"Your conclusions are perfectly correct, my dear Watson," remarked my friend Sherlock Holmes. "Squalor and poverty are the natural matrix to crimes of violence."
"Precisely so," I agreed. "Indeed, I was just thinking—" I broke off to stare at him in amazement. "Good heavens, Holmes," I cried, "this is too much. How could you possibly know my innermost thoughts!"
My friend leaned back in his chair and, placing his finger-tips together, surveyed me from under his heavy, drooping eyelids.
"I would do better justice, perhaps, to my limited powers by refusing to answer your question," he said, with a dry chuckle. "You have a certain flair, Watson, for concealing your failure to perceive the obvious by the cavalier manner in which you invariably accept the explanation of a sequence of simple but logical reasoning."
"I do not see how logical reasoning can enable you to follow the course of my mental processes," I retorted, a trifle nettled by his superior manner.
"There was no great difficulty. I have been watching you for the last few minutes. The expression on your face was quite vacant until, as your eyes roved about the room, they fell on the bookcase and came to rest on Hugo's Les Miserables which made so deep an impression upon you when you read it last year. You became thoughtful, your eyes narrowed, it was obvious that your mind was drifting again into that tremendous dreadful saga of human suffering; at length your gaze lifted to the window with its aspect of snow-flakes and grey sky and bleak, frozen roofs, and then, moving slowly on to the mantelpiece, settled on the jack-knife With which I skewer my unanswered correspondence. The frown darkened on your face and unconsciously you shook your head despondently. It was an association of ideas. Hugo's terrible sub-third stage, the winter cold of poverty in the slums and, above the warm glow of our own modest fire, the bare knife-blade. Your expression deepened into one of sadness, the melancholy that comes with an understanding of cause and effect in the unchanging human tragedy. It was then that I ventured to agree with you."
"Well, I must confess that you followed my thoughts with extraordinary accuracy," I admitted. "A remarkable piece of reasoning, Holmes."
"Elementary, my dear Watson."
The year of 1887 was moving to its end. The iron grip of the great blizzards that commenced in the last week of December had closed on the land and beyond the windows of Holmes's lodgings in Baker Street lay a gloomy vista of grey, lowering sky and white-capped tiles dimly discernible through a curtain of snow-flakes.
Though it had been a memorable year for my friend, it had been of yet greater importance to me, for it was but two months since that Miss Mary Morston had paid me the signal honour of joining her destiny to mine. The change from my bachelor existence as a half-pay, ex-Army surgeon into the state of wedded bliss had not been accomplished without some uncalled-for and ironic comments from Sherlock Holmes but, as my wife and I could thank him for the fact that we had found each other, we could afford to accept his cynical attitude with tolerance and even understanding.
I had dropped in to our old lodgings on this afternoon, to be precise December 30th, to pass a few hours with my friend and enquire whether any new case of interest had come his way since my previous visit. I had found him pale and listless, his dressing-gown drawn round his shoulders and the room reeking with the smoke of his favorite black shag, through which the fire in the grate gleamed like a brazier in a fog.
"Nothing, save a few routine enquiries, Watson," he had replied in a voice shrill with complaint. "Creative art in crime seems to have become atrophied since I disposed of the late-lamented Bert Stevens." Then lapsing into silence, he curled himself up morosely in his arm-chair, and not another word passed between us until my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the observation that commenced this narrative.
As I rose to go, he looked at me critically.
"I perceive, Watson," said he, "that you are already paying the price. The slovenly state of your left jawbone bears regrettable testimony that somebody has changed the position of your shaving-mirror. Furthermore, you are indulging in extravagances."
"You do me a gross injustice."
"What, at the winter price of fivepence a blossom! Your buttonhole tells me that you were sporting a flower not later than yesterday."
"This is the first time I have known you penurious, Holmes," I retorted with some bitterness.
He broke into a hearty laugh. "My dear fellow, you must forgive me!" he cried. "It is most unfair that I should penalize you because a surfeit of unexpended mental energy tends to play upon my nerves. But hullo, what's this!"
A heavy step was mounting the stairs. My friend waved me back into my chair.
"Stay a moment, Watson," said he. "It is Gregson, and the old game may be afoot once more."
