My wife had a slight cold, as my note-book records, when on that morning of April 12th, 1888, we were introduced in such dramatic fashion to one of the most singular problems in the annals of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
At this time, as I have elsewhere recorded, my medical practice was in the Paddington district. Being young and active, I was in the habit of arising betimes; and eight o'clock found me downstairs, distressing the maid by lighting the fire in the hall, when I was startled by a ring at the street-door.
A patient at this hour could have come on no trivial errand. And, when I had opened the door to the clear April sunlight, I was struck no less by the pallor and agitation than by the youth and beauty of the young lady who stood swaying on my humble threshold.
"Dr. Watson?" asked she, raising her veil.
"I am he, madam."
"Pray forgive this early intrusion. I have come to—I have come to—"
"Be good enough to step into the consulting-room," said I, leading the way with a vigorous step, and meanwhile studying the young lady closely. It is as well for a medical man to impress his patients by deducing their symptoms, and hence their ailments, before they have spoken at all.
"The weather is warm for this season of the year," I continued, when we reached the consulting-room, "yet there is always the possibility of a chill, unless the room be well sealed against draughts."
The effect of this remark was extraordinary. For a moment my visitor stared at me with the grey eyes widening in her beautiful face.
"A sealed room!" she cried. "Oh, my God, a sealed room!"
Her cry became a shriek which ran through the house, and then she collapsed on the hearth-rug in a dead faint.
Horrified, I poured some water from a carafe, dashed brandy into the water, and, after lifting my patient gently into a chair, persuaded her to swallow it. Scarcely had I done so when the noise of that cry brought my wife downstairs and into the consulting-room.
"Good heavens, John, what in the world—?" And here she broke off. "Why, it's Cora Murray!"
"You know the young lady, then?"
"Know her! I should think I do! I knew Cora Murray in India. Her father and mine were friends for years; and I wrote to her when you and I were married."
"You wrote to India?"
"No, no; she lives in England now. Cora is the very closest friend of Eleanor Grand, who married that rather crotchety Colonel Warburton. Cora lives with Colonel and Mrs. Warburton at some address in Cambridge Terrace."
As my wife finished speaking, our visitor opened her eyes. My wife patted her hand.
"Gently, Cora," said she. "I was only telling my husband that you lived in Cambridge Terrace with Colonel and Mrs. Warburton."
"No longer!" cried Miss Murray wildly. "Colonel Warburton is dead, and his wife so horribly wounded that she may be dying at this moment! When I saw them lying there under that terrifying death-mask, I felt the evil thing itself had driven Colonel Warburton mad. He must have been mad! Why else should he have shot his wife and then himself in a locked room? And yet I cannot believe he would have done this dreadful action."
Grasping my wife's hand with both of hers, she looked up at me with pathetic appeal.
"Oh, Dr. Watson, I did so hope you would help! Is there nothing your friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes can do!"
You may well believe that my wife and I listened with amazement to this tale of domestic tragedy.
"But you tell me that Colonel Warburton is dead," I demurred gently.
"Yet the shadow remains on his name. Oh, is my errand so hopeless?"
"Nothing is ever hopeless, Cora," said my wife. "John, what shall you do?"
"Do?" cried I, glancing at my watch. "Why, a hansom-cab to Baker Street at once! We shall just catch Holmes before breakfast!"
As I had expected, Sherlock Holmes was moodily awaiting his breakfast, the room acrid with the tang of his first daily pipe, which was composed of left-over dottles from the day before. His Bohemian disposition saw nothing strange in Miss Murray's and my arrival at this early hour, though he was inclined to be querulous.
"The fact is, Holmes," said I, "that I was interrupted this morning—"
"Quite so, my dear fellow," said he, "as you were engaged in your usual practice of lighting the fire. Your left thumb proclaims as much." Then he caught sight of Miss Murray's grief-stricken countenance, and his harsh face softened.
"But I think," he added, "that you could both do with a little breakfast before we discuss the shock which this young lady so obviously has had."
And not a word would he permit us to speak until I had consumed some food, though Miss Murray could touch only a cup of coffee.
"H'm!" said Holmes, with a shade of disappointment on his face after our fair client had faltered out as much of her story as she had told me."This is indeed a grievous tragedy, madam. But I cannot see what service I can render you. A certain Colonel Warburton goes mad; he shoots first his wife and then himself. I presume there is no doubt of these facts?"
Miss Murray groaned.
"Unhappily, none," replied she. "Though at first we had hoped it might be the work of a burglar."
"You hoped it might be the work of a burglar?"
I was much annoyed by the acidity of Holmes's tone, though I could not help divining its cause. Ever since, in the previous month, he had been outwitted and beaten by Mrs. Godfrey Norton, nйe Irene Adler, his attitude towards the whole female sex had become more bitter than ever.
