold Wilson started and for an instant I seemed to catch a gleam of something like wariness in the swift glance that he shot at Holmes.
"That is so," he said. "But how did you know?"
"Your stick is cut from Cuban ebony. There is no mistaking that greenish tint and the exceptionally high polish."
"It might have been bought in London since my return from, say, Africa."
"No, it has been yours for some years." Holmes lifted the stick to the carriage-window and tilted it so that the daylight shone upon the handle. "You will perceive," he went on, "that there is a slight but regular scraping that has worn through the polish along the left side of the handle just where the ring finger of a left-handed man would close upon the grip. Ebony is among the toughest of woods and it would require considerable time to cause such wear and a ring of some harder metal than gold. You are left-handed, Mr. Wilson, and wear a silver ring on your middle finger."
"Dear me, how simple. I thought for the moment that you had done something clever. As it happens, I was in the sugar trade in Cuba and brought my old stick back with me. But here we are at the house and, if you can put my silly niece's fears at rest as quickly as you can deduce my past, I shall be your debtor, Mr. Sherlock Holmes."
On descending from our four-wheeler, we found ourselves in a lane of mean, slatternly houses sloping, so far as I could judge from the yellow mist that was already creeping up the lower end, to the river's edge. At one side was a high wall of crumbling brickwork pierced by an iron gate through which we caught a glimpse of a substantial mansion lying in its own garden.
"The old house has known better days," said our companion, as we followed him through the gate and up the path. "It was built in the year that Peter the Great came to live in Scales Court whose ruined park can be seen from the upper windows."
Usually I am not unduly affected by my surroundings, but I must confess that I was aware of a feeling of depression at the melancholy spectacle that lay before us. The house, though of dignified and even imposing proportions, was faced with blotched, weather-stained plaster which had fallen away in places to disclose the ancient brickwork that lay beneath, while a tangled mass of ivy covering one wall had sent its long tendrils across the high-peaked roof to wreathe itself around the chimney-stacks.
The garden was an overgrown wilderness, and the air of the whole place reeked with the damp musty smell of the river.
Theobold Wilson led us through a small hall into a comfortably furnished drawing-room. A young woman with auburn hair and a freckled face, who was sorting through some papers at a writing-desk, sprang to her feet at our entrance.
"Here are Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson," announced our companion. "This is my niece Janet, whose interests you are here to protect against her own unreasonable conduct."
The young lady faced us bravely enough, though I noted a twitch and tremor of the lips that spoke of a high nervous tension. "I am leaving tomorrow, Uncle," she cried, "and nothing that these gentlemen can say will alter my decision. Here, there is only sorrow and fear— above all, fear!"
"Fear of what?"
The girl passed her hand over her eyes. "I—I cannot explain. I hate the shadows and the funny little noises."
"You have inherited both money and property, Janet," said Mr. Wilson earnestly. "Will you, because of shadows, desert the roof of your fathers? Be reasonable."
"We are here only to serve you, young lady," said Holmes with some gentleness, "and to try to put your fears at rest. It is often so in life that we injure our own best interests by precipitate action."
"You will laugh at a woman's intuitions, sir."
"By no means. They are often the signposts of Providence. Understand clearly that you will go or stay as you see fit. But perhaps, as I am here, it might relieve your mind to show me over the house."
"An admirable suggestion!" cried Theobold Wilson cheerily. "Come, Janet, we will soon dispose of your shadows and noises."
In a little procession, we trooped from one over-furnished room to another on the ground floor.
"I will take you to the bedrooms," said Miss Wilson, as we paused at last before the staircase.
"Are there no cellars in a house of this antiquity?"
"There is one cellar, Mr. Holmes, but it is little used save for the storage of wood and some of Uncle's old nest-boxes. This way, please."
It was a gloomy, stone-built chamber in which we found ourselves. A stack of wood was piled against one wall and a pot-bellied Dutch stove, its iron pipe running through the ceiling, filled the far corner. Through a glazed door reached by a line of steps and opening into the garden, a dun light filtered down upon the flagstones. Holmes sniffed the air keenly, and I was myself aware of an increased mustiness from the near-by river.