"There is no mistaking that regulation tread. Too heavy for Lestrade's and yet known to Mrs. Hudson or she would accompany him. It is Gregson."
As he finished speaking, there came a knock on the door and a figure muffled to the ears in a heavy cape entered the room. Our visitor tossed his bowler on the nearest chair and unwinding the scarf wrapped around the lower part of his face, disclosed the flaxen hair and long, pale features of the Scotland Yard detective.
"Ah, Gregson," greeted Holmes, with a sly glance in my direction. "It must be urgent business that brings you out in this inclement weather. But throw off your cape, man, and come over to the fire."
The police-agent shook his head. "There is not a moment to lose," he replied, consulting a large silver turnip watch. "The train to Derbyshire leaves in half an hour and I have a hansom waiting below. Though the case should present no difficulties for an officer of my experience, nevertheless I shall be glad of your company."
"Something of interest?"
"Murder, Mr. Holmes," snapped Gregson curtly, "and a singular one at that, to judge from the telegram from the local police. It appears that Lord Jocelyn Cope, the Deputy-Lieutenant of the County, has been found butchered at Arnsworth Castle. The Yard is quite capable of solving crimes of this nature, but in view of the curious terms contained in the police telegram, it occurred to me that you might wish to accompany me. Will you come?"
Holmes leaned forward, emptied the Persian slipper into his tobacco pouch and sprang to his feet.
"Give me a moment to pack a clean collar and toothbrush," he cried. "I have a spare one for you, Watson. No, my dear fellow, not a word. Where would I be without your assistance? Scribble a note to your wife, and Mrs. Hudson will have it delivered. We should be back tomorrow. Now, Gregson, I'm your man and you can fill in the details during our journey."
The guard's flag was already waving as we rushed up the platform at St. Pancras and tore open the door of the first empty smoker. Holmes had brought three travelling-rugs with him and as the train roared its way through the fading winter daylight we made ourselves comfortable enough in our respective corners.
"Well, Gregson, I shall be interested to hear the details," remarked Holmes, his thin, eager face framed in the ear-flaps of his deer-stalker and a spiral of blue smoke rising from his pipe.
"I know nothing beyond what I have already told you."
"And yet you used the word 'singular' and referred to the telegram from the county police as 'curious.' Kindly explain."
"I used both terms for the same reason. The wire from the local inspector advised that the officer from Scotland Yard should read the Derbyshire County Guide and the Gazeteer. A most extraordinary suggestion!"
"I should say a wise one. What have you done about it?"
"The Gazeteer states merely that Lord Jocelyn Cope is a Deputy-Lieutenant and county magnate, married, childless and noted for his bequests to local archeological societies. As for the Guide, I have it here." He drew a pamphlet from his pocket and thumbed over the pages. "Here we are," he continued. "Arnsworth Castle. Built reign of Edward III. Fifteenth-century stained-glass window to celebrate Battle of Agincourt. Cope family penalized for suspected Catholic leaning by Royal Visitation, 1574. Museum open to public once a year. Contains large collection of martial and other relics including small guillotine built originally in Nimes during French Revolution for execution of a maternal ancestor of the present owner. Never used owing to escape of intended victim and later purchased as relic by family after Napoleonic Wars and brought to Arnsworth. Pshaw! That local inspector must be out of his senses, Mr. Holmes. There is nothing to help us here."
"Let us reserve judgment. The man would not have made such a suggestion without reason. In the meantime, I would recommend to your attention the dusk now falling over the landscape. Every material object has become vague and indistinct and yet their solid existence remains, though almost hidden from our visual senses. There is much to be learned from the twilight."
"Quite so, Mr. Holmes," grinned Gregson, with a wink at me. "Very poetical, I am sure. Well, I'm for a short nap."
It was some three hours later that we alighted at a small wayside station. The snow had ceased and beyond the roofs of the hamlet the long desolate slopes of the Derbyshire moors, white and glistening under the light of a full moon, rolled away to the sky-line. A stocky, bow-legged man swathed in a shepherd's plaid hurried towards us along the platform.
