When my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes sprained his ankle, irony followed upon irony. Within a matter of hours he was presented with a problem whose singular nature seemed to make imperative a visit to that sinister, underground room so well known to the public.
My friend's accident had been an unlucky one. Purely for the sport of it, he had consented to an impromptu glove-match with Bully Boy Rasher, the well-known professional middle-weight, at the old Cribb Sporting Club in Panton Street. To the amazement of the spectators, Holmes knocked out the Bully Boy before the latter could settle down to a long, hard mill.
Having broken Rasher's hanging guard and survived his right hand, my friend was leaving the sparring-saloon when he tripped on those ill-lighted, rickety stairs which I trust the Honorary Secretary of the club has since caused to be mended.
The intelligence of this mishap reached me as my wife and I finished our midday meal one cold season of rain and screaming winds. Though I have not my note-book at hand, I believe it was the first week in March, 1890. Uttering an exclamation as I read the telegram from Mrs. Hudson, I handed the message to my wife.
"You must go at once and see to the comfort of Mr. Sherlock Holmes for a day or two," said she. "Anstruther will always do your work for you."
Since at that time my house was in the Paddington area, it took me no great time to be in Baker Street.
Holmes was, as I expected, seated upon the sofa with his back to the wall, wearing a purple dressing-gown and with his bandaged right ankle upon a heap of cushions. A low-power microscope stood on a small table at his left hand, while on the sofa at his right lay a perfect drift of discarded newspapers.
Despite the weary, heavy-lidded expression which veiled his keen and eager nature, I could see that the misfortune had not sweetened his temper. Since Mrs. Hudson's telegram had mentioned only a fall on some stairs, I asked for an explanation and received that with which I have prefaced this chronicle.
"I was proud of myself, Watson," he added bitterly, "and careless of my step. The more fool I!"
"Yet surely some modest degree of pride was permissible! The Bully Boy is no mean opponent."
"On the contrary, I found him much overrated and half drunk. But I see, Watson, that you yourself are troubled about your health."
"Good heavens, Holmes! It is true that I suspect the advent of a cold. But, since there is as yet no sign in my appearance or voice, it is astonishing that you can have known it!"
"Astonishing? It is elementary. You have been taking your own pulse. A minute trace of the silver nitrate upon your right forefinger has been transferred to a significant spot on your left wrist. But what on earth are you doing now?"
Heedless of his protests, I examined and re-bandaged his ankle.
"And yet, my dear fellow," I went on, endeavouring to raise his spirits as I might cheer any patient, "in one sense it gives me great pleasure to see you thus incapacitated."
Holmes looked at me fixedly, but did not speak.
"Yes," said I, continuing to cheer him, "we must curb our impatience while we are confined to our sofa for a fortnight or perhaps more. But do not misunderstand me. When last summer I had the privilege of meeting your brother, Mycroft, you stated that he was your superior in observation and deduction."
"I spoke the truth. If the art of detection began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived."
"A proposition which I take the liberty of doubting. Now behold! Here are you enforced to the seated position. It will delight me to see you demonstrate your superiority when you are presented with some case—"
"Case? I have no case!"
"Be of good cheer. A case will come."
"The agony column of The Times," said he, nodding towards the drift of newspapers, "is quite featureless. And even the joys of studying a new disease germ are not inexhaustible. As between you and another comforter, Watson, I really prefer Job's."
The entrance of Mrs. Hudson, bearing a letter which had been delivered by hand, momentarily cut him short. Though I had not actually expected my prophecy to be fulfilled with such promptness, I could not but remark that the note-paper bore a crest and must have cost fully half a crown a packet. Nevertheless, I was doomed to disappointment. After tearing open the letter eagerly, Holmes uttered a snort of vexation.
"So much for your soothsaying!" said he, scribbling a reply for our landlady to give to a district messenger. "It is merely an ill-spelt note from Sir Gervase Darlington, asking for an appointment at eleven tomorrow morning, and requesting that it be confirmed by hand to the Hercules Club."
"Darlington!" remarked I. "Surely you have mentioned that name before?"
"Yes, so I have. But upon that occasion I referred to Darlington the art-dealer, whose substitution of a false Leonardo painting for a real one caused such a scandal at the Grosvenor Galleries. Sir Gervase is a different and more exalted Darlington, though no less associated with scandal."
"Who is he?"