"Like most Thames-side houses, you must be plagued by rats," he remarked.
"We used to be. But, since Uncle came here, he has got rid of them."
"Quite so. Dear me," he continued, peering down at the floor, "what busy little fellows!"
Following his gaze, I saw that his attention had been drawn by a few garden ants scurrying across the floor from beneath the edge of the stove and up the steps leading to the garden door. "It is as well for us, Watson," he chuckled, pointing with his stick at the tiny particles with which they were encumbered, "that we are not under the necessity of lugging along our dinners thrice our own size. It is a lesson in patience." He lapsed into silence, staring thoughtfully at the floor. "A lesson," he repeated slowly.
Mr. Wilson's thin lips tightened. "What foolery is this," he exclaimed. "The ants are there because the servants would throw garbage in the stove to save themselves the trouble of going to the dustbin."
"And so you put a lock on the lid."
"We did. If you wish, I can fetch the key. No? Then, if you are finished, let me take you to the bedrooms."
"Perhaps I may see the room where your brother died," requested Holmes, as we reached the top floor.
"It is here," replied Miss Wilson, throwing open the door.
It was a large chamber furnished with some taste and even luxury and lit by two deeply recessed windows flanking another pot-bellied stove decorated with yellow tiles to harmonize with the tone of the room. A pair of birdcages hung from the stove-pipe.
"Where does that side door lead?" asked my friend.
"It communicates with my room, which was formerly used by my mother," she answered.
For a few minutes, Holmes prowled around listlessly.
"I perceive that your brother was addicted to night reading," he remarked.
"Yes. He suffered from sleeplessness. But how—"
"Tut, the pile of the carpet on the right of the arm-chair is thick with traces of candle-wax. But hullo! What have we here?"
Holmes had halted near the window and was staring intently at the upper wall. Then, mounting the sill, he stretched out an arm and, touching the plaster lightly here arid there, sniffed at his finger-tips. There was a puzzled frown on his face as he clambered down and commenced to circle slowly around the room, his eyes fixed upon the ceiling.
"Most singular," he muttered.
"Is anything wrong, Mr. Holmes?" faltered Miss Wilson.
"I am merely interested to account for these odd whorls and lines across the upper wall and plaster."
"It must be those dratted cockroaches dragging the dust all over the place," exclaimed Wilson apologetically. "I've told you before, Janet, that you would be better employed in supervising the servants' work. But what now, Mr. Holmes?"
My friend, who had crossed to the side door and glanced within, now closed it again and strolled across to the window.
"My visit has been a useless one," said he, "and, as I see that the fog is rising, I fear that we must take our leave. These are, I suppose, your famous canaries?" he added, pointing to the cages above the stove.
"A mere sample. But come this way."
Wilson led us along the passage and threw open a door.
"There!" said he.
Obviously it was his own bedroom and yet unlike any bedroom that I had entered in all my professional career. From floor to ceiling it was festooned with scores of cages and the little golden-coated singers within filled the air with their sweet warbling and trilling.
"Daylight or lamplight, it's all the same to them. Here, Carrie, Carrie!" he whistled a few liquid notes which I seemed to recognize. The bird took them up into a lovely cadence of song.
"A sky-lark!" I cried.
"Precisely. As I said before, the Fringilla if properly trained are the supreme imitators."
"I confess that I do not recognize that song," I remarked, as one of the birds broke into a low rising, whistle ending in a curious tremolo.
Mr. Wilson threw a towel over the cage. "It is the song of the tropic night-bird," he said shortly, "and, as I have the foolish pride to prefer my birds to sing the songs of the day while it is day, we will punish Peperino by putting him in darkness."
"I am surprised that you prefer an open fireplace here to a stove," observed Holmes. "There must be a considerable draught."
"I have not noticed one. Dear me, the fog is indeed increasing. I am afraid, Mr. Holmes, that you have a bad journey before you."
"Then we must be on our way."
