“No good news?”
“Thank God for that. But come in. You must be weary, for you have had a long day.”
“This is my friend, Dr. Watson. He has been of most vital use to me in several of my cases, and a lucky chance has made it possible for me to bring him out and associate him with this investigation.”
“I am delighted to see you,” said she, pressing my hand warmly. “You will, I am sure, forgive anything that may be wanting in our arrangements, when you consider the blow which has come so suddenly upon us.”
“My dear madam,” said I, “I am an old campaigner, and if I were not I can very well see that no apology is needed. If I can be of any assistance, either to you or to my friend here, I shall be indeed happy.”
“Now, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said the lady as we entered a well-lit dining-room, upon the table of which a cold supper had been laid out, “I should very much like to ask you one or two plain questions, to which I beg that you will give a plain answer.”
“Do not trouble about my feelings. I am not hysterical, nor given to fainting. I simply wish to hear your real, real opinion.”
“Upon what point?”
“In your heart of hearts, do you think that Neville is alive?”
Sherlock Holmes seemed to be embarrassed by the question. “Frankly, now!” she repeated, standing upon the rug and looking keenly down at him as he leaned back in a basket-chair.
“Frankly, then, madam, I do not.”
“You think that he is dead?”
“I don’t say that. Perhaps.”
“And on what day did he meet his death?”
“Then perhaps, Mr. Holmes, you will be good enough to explain how it is that I have received a letter from him to-day.”
Sherlock Holmes sprang out of his chair as if he had been galvanised.
“What!” he roared.
“Yes, to-day.” She stood smiling, holding up a little slip of paper in the air.
“May I see it?”
He snatched it from her in his eagerness, and smoothing it out upon the table he drew over the lamp and examined it intently. I had left my chair and was gazing at it over his shoulder. The envelope was a very coarse one and was stamped with the Gravesend postmark and with the date of that very day, or rather of the day before, for it was considerably after midnight.
“Coarse writing,” murmured Holmes. “Surely this is not your husband’s writing, madam.”
“No, but the enclosure is.”
“I perceive also that whoever addressed the envelope had to go and inquire as to the address.”
“How can you tell that?”
“The name, you see, is in perfectly black ink, which has dried itself. The rest is of the greyish colour, which shows that blotting-paper has been used. If it had been written straight off, and then blotted, none would be of a deep black shade. This man has written the name, and there has then been a pause before he wrote the address, which can only mean that he was not familiar with it. It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles. Let us now see the letter. Ha! there has been an enclosure here!”
“Yes, there was a ring. His signet-ring.”
“And you are sure that this is your husband’s hand?”
“One of his hands.”
“His hand when he wrote hurriedly. It is very unlike his usual writing, and yet I know it well.”
“‘Dearest do not be frightened. All will come well. There is a huge error which it may take some little time to rectify. Wait in patience.—NEVILLE.’ Written in pencil upon the fly-leaf of a book, octavo size, no water-mark. Hum! Posted to-day in Gravesend by a man with a dirty thumb. Ha! And the flap has been gummed, if I am not very much in error, by a person who had been chewing tobacco. And you have no doubt that it is your husband’s hand, madam?”
“None. Neville wrote those words.”
“And they were posted to-day at Gravesend. Well, Mrs. St. Clair, the clouds lighten, though I should not venture to say that the danger is over.”
“But he must be alive, Mr. Holmes.”
“Unless this is a clever forgery to put us on the wrong scent. The ring, after all, proves nothing. It may have been taken from him.”
“No, no; it is, it is his very own writing!”
“Very well. It may, however, have been written on Monday and only posted to-day.”
“That is possible.”
“If so, much may have happened between.”
“Oh, you must not discourage me, Mr. Holmes. I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the dining-room rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle and yet be ignorant of his death?”
“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner. And in this letter you certainly have a very strong piece of evidence to corroborate your view. But if your husband is alive and able to write letters, why should he remain away from you?”
“I cannot imagine. It is unthinkable.”
“And on Monday he made no remarks before leaving you?”
“And you were surprised to see him in Swandam Lane?”
“Very much so.”
“Was the window open?”
“Then he might have called to you?”
“He only, as I understand, gave an inarticulate cry?”
“A call for help, you thought?”
“Yes. He waved his hands.”