"Sir Gervase Darlington, Watson, is the bold, bad baronet of fiction, addicted to pugilism and profligate ladies. But he is by no means a swaggering figure of the imagination; too many such men lived in our grandfathers' time." My friend looked thoughtful. "At the moment, he had best mind his step."
"You interest me. Why so?"
"Well, I am no racing man. Yet I recall that Sir Gervase won a fortune during last year's Derby. Ill-disposed persons whispered that he did so by bribery and secret information. Be good enough, Watson, to remove this microscope."
I did so. There remained upon the little table only the sheet of crested note-paper which Holmes had flung down there. From the pocket of his dressing-gown he took out the snuff box of old gold, with a great amethyst in the centre of the lid, which had been a present from the King of Bohemia.
"However," he added, "every move made by Sir Gervase Darlington is now carefully watched. Should he so much as attempt to communicate with any suspicious person, he will be warned off the turf even if he does not land in gaol. I cannot recall the name of the horse on which he wagered—"
"Lord Hove's Bengal Lady," cried I. "By Indian Rajah out of Countess. She finished three furlongs ahead of the field. Though, of course," I added, "I know little more of racing matters than yourself."
"Holmes, such suspicions as you appear to entertain are base and unworthy! I am a married man with a depleted bank balance. Besides, what race is run in such wild weather as this?"
"Well, the Grand National cannot be too far off."
"By Jove, yes! Lord Hove has two entries for the Grand National. Many fancy Thunder Lad, though not much is expected of Sheerness. But to me," I added, "a scandal attached to the sport of kings is incredible. Lord Hove is an honourable man."
"Precisely. Being an honourable man, he is no friend to Sir Gervase Darlington."
"But why are you sure Sir Gervase can bring you nothing of interest?"
"If you were acquainted with the gentleman, Watson, you would acquit him of being concerned in anything whatever of interest, save that he is a really formidable heavy-weight boxer—" Holmes whistled. "Come! Sir Gervase was among those who witnessed my own trifling encounter with the Bully Boy this morning."
"Then what can he want of you?"
"Even if the question were of any moment, I have no data. A pinch of snuff, Watson? Well, well, I am not enamoured of it myself, though it represents an occasional variation from too much self-poisoning by nicotine."
I could not help laughing.
"My dear Holmes, your case is typical. Every medical man knows that a patient with an injury like yours, though the injury is slight and even of a humorous character, becomes as unreasonable as a child."
Holmes snapped shut the snuff-box and put it into his pocket.
"Watson," said he, "grateful though I am for your presence, I shall be obliged if you do not utter one word more for at least the next six hours, lest I say something which I may regret."
Thus, remaining silent even at supper, we sat very late in the snug room. Holmes moodily cross-indexed his records of crime, and I was deep in the pages of the British Medical Journal. Save for the tick of the clock and the crackle of the fire, there was no sound but the shrieking of the March gale, which drove the rain against the windows like handfuls of small shot, and growled and whooped in the chimney.
"No, no," my friend said querulously, at long last. "Optimism is stupidity. Certainly no case will come to my—Hark! Was that not the bell?"
"Yes. I heard it clearly in spite of the wind. But who can it be?"
"If a client," said Holmes, craning his long neck for a glimpse of the clock, "it must be a matter of deep seriousness to bring someone out at two in the morning and in such a gale."
After some delay, during which it took Mrs. Hudson an interminable time to rise from her bed and open the street door, no less than two clients were ushered into our room. Both of them had been speaking at once, but their conversation became distinct as they approached the door-way.
"Grandfather, you mustn't!" came a young woman's voice. "For the last time, please! You don't want Mr. Holmes to think you are," here she lowered her voice to a whisper, "simple."
"I'm not simple!" cried her companion. "Drat it, Nellie, I see what I see! I should have come to tell the gentleman yesterday morning, only you wouldn't hear of it."
"But, Grandfather, that Room of Horrors is a fearfully frightening place. You imagined it, dear."
"I'm seventy-six years old. But I've got no more imagination," said the old man, proudly, "than one of them wax figures. Me imagine it? Me, that's been night-watchman since long before the museum was took where it is now, and was still here in Baker Street?"
The newcomers paused. The ancient visitor, squat and stubborn-looking in his rain-sodden brown greatcoat and shepherd's check trousers, was a solid man of the people with fine white hair. The girl was different. Graceful and lissom, with fair hair and grey eyes encircled by black lashes, she wore a simple costume of blue with narrow white frills at the wrists and throat. There was grace as well as timidity in her gestures.