"Really, Holmes," I protested with some asperity, "Miss Murray meant only that the work of a burglar-murderer would have saved Colonel Warburton's name from the stigma of suicide. I hope you will not hold her responsible for an unfortunate choice of words."
"An unfortunate choice of words, Watson, has hanged a murderer ere this. Well, well, we shall not distress the young lady! But is it possible, madam, for you to be explicit?"
To my surprise, a smile of singular wistfulness as well as strength illuminated the pale face of our visitor.
"My father, Mr. Holmes, was Captain Murray of the Sepoy Mutiny. You will see whether I can be explicit."
"Come, this is distinctly better!—Well?"
"Colonel Warburton and his wife," said she, "lived at number Nine Cambridge Terrace. You will have seen many such prosperous, solid houses in the Hyde Park district. On either side of the front door, behind a small strip of rock-garden, there is a room with two French windows. Colonel Warburton and my dear Eleanor were alone in the room to the left of the front door, called the curio room. The time was just after dinner last night. The door of that room was locked on the inside. Each of the French windows was double-bolted on the inside though the curtains remained undrawn. No other person was there or hidden there; nor was there any other access to the room. A pistol lay at the colonel's right hand. There had been no tampering with any bolt or fastening; the room was locked like a fortress. These things, Mr. Holmes, you may accept as facts."
And, as I am now able to testify, Miss Murray spoke the literal truth.
"Yes, distinctly this is more satisfactory!" said Holmes, rubbing his long, thin fingers together. "Was it Colonel Warburton's habit to bolt the door upon himself and his wife—in the curio room, you said?—each evening after dinner?"
A sudden perplexity showed in our visitor's face,
"Good heavens, no!" she answered. "I never thought of it."
"Still, I fear it cannot affect the issue. On the contrary, it strengthens the indications of madness."
Cora Murray's grey eyes were steady now.
"No one, Mr. Holmes, is better aware of it than I. If it had been Colonel Warburton's wish to destroy Eleanor and himself—well, can I deny he would have bolted the door?"
"If I may say so, madam," remarked Sherlock Holmes, "you are a young lady of uncommon good sense. Apart from his Indian curios, would you say that the colonel was a man of conventional habits?"
"Eminently so. And yet..."
"You would speak of feminine intuition?"
"Sir, what are your own boasted judgements but masculine intuition?"
"They are logic, madam! However, pray forgive my irascible temper of a morning."
Miss Murray bowed her head graciously.
"The household was roused by the two shots," she continued after a moment. "When we looked through the window, and saw those two crumpled figures lying on the floor and the light of the shaded lamps striking a cold blue glitter from the lapis-lazuli eyes of that horrible death-mask, I was seized with superstitious dread."
Holmes was lounging back in his arm-chair, his old mouse-coloured dressing-gown drawn about his shoulders, in a bored and discontented fashion.
"My dear Watson," said he, "you will find the cigars in the coal-scuttle. Be good enough to pass me the box: that is, if Miss Murray has no objection to the smoke of a cigar?"
"The daughter of an Anglo-Indian, Mr. Holmes," said our fair visitor, "would scarcely object to that." She hesitated, biting her lip.
"Indeed, when Major Earnshaw and Captain Lasher and I burst into that locked room, my most distinct memory is the smell of Colonel Warburton's cigar."
This casual remark was followed by a moment of intense silence. Sherlock Holmes had sprung to his feet, the cigar-box in his hand, and was staring down at Miss Murray.
"I would not distress you, madam, but are you quite sure of what you say?"
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes," retorted the lady, "I am not in the habit of meaningless speech. I remember even the incongruous thought flashing through my mind that incense would have been more suitable than cigar-smoke in a room glimmering with brasswork and wooden idols and rose-coloured lamps."
For a moment Holmes stood motionless before the fire. "It is possible that there may be a hundred and forty-first sort," he observed thoughtfully. "At the same time, Miss Murray, I should like to hear a little more of what happened. For example, you mentioned a Major Earnshaw and a Captain Lasher. Were these gentlemen also guests at the house?"
"Major Earnshaw has been a guest for some time, yes. But Captain Lasher"—was it my fancy, or did a blush tinge Cora Murray's face at the mention of the captain's name?—"Captain Lasher merely paid a brief call. He is Colonel Warburton's nephew, his only relative, in fact, and is—is much younger than Major Earnshaw."
"But your account of last night, madam?"
Cora Murray paused for a time as though marshalling her thoughts, and then began to speak in a low but intense voice.
"Eleanor Warburton was my best friend in India. She is an exceptionally beautiful woman, and I am not being unkind when I say we were all surprised when she consented to become the wife of Colonel Warburton. He was a soldier of distinguished reputation and strong character; but not, I should judge, an easy man with whom to share one's domestic life. He was inclined to be fussy and short-tempered, especially about his large collection of Indian antiquities.