“But it might have been a cry of surprise. Astonishment at the unexpected sight of you might cause him to throw up his hands?”
“It is possible.”
“And you thought he was pulled back?”
“He disappeared so suddenly.”
“He might have leaped back. You did not see anyone else in the room?”
“No, but this horrible man confessed to having been there, and the Lascar was at the foot of the stairs.”
“Quite so. Your husband, as far as you could see, had his ordinary clothes on?”
“But without his collar or tie. I distinctly saw his bare throat.”
“Had he ever spoken of Swandam Lane?”
“Had he ever showed any signs of having taken opium?”
“Thank you, Mrs. St. Clair. Those are the principal points about which I wished to be absolutely clear. We shall now have a little supper and then retire, for we may have a very busy day to-morrow.”
A large and comfortable double-bedded room had been placed at our disposal, and I was quickly between the sheets, for I was weary after my night of adventure. Sherlock Holmes was a man, however, who, when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind, would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over, rearranging his facts, looking at it from every point of view until he had either fathomed it or convinced himself that his data were insufficient. It was soon evident to me that he was now preparing for an all-night sitting. He took off his coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from his bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him. In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features. So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment. The pipe was still between his lips, the smoke still curled upward, and the room was full of a dense tobacco haze, but nothing remained of the heap of shag which I had seen upon the previous night.
“Awake, Watson?” he asked.
“Game for a morning drive?”
“Then dress. No one is stirring yet, but I know where the stable-boy sleeps, and we shall soon have the trap out.” He chuckled to himself as he spoke, his eyes twinkled, and he seemed a different man to the sombre thinker of the previous night.
As I dressed I glanced at my watch. It was no wonder that no one was stirring. It was twenty-five minutes past four. I had hardly finished when Holmes returned with the news that the boy was putting in the horse.
“I want to test a little theory of mine,” said he, pulling on his boots. “I think, Watson, that you are now standing in the presence of one of the most absolute fools in Europe. I deserve to be kicked from here to Charing Cross. But I think I have the key of the affair now.”
“And where is it?” I asked, smiling.
“In the bathroom,” he answered. “Oh, yes, I am not joking,” he continued, seeing my look of incredulity. “I have just been there, and I have taken it out, and I have got it in this Gladstone bag. Come on, my boy, and we shall see whether it will not fit the lock.”
We made our way downstairs as quietly as possible, and out into the bright morning sunshine. In the road stood our horse and trap, with the half-clad stable-boy waiting at the head. We both sprang in, and away we dashed down the London Road. A few country carts were stirring, bearing in vegetables to the metropolis, but the lines of villas on either side were as silent and lifeless as some city in a dream.
“It has been in some points a singular case,” said Holmes, flicking the horse on into a gallop. “I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.”
In town the earliest risers were just beginning to look sleepily from their windows as we drove through the streets of the Surrey side. Passing down the Waterloo Bridge Road we crossed over the river, and dashing up Wellington Street wheeled sharply to the right and found ourselves in Bow Street. Sherlock Holmes was well known to the force, and the two constables at the door saluted him. One of them held the horse’s head while the other led us in.
“Who is on duty?” asked Holmes.
“Inspector Bradstreet, sir.”
“Ah, Bradstreet, how are you?” A tall, stout official had come down the stone-flagged passage, in a peaked cap and frogged jacket. “I wish to have a quiet word with you, Bradstreet.”
“Certainly, Mr. Holmes. Step into my room here.”
It was a small, office-like room, with a huge ledger upon the table, and a telephone projecting from the wall. The inspector sat down at his desk.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Holmes?”
“I called about that beggarman, Boone—the one who was charged with being concerned in the disappearance of Mr. Neville St. Clair, of Lee.”
“Yes. He was brought up and remanded for further inquiries.”
“So I heard. You have him here?”
“In the cells.”
“Is he quiet?”
“Oh, he gives no trouble. But he is a dirty scoundrel.”
“Yes, it is all we can do to make him wash his hands, and his face is as black as a tinker’s. Well, when once his case has been settled, he will have a regular prison bath; and I think, if you saw him, you would agree with me that he needed it.”
“I should like to see him very much.”
“Would you? That is easily done. Come this way. You can leave your bag.”
“No, I think that I’ll take it.”