Yet her delicate hands trembled. Very prettily she identified Holmes and myself, apologizing for this late call.
"My—my name is Eleanor Baxter," she added; "and, as you may have gathered, my poor grandfather is the night attendant at Madame Taupin's exhibition of wax figures in the Marylebone Road." She broke off. "Oh! Your poor ankle!"
"My injury is nothing, Miss Baxter," said Holmes. "You are both very welcome. Watson, our guests' coats, the umbrella; so. Now, you may be seated here in front of me. Though I have a crutch of sorts here, I am sure you will forgive me if I remain where I am. You were saying?"
Miss Baxter, who had been looking fixedly at the little table in evident distress at her grandfather's words, now gave a start and changed colour as she found Holmes's keen eye upon her.
"Sir, are you acquainted with Madame Taupin's waxworks?"
"It is justly famous."
"Do forgive me!" Eleanor Baxter blushed. "My meaning was, have you ever visited it?"
"Hum! I fear I am too much like our countrymen. Let some place be remote or inaccessible, and the Englishman will lose his life to find it. But he will not even look at it when it lies within a few hundred yards of his own front door. Have you visited Madame Taupin's, Watson?"
"No, I am afraid not," I replied. "Though I have heard much of the underground Room of Horrors. It is said that the management offers a large sum of money to anyone who will spend a night there."
The stubborn-looking old man, who to a medical eye showed symptoms of strong physical pain, nevertheless chuckled hoarsely as he sat down.
"Lord bless you, sir, don't you believe a word of that nonsense."
"It is not true, then?"
"Not a bit, sir. They wouldn't even let you do it. 'Cos a sporting gentleman might light a cigar or what not, and they're feared to death of fire."
"Then I take it," said Holmes, "that you are not unduly troubled by the Room of Horrors?"
"No, sir; never in general. The' even got old Charlie Peace there. He's with Marwood, too, the hangman what turned Charlie off not eleven years ago—but they're friendly like." His voice went higher. "But fair's fair, sir; and I don't like it a bit when those blessed wax figures begin to play a hand of cards!"
A drive of rain rattled against the windows. Holmes leaned forward.
"The wax figures, you say, have been playing at cards?"
"Yes, sir. Word of Sam Baxter!"
"Are all the wax figures engaged in this card game, or only some of them?"
"Only two, sir."
"How do you know this, Mr. Baxter? Did you see them?"
"Lord, sir, I should hope not! But what am I to think, when one of 'em has discarded from his hand, or taken a trick, and the cards are all mucked up on the table? Maybe I ought to explain, sir?"
"Pray do," invited Holmes, with some satisfaction.
"You see, sir, in the course of a night I make only one or two rounds down in the Room of Horrors. It's one big room, with dim lights. The reason I don't make more rounds is 'cos of my rheumatics. Folks don't know how cruel you can suffer from rheumatics! Double you up, they do."
"Dear me!" murmured Holmes sympathetically, pushing the tin of shag toward the old man.
"Anyway, sir! My Nellie there is a good girl, in spite of her eddication and the fine work she does. Whenever my rheumatics are bad, and they've been bad all this week, she gets up every blessed morning and comes to fetch me at seven o'clock—that's when I go off duty—so she can help me to a omnibus.
"Now tonight, being worried about me—which she oughtn't to be—well, Nellie turned up only an hour ago, with young Bob Parsnip. Bob took over my duty from me, so I said, 'I've read all about this Mr. Holmes, only a step away; let's go and tell him.' And that's why we're here."
Holmes inclined his head.
"I see, Mr. Baxter. But you were speaking of last night?"
"Ah! Well, about the Room of Horrors. On one side there's a series of tabloos. Which I mean: there's separate compartments, each of 'em behind an iron railing so nobody can step in, and wax figures in each compartment. The tabloos tell a story that's called 'The History of a Crime.'
"This history of a crime is about a young gentleman—and a pleasant young gentleman he is, too, only weak—who falls into bad company. He gambles and loses his money; then he kills the wicked older man; and at last he's hanged as fast as Charlie Peace. It's meant to be a—a—"
"A moral lesson, yes. Take warning, Watson. Well, Mr. Baxter?"
"Well, sir! It's that wretched gambling tabloo. There's only two of 'em in it, the young gentleman and the wicked wrong 'un. They're sitting in a lovely room, at a table with gold coins on it; only not real gold, of course. It's not a-happening today, you see, but in old times when they had stockings and britches."
"Eighteenth-century costume, perhaps?"