"Please understand that I liked George well enough, else I should not be here now. And, though their life was not without its quarrels—in fact, there was a quarrel last night—there was nothing, I swear, to account for this present horror!
"When they left India, I accompanied them to the house in Cambridge Terrace. There we lived almost as though we were at a hill-station in India, even to the white-clad figure of Chundra Lal, George's native butler, in a house full of strange gods and perhaps strange influences too.
"Last night, after dinner, Eleanor demanded to speak with her husband. They retired to the curio room, while Major Earnshaw and I were sitting in a little study called the den."
"One moment," interposed Sherlock Holmes, who had made a note on his shirt-cuff. "A while ago you stated that the house had two rooms facing the front garden, one of these being Colonel Warburton's curio room. Was the other front room this den?"
"No; the other front room is the dining-room. The den lies behind it, and the two do not communicate. Major Earnshaw was holding forth rather wearisomely when Jack hurried in. Jack... ."
"A welcome arrival?" interposed Holmes. "I take it you refer to Captain Lasher?"
Our visitor raised her frank, clear eyes.
"A very welcome arrival," she smiled. Then her face clouded. "He told us that on his way through the hall, he had heard the sounds of a quarrel between his uncle and Eleanor. Poor Jack, how annoyed he was. 'Here I've come all the way from Kensington to see the old man,' he cried, 'and now I daren't interrupt them. What keeps them quarrelling all the time?'
"I protested that he was doing them an injustice.
" 'Well, I hate rows,' he replied, 'and I do feel, if only for uncle's sake, that Eleanor might make more effort to get on with the family.'
" 'She is devoted to your uncle,' I said, 'and, as for yourself, it is only that she feels as we all do that you live your life too recklessly.'
"When Major Earnshaw suggested three-handed whist, at twopence a point, I'm afraid Jack wasn't very courteous. If he must be reckless, he said, he preferred to drink a glass of port in the dining-room. So Major Earnshaw and I settled down to a game of bezique."
"Did either you or Major Earnshaw leave the room after that?"
"Yes! As a matter of fact, the major did say something about fetching his snuff-box from upstairs." Under other circumstances I felt Cora Murray might have laughed. "He rushed out, fumbling in all his pockets, and swearing he couldn't settle to cards without his snuff.
"I sat there, Mr. Holmes, with the cards in my hand and as I waited in that silent room it seemed as though all the nameless fears of the night gathered slowly round me. I remembered the glitter in Eleanor's eyes at dinner. I remembered the brown face of Chundra Lal, the native butler, who has seemed to gloat ever since the death-mask was brought into the house. At that precise moment, Mr. Holmes, I heard the two revolver shots."
In her agitation, Cora Murray had risen to her feet.
"Oh, please don't think I was mistaken! Don't think I was misled by some other noise, or that these were not the shots which killed George and . . ."
Drawing a deep breath, she sat down again.
"For a moment, I was absolutely petrified. Then I ran out into the hall and almost collided with Major Earnshaw. He was muttering some incoherent reply to my questions when Jack Lasher came out of the dining-room with the decanter of port in his hand. 'You'd better stay back, Cora,' Jack said to me; 'there may be a burglar about.'
"The two men ran across to the door of the curio room.
" 'Locked, curse it,' I remember Major Earnshaw crying out. 'Lend a hand, my lad, and we'll have this door down.'
" 'Look here, sir,' said Jack; 'you'd want siege-artillery against a door like that. Hold hard while I dash round and try the French windows.' As a result, all of us ran outside . . ."
"All of you?"
"Major Earnshaw, Jack Lasher, Chundra Lal, and myself. One glimpse through the nearest window showed us George and Eleanor Warburton lying face upwards against the red Brussels carpet. Blood was still flowing from a wound in Eleanor's breast."
"You may recall my saying that the front garden is a rock-garden?"
"I made a mental note of it."
"A rock-garden with gravel soil. Calling out to the others to guard the doors and make certain no burglar escaped, Jack picked up a huge stone and smashed a window. But there was no burglar, Mr. Holmes. A single glance had shown me that both French windows were still double-bolted on the inside. Immediately afterwards, before anyone had gone near the door, I went to it and found the door locked on the inside. You see, I think I knew there could be no burglar."
"You knew it?"
"It was George's fear for his collection," Miss Murray answered simply. "Even the fireplace in that room is bricked up. Chundra Lal looked inscrutably at the hard blue eyes of the death-mask on the wall, and Major Earnshaw's foot kicked the revolver lying near George's hand. 'Bad business, this,' said Major Earnshaw; 'we'd better send for a doctor.' That, I think, is all of my story."
For a time after she had finished speaking Holmes still stood motionless before the fire, his hand toying with the knife whose blade transfixed his unanswered correspondence to the middle of the wooden mantelshelf.