"You're from Scotland Yard, I take it?" He greeted us brusquely. "I got your wire in reply to mine and I have a carriage waiting outside. Yes, I'm Inspector Dawlish," he added in response to Gregson's question. "But who are these gentlemen?"
"I considered that Mr. Sherlock Holmes's reputation—" began our companion.
"I've never heard of him," interposed the local man, looking at us with a gleam of hostility in his dark eyes. "This is a serious affair and there is no room for amateurs. But it is too cold to stand arguing here and, if London approves his presence, who am I to gainsay him? This way, if you please."
A closed carriage was standing before the station and a moment later we had swung out of the yard and were bowling swiftly but silently up the village high street.
"There'll be accommodation for you at the Queen's Head," grunted Inspector Dawlish. "But first to the castle."
"I shall be glad to hear the facts of this case," stated Gregson, "and the reason for the most irregular suggestion contained in your telegram."
"The facts are simple enough," replied the other, with a grim smile. "His lordship has been murdered and we know who did it."
"Captain Jasper Lothian, the murdered man's cousin, has disappeared in a hurry. It's common knowledge hereabouts that the man's got a touch of the devil in him, a hard hand with a bottle, a horse or the nearest woman. It's come as a surprise to none of us that Captain Jasper should end by slaughtering his benefactor and the head of his house. Aye, head's a well-chosen word," he ended softly.
"If you've a clear case, then what's this nonsense about a guide-book?"
Inspector Dawlish leaned forward while his voice sank almost to a whisper. "You've read it?" he said. "Then it may interest you to know that Lord Jocelyn Cope was put to death in his own ancestral guillotine."
His words left us in a chilled silence.
"What motive can you suggest for that murder and for the barbarous method employed?" asked Sherlock Holmes at last.
"Probably a ferocious quarrel. Have I not told you already that Captain Jasper had a touch of the devil in him? But there's the castle, and a proper place it looks for deeds of violence and darkness."
We had turned off the country road to enter a gloomy avenue that climbed between banked snow-drifts up a barren moorland slope. On the crest loomed a great building, its walls and turrets stark and grey against the night sky. A few minutes later, our carriage rumbled under the arch of the outer bailey and halted in a courtyard.
At Inspector Dawlish's knock, a tall, stooping man in butler's livery opened the massive oaken door and, holding a candle above his head, peered out at us, the light shining on his weary red-rimmed eyes and ill-nourished beard.
"What, four of you!" he cried querulously. "It b'aint right her ladyship should be bothered thisways at such a time of grief to us all."
"That will do, Stephen. Where is her ladyship?"
The candle flame trembled. "Still with him," came the reply, and there was something like a sob in the old voice. "She hasn't moved. Still sitting there in the big chair and staring at him, as though she had fallen fast asleep with them wonderful eyes wide open."
"You've touched nothing, of course?"
"Nothing. It's all as it was."
"Then let us go first to the museum where the crime Was committed," said Dawlish. "It is on the other side of the courtyard."
He was moving away towards a cleared path that ran across the cobble-stones when Holmes's hand closed upon his arm. "How is this!" he cried imperiously. "The museum is on the other side and yet you have allowed a carriage to drive across the courtyard and people to stampede over the ground like a herd of buffalo."
Holmes flung up his arms appealingly to the moon. "The snow, man, the snow! You have destroyed your best helpmate."
"But I tell you the murder was committed in the museum. What has the snow to do with it?"
Holmes gave vent to a most dismal groan and then we all followed the local detective across the yard to an arched door-way.
I have seen many a grim spectacle during my association with Sherlock Holmes, but I can recall none to surpass in horror the sight that met our eyes within that grey Gothic chamber. It was a small room with a groined roof lit by clusters of tapers in iron sconces. The walls were hung with trophies of armour and mediaeval weapons and edged by glass-topped cases crammed with ancient parchments, thumb-rings, pieces of carved stonework and yawning man-traps. These details I noticed at a glance and then my whole attention was riveted to the object that occupied a low dais in the centre of the room.
It was a guillotine, painted a faded red and, save for its smaller size, exactly similar to those that I had seen depicted in woodcuts of the French Revolution. Sprawling between the two uprights lay the body of a tall, thin man clad in a velvet smoking-jacket. His hands were tied behind him and a white cloth, hideously besmirched, concealed his head, or rather the place where his head had been.
