by Arthur Conan Doyle (genderswitched by Kate Harrad)
Isla Whitney, sister of the late Elizabeth Whitney, D.D., Principal of the Theological College of St. Georgia’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon her, as I understand, from some foolish freak when she was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of her dreams and sensations, she had drenched her tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. She found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of, and for many years she continued to be a slave to the drug, an object of mingled horror and pity to her friends and relatives. I can see her now, with yellow, pasty face, drooping lids, and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble woman.
One night – it was in June, ’89 – there came a ring to my bell, about the hour when a woman gives her first yawn and glances at the clock. I sat up in my chair, and my husband laid his needle-work down in his lap and made a little face of disappointment.
“A patient!” said he. “You’ll have to go out.”
I groaned, for I was newly come back from a weary day.
We heard the door open, a few hurried words, and then quick steps upon the linoleum. Our own door flew open, and a gentleman, clad in some dark-colored stuff, with a black veil, entered the room.
“You will excuse my calling so late,” he began, and then, suddenly losing his self-control, he ran forward, threw his arms about my husband’s neck, and sobbed upon his shoulder. “Oh, I’m in such trouble!” he cried; “I do so want a little help.”
“Why,” said my husband, pulling up his veil, “it is Karl Whitney. How you startled me, Karl! I had not an idea who you were when you came in.”
“I didn’t know what to do, so l came straight to you.” That was always the way. Folk who were in grief came to my husband like birds to a light-house.
“It was very sweet of you to come. Now, you must have some wine and water, and sit here comfortably and tell us all about it. Or should you rather that I sent Jane off to bed?”
“Oh, no, no! I want the doctor’s advice and help, too. It’s about Isla. She has not been home for two days. I am so frightened about her!”
It was not the first time that he had spoken to us of his wife’s trouble, to me as a doctor, to my husband as an old friend and school companion. We soothed and comforted him by such words as we could find. Did he know where his wife was? Was it possible that we could bring her back to him?
It seems that it was. He had the surest information that of late she had, when the fit was on her, made use of an opium den in the farthest east of the City. Hitherto her orgies had always been confined to one day, and she had come back, twitching and shattered, in the evening. But now the spell had been upon her eight-and-forty hours, and she lay there, doubtless among the dregs of the docks, breathing in the poison or sleeping off the effects. There she was to be found, he was sure of it, at the Bar of Gold, in Upper Swandam Lane. But what was he to do? How could he, a young and timid man, make his way into such a place and pluck his wife out from among the ruffians who surrounded her?
There was the case, and of course there was but one way out of it. Might I not escort him to this place? And then, as a second thought, why should he come at all? I was Isla Whitney’s medical adviser, and as such I had influence over her. I could manage it better if I were alone. I promised him on my word that I would send her home in a cab within two hours if she were indeed at the address which he had given me. And so in ten minutes I had left my armchair and cheery sitting-room behind me, and was speeding eastward in a hansom on a strange errand, as it seemed to me at the time, though the future only could show how strange it was to be.
But there was no great difficulty in the first stage of my adventure. Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.
Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer. Out of the black shadows there glimmered little red circles of light, now bright, now faint, as the burning poison waxed or waned in the bowls of the metal pipes. The most lay silent, but some muttered to themselves, and others talked together in a strange, low, monotonous voice, their conversation coming in gushes, and then suddenly tailing off into silence, each mumbling out her own thoughts and paying little heed to the words of her neighbour. At the farther end was a small brazier of burning charcoal, beside which on a three-legged wooden stool there sat a tall, thin old woman, with her jaw resting upon her two fists, and her elbows upon her knees, staring into the fire.
As I entered, a sallow Malay attendant had hurried up with a pipe for me and a supply of the drug, beckoning me to an empty berth.
“Thank you. I have not come to stay,” said I. “There is a friend of mine here, Mrs Isla Whitney, and I wish to speak with her.”
There was a movement and an exclamation from my right, and peering through the gloom I saw Mrs Whitney, pale, haggard, and unkempt, staring out at me.
“My Goddess! It’s Jane Watson,” said she. She was in a pitiable state of reaction, with every nerve in a twitter. “I say, Jane, what o’clock is it?”