As we descended the stairs and paused in the hall while Theobold Wilson fetched our hats, Sherlock Holmes leaned over towards our young companion.
"I would remind you, Miss Wilson, of what I said earlier about a woman's intuition," he said quietly. "There are occasions when the truth can be sensed more easily than it can be seen. Good-night."
A moment later, we were feeling our way down the garden path to where the lights of our waiting four-wheeler shone dimly through the rising fog.
My companion was sunk in thought as we rumbled westward through the mean streets whose squalor was the more aggressive under the garish light of the gas-lamps that flared and whistled outside the numerous public houses. The night promised to be a bad one and already, through the yellow vapour thickening and writhing above the pavements, the occasional wayfarer was nothing more than a vague hurrying shadow.
"I could have wished, my dear fellow," I remarked, "that you had been spared the need uselessly to waste your energies which are already sufficiently depleted."
"Well, well, Watson. I fancied that the affairs of the Wilson family would prove no concern of ours. And yet—" he sank back, absorbed for a moment in his own thoughts, "—and yet, it is wrong, wrong, all wrong!" I heard him mutter under his breath.
"I observed nothing of a sinister nature."
"Nor I. But every danger bell in my head is jangling its warning. Why a fireplace, Watson, why a fireplace? I take it that you noticed that the pipe from the cellar connected with the stoves in the other bedrooms?"
"In one bedroom."
"No. There was the same arrangement in the adjoining room where the mother died."
"I see nothing in this save an old-fashioned system of heating flues."
"And what of the marks on the ceiling?"
"You mean the whorls of dust."
"I mean the whorls of soot."
"Soot! Surely you are mistaken, Holmes."
"I touched them, smelt them, examined them. They were speckles and lines of wood-soot."
"Well, there is probably some perfectly natural explanation."
For a time, we sat in silence. Our cab had reached the beginnings of the City and I was gazing out of the window, my fingers drumming idly on the half-lowered pane, which was already befogged with moisture, when my thoughts were recalled by a sharp ejaculation from my companion. He was staring fixedly over my shoulder.
"The glass," he muttered.
Over the clouded surface there now lay an intricate tracery of whorls and lines where my finger had wandered aimlessly.
Holmes clapped his hand to his brow and, throwing open the other window, he shouted an order to the cabby. The vehicle turned in its tracks and, with the driver lashing at his horse, we clattered away into the thickening gloom.
"Ah, Watson, Watson, true it is that none are so blind as those who will not see!" quoted Holmes bitterly, sinking back into his corner. "All the facts were there, staring me in the face, and yet logic failed to respond."
"There are nine. Four alone should have sufficed. Here is a man from Cuba, who not only trains canaries in a singular manner but knows the call of tropical night-birds and keeps a fireplace in his bedroom. There is devilry here, Watson. Stop, cabby, stop!"
We were passing a junction of two busy thoroughfares, with the golden balls of a pawnshop glimmering above a street-lamp. Holmes sprang out. But after a few minutes, he was back again and we recommenced our journey.
"It is fortunate that we are still in the City," he chuckled, "for I fancy that the East End pawnshops are unlikely to run to golf-clubs."
"Good heavens—!" I began, only to lapse into silence while I stared down at the heavy niblick which he had thrust into my hand. The first shadows of some vague and monstrous horror seemed to rise up and creep over my mind.
"We are too early," exclaimed Holmes, consulting his watch. "A sandwich and a glass of whisky at the first public house will not come amiss."
The clock on St. Nicholas Church was striking ten when we found ourselves once again in that evil-smelling garden. Through the mist, the dark gloom of the house was broken by a single feeble light in an upper window. "It is Miss Wilson's room," said Holmes. "Let us hope that this handful of gravel will rouse her without alarming the household."
An instant later, there came the sound of an opening window.
"Who is there?" demanded a tremulous voice.
"It is Sherlock Holmes," my friend called back softly. "I must speak with you at once, Miss Wilson. Is there a side door?"
"There is one in the wall to your left. But what has happened?"
"Pray descend immediately. Not a word to your uncle."