"That's it, sir. The young gentleman is sitting on the other side of the table, so he faces towards you straight. But the old wrong 'un is sitting with his back turned, holding up his cards as if he was laughing, and you can see the cards in his hand.
"Now last night! When I say last night, sir, course I mean two nights ago, because it's towards morning now. I walked straight past that blessed tabloo without seeing nothing. Then, about a hour later, all of a sudden I thinks, 'What's wrong with that tabloo?' There wasn't much wrong, and I'm so used to it that I'm the only one who'd have noticed. 'What's wrong?' I thinks. So I goes down and has another look.
"Sir, so help me! The wicked older man—the one whose hand you can see—was holding less cards than he ought. He'd discarded, or played a trick maybe, and they'd been messing up the cards on the table.
"I've got no 'magination, I tell you. Don't want none. But when Nellie here came to fetch me at seven in the morning, I felt cruel, what with rheumatics and this too. I wouldn't tell her what was wrong—well, just in case I might-a seen things. Today I thought perhaps I dreamed it. But I didn't! It was there again tonight.
"Now, sir, I'm not daft. I see what I see! You might say, maybe, somebody did that for fun—changed the cards, and messed 'em up, and all. But nobody couldn't do it in the daytime, or they'd be seen. It might be done at night, 'cos there's one side door that won't lock properly. But it's not like one of the public's practical jokes, where they stick a false beard on Queen Anne or maybe a sun-bonnet on Napoleon's head. This is so little that nobody'd notice it. But if somebody's been playing a hand of cards for those two blessed dummies, then who did it and why?"
For some moments, Sherlock Holmes remained silent.
"Mr. Baxter," he said gravely, and glanced at his own bandaged ankle, "your patience shames me in my foolish petulance: I shall be happy to look into this matter."
"But, Mr. Holmes," cried Eleanor Baxter, in stark bewilderment, "surely you cannot take the affair seriously?"
"Forgive me, madam. Mr. Baxter, what particular game of cards are the two wax figures playing?"
"Dunno, sir. Used to wonder that myself, long ago when I was new to the place. Nap or whist, maybe? But I dunno."
"You say that the figure with his back turned is holding fewer cards than he should. How many cards have been played from his hand?"
"You did not observe? Tcha, that is most unfortunate! Then I beg of you carefully to consider a vital question. Have these figures been gambling?"
"My dear Holmes—" I began, but my friend's look gave me a pause.
"You tell me, Mr. Baxter, that the cards upon the table have been moved or at least disturbed. Have the gold coins been moved as well?"
"Come to think of it," replied Mr. Samuel Baxter, after a pause, "no, sir, they haven't! Funny, too."
Holmes's eyes were glittering, and he rubbed his hands together.
"I fancied as much," said he. "Well, fortunately I may devote my energies to the problem, since I have nothing on hand at the moment save a future dull matter which seems to concern Sir Gervase Darlington and possibly Lord Hove as well. Lord Hove—Dear me, Miss Baxter, is anything wrong?"
Eleanor Baxter, who had risen to her feet, now contemplated Holmes with startled eyes.
"Did you say Lord Hove?" asked she.
"Yes. How should the name be familiar to you, may I ask?"
"Merely that he is my employer."
"Indeed?" said Holmes, raising his eyebrows. "Ah, yes. You do type-writing, I perceive. The double line in the plush costume a little above your wrist, where the typewritist presses against the table, proclaims as much. You are acquainted with Lord Hove, then?"
"No, I have never so much as seen him, though I do much type-writing at his town house in Park Lane. So humble a person as I—!"
"Tcha, this is even more unfortunate! However, we must do what we can. Watson, have you any objection to going out into such a tempestuous night?"
"Not in the least," said I, much astonished. "But why?"
"This confounded sofa, my boy! Since I am confined to it as to a sick-bed, you must be my eyes. It troubles me to trespass upon your pain, Mr. Baxter, but would it be possible for you to escort Dr. Watson for a brief visit to the Room of Horrors? Thank you; excellent."
"But what am I to do?" asked I.
"In the upper drawer of my desk, Watson, you will find some envelopes."
"Oblige me by counting the number of cards in the hand of each wax figure. Then, carefully keeping them in their present order from left to right, place each set in a separate envelope which you will mark accordingly. Do the same with the cards upon the table, and bring them back to me as quickly as you may accomplish it."
"Sir—" began the ancient man in excitement.