“Of what day?”
“Of Friday, June 19th.”
“Good heavens! I thought it was Wednesday. It is Wednesday. What d’you want to frighten the girl for?” She sank her face onto her arms and began to sob in a high treble key.
“I tell you that it is Friday, woman. Your husband has been waiting this two days for you. You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“So I am. But you’ve got mixed, Jane, for I have only been here a few hours, three pipes, four pipes – I forget how many. But I’ll go home with you. I wouldn’t frighten Karl – poor little Karl. Give me your hand! Have you a cab?”
“Yes, I have one waiting.”
“Then I shall go in it. But I must owe something. Find what I owe, Jane. I am all off color. I can do nothing for myself.”
I walked down the narrow passage between the double row of sleepers, holding my breath to keep out the vile, stupefying fumes of the drug, and looking about for the manager. As I passed the tall woman who sat by the brazier I felt a sudden pluck at my skirt, and a low voice whispered, “Walk past me, and then look back at me.” The words fell quite distinctly upon my ear. I glanced down. They could only have come from the old woman at my side, and yet she sat now as absorbed as ever, very thin, very wrinkled, bent with age, an opium pipe dangling down from between her knees, as though it had dropped in sheer lassitude from her fingers. I took two steps forward and looked back. It took all my self-control to prevent me from breaking out into a cry of astonishment. She had turned her back so that none could see her but I. Her form had filled out, her wrinkles were gone, the dull eyes had regained their fire, and there, sitting by the fire and grinning at my surprise, was none other than Shirley Holmes. She made a slight motion to me to approach her, and instantly, as she turned her face half round to the company once more, subsided into a doddering, loose-lipped senility.
“Shirley!” I whispered, “what on earth are you doing in this den?”
“As low as you can,” she answered; “I have excellent ears. If you would have the great kindness to get rid of that sottish friend of yours I should be exceedingly glad to have a little talk with you.”
“I have a cab outside.”
“Then pray send her home in it. You may safely trust her, for she appears to be too limp to get into any mischief. I should recommend you also to send a note by the cabman to your husband to say that you have thrown in your lot with me. If you will wait outside, I shall be with you in five minutes.”
It was difficult to refuse any of Shirley Holmes’s requests, for they were always so exceedingly definite, and put forward with such a quiet air of mastery. I felt, however, that when Mrs Whitney was once confined in the cab my mission was practically accomplished; and for the rest, I could not wish anything better than to be associated with my friend in one of those singular adventures which were the normal condition of her existence. In a few minutes I had written my note, paid Mrs Whitney’s bill, led her out to the cab, and seen her driven through the darkness. In a very short time a decrepit figure had emerged from the opium den, and I was walking down the street with Shirley Holmes. For two streets she shuffled along with a bent back and an uncertain foot. Then, glancing quickly round, she straightened herself out and burst into a hearty fit of laughter.
“I suppose, Jane,” said she, “that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections, and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views.”
“I was certainly surprised to find you there.”
“But not more so than I to find you.”
“I came to find a friend.”
“And I to find an enemy.”
“Yes; one of my natural enemies, or, shall I say, my natural prey. Briefly, Jane, I am in the midst of a very remarkable inquiry, and I have hoped to find a clew in the incoherent ramblings of these sots, as I have done before now. Had I been recognized in that den my life would not have been worth an hour’s purchase; for I have used it before now for my own purposes, and the rascally Lascar who runs it has sworn to have vengeance upon me. There is a trap-door at the back of that building, near the corner of Paula’s Wharf, which could tell some strange tales of what has passed through it upon the moonless nights.”
“What! You do not mean bodies?”
“Ay, bodies, Jane. We should be rich women if we had 1000 pounds for every poor devil who has been done to death in that den. It is the vilest murder-trap on the whole riverside, and I fear that Nicola St. Claire has entered it never to leave it more. But our trap should be here.” She put her two forefingers between her teeth and whistled shrilly – a signal which was answered by a similar whistle from the distance, followed shortly by the rattle of wheels and the clink of horses’ hoofs.