We felt our way along the wall and reached the door just as it opened to disclose Miss Wilson. She was in her dressing-gown, her hair tumbled about her shoulders and, as her startled eyes peered at us across the light of the candle in her hand, the shadows danced and trembled on the wall behind her.
"What is it, Mr. Holmes?" she gasped.
"All will be well, if you carry out my instructions," my friend replied quietly. "Where is your uncle?"
"He is in his room."
"Good. While Dr. Watson and I occupy your room, you will move into your late brother's bedchamber. If you value your life," he added solemnly, "you will not attempt to leave it."
"You frighten me!" she whimpered.
"Rest assured that we will take care of you. And now two final questions before you retire. Has your uncle visited you this evening?"
"Yes. He brought Peperino and put him with the other birds in the cage in my room. He said that as it was my last night at home I should have the best entertainment that he had the power to give me."
"Ha! Quite so. Your last night. Tell me, Miss Wilson, do you suffer at all from the same malady as your mother and brother?"
"A weak heart? I must confess it, yes."
"Well, we will accompany you quietly upstairs where you will retire to the adjoining room. Come, Watson."
Guided by the light of Janet Wilson's candle, we mounted silently to the floor above and thence into the bedchamber which Holmes had previously examined.
While we waited for our companion to collect her things from the adjoining room, Holmes strolled across and, lifting the edge of the cloths which now covered the two bird-cages, peered in at the tiny sleeping occupants.
"The evil of man is as inventive as it is immeasurable," said he, and I noticed that his face was very stern.
On Miss Wilson's return, having seen that she was safely ensconced for the night, I followed Holmes into the room which she had lately occupied. It was a small chamber but comfortably furnished and lit by a heavy silver oil-lamp. Immediately above a tiled Dutch stove there hung a cage containing three canaries which, momentarily ceasing their song, cocked their little golden heads at our approach.
"I think, Watson, that it would be as well to relax for half an hour," whispered Holmes as we sank into our chairs. "So kindly put out the light."
"But, my dear fellow, if there is any danger it would be an act of madness!" I protested.
"There is no danger in the darkness."
"Would it not be better," I said severely, "that you were frank with me? You have made it obvious that the birds are being put to some evil purpose, but what is this danger that exists only in the lamplight?"
"I have my own ideas on that matter, Watson, but it is better that we should wait and see. I would draw your attention, however, to the hinged lid of the stoke-hole on the top of the stove."
"It appears to be a perfectly normal fitting."
"Just so. But is there not some significance in the fact that the stoke-hole of an iron stove should be fitted with a tin lid?"
"Great heavens, Holmes!" I cried, as the light of understanding burst upon me. "You mean that this man Wilson has used the inter-connecting pipes from the stove in the cellar to those in the bedrooms to disseminate some deadly poison to wipe out his own kith and kin and thus obtain the property. It is for that reason that he has a fireplace in his own bedroom. I see it all."
"Well, you are not far wrong, Watson, though I fancy that Master Theobold is rather more subtle than you suppose. He possesses the two qualities vital to the successful murderer—ruthlessness and imagination. But now, douse the light like a good fellow and for a while let us relax. If my reading of the problem is correct, our nerves may be tested to their limit before we see tomorrow's dawn."
I lay back in the darkness and drawing some comfort from the thought that ever since the affair with Colonel Sebastian Moran I had carried my revolver in my pocket, I sought in my mind for some explanation that would account for the warning contained in Holmes's words. But I must have been wearier than I had imagined. My thoughts grew more and more confused and finally I dozed off.
It was a touch upon my arm that awoke me. The lamp had been relit and my friend was bending over me, his long black shadow thrown upon the ceiling.
"Sorry to disturb you, Watson," he whispered. "But duty calls."
"What do you wish me to do?"
"Sit still and listen. Peperino is singing."