"No, no, Mr. Baxter, I should prefer not to speak now. I have only a working hypothesis, and there seems one almost insuperable difficulty to it." Holmes frowned. "But it is of the first importance to discover, in all senses of the word, what game is being played at that wax exhibition."
Together with Samuel Baxter and his grand-daughter, I ventured forth into the rain-whipped blackness. Despite Miss Baxter's protests, within ten minutes we were all three standing before the gambling tableau in the Room of Horrors.
A not ill-looking young man named Robert Parsnip, clearly much smitten with the charms of Eleanor Baxter, turned up the blue sparks of gas in dusty globes. But even so the gloomy room remained in a semi-darkness in which the ranks of grim wax figures seemed imbued with a horrible spider-like repose, as though waiting only until a visitor turned away, before reaching out to touch him.
Madame Taupin's exhibition is too well known to need any general description. But I was unpleasantly impressed by the tableau called "The History of a Crime." The scenes were most lifelike in both effect and colour, with the wigs and small-swords of the eighteenth century. Had I in fact been guilty of those mythical gambling lapses charged upon me by Holmes's ill-timed sense of humour, the display might well have harassed my conscience.
This was especially so when we lowered our heads under the iron railing, and approached the two gamblers in the mimic room.
"Drat it, Nellie, don't touch them cards!" cried Mr. Baxter, much more testy and irascible in his own domain. But his tone changed as he spoke to me. "Look there, sir! There's," he counted slowly, "there's nine cards in the wicked wrong 'un's hand. And sixteen in the young gentleman's."
"Listen!" whispered the young lady. "Isn't someone walking about upstairs?"
"Drat it, Nellie, it's only Bob Parsnip. Who else would it be?"
"As you said, the cards on the table are not much disarranged," I remarked. "Indeed, the small pile in front of your 'young gentleman' is not disarranged at all. Twelve cards lie at his elbow—"
"Ah, and nineteen by the wrong 'un. Funny card game, sir!"
I agreed and, curiously repulsed by the touch of waxen fingers against my own, I put the various sets of playing-cards into four marked envelopes, and hastened up from the stuffy den. Miss Baxter and her grandfather, despite the latter's horrified protest, I insisted on sending home in a stray cab whose driver had just deposited some hopelessly intoxicated gentleman against his own door.
I was not sorry to return to the snug warmth of my friend's sitting-room. To my dismay, however, Holmes had risen from the couch. He was standing by his desk with the green-shaded lamp, eagerly studying an open atlas and supported by a crutch under his right arm.
"Enough, Watson!" he silenced my protests. "You have the envelopes? Good, good! Give them to me. Thank you. In the hand of the older gambler, the wax figure with his back turned, were there not nine cards?"
"Holmes, this is amazing! How could you have known that?"
"Logic, my dear fellow. Now let us see."
"One moment," I said firmly. "You spoke earlier of a crutch, but where could you have obtained one at such short notice? That is an extraordinary crutch. It seems to be constructed of some light-weight metal, and shines where the rays of the lamp—"
"Yes, yes, I already had it in my possession."
"Already had it?"
"It is made of aluminum, and is the relic of a case before my biographer came to glorify me. I have already mentioned it to you, but you have forgotten. Now be good enough to forget the crutch while you examine these cards. Oh, beautiful, beautiful!"
Were all the jewels of Golconda spread out before him, he could not have been more ecstatic. He even rejoiced when I told him what I had seen and heard.
"What, you are still in the dark? Then do you take these nine cards, Watson. Put them upon the desk in their order, and announce the name of each as you do so."
"Knave of diamonds," said I, placing the cards under the lamp, "seven of hearts, ace of clubs—Good heavens, Holmes!"
"Do you see anything, then?"
"Yes. There are two aces of clubs, one following the other!"
"Did I not call it beautiful? But you have counted only four cards. Proceed with the remaining five."
"Deuce of spades," said I, "ten of hearts—merciful powers, here is a third ace of clubs, and two more knaves of diamonds!"
"And what do you deduce from that?"
"Holmes, I think I see light. Madame Taupin's is famous for its real-life effects. The older wax figure is a brazen gambler, who is depicted as cheating the young man. By a subtle effect, they have shown him as holding false cards for his winning hand."
"Hardly subtle, I fancy. Even so brazen a gambler as yourself, Watson, would surely feel some embarrassment at putting down a winning hand which contained no less than three knaves of diamonds and three aces of clubs?"
"Yes, there are difficulties."