The light of the tapers, gleaming on a blood-spattered steel blade buried in the lunette, reached beyond to touch as with a halo the red-gold hair of the woman who sat beside that dreadful headless form. Regardless of our approach, she remained motionless in her high carved chair, her features an ivory mask from which two dark and brilliant eyes stared into the shadows with the unwinking fixity of a basilisk. In an experience of women covering three continents, I have never beheld a colder nor a more perfect face than that of the chatelaine of Castle Arnsworth keeping vigil in that chamber of death.
"You had best retire, my lady," he said bluntly. "Rest assured that Inspector Gregson here and I will see that justice is done."
For the first time, she looked at us, and so uncertain was the light of the tapers that for an instant it seemed to me that some swift emotion more akin to mockery than grief gleamed and died in those wonderful eyes.
"Stephen is not with you?" she asked incongruously. "But, of course, he would be in the library. Faithful Stephen."
"I fear that his lordship's death—"
She rose abruptly, her bosom heaving and one hand gripping the skirt of her black lace gown.
"His damnation!" she hissed, and then, with a gesture of despair, she turned and glided slowly from the room.
As the door closed, Sherlock Holmes dropped on one knee beside the guillotine and, raising the blood-soaked cloth, peered down at the terrible object beneath. "Dear me," he said quietly. "A blow of this force must have sent the head rolling across the room."
"I fail to understand. Surely you know where you found it?"
"I didn't find it. There is no head."
For a long moment, Holmes remained on his knee, staring up silently at the speaker. "It seems to me that you are taking a great deal for granted," he said at length, scrambling to his feet. "Let me hear your ideas on this singular crime."
"It's plain enough. Sometime last night, the two men quarrelled and eventually came to blows. The younger overpowered the elder and then killed him by means of this instrument. The evidence that Lord Cope was still alive when placed in the guillotine is shown by the fact that Captain Lothian had to lash his hands. The crime was discovered this morning by the butler, Stephen, and a groom fetched me from the village whereupon I took the usual steps to identify the body of his lordship and listed the personal belongings found upon him. If you'd like to know how the murderer escaped, I can tell you that too. On the mare that's missing from the stable."
"Most instructive," observed Holmes. "As I understand your theory, the two men engaged in a ferocious combat, being careful not to disarrange any furniture or smash the glass cases that clutter up the room. Then, having disposed of his opponent, the murderer rides into the night, a suit-case under one arm and his victim's head under the other. A truly remarkable performance."
An angry flush suffused Dawlish's face. "It's easy enough to pick holes in other people's ideas, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he sneered. "Perhaps you will give us your theory."
"I have none. I am awaiting my facts. By the way, when was your last snowfall?"
"Then there is hope yet. But let us see if this room will yield us any information."
For some ten minutes, we stood and watched him, Gregson and I with interest and Dawlish with an ill-concealed look of contempt on his weather-beaten face, as Holmes crawled slowly about the room on his hands and knees muttering and mumbling to himself and looking like some gigantic dun-coloured insect. He had drawn his magnifying-glass from his cape pocket and I noticed that not only the floor but the contents of the occasional tables were subjected to the closest scrutiny. Then, rising to his feet, he stood wrapped in thought, his back to the candlelight and his gaunt shadow falling across the faded red guillotine.
"It won't do," he said suddenly. "The murder was premeditated."
"How do you know?"
"The cranking-handle is freshly oiled, and the victim was senseless. A single jerk would have loosed his hands."
"Then why were they tied?"
"Ah! There is no doubt, however, that the man was brought here unconscious with his hands already bound."
"You're wrong there!" interposed Dawlish loudly. "The design on the lashing proves that it is a sash from one of these window-curtains."
Holmes shook his head. "They are faded through exposure to daylight," said he, "and this is not. There can be little doubt that it comes from a door-curtain, of which there are none in this room. Well, there is little more to be learned here."
The two police-agents conferred together and Gregson turned to Holmes. "As it is after midnight," said he, "we had better retire to the village hostelry and tomorrow pursue our enquiries separately. I cannot but agree with Inspector Dawlish that while we are theorizing here the murderer may reach the coast."