It was a vigil that I shall long remember. Holmes had tilted the lamp-shade, so that the light fell on the opposite wall broken by the window and the great tiled stove with its hanging bird-cage. The fog had thickened and the rays from the lamp, filtering through the window-glass, lost themselves in luminous clouds that swirled and boiled against the panes. My mind darkened by a premonition of evil, I would have found our surroundings melancholy enough without the eerie sound that was rising and falling from the canary cage. It was a kind of whistling beginning with a low, throaty warble and slowly ascending to a single chord that rang through the room like the note of a great wineglass, a sound so mesmeric in its repetition that almost imperceptibly the present seemed to melt away and my imagination to reach out beyond those fogbound windows into the dark, lush depth of some exotic jungle. I had lost all count of time, and it was only the stillness following the sudden cessation of the bird's song that brought me back to reality. I glanced across the room and, in an instant, my heart gave one great throb and then seemed to stop beating altogether.
The lid of the stove was slowly rising.
My friends will agree that I am neither a nervous nor an impressionable man but I must confess that, as I sat there gripping the sides of my chair and glaring at the dreadful thing that was gradually clambering into view, my limbs momentarily refused their functions.
The lid had tilted back an inch or more and through the gap thus created a writhing mass of yellow, stick-like objects was clawing and scrabbling for a hold. And then, in a flash, it was out and standing motionless upon the surface of the stove.
Though I have always viewed with horror the bird-eating tarantulas of South America, they shrank into insignificance when compared with the loathsome creature that faced us now across that lamplit room. It was bigger in its spread than a large dinner-plate, with a hard, smooth, yellow body surrounded by legs that, rising high above it, conveyed a fearful impression that the thing was crouching for its spring. It was absolutely hairless save for tufts of stiff bristles around the leg-joints and, above the glint of its great poison mandibles, clusters of beady eyes shone in the light with a baleful red iridescence.
"Don't move, Watson," whispered Holmes, and there was a note of horror in his voice that I had never heard before.
The sound roused the creature for, in a single lightning bound, it sprang from the stove to the top of the birdcage and, reaching the wall, whizzed round the room and over the ceiling with a dreadful febrile swiftness that the eye could scarcely follow.
Holmes flung himself forward like a man possessed.
"Kill it! Smash it!" he yelled hoarsely, raining blow after blow with his golf-club at the blurred shape racing across the walls.
Dust from broken plaster choked the air and a table crashed over as I flung myself to the ground when the great spider cleared the room in a single leap and turned at bay. Holmes bounded across me, swinging his club. "Keep where you are!" he shouted and even as his voice rang through the room, the thud . . . thud . . . thud of the blows was broken by a horrible squelching sound. For an instant, the creature hung there and then, slipping slowly down, it lay like a mess of smashed eggs with three thin, bony legs still twitching and plucking at the floor.
"Thank God that it missed you when it sprang!" I gasped, scrambling to my feet.
He made no reply and glancing up I caught a glimpse of his face reflected in a wall mirror. He looked pale and strained and there was a curious rigidity in his expression.
"I am afraid it's up to you, Watson," he said quietly. "It has a mate."
I spun round to be greeted by a spectacle that I shall remember for the rest of my days. Sherlock Holmes was standing perfectly still within two feet of the stove and on top of it, reared up on its back legs, its loathsome body shuddering for the spring, stood another monstrous spider.
I knew instinctively that any sudden movement would merely precipitate the creature's leap and so, carefully drawing my revolver from my pocket, I fired pointblank.
Through the powder-smoke, I saw the thing shrink into itself and then, toppling slowly backwards, it fell through the open lid of the stove. There was a rasping, slithering sound rapidly fading away into silence.
"It's fallen down the pipe," I cried, conscious that my hands were now shaking under a strong reaction. "Are you all right, Holmes?"
He looked at me and there was a singular light in his eye.
"Thanks to you, my dear fellow!" he said soberly. "If I had moved then—but what is that?"
A door had slammed below and, an instant later, we caught the swift patter of feet upon the gravel path.
"After him!" cried Holmes, springing for the door. "Your shot warned him that the game was up. He must not escape!"
But fate decreed otherwise. Though we rushed down the stairs and out into the fog, Theobold Wilson had too much start on us and the advantage of knowing the terrain. For a while, we followed the faint sound of his running footsteps down the empty lanes towards the river, but at length these died away in the distance.