“Very good. Come this way, if you please.” He led us down a passage, opened a barred door, passed down a winding stair, and brought us to a whitewashed corridor with a line of doors on each side.
“The third on the right is his,” said the inspector. “Here it is!” He quietly shot back a panel in the upper part of the door and glanced through.
“He is asleep,” said he. “You can see him very well.”
We both put our eyes to the grating. The prisoner lay with his face towards us, in a very deep sleep, breathing slowly and heavily. He was a middle-sized man, coarsely clad as became his calling, with a coloured shirt protruding through the rent in his tattered coat. He was, as the inspector had said, extremely dirty, but the grime which covered his face could not conceal its repulsive ugliness. A broad wheal from an old scar ran right across it from eye to chin, and by its contraction had turned up one side of the upper lip, so that three teeth were exposed in a perpetual snarl. A shock of very bright red hair grew low over his eyes and forehead.
“He’s a beauty, isn’t he?” said the inspector.
“He certainly needs a wash,” remarked Holmes. “I had an idea that he might, and I took the liberty of bringing the tools with me.” He opened the Gladstone bag as he spoke, and took out, to my astonishment, a very large bath-sponge.
“He! he! You are a funny one,” chuckled the inspector.
“Now, if you will have the great goodness to open that door very quietly, we will soon make him cut a much more respectable figure.”
“Well, I don’t know why not,” said the inspector. “He doesn’t look a credit to the Bow Street cells, does he?” He slipped his key into the lock, and we all very quietly entered the cell. The sleeper half turned, and then settled down once more into a deep slumber. Holmes stooped to the water-jug, moistened his sponge, and then rubbed it twice vigorously across and down the prisoner’s face.
“Let me introduce you,” he shouted, “to Mr. Neville St. Clair, of Lee, in the county of Kent.”
Never in my life have I seen such a sight. The man’s face peeled off under the sponge like the bark from a tree. Gone was the coarse brown tint! Gone, too, was the horrid scar which had seamed it across, and the twisted lip which had given the repulsive sneer to the face! A twitch brought away the tangled red hair, and there, sitting up in his bed, was a pale, sad-faced, refined-looking man, black-haired and smooth-skinned, rubbing his eyes and staring about him with sleepy bewilderment. Then suddenly realising the exposure, he broke into a scream and threw himself down with his face to the pillow.
“Great heavens!” cried the inspector, “it is, indeed, the missing man. I know him from the photograph.”
The prisoner turned with the reckless air of a man who abandons himself to his destiny. “Be it so,” said he. “And pray what am I charged with?”
“With making away with Mr. Neville St.— Oh, come, you can’t be charged with that unless they make a case of attempted suicide of it,” said the inspector with a grin. “Well, I have been twenty-seven years in the force, but this really takes the cake.”
“If I am Mr. Neville St. Clair, then it is obvious that no crime has been committed, and that, therefore, I am illegally detained.”
“No crime, but a very great error has been committed,” said Holmes. “You would have done better to have trusted your wife.”
“It was not the wife; it was the children,” groaned the prisoner. “God help me, I would not have them ashamed of their father. My God! What an exposure! What can I do?”
Sherlock Holmes sat down beside him on the couch and patted him kindly on the shoulder.
“If you leave it to a court of law to clear the matter up,” said he, “of course you can hardly avoid publicity. On the other hand, if you convince the police authorities that there is no possible case against you, I do not know that there is any reason that the details should find their way into the papers. Inspector Bradstreet would, I am sure, make notes upon anything which you might tell us and submit it to the proper authorities. The case would then never go into court at all.”
“God bless you!” cried the prisoner passionately. “I would have endured imprisonment, ay, even execution, rather than have left my miserable secret as a family blot to my children.
“You are the first who have ever heard my story. My father was a schoolmaster in Chesterfield, where I received an excellent education. I travelled in my youth, took to the stage, and finally became a reporter on an evening paper in London. One day my editor wished to have a series of articles upon begging in the metropolis, and I volunteered to supply them. There was the point from which all my adventures started. It was only by trying begging as an amateur that I could get the facts upon which to base my articles. When an actor I had, of course, learned all the secrets of making up, and had been famous in the green-room for my skill. I took advantage now of my attainments. I painted my face, and to make myself as pitiable as possible I made a good scar and fixed one side of my lip in a twist by the aid of a small slip of flesh-coloured plaster. Then with a red head of hair, and an appropriate dress, I took my station in the business part of the city, ostensibly as a match-seller but really as a beggar. For seven hours I plied my trade, and when I returned home in the evening I found to my surprise that I had received no less than 26s. 4d.