"I wish to be clear on one point, Gregson. Am I officially employed on this case by the police?"
"Impossible, Mr. Holmes!"
"Quite so. Then I am free to use my own judgment. But give me five minutes in the courtyard and Doctor Watson and I will be with you."
The bitter cold smote upon us as I slowly followed the gleam of Holmes's dark lantern along the path that, banked with thick snow, led across the courtyard to the front door. "Fools"! he cried, stooping over the powdered surface. "Look at it, Watson! A regiment would have done less damage Carriage-wheels in three places. And here's Dawlish's boots and a pair of hobnails, probably a groom. A woman now, and running. Of course, Lady Cope and the first alarm. Yes, certainly it is she. What was Stephen doing out here? There is no mistaking his square-toed shoes. Doubtless you observed them, Watson, when he opened the door to us. But what have we here?" The lantern paused and then moved slowly onwards. "Pumps pumps," he cried eagerly, "and coming from the front door. See, here he is again. Probably a tall man, from the size of his feet and carrying some heavy object. The stride is shortened and the toes more clearly marked than the heels. A burdened man always tends to throw his weight forward. He returns! Ah, just so, just so! Well, I think that we have earned our beds."
My friend remained silent during our journey back to the village. But, as we separated from Inspector Dawlish at the door of the inn, he laid a hand on his shoulder.
"The man who has done this deed is tall and spare," said he. "He is about fifty years of age with a turned-in left foot and strongly addicted to Turkish cigarettes which he smokes from a holder."
"Captain Lothian!" grunted Dawlish. "I know nothing about feet or cigarette holders, but the rest of your description is accurate enough. But who told you his appearance?"
"I will set you a question in reply. Were the Copes ever a Catholic family?"
The local inspector glanced significantly at Gregson and tapped his forehead. "Catholic? Well, now that you mention it, I believe they were in the old times. But what on earth—!"
"Merely that I would recommend you to your own guide-book. Good night."
On the following morning, after dropping my friend and myself at the castle gate, the two police-officers drove off to pursue their enquiries further afield. Holmes watched their departure with a twinkle in his eye.
"I fear that I have done you injustice over the years, Watson," he commented somewhat enigmatically, as we turned away.
The elderly manservant opened the door to us and, as we followed him into the great hall, it was painfully obvious that the honest fellow was still deeply afflicted by his master's death.
"There is naught for you here," he cried shrilly. "My God, will you never leave us in peace?"
I have remarked previously on Holmes's gift for putting others at their ease, and by degrees the old man recovered his composure. "I take it that this is the Agincourt window," observed Holmes, staring up at a small but exquisitely coloured stained-glass casement through which the winter sunlight threw a pattern of brilliant colours on the ancient stone floor.
"It is, sir. Only two in all England."
"Doubtless you have served the family for many years," continued my friend gently.
"Served 'em? Aye, me and mine for nigh two centuries. Ours is the dust that lies upon their funeral palls.
"I fancy they have an interesting history."
"They have that, sir."
"I seem to have heard that this ill-omened guillotine was specially built for some ancestor of your late master?"
"Aye, the Marquis de Rennes. Built by his own tenants, the varmints, hated him, they did, simply because he kept up old customs."
"Indeed. What custom?"
"Something about women, sir. The book in the library don't explain exactly."
"Le droit du seigneur, perhaps."
"Well, I don't speak heathern, but I believe them was the very words."
"H'm. I should like to see this library."
The old man's eyes slid to the door at the end of the hall. "See the library?" he grumbled. "What do you want there? Nothing but old books, and her ladyship don't like —Oh, very well."
He led the way ungraciously into a long, low room lined to the ceiling with volumes and ending in a magnificent Gothic fireplace. Holmes, after strolling about listlessly, paused to light a cheroot.
"Well, Watson, I think that we'll be getting back," said he. "Thank you, Stephen. It is a fine room, though I am surprised to see Indian rugs."
"Indian!" protested the old man indignantly. They're antique Persian."
"Persian, I tell you! Them marks are inscriptions, as a gentleman like you should know. Can't see without your spy-glass? Well, use it then. Now, drat it, if he hasn't spilled his matches!"