"H'm!" said he. "And the position now?"
"Poor Eleanor lies badly wounded in a nursing home in Bayswater. She may not even recover. George's body has been removed to the mortuary. Even when I left Cambridge Terrace this morning, with some wild hope of enlisting your aid through Dr. Watson, the police had arrived in the person of an Inspector MacDonald. But what can he do?"
"What, indeed?" echoed Holmes. But his deep-set eyes gleamed, and he lifted the knife and brought it down like a weapon against the envelopes. "Still—Inspector Mac! That is much better. I could not have endured Lestrade or Gregson this morning. If the young lady will forgive me while I don coat and hat, we shall just go round to Cambridge Terrace."
"Holmes," cried I in protest, "it would be monstrous to encourage false hopes in Miss Murray!"
My friend looked at me in his coldly imperious fashion.
"My dear Watson, I neither encourage hope nor do I discourage it. I examine evidence. Voilа tout."
Yet I noticed that he slipped his lens into his pocket; and he was moodily thoughtful, biting at his lip, as a four-wheeler carried us through the streets.
Cambridge Terrace, on that sunny April morning, stretched silent and deserted. Behind the stone wall, and the narrow strip of rock-garden, lay the stone house with its white window-facings and green-painted front door. It gave me something of a shock to see, near the windows towards the left of the entrance, the white-dressed figure and turban of a native butler. Chundra Lal stood there as motionless as one of his own idols, looking at us; then he melted into the house through one of the French windows.
Sherlock Holmes, it was clear, had been similarly affected. I saw his shoulders stiffen under the frock-coat as he watched the retreating figure of the Indian servant. Though the window immediately to the left of the front door was intact, a gap in the rock-garden showed where a large stone had been prised out; and the other window, further to the left, had been smashed to bits. It was through this opening that the native butler, on silent feet, had moved inside.
Holmes whistled, but he did not speak until Cora Murray had left us.
"Tell me, Watson," said he. "You saw nothing strange or inconsistent in the narrative of Miss Murray?"
"Strange, horrible, yes!" I confessed. "But inconsistent? Surely not!"
"Yet you yourself have been the first to protest about it."
"My dear fellow, I have uttered not one word of protest this morning!"
"Not this morning, perhaps," said Sherlock Holmes. "Ah, Inspector Mac! We are met upon the occasion of another problem."
In the shattered window, stepping carefully over fallen shards of glass, appeared a freckled-faced, sandy-haired young man with the dogged stamp of the police-officer.
"Great Scott, Mr. Holmes, you don't call this a problem?" exclaimed Inspector MacDonald, raising his eyebrows. "Unless the question is why Colonel Warburton went mad?"
"Well, well!" said Holmes good-naturedly. "I presume you will allow us to enter?"
"Aye, and welcome!" retorted the young Scot.
We found ourselves in a lofty, narrow room which, though furnished with comfortable chairs, conveyed the impression of a barbaric museum. Mounted on an ebony cabinet facing the windows stood an extraordinary object: the effigy of a human face, brown and gilded, with two great eyes of some hard and glittering blue stone.
"Pretty little thing, isn't it?" grunted young MacDonald. "That's the death-mask that seems to affect 'em like a hieland spell. Major Earnshaw and Captain Lasher are in the den now, talking their heads off."
To my surprise Holmes scarcely glanced at the hideous object.
"I take it, Inspector Mac," said he, as he wandered about the room peering into the glass cases and display cabinets, "you have already questioned all the inmates of this house?"
"Mon, I've done nothing else!" groaned Inspector MacDonald. "But what can they tell me? This room was locked up. The only man who committed a crime, in shooting himself and his wife, is dead. So far as the police are concerned, the case is closed. What now, Mr. Holmes?"
My friend had stooped suddenly.
"Hullo, what's this?" he cried, examining a small object which he had picked up off the floor.
"Merely the stub of Colonel Warburton's cigar which, as you see, burnt a hole in the carpet," replied MacDonald.
"Ah. Quite so."
Even as he spoke the door burst open and there entered a portly, elderly man whom I presumed to be Major Earnshaw. Behind him, accompanied by Cora Murray, her hand on his arm, came a tall young man with a bronzed, high-nosed face and a guardsman's moustache.
"I understand, sir, that you are Mr. Sherlock Holmes," began Major Earnshaw stiffly. "I must say at once that I cannot perceive the reason why Miss Murray should have called you into this private tragedy."
"Others might perceive the reason," replied Holmes quietly. "Did your uncle always smoke the same brand of cigar, Captain Lasher?"
"Yes, sir," replied the young man with a puzzled glance at Holmes. "There is the box on the side-table."
We all watched Sherlock Holmes in silence as he went across and picked up the box of cigars. For a moment, he peered at the contents and then, lifting the box to his nose, he sniffed deeply.