"Further. If you count all the cards, both those in the hands and upon the table, you will observe that their total number is fifty-six: which is four more than I, at least, am accustomed to use in one pack."
"But what can it mean? What is the answer to our problem?"
The atlas lay upon the desk where Holmes had thrown it down when I gave him the envelopes. Snatching up the book, groaning as he staggered and all but fell on that curious crutch, he eagerly opened the book again.
" 'At the mouth of the Thames,' " he read, " 'on the island of—'"
"Holmes, my question concerned the answer to our problem!"
"This is the answer to our problem."
Though I am the most long-suffering of men, I protested strongly when he packed me off upstairs to my old room. I believed that I should get no sleep upon the rack of this mystery, yet I slept heavily, and it was nearly eleven o'clock when I descended to breakfast.
Sherlock Holmes, who had already breakfasted, again sat upon the sofa. I was glad of my clean, fresh shave when I found him deep in conversation with Miss Eleanor, whose timidity was lessened by his easy manner.
Yet something in the gravity of his face arrested my hand as I rang the bell for rashers and eggs.
"Miss Baxter," said he, "though there still remains an objection to my hypothesis, the time has come to tell you something of great importance. But what the devil—!"
Our door had been suddenly dashed open. To be precise, it was kicked open with a crash. But this had been done only as a jest by the man who kicked it, for his loud, overfed burst of laughter rang like a brazen trumpet.
In the aperture stood a burly, red-faced gentleman with a shining hat, a costly frock-coat open over a white waistcoat to show the diamonds on his watch-guard, and the single flaming ruby in his cravat.
Though not so tall as Holmes, he was far broader and heavier; indeed, with a figure not unlike my own. His loud laugh rang out again, and his cunning little eyes flashed, as he held up a leather bag and shook it.
"Here you are, cully!" cried he. "You're the Scotland Yard man, ain't you? A thousand gold sovereigns, and all yours for the askin'!"
Sherlock Holmes, though astonished, regarded him with the utmost composure.
"Sir Gervase Darlington, I think?"
Without paying the slightest notice of either Miss Baxter or myself, the newcomer strode across and rattled the bag of coins under Holmes's nose.
"That's me, Mister Detective!" said he. "Saw you fight yesterday. You could be better, but you'll do. One day, my man, they may make prize-fightin' legal. Till they do, a gentleman's got to arrange a neat little mill in secret. Stop a bit, though!"
Suddenly, cat-footed despite his weight, he went to the window and peered down into the street.
"Curse old Phileas Belch! He's had a man following me for months. Ay, and two blasted manservants in succession to steam open my letters. Broke the back for one of 'em, though." Sir Gervase's shattering laugh rang again. "Nevermind!"
Holmes's face seemed to change; but an instant later he was his cool, imperturbable self as Sir Gervase Darlington turned back, flinging the bag of money on the sofa.
"Keep the dibs, Scotland Yarder. I don't need 'em. Now, then. In three months we'll match you with Jem Garlick, the Bristol Smasher. Fight a cross, and I'll skin you; do me proud, and I can be a good patron. With an unknown feller like you, I can get eight to one odds."
"Do I understand, Sir Gervase," said Holmes, "that you wish me to box professionally in the ring?"
"You're the Scotland Yarder, ain't you? You comprey English, don't you?"
"When I hear it spoken, yes."
"That's a joke, hey? Well, so is this!"
Playfully, deliberately, his heavy left fist whipped out a round-arm which passed—as it was meant to pass— just an inch in front of my friend's nose. Holmes did not even blink. Again Sir Gervase roared with laughter.
"Mind your manners, Mister Detective, when you speak to a gentleman. I could break you in two even if you didn't have a bad ankle, by God!"
Miss Eleanor Baxter, white-faced, uttered a little moaning cry and seemed to be trying to efface herself against the wall.
"Sir Gervase," cried I, "you will kindly refrain from using offensive language in the presence of a lady."
Instantly our guest turned round, and looked me up and down in a most insolent manner.
"Who's this? Watson? Sawbones feller? Oh." Suddenly he thrust his beefy red face into mine. "Know anything about boxin'?"
"No," said I. "That is—not much."
"Then see you don't get a lesson," retorted Sir Gervase playfully, and roared with mirth again. "Lady? What lady?" Seeing Miss Baxter, he looked a little disconcerted, but directed a killing ogle. "No lady, Sawbones. But a fetchin' little piece, by God!"
"Sir Gervase," said I, "you are now warned, for the last time."