As we rose to our feet after gathering up the scattered vestas, I was puzzled to account for the sudden flush of excitement in Holmes's sallow cheeks.
"I was mistaken," said he. "They are Persian. Come, Watson, it is high time that we set out for the village and our train back to town."
A few minutes later, we had left the castle. But to my surprise, on emerging from the outer bailey, Holmes led the way swiftly along a lane leading to the stables.
"You intend to enquire about the missing horse," I suggested.
"The horse? My dear fellow, I have no doubt that it is safely concealed in one of the home farms, while Gregson rushes all over the county. This is what I am looking for."
He entered the first loose box and returned with his arms full of straw. "Another bundle for you, Watson, and it should be enough for our purpose."
"But what is our purpose?"
"Principally to reach the front door without being observed," he chuckled, as he shouldered his burden.
Having retraced our footsteps, Holmes laid his finger on his lips and, cautiously opening the great door, slipped into a near-by closet, full of capes and sticks, where he proceeded to throw both our bundles on the floor.
"It should be safe enough," he whispered, "for it is stone-built. Ah! These two mackintoshes will assist admirably. I have no doubt," he added, as he struck a match and dropped it into the pile, "that I shall have other occasions to use this modest stratagem."
As the flames spread through the straw and reached the mackintoshes, thick black wreaths of smoke poured from the cloak-room door into the hall of Arnsworth Castle, accompanied by a hissing and crackling from the burning rubber.
"Good heavens, Holmes," I gasped, the tears rolling down my face. "We shall be suffocated!"
His fingers closed on my arm.
"Wait," he muttered, and even as he spoke, there came a sudden rush of feet and a yell of horror.
In that despairing wail, I recognized Stephen's voice.
"Fire!" he shrieked again, and we caught the clatter of his footsteps as he fled across the hall.
"Now!" whispered Holmes and, in an instant he was out of the cloak-room and running headlong for the library. The door was half open but, as we burst in, the man drumming with hysterical hands on the great fireplace did not even turn his head.
"Fire! The house is on fire!" he shrieked. "Oh, my poor master! My lord! My lord!"
Holmes's hand fell upon his shoulder. "A bucket of water in the cloak-room will meet the case," he said quietly. "It would be as well, however, if you would ask his lordship to join us."
The old man sprang at him, his eyes blazing and his fingers crooked like the talons of a vulture.
"A trick" he screamed. "I've betrayed him through your cursed tricks!"
"Take him, Watson," said Holmes, holding him at arms' length. "There, there. You're a faithful fellow."
"Faithful unto death," whispered a feeble voice.
I started back involuntarily. The edge of the ancient fireplace had swung open and in the dark aperture thus disclosed there stood a tall, thin man, so powdered with dust that for the moment I seemed to be staring not at a human being but at a spectre. He was about fifty years of age, gaunt and high-nosed, with a pair of sombre eyes that waxed and waned feverishly on a face that was the colour of grey paper.
"I fear that the dust is bothering you, Lord Cope," said Holmes very gently. "Would you not be better seated?"
The man tottered forward to drop heavily into an arm chair. "You are the police, of course," he gasped.
"No. I am a private investigator, but acting in the interests of justice."
A bitter smile parted Lord Cope's lips.
"Too late," said he.
"You are ill?"
"I am dying." Opening his fingers, he disclosed a small empty phial. "There is only a short time left to me."
"Is there nothing to be done, Watson?"
I laid my fingers upon the sick man's wrist. His face was already livid and the pulse low and feeble.
Lord Cope straightened himself painfully. "Perhaps you will indulge a last curiosity by telling me how you discovered the truth," said he. "You must be a man of some perception."
"I confess that at first there were difficulties," admitted Holmes, "though these discovered themselves later in the light of events. Obviously the whole key to the problem lay in a conjunction of two remarkable circumstances— the use of a guillotine and the disappearance of the murdered man's head.
"Who, I asked myself, would use so clumsy and rare an instrument, except one to whom it possessed some strong symbolic significance and, if this were the case, then it was logical to suppose that the clue to that significance must lie in its past history."
The nobleman nodded.