"Dutch," he said. "Miss Murray, you are quite right in your affirmation! Colonel Warburton was not mad."
Major Earnshaw uttered a loud snort, while the younger man, with better manners than his senior, attempted to hide his amusement by smoothing his moustache.
"Deuce knows we are all very relieved to have your assurance, Mr. Holmes," said he. "Doubtless you deduce it from the colonel's taste in cigars."
"Partly," my friend answered gravely. "Dr. Watson can inform you that I have given some attention to the study of tobacco and that I have even ventured to embody my views in a small monograph listing 140 separate varieties of tobacco ash. Colonel Warburton's taste in cigars merely confirms the other evidence. Well, MacDonald?"
A frown had settled on the Scotland Yard man's face and his small, light-blue eyes peered at Holmes suspiciously from beneath his sandy eyebrows.
"Evidence? What are ye driving at, mon!" he cried suddenly. "Why, it's as plain as a pikestaff. The colonel and his wife are both shot in a room that is locked, bolted and barred from the inside. Do you deny it?"
"Then, let us stick to the facts, Mr. Holmes."
My friend had strolled across to the ebony cabinet and with his hands behind his back was now engaged in contemplating the hideous painted face that stared above his head.
"By all means," he replied. "What is your theory to account for the locked door, Inspector Mac?"
"That the colonel himself locked it for privacy."
"Quite so. A most suggestive circumstance."
"It is suggestive merely of the madness that drove Colonel Warburton to his dreadful deed," answered MacDonald.
"Come, Mr. Holmes," interposed young Lasher. "We all know your reputation for serving justice through your own clever methods and naturally we are as keen as mustard to clear poor uncle's name. But, devil take it, there is no way round the evidence and whether we like it or not we are forced to agree with the Inspector here that Colonel Warburton was the victim of his own insanity."
Holmes raised one long, thin hand.
"Colonel Warburton was the victim of a singularly cold-blooded murder," he stated quietly.
His words were followed by a tense silence as we all stared at each other.
"By God, sir, whom are you accusing?" roared Major Earnshaw. "I'll have you know that there are slander laws in this country."
"Well, well," said Holmes good-humoredly. "I will take you into my confidence, Major, by telling you that my case rests largely on all those broken portions of glass from the French window which, you will perceive, I have gathered up into the fireplace. When I return tomorrow morning to piece them together, I trust that I will then be able to prove my case to your satisfaction. By the way, Inspector Mac, I take it that you eat oysters?"
MacDonald's face reddened.
"Mr. Holmes, I have had aye a liking and a respect for ye," he said sharply. "But there are times when it is neither douce nor seemly in a man to—what the deil have oysters to do with it?"
"Merely that to eat them you would presumably take the oyster fork nearest to hand. To the trained observer, surely there would be something significant if you reached instead for the fork beside your neighbor's plate. I give you the thought for what it is worth."
For a long moment MacDonald stared intently at my friend.
"Aye, Mr. Holmes," he said at length. "Verra interesting. I should be glad of your suggestions."
"I would advise that you have the broken window boarded up," replied Holmes. "Apart from that, let nothing be touched until we all meet again tomorrow morning. Come, Watson, I see that it is already past one o'clock. A dish of calamare alia siciliana at Pelligrini's would not come amiss."
During the afternoon, I was busy upon my belated medical round and it was not until the early evening that I found myself once more in Baker Street. Mrs. Hudson opened the door to me and I had paused on the stairs to answer her enquiry whether I would be staying for dinner when a loud report rang through the house. Mrs. Hudson clutched at the banister.
"There, sir, he's at it again," she wailed. "Them dratted pistols. And not six months since he blew the points off the mantelpiece! In the interests of justice, Mr. Holmes said. Oh, Dr. Watson, sir, if you don't get up there quick, like as not it will be that expensive gasogene that will have gone this time."
Throwing the worthy woman a word of comfort, I raced up the stairs and threw open the door of our old sitting-room just as a second report rang out. Through a cloud of pungent black powder-smoke, I caught a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes. He was lounging back in his arm-chair, clad in a dressing-gown, with a cigar between his lips and a smoking revolver poised in his right hand.
"Ah, Watson," he said languidly.
"Good heavens, Holmes, this is really intolerable," I cried. "The place smells like a rifle range. If you care nothing for the damage, I beg of you to consider the effect on Mrs. Hudson's nerves and those of your clients." I threw wide the windows and was relieved to observe that the noisy stream of passing hansoms and carriages had apparently concealed the sound of the shots. "The atmosphere is most unhealthy," I added severely.
Holmes stretched up an arm and placed the revolver on the mantelpiece.
"Really Watson, I don't know what I would do without you," he remarked. "As I have had occasion to observe before, you have a certain genius for supplying the element of a touchstone to the higher workings of the trained mind."