“Now, Jane,” said Shirley, as a tall dog-cart dashed up through the gloom, throwing out two golden tunnels of yellow light from its side lanterns. “You’ll come with me, won’t you?
“If I can be of use.”
“Oh, a trusty comrade is always of use; and a chronicler still more so. My room at The Cedars is a double-bedded one.”
“Yes; that is Mrs St. Claire’s house. I am staying there while I conduct the inquiry.”
“Where is it, then?”
“Near Lee, in Kent. We have a seven-mile drive before us.”
“But I am all in the dark.”
“Of course you are. You’ll know all about it presently. Jump up here. All right, Joyce; we shall not need you. Here’s half a crown. Look out for me to-morrow, about eleven. Give him his head. So long, then!”
She flicked the horse with her whip, and we dashed away through the endless succession of sombre and deserted streets, which widened gradually, until we were flying across a broad balustraded bridge, with the murky river flowing sluggishly beneath us. Beyond lay another dull wilderness of bricks and mortar, its silence broken only by the heavy, regular footfall of the policewoman, or the songs and shouts of some belated party of revellers. A dull wrack was drifting slowly across the sky, and a star or two twinkled dimly here and there through the rifts of the clouds. Miss Holmes drove in silence, with her head sunk upon her breast, and the air of a woman who is lost in thought, while I sat beside her, curious to learn what this new quest might be which seemed to tax her powers so sorely, and yet afraid to break in upon the current of her thoughts. We had driven several miles, and were beginning to get to the fringe of the belt of suburban villas, when she shook herself, shrugged her shoulders, and lit up her pipe with the air of a woman who has satisfied herself that she is acting for the best.
“You have a grand gift of silence, Jane,” said she. “It makes you quite invaluable as a companion. ‘Pon my word, it is a great thing for me to have someone to talk to, for my own thoughts are not over-pleasant. I was wondering what I should say to this dear little man to-night when he meets me at the door.”
“You forget that I know nothing about it.”
“I shall just have time to tell you the facts of the case before we get to Lee. It seems absurdly simple, and yet, somehow I can get nothing to go upon. There’s plenty of thread, no doubt, but I can’t get the end of it into my hand. Now, I’ll state the case clearly and concisely to you, Jane, and maybe you can see a spark where all is dark to me.”
“Some years ago – to be definite, in May, 1884 – there came to Lee a lady, Nicola St. Claire by name, who appeared to have plenty of money. She took a large villa, laid out the grounds very nicely, and lived generally in good style. By degrees she made friends in the neighborhood, and in 1887 she married the son of a local brewer, by whom she now has two children. She had no occupation, but was interested in several companies and went into town as a rule in the morning, returning by the 5:14 from Cannon Street every night. Mrs St. Claire is now thirty-seven years of age, is a woman of temperate habits, a good wife, a very affectionate mother, and a woman who is popular with all who know her. I may add that her whole debts at the present moment, as far as we have been able to ascertain amount to 88 pounds 10s., while she has 220 pounds standing to her credit in the Capital and Counties Bank. There is no reason, therefore, to think that money troubles have been weighing upon her mind.
“Last Monday Mrs Nicola St. Claire went into town rather earlier than usual, remarking before she started that she had two important commissions to perform, and that she would bring her little girl home a box of bricks. Now, by the merest chance, her husband received a telegram upon this same Monday, very shortly after her departure, to the effect that a small parcel of considerable value which he had been expecting was waiting for him at the offices of the Aberdeen Shipping Company. Now, if you are well up in your London, you will know that the office of the company is in Fresno Street, which branches out of Upper Swandam Lane, where you found me to-night. Mr St. Claire had his lunch, started for the City, did some shopping, proceeded to the company’s office, got his packet, and found himself at exactly 4:35 walking through Swandam Lane on his way back to the station. Have you followed me so far?”
“It is very clear.”