"His own people built it for Rennes," he muttered, "in return for the infamy that their womenfolk had suffered at his hands. But pray proceed, and quickly."
"So much for the first circumstance," continued Holmes, ticking off the points on his fingers. "The second threw a flood of light over the whole problem. This is not New Guinea. Why, then, should a murderer take his victim's head? The obvious answer was that he wished to conceal the dead man's true identity. By the way," he demanded sternly, "what have you done with Captain Lothian's head?"
"Stephen and I buried it at midnight in the family vault," came the feeble reply. "And that with all reverence."
"The rest was simple," went on Holmes. "As the body was easily identifiable as yours by the clothes and other personal belongings which were listed by the local inspector, it followed naturally that there could have been no point in concealing the head unless the murderer had also changed clothes with the dead man. That the change had been effected before death was shown by the blood-stains. The victim had been incapacitated in advance, probably drugged, for it was plain from certain facts already explained to my friend Watson that there had been no struggle and that he had been carried to the museum from another part of the castle. Assuming my reasoning to be correct, then the murdered man could not be Lord Jocelyn. But was there not another missing, his lordship's cousin and alleged murderer, Captain Jasper Lothian?"
"How could you give Dawlish a description of the wanted man?" I interposed.
"By looking at the body of the victim, Watson. The two men must have borne a general resemblance to each other or the deception would not have been feasible from the start. An ash tray in the museum contained a cigarette stub, Turkish, comparatively fresh and smoked from a holder. None but an addict would have smoked under the terrible circumstances that must have accompanied that insignificant stump. The foot-marks in the snow showed that someone had come from the main building carrying a burden and had returned without that burden. I think I have covered the principal points."
For a while, we sat in silence broken only by the moan of a rising wind at the windows and the short, sharp panting of the dying man's breath.
"I owe you no explanation," he said at last, "for it is to my Maker, who alone knows the innermost recesses of the human heart, that I must answer for my deed. Nevertheless, though my story is one of shame and guilt, I shall tell you enough to enlist perhaps your forbearance in granting me my final request.
"You must know, then, that following the scandal which brought his Army career to its close, my cousin Jasper Lothian has lived at Arnsworth. Though penniless and already notorious for his evil living, I welcomed him as a kinsman, affording him not only financial support but, what was perhaps more valuable, the social aegis of my position in the county.
"As I look back now on the years that passed, I blame myself for my own lack of principle in my failure to put an end to his extravagance, his drinking and gaming and certain less honourable pursuits with which rumour already linked his name. I had thought him wild and injudicious. I was yet to learn that he was a creature so vile and utterly bereft of honour that he would tarnish the name of his own house.
"I had married a woman considerably younger than myself, a woman as remarkable for her beauty as for her romantic yet singular temperament which she had inherited from her Spanish forebears. It was the old story, and when at long last I awoke to the dreadful truth it was also to the knowledge that only one thing remained for me in life—vengeance. Vengeance against this man who had disgraced my name and abused the honour of my house.
"On the night in question, Lothian and I sat late over our wine in this very room. I had contrived to drug his port and before the effects of the narcotic could deaden his senses I told him of my discovery and that death alone could wipe out the score. He sneered back at me that in killing him I would merely put myself on the scaffold and expose my wife's shame to the world. When I explained my plan, the sneer was gone from his face and the terror of death was freezing in his black heart. The rest you know. As the drug deprived him of his senses, I changed clothes with him, bound his hands with a sash torn from the door-curtain and carried him across the courtyard to the museum, to the virgin guillotine which had been built for another's infamy.
"When it was over, I summoned Stephen and told him the truth. The old man never hesitated in his loyalty to his wretched master. Together we buried the head in the family vault and then, seizing a mare from the stable, he rode it across the moor to convey an impression of flight and finally left it concealed in a lonely farm owned by his sister. All that remained was for me to disappear.
"Arnsworth, like many mansions belonging to families that had been Catholic in the olden times, possessed a priest's hole. There I have lain concealed, emerging only at night into the library to lay my final instructions upon my faithful servant."
"Thereby confirming my suspicion as to your proximity," interposed Holmes, "by leaving no fewer than five smears of Turkish tobacco ash upon the rugs. But what was your ultimate intention?"