"A touchstone that has, to my knowledge, broken the law three times in order to be of assistance to you," I replied a trifle bitterly.
"My dear fellow," said he, and there was that in his voice that banished all resentment and mollified my ruffled feelings.
"It is some time since I saw you smoking a cigar," I pronounced, as I threw myself into my old chair.
"It is a matter of mood, Watson. In this instance, I took the liberty of purloining one from the stock of the late Colonel Warburton." He broke off to glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. "H'm. We have an hour to spare," he concluded. "So let us exchange the problems of Man's manifold wickedness for the expression of that higher power that exists even in the worst of us. Watson, the Stradivarius. It is in the corner behind you."
It was nearly eight o'clock and I had just lit the gas when there came a knock on the door and Inspector MacDonald, his long, angular figure wrapped in a plaid over-coat, bustled into the room.
"I got your message, Mr. Holmes," he cried, "and everything has been carried out in accordance with your suggestions. There'll be a constable in the front garden at midnight. Don't worry about the French window; we can get in without rousing the house."
Holmes rubbed his thin fingers together.
"Excellent, excellent! You have a gift for promptly carrying out---eh—suggestions that will take you far," he said warmly. "Mrs. Hudson will serve us supper here and afterwards a pipe or two may help to fill in the time. I consider that it might be fatal to my plans should we take up our positions before midnight. Now, Mr. Mac, draw up your chair and try this shag. Watson can tell you that it has marked characteristics of its own."
The evening passed pleasantly enough. Sherlock Holmes, who was in his most genial mood, lent an attentive ear to the Scotland Yard man's account of a gang of French coiners whose operations were actually threatening the stability of the louis d'or, and thereafter proceeded to bemuse the Scotsman with a highly ingenious theory as to the effects of runic lore upon the development of the highland clans. It was the striking of midnight which brought us back at last to the grim realities of the night.
Holmes crossed to his desk and, in the pool of light cast by the green-shaded reading lamp, I caught the grave expression on his face as he opened a drawer and took out a life-preserver.
"Slip this into your pocket, Watson," said he. "I fancy that our man may be inclined to violence. Now, Mr. Mac, as Mrs. Hudson has probably been in bed an hour since, if you are ready we will step downstairs and hail the first hansom."
It was a clear starlit night, and a short drive through a network of small streets carried us across Edgeware Road. At a word from Holmes, the cabby pulled up at a corner and as we alighted I saw the long expanse of Cambridge Terrace stretching away before us in an empty desolation of lamplight and shadow. We hurried down the street and turned through the gate leading to our destination.
MacDonald nodded towards the planks which now blocked the shattered window.
"They're loose on one side," he whispered. "But move carefully."
There was a slight creaking and, an instant later, we had squeezed our way past the boards to find ourselves in the utter darkness of Colonel Warburton's curio room.
Holmes had produced a dark lantern from the pocket of his Inverness and following its faint beam we groped our way along the wall until we came to an alcove containing a couch.
"This will do," whispered my friend. "We might have found a worse roost and it is near enough to the fireplace for our purposes."
The night was singularly quiet and, as it turned out, our vigil a dreary one. Once, some belated revellers went by in a hansom, the sound of their singing and the clip-clop of the horse's hoofs gradually dying away towards Hyde Park and, an hour or so later, there came to us the deep rumbling gallop of a fire-engine tearing furiously along Edgeware Road with a clamour of bells and the sharp pistol-shot cracking of the driver's whip. Otherwise, the silence was unbroken save for the ticking of a grandfather clock at the other end of the room.
The atmosphere, which was heavy with the aromatic mustiness of an Oriental museum, began to weigh me down with an increasing lethargy until I had to concentrate all my faculties to keep myself from falling asleep.
I have referred to the utter darkness, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the conditions I became aware of a pale reflection of light from some distant street-lamp stealing through the unboarded French window and I was idly following its path when my gaze fell upon something that brought a chill to my senses. A face, faint and nebulous yet dreadful as the figment of a nightmare, was glaring down at me from the far end of that dim radiance. I must have started involuntarily, for I felt Holmes lean toward me.
"The mask," he whispered. "Our own trophy is likely to be less impressive but rather more dangerous."
Leaning back in my seat I tried to relax, but the sight of that grisly relic had turned my thoughts into a new field of conjecture. The sinister white-clad figure of Chundra Lal, Colonel Warburton's Indian servant, arose in my mind's eye and I attempted to recall the exact words used by Miss Murray in describing the effect of the death-mask upon the man. Perhaps even more than Holmes, I knew enough about India to realize that religious fanaticism and a sense of sacrilege would not only justify any crime but inspire in the devotee a cunning of execution which might well baffle the preconceptions of our Western minds, however experienced in the ways of our fellow-men.