"One moment, Watson," interposed the calm voice of Sherlock Holmes. "You must forgive Sir Gervase Darlington. No doubt Sir Gervase has not yet recovered from the visit he paid three days ago to the wax exhibition of Madame Taupin."
In the brief silence that followed, we could hear a coal rattle in the grate and the eternal rain on the windows. But our guest could not be dismayed.
"The Scotland Yarder, eh?" he sneered. "Who told you I was at Madame Taupin's three days ago?"
"No one. But, from certain facts in my possession, the inference was obvious. Such a visit looked innocent, did it not? It would arouse no suspicion on the part of anyone who might be following—some follower, for instance, employed by the eminent sportsman Sir Phileas Belch, who wished to make certain you did not win another fortune by secret information as you did on last year's Derby."
"You don't interest me, my man!"
"Indeed? And yet, with your sporting proclivities, I feel sure you must be interested in cards."
"Playing-cards," said Holmes blandly, taking some from his dressing-gown pocket and holding them up fan-wise. "In fact, these nine cards."
"What the devil's all this?"
"It is a singular fact, Sir Gervase, that a casual visitor to the Room of Horrors—on passing the gambling tableau —can see the cards in the hand of a certain wax figure without even giving them more than an innocent-appearing glance.
"Now some strange tampering was done one night with these cards. The cards in the hand of the other player, the 'young gentleman,' had not even been touched, as was shown by their dusty and gritty condition. But some person, a certain person, had removed a number of cards from the hand of the so-called 'wrong 'un,' throwing them down on the table, and, further, had added four cards from no less than two extra packs.
"Why was this done? It was not because someone wished to play a practical joke, in creating the illusion that wax dummies were occupied in reckless gambling. Had that been the culprit's motive, he would have moved the imitation gold coins as well as the cards. But the coins were not moved.
"The true answer is simple and indeed obvious. There are twenty-six letters in our alphabet; and twenty-six, twice multiplied, gives us fifty-two; the number of cards in a pack. Supposing that we were arbitrarily to choose one card for each letter, we could easily make a childish, elementary form of substitution-cipher—"
Sir Gervase Darlington's metal laugh blared shrilly. "Substitution-cipher," jeered he, with his red hand at the ruby in his cravat. "What's that, hey? What's the fool talkin' about?"
"—which would be betrayed, however," said Holmes, "should a message of only nine letters contain a double 'e' or a double 's.' Let us imagine, therefore, that the knave of diamonds stands for the letter 's' and the ace of clubs for the letter 'e.' "
"Holmes," interposed I, "this may be inspiration. But it is not logic! Why should you think a message must contain those letters?"
"Because already I knew the message itself. You told it to me."
"I told you?"
"Tut, Watson. If these cards represent the letters indicated, we have a double 'e' towards the beginning of the word and a double 's' at the end of it. The first letter of the word, we perceive, must be 'S,' and there is an 'e' before the double 's' at the end. No cunning is required to give us the word 'Sheerness.' "
"But what in the world has Sheerness—" I began.
"Geographically, you will find it towards the mouth of the Thames," interrupted Holmes. "But it is also, you informed me, the name of a horse owned by Lord Hove. Though this horse has been entered for the Grand National, you told me that little is expected of it. But if the horse has been trained with the utmost secrecy as another smashing winner like Bengal Lady—"
"There would be a tremendous killing," said I, "for any gambler who could learn that well-guarded secret and back the horse!"
Sherlock Holmes held up the fan of cards in his left hand.
"My dear Miss Eleanor Baxter," cried he, with a sorrowful sternness, "why did you let Sir Gervase Darlington persuade you? Your grandfather would not like to hear that you used the wax exhibition to leave this message—telling Sir Gervase what he wished to know without even speaking to him, writing to him, or approaching within a mile of him."
If previously Miss Baxter had turned pale and uttered a moan at seeing Sir Gervase, it was as nothing to the piteous look now in her stricken grey eyes. Swaying on her feet, she began to falter out a denial.
"No, no!" said Holmes, gently. "It really will not do. Within a few moments of the time you entered this room last night, I was aware of your—your acquaintanceship with Sir Gervase here."
"Mr. Holmes, you cannot have known it!"
"I fear so. Kindly observe the small table at my left as I sit upon the sofa. When you approached me, there was nothing upon the table, save a sheet of note-paper emblazoned with the somewhat conspicuous crest of Sir Gervase Darlington."