"It is no good, Watson. We have lost our man," panted Holmes. "This is where the official police may be of use. But listen! Surely that was a cry?"
"I thought I heard something."
"Well, it is hopeless to look further in the fog. Let us return and comfort this poor girl with the assurance that her troubles are now at an end."
"They were nightmare creatures, Holmes," I exclaimed, as we retraced our steps towards the house, "and of some unknown species."
"I think not, Watson," said he. "It was the Galeodes spider, the horror of the Cuban forests. It is perhaps fortunate for the rest of the world that it is found nowhere else. The creature is nocturnal in its habits, and unless my memory belies me, it possesses the power actually to break the spine of smaller creatures with a single blow of its mandibles. You will recall that Miss Janet mentioned that the rats had vanished since her uncle's return. Doubtless Wilson brought the brutes back with him," he went on, "and then conceived the idea of training certain of his canaries to imitate the song of some Cuban night-bird upon which the Galeodes were accustomed to feed. The marks on the ceiling were caused, of course, by the soot adhering to the spiders' legs after they had scrambled up the flues. It is fortunate, perhaps, for the consulting detective that the duster of the average housemaid seldom strays beyond the height of a mantelpiece.
"Indeed, I can discover no excuse for my lamentable slowness in solving this case, for the facts were before me from the first, and the whole affair was elementary in its construction.
"And yet to give Theobold Wilson his dues, one must recognize his almost diabolical cleverness. Once these horrors were installed in the stove in the cellar, what more simple than to arrange two ordinary flues communicating with the bedrooms above? By hanging the cages over the stoves, the flues would themselves act as a magnifier to the birds' song and, guided by their predatory instinct, the creatures would invariably ascend whichever pipe led to it. Once Wilson had devised some means of luring them back again to their nest, they represented a comparatively safe way of getting rid of those who stood between himself and the property."
"Then its bite is deadly?" I interposed.
"To a person in weak health, probably so. But there lies the devilish cunning of the scheme, Watson. It was the sight of the thing rather than its bite, poisonous though it may be, on which he relied to kill his victim. Can you imagine the effect upon an elderly woman, and later upon her son, both suffering from insomnia and heart disease, when in the midst of a bird's seemingly innocent song this appalling spectacle arose from the top of the stove? We have sampled it ourselves, though we are healthy men. It killed them as surely as a bullet through their hearts."
"There is one thing I cannot understand, Holmes. Why did he appeal to Scotland Yard?"
"Because he is a man of iron nerve. His niece was instinctively frightened and, finding that she was adamant in her intention of leaving, he planned to kill her at once and by the same method.
"Once done, who should dare to point the finger of suspicion at Master Theobold? Had he not appealed to Scotland Yard and even invoked the aid of Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself to satisfy one and all? The girl had died of a heart attack like the others and her uncle would have been the recipient of general condolences.
"Remember the padlocked cover of the stove in the cellar and admire the cold nerve that offered to fetch the key. It was bluff, of course, for he would have discovered that he had 'lost' it. Had we persisted and forced that lock, I prefer not to think of what we would have found clinging round our collars."
Theobold Wilson was never heard of again. But it is perhaps suggestive that, some two days later, a man's body was fished out of the Thames. The corpse was mutilated beyond recognition, probably by a ship's propeller, and the police searched his pockets in vain for means of identification. They contained nothing, however, save for a small note-book filled with jottings on the brooding period of the Fringilla Canaria.
"It is the wise man who keeps bees," remarked Sherlock Holmes when he read the report. "You know where you are with them and at least they do not attempt to represent themselves as something that they are not."
In this memorable year '93, a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention ranging from . . . the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca down to the arrest of Wilson the notorious canary-trainer* which removed a plague-spot from the East End of London.
FROM "BLACK PETER."
* In the Wilson case, Holmes did not actually arrest Wilson as Wilson was drowned. This was a typical Watson error in his hurried reference to the case in "Black Peter."
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