I was considering whether I should open the subject to my companions when my attention was arrested by the low creak of a door-hinge. There was not a moment to lose in warning Holmes that somebody was entering the room. But when I stretched out my hand it was only to find that my friend was no longer beside me.
There followed a period of complete stillness and then a stooping figure, its footsteps muffled by the carpet, whisked across the faint ray of light from the French window and vanished into the shadows immediately in front of me. I had a fleeting impression of a high-collared cape and the dull glitter of some long, thin object grasped in a half-raised hand. An instant later, there came a gleam of light in the fireplace, as though the shutter of a dark lantern had been slid back, and then a gentle tapping and tinkling.
I was rising to my feet when a smothered yell rang through the room followed instantly by the sounds of a furious struggle.
With a thrill of horror I recognized Holmes's voice in that half-choked cry, and plunging forward through the darkness, I hurled myself upon a writhing mass that loomed suddenly before me.
A grip like steel closed round my throat and as I raised my arm to force back the head of my dimly seen assailant he buried his teeth in my forearm like some savage hound. The man possessed the strength of a madman and it was not until MacDonald, having lit a gas-jet, sprang to our assistance that we succeeded in mastering his struggles. Holmes, his face strained and bloodless, leaned back against the wall, his hand clasping his shoulder where he had been hit with a heavy brass poker that now lay in the fireplace amid the splintered shards of window-glass which he had placed there on our previous visit.
"There's your man, MacDonald!" he gasped. "You can arrest him for the murder of Colonel Warburton and for the attempted murder of his wife."
MacDonald flung back our assailant's cape and for a moment I stared in silence before an exclamation of amazement broke from my lips. For, in that first glance, I had failed to recognize in those lowering features and vicious, baleful eyes the bronzed, handsome countenance of Captain Jack Lasher.
The first streaks of dawn were glimmering through the window when my friend and I found ourselves back in Baker Street.
I poured out two stiff brandy-and-sodas and handed one to Holmes. As he leaned back in his chair, the gaslight beside the mantelpiece threw his keen aquiline features into bold relief and I was glad to observe that a little colour was stealing into his face.
"Really, Watson, I owe you an apology," said he. "Captain Jack was a dangerous man. How is your arm where he savaged you?"
"A little painful," I admitted. "But nothing that iodine and a bandage cannot repair. I am far more concerned about your shoulder, my dear fellow, for he gave you an ugly blow with that poker. You must allow me to look at it."
"Later, later, Watson. I assure you that it is nothing worse than a bruise," he replied, with a touch of impatience. "Well, I can confess now that there were moments tonight when I had the gravest doubts that our man would walk into the trap."
"A baited trap, Watson, and had he not swallowed my dainty morsel it would have gone hard with us to bring Captain Lasher to book. I gambled on the fact that a murderer's fears will sometimes override his intelligence. And so it turned out."
"Frankly, I do not understand even now how you unravelled this case."
Holmes leant back in his chair and put his finger tips together.
"My dear fellow, there was no great difficulty in the problem. The facts were obvious enough but the delicacy of the matter lay in the need that the murderer himself should confirm them by some overt act. Circumstantial evidence is the bane of the trained reasoner."
"I have observed nothing."
"You observed everything but failed to reason. In the course of Miss Murray's narrative, she mentioned that the door of the curio room was locked and yet the window-curtains were not drawn, not drawn, mark you, Watson, in a ground-floor room overlooking the public street. A most unusual proceeding. You may recall that I interrupted Miss Murray to enquire as to Colonel Warburton's conventional habits.
"The circumstances suggested to my mind the possibility that Colonel Warburton might have been expecting a visitor and that the nature of that visit was such that either he or the caller preferred that it should occur privately by the French windows rather than the front door. This elderly soldier was recently married to a young and beautiful wife and I therefore discarded the idea of a vulgar assignation. If I was right in my theory, then the visitor must be a man whose private interview with Colonel Warburton would be resented by some other member of the household and hence the obvious step of joining the colonel via the French windows."
"But they were locked," I objected.
"Naturally. Miss Murray stated that Mrs. Warburton accompanied her husband to the curio room immediately after dinner and apparently a quarrel arose between them. It occurred to me that, if the colonel was expecting a visitor, then what more natural than he would leave the curtains undrawn so that his caller should observe that he was not alone. At first, of course, these were all mere conjectures that could possibly fit the facts."
"And the identity of this mysterious visitor?"
"Again, a conjecture, Watson. We knew that Mrs. Warburton disapproved of Captain Lasher, her husband's nephew. I give you these vagaries as they first occurred to me during the earlier part of Miss Murray's narrative. I could not have moved in the matter, had not the latter part of her story contained the one singular fact that changed the slightest of suspicions into the absolute certainty that we were in the presence of a cold-blooded and calculated murder."
"I must say that I cannot recall..."