"Oh, heaven help me!" cried the wretched young lady.
"Yet you were strangely affected. You looked fixedly at the table, as though in recognition. When you saw my eye upon you, you gave a start and changed colour. By apparently casual remarks, I elicited the fact that your employer is Lord Hove, the owner of Sheerness—"
"No! No! No!"
"It would have been easy for you to have substituted the new cards for those already in the wax figure's hand. As your grandfather said, there is a side door at Madame Taupin's which cannot properly be locked. You could have made the substitution secretly at night, before you called formally to escort your grandfather home in the morning.
"You might have destroyed the evidence before too late, if on the first night your grandfather had told you what was amiss in the museum. But he did not tell you until the following night, when both he and Robert Parsnip were there, and you could not be alone. However, I do not wonder you protested when he wished to see me. Later, as Dr. Watson quite unconsciously told me, you tried to seize and scatter the cards, in the wax figure's hand."
"Holmes," cried I, "enough of such torture! The true culprit is not Miss Baxter, but this ruffian who stands and laughs at us!"
"Believe me, Miss Baxter, I would not distress you," said Holmes. "I have no doubt you learned by accident of Sheerness' powers. Sporting peers will speak quite carelessly when they hear only the harmless clicking of a type-writer from an adjoining room. But Sir Gervase, long before he was so carefully watched, must have urged you to keep your ears open and communicate with him in this ingenious way should you acquire information of value.
"At first the method seemed almost too ingenious. Indeed, I could not understand why you did not merely write to him, until when he arrived here I learned that even his letters are steamed open. The cards were the only possible way. But we have the evidence now—"
"No, by God!" said Sir Gervase Darlington. "You've got no evidence at all!"
His left hand, quick as a striking snake, snatched the cards from Holmes's grasp. As my friend instinctively stood up, the pain in his swollen ankle making him bite back a cry, Sir Gervase's open right hand drove into Holmes's neck and sent him sprawling back on the sofa. Again the triumphant laugh rang out. "Gervase!" pleaded Miss Baxter, wringing her hands. "Please! Don't look at me so! I meant no harm!"
"Oh, no!" said he, with a sneer on his brutal face. "N-no-o-o! Come here and betray me, would you? Make me jump when I see you, hey? You're no better than you should be, and I'll tell that to anybody who asks. Now stand aside, damn you!"
"Sir Gervase," said I, "already I have warned you for the last time."
"Sawbones interfering, eh? I'll—" Now, I am the first to admit that it was luck rather than judgment, though perhaps I may add that I am quicker on my feet than my friends suppose. Suffice to say Miss Baxter screamed.
Despite the pain of his ankle, Sherlock Holmes again leaped from the sofa.
"By Jove, Watson! A finer left on the mark and right to the head I never witnessed! You've grassed him so hard he will be unconscious for ten minutes!"
"Yet I trust," said I, blowing upon cracked knuckles, "that poor Miss Baxter has not been unduly distressed by the crash with which he struck the floor? It would also grieve me to alarm Mrs. Hudson, whom I hear approaching with bacon and eggs."
"Good old Watson!"
"Why do you smile, Holmes? Have I said something of a humorous character?"
"No, no. Heaven forbid! Yet sometimes I suspect that I may be much shallower, and you far more deep, than customarily I am wont to believe."
"Your satire is beyond me. However, there is the evidence. But you must not publicly betray even Sir Gervase Darlington, lest you betray Miss Baxter as well!"
"Humph! I have a score to settle with that gentleman, Watson. His offer to open for me a career as a professional boxer I could not in honesty resent. In its way, it is a great compliment. But to confuse me with a Scotland Yard detective! That was an insult, I fear, which I can neither forget nor forgive."
"Holmes, how many favours have I ever asked of you?"
"Well, well, have it as you please. We shall keep the cards only as a last resort, should that sleeping beauty again misbehave. As for Miss Baxter—"
"I loved him!" cried the poor young lady passionately. "Or—well, at least, I thought I did."
"In any event, Miss Baxter, Watson shall remain silent as long as you like. He must not speak until some long, long distant date when you, perhaps as an ancient great-grandam, shall smile and give your leave. Half a century ere that, you will have forgotten all about Sir Gervase Darlington."
"Never! Never! Never!"
"Oh, I fancy so," smiled Sherlock Holmes. "On s' enlace; puis, un jour, on se lasse; c'est l'amour. There is more wisdom in that French epigram than in the whole works of Henrik Ibsen."
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