"In taking vengeance for the greatest wrong which one man can do to another, I had successfully protected our name from the shame of the scaffold. I could rely on Stephen's loyalty. As for my wife, though she knew the truth she could not betray me without announcing to the world her own infidelity. Life held nothing more for me. I determined therefore to allow myself a day or two in which to get my affairs in order and then to die by my own hand. I assure you that your discovery of my hiding-place has advanced the event by only an hour or so. I had left a letter for Stephen, begging him as his final devoir that he would bury my body secretly in the vaults of my ancestors.
"There, gentlemen, is my story. I am the last of the old line and it lies with you whether or not it shall go out in dishonour."
Sherlock Holmes laid a hand upon his.
"It is perhaps as well that it has been pointed out to us already that my friend Watson and I are here in an entirely private capacity," said he quietly. "I am about to summon Stephen, for I cannot help feeling that you would be more comfortable if he carried this chair into the priest's hole and closed the sliding panel after you."
We had to bend our heads to catch Lord Jocelyn's response.
"Then a higher tribunal will judge my crime," he whispered faintly, "and the tomb shall devour my secret. Farewell, and may a dying man's blessing rest upon you."
Our journey back to London was both chilly and depressing. With nightfall, the snow had recommenced and Holmes was in his least communicative mood, staring out of the window at the scattered lights of villages and farm-houses that periodically flitted past in the darkness.
"The old year is nodding to its fall," he remarked suddenly, "and in the hearts of all these kindly, simple folk awaiting the midnight chimes dwells the perennial anticipation that what is to come will be better than what has been. Hope, however ingenuous and disproven by past experience, remains the one supreme panacea for all the knocks and bruises which life metes out to us." He leaned back and began to stuff his pipe with shag.
"Should you eventually write an account of this curious affair in Derbyshire," he went on, "I would suggest that a suitable title would be 'the Red Widow'."
"Knowing your unreasonable aversion to women, Holmes, I am surprised that you noticed the colour of her hair."
"I refer, Watson, to the popular sobriquet for a guillotine in the days of the French Revolution," he said severely.
The hour was late when, at last, we reached our old lodgings in Baker Street where Holmes, after poking up the fire, lost not a moment in donning his mouse-coloured dressing-gown.
"It is approaching midnight," I observed, "and as I would wish to be with my wife when this year of 1887 draws to its close, I must be on my way. Let me wish you a happy New Year, my dear fellow."
"I heartily reciprocate your good wishes, Watson," he replied. "Pray bear my greetings to your wife and my apologies for your temporary absence."
I had reached the deserted street and, pausing for a moment to raise my collar against the swirl of the snow-flakes, I was about to set out on my walk when my attention was arrested by the strains of a violin. Involuntarily, I raised my eyes to the window of our old sitting-room and there, sharply outlined against the lamplit blind, was the shadow of Sherlock Holmes. I could see that keen, hawk-like profile which I knew so well, the slight stoop of his shoulders as he bent over his fiddle, the rise and fall of the bow-tip. But surely this was no dreamy Italian air, no complicated improvisation of his own creation, that drifted down to me through the stillness of that bleak winter's night.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to min'?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days o' auld lang syne.
A snow-flake must have drifted into my eyes for, as I turned away, the gas-lamps glimmering down the desolate expanse of Baker Street seemed strangely blurred.
My task is done. My note-books have been replaced in the black tin deed-box where they have been kept in recent years and, for the last time, I have dipped my pen in the ink-well.
Through the window that overlooks the modest lawn of our farm-house, I can see Sherlock Holmes strolling among his beehives. His hair is quite white, but his long, thin form is as wiry and energetic as ever, and there is a touch of healthy colour in his cheeks, placed there by Mother Nature and her clover-laden breezes that carry the scent of the sea amid these gentle Sussex Downs.
Our lives are drawing towards eventide and old faces and old scenes are gone forever. And yet, as I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, for a while the past rises up to obscure the present and I see before me the yellow fogs of Baker Street and I hear once more the voice of the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.
"Come, Watson, the game's afoot!"
In the case of the Darlington Substitution Scandal it was of use to me, and also in the Arnsworth Castle business.
FROM "A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA"
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