"Yet you yourself underlined it, Watson, when you used the term 'intolerable.' "
"Great heavens, Holmes," I burst out. "Then, it was Miss Murray's remark about the smell of the colonel's cigar..."
"In a room in which two shots had just been fired! It would have reeked of black powder. I knew, then, that no shots had been fired within the curio room."
"But the reports were heard by the household."
"The shots were fired from outside through the closed windows. The murderer was an excellent marksman and therefore conceivably a military man. Here, at last, was something to work upon and, later on, I received confirmation from your own lips, Watson, when having lit one of the colonel's cigars I waited until I heard you below and then fired two shots from the same calibre revolver as that which killed Warburton."
"In any case, there should have been powder burns," I said thoughtfully.
"Not necessarily. The powder from a cartridge is a tricky element and the absence of burns proved nothing. The smell of the cigar was of far greater importance. I must add, however, that useful though your confirmation was, my visit to the house had already elucidated the whole case in my mind."
"You were startled at the appearance of the Indian servant," I rejoined, somewhat nettled at the trace of self-satisfaction which I discerned in his manner.
"No Watson, I was startled at the broken window through which he retreated."
"But Miss Murray had told us that Captain Lasher broke the window in order to enter the room."
"It is an unfortunate fact, Watson, that a woman will invariably omit from her narrative that exact precision of detail which is as essential to the trained observer as bricks and mortar to a builder. If you will recall, she stated that Captain Lasher ran out of the house, looked through the French window and then, picking up a stone from the rock-garden, smashed the glass and entered."
"The reason that I started when I saw the Indian was because the man was retreating through the wreckage of the far French window, while that nearer to the front door remained unbroken. As we hurried forward to the house, I observed the gap in the rockery immediately under the first window where Lasher had picked up the stone. Why, then, should he run on to the second window and smash it, unless it was that the glass bore its own story? Hence my broad hint to MacDonald of the oyster and the nearest fork. The groundwork of my case was complete when I sniffed the contents of Colonel Warburton's cigar box. They were Dutch, among the weakest in aroma of all cigars."
"All this is now quite clear to me," I said. "But in telling the whole household of your plans to piece together the glass of the broken window it seems to me that you were risking the very evidence on which your case was based."
Holmes reached for the Persian slipper and began to fill his pipe with black shag.
"My dear Watson, it would have been virtually impossible for me to reconstruct those shattered panes to the degree that would prove the existence of two small bullet holes. No, it was a question of bluff, my dear fellow, a gambler's throw. Should somebody make an attempt to destroy still further those shards from the window, then that person was the murderer of Colonel Warburton. I showed my hand deliberately. The rest is known to you. Our man came, armed with a poker, having let himself in with the duplicate latch-key which we discovered in his cape pocket. I think there is nothing to add."
"But the reason, Holmes," I cried.
"We have not far to look, Watson. We are told that, until Colonel Warburton's marriage, Lasher was his only relative and therefore, we may assume, his heir. Mrs. Warburton, according to Miss Murray's statement, disapproved of the younger man on the grounds of his extravagant living. It is obvious from this that the wife's influence must represent a very real danger to the interests of Captain Jack.
"On the night in question, our man came openly to the house and, having spoken with Miss Murray and Major Earnshaw, retired ostensibly to drink a port in the dining-room. In fact, however, he merely passed through the dining-room window, which opens on the front garden, walked to the French windows of the curio room and there shot Colonel Warburton and his wife through the glass.
"It would require no more than a few seconds to rush back by the way that he had come, seize a decanter from the sideboard and hurry out into the hall. But he cut it fine, for you will recall that he appeared a moment or two after the others. To complete the illusion of Colonel Warburton's madness, it merely remained for him to eliminate the bullet holes by smashing the window and, on entering, drop the revolver by the hand of his victim."
"And if Mrs. Warburton had not been there and he had been able to keep his rendezvous with his uncle, what then?" I asked.
"Ah, Watson, there we can only guess. But the fact that he came armed presupposes the worst. I have no doubt that when he comes to trial it will be found that Lasher was pressed for money and, as we have ample reason to know, he is a young man who would not shrink from taking his own measures to remove any obstacles that stood in the way of his needs. Well, my dear fellow, it is high time that you were on your way home. Pray, convey my apologies to your wife for any small interruption I may have caused in the tranquillity of your menage."
"But your shoulder, Holmes," I expostulated. "I must apply some liniment before you retire for a few hours' rest."
"Tut, Watson," my friend replied. "You should have learned by now that the mind is the master of the body. I have a small problem on hand concerning a solution of potash and so if you would have the goodness to hand me that pipette—"
There were only two [cases] which I was the means of introducing to his notice, that of Mr. Hatherley's thumb and that of Colonel Warburton's madness.
FROM "THE ENGINEER'S THUMB"
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