“I wrote my articles and thought little more of the matter until, some time later, I backed a bill for a friend and had a writ served upon me for £ 25. I was at my wit’s end where to get the money, but a sudden idea came to me. I begged a fortnight’s grace from the creditor, asked for a holiday from my employers, and spent the time in begging in the City under my disguise. In ten days I had the money and had paid the debt.
“Well, you can imagine how hard it was to settle down to arduous work at £ 2 a week when I knew that I could earn as much in a day by smearing my face with a little paint, laying my cap on the ground, and sitting still. It was a long fight between my pride and the money, but the dollars won at last, and I threw up reporting and sat day after day in the corner which I had first chosen, inspiring pity by my ghastly face and filling my pockets with coppers. Only one man knew my secret. He was the keeper of a low den in which I used to lodge in Swandam Lane, where I could every morning emerge as a squalid beggar and in the evenings transform myself into a well-dressed man about town. This fellow, a Lascar, was well paid by me for his rooms, so that I knew that my secret was safe in his possession.
“Well, very soon I found that I was saving considerable sums of money. I do not mean that any beggar in the streets of London could earn £ 700 a year—which is less than my average takings—but I had exceptional advantages in my power of making up, and also in a facility of repartee, which improved by practice and made me quite a recognised character in the City. All day a stream of pennies, varied by silver, poured in upon me, and it was a very bad day in which I failed to take £ 2.
“As I grew richer I grew more ambitious, took a house in the country, and eventually married, without anyone having a suspicion as to my real occupation. My dear wife knew that I had business in the City. She little knew what.
“Last Monday I had finished for the day and was dressing in my room above the opium den when I looked out of my window and saw, to my horror and astonishment, that my wife was standing in the street, with her eyes fixed full upon me. I gave a cry of surprise, threw up my arms to cover my face, and, rushing to my confidant, the Lascar, entreated him to prevent anyone from coming up to me. I heard her voice downstairs, but I knew that she could not ascend. Swiftly I threw off my clothes, pulled on those of a beggar, and put on my pigments and wig. Even a wife’s eyes could not pierce so complete a disguise. But then it occurred to me that there might be a search in the room, and that the clothes might betray me. I threw open the window, reopening by my violence a small cut which I had inflicted upon myself in the bedroom that morning. Then I seized my coat, which was weighted by the coppers which I had just transferred to it from the leather bag in which I carried my takings. I hurled it out of the window, and it disappeared into the Thames. The other clothes would have followed, but at that moment there was a rush of constables up the stair, and a few minutes after I found, rather, I confess, to my relief, that instead of being identified as Mr. Neville St. Clair, I was arrested as his murderer.
“I do not know that there is anything else for me to explain. I was determined to preserve my disguise as long as possible, and hence my preference for a dirty face. Knowing that my wife would be terribly anxious, I slipped off my ring and confided it to the Lascar at a moment when no constable was watching me, together with a hurried scrawl, telling her that she had no cause to fear.”
“That note only reached her yesterday,” said Holmes.
“Good God! What a week she must have spent!”
“The police have watched this Lascar,” said Inspector Bradstreet, “and I can quite understand that he might find it difficult to post a letter unobserved. Probably he handed it to some sailor customer of his, who forgot all about it for some days.”
“That was it,” said Holmes, nodding approvingly; “I have no doubt of it. But have you never been prosecuted for begging?”
“Many times; but what was a fine to me?”
“It must stop here, however,” said Bradstreet. “If the police are to hush this thing up, there must be no more of Hugh Boone.”
“I have sworn it by the most solemn oaths which a man can take.”
“In that case I think that it is probable that no further steps may be taken. But if you are found again, then all must come out. I am sure, Mr. Holmes, that we are very much indebted to you for having cleared the matter up. I wish I knew how you reach your results.”
“I reached this one,” said my friend, “by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag. I think, Watson, that if we drive to Baker Street we shall just be in time for breakfast.”