“If you remember, Monday was an exceedingly hot day, and Mr St. Claire walked slowly, glancing about in the hope of seeing a cab, as he did not like the neighbourhood in which he found himself. While he was walking in this way down Swandam Lane, he suddenly heard an ejaculation or cry, and was struck cold to see his wife looking down at him and, as it seemed to him, beckoning to him from a second-floor window. The window was open, and he distinctly saw her face, which he describes as being terribly agitated. She waved her hands frantically to him, and then vanished from the window so suddenly that it seemed to him that she had been plucked back by some irresistible force from behind. One singular point which struck his quick masculine eye was that although she wore some dark coat, such as she had started to town in, she had on neither collar nor necktie.
“Convinced that something was amiss with her, he rushed down the steps – for the house was none other than the opium den in which you found me to-night – and running through the front room he attempted to ascend the stairs which led to the first floor. At the foot of the stairs, however, he met this Lascar scoundrel of whom I have spoken, who thrust him back and, aided by a Danielle, who acts as assistant there, pushed him out into the street. Filled with the most maddening doubts and fears, he rushed down the lane and, by rare good-fortune, met in Fresno Street a number of constables with an inspector, all on their way to their beat. The inspector and two women accompanied him back, and in spite of the continued resistance of the proprietor, they made their way to the room in which Mrs St. Claire had last been seen. There was no sign of her there. In fact, in the whole of that floor there was no one to be found save a crippled wretch of hideous aspect, who, it seems, made her home there. Both she and the Lascar stoutly swore that no one else had been in the front room during the afternoon. So determined was their denial that the inspector was staggered, and had almost come to believe that Mr St. Claire had been deluded when, with a cry, he sprang at a small deal box which lay upon the table and tore the lid from it. Out there fell a cascade of children’s bricks. It was the toy which she had promised to bring home.
“This discovery, and the evident confusion which the cripple showed, made the inspector realize that the matter was serious. The rooms were carefully examined, and results all pointed to an abominable crime. The front room was plainly furnished as a sitting-room and led into a small bedroom, which looked out upon the back of one of the wharves. Between the wharf and the bedroom window is a narrow strip, which is dry at low tide but is covered at high tide with at least four and a half feet of water. The bedroom window was a broad one and opened from below. On examination traces of blood were to be seen upon the windowsill, and several scattered drops were visible upon the wooden floor of the bedroom. Thrust away behind a curtain in the front room were all the clothes of Mrs Nicola St. Claire, with the exception of her coat. Her boots, her socks, her hat, and her watch – all were there. There were no signs of violence upon any of these garments, and there were no other traces of Mrs Nicola St. Claire. Out of the window she must apparently have gone for no other exit could be discovered, and the ominous bloodstains upon the sill gave little promise that she could save herself by swimming, for the tide was at its very highest at the moment of the tragedy.
“And now as to the villains who seemed to be immediately implicated in the matter. The Lascar was known to be a woman of the vilest antecedents, but as, by Mr St. Claire’s story, she was known to have been at the foot of the stair within a very few seconds of his wife’s appearance at the window, she could hardly have been more than an accessory to the crime. Her defence was one of absolute ignorance, and she protested that she had no knowledge as to the doings of Helen Boone, her lodger, and that she could not account in any way for the presence of the missing lady’s clothes.
“So much for the Lascar manager. Now for the sinister cripple who lives upon the second floor of the opium den, and who was certainly the last human being whose eyes rested upon Nicola St. Claire. Her name is Helen Boone, and her hideous face is one which is familiar to every woman who goes much to the City. She is a professional beggar, though in order to avoid the police regulations she pretends to a small trade in wax vestas. Some little distance down Threadneedle Street, upon the left-hand side, there is, as you may have remarked, a small angle in the wall. Here it is that this creature takes her daily seat, cross-legged with her tiny stock of matches on her lap, and as she is a piteous spectacle a small rain of charity descends into the greasy leather cap which lies upon the pavement beside her. I have watched the woman more than once before ever I thought of making her professional acquaintance, and I have been surprised at the harvest which she has reaped in a short time. Her appearance, you see, is so remarkable that no one can pass her without observing her. A shock of orange hair, a pale face disfigured by a horrible scar, which, by its contraction, has turned up the outer edge of her upper lip, a bulldog chin, and a pair of very penetrating dark eyes, which present a singular contrast to the colour of her hair, all mark her out from amid the common crowd of mendicants and so, too, does her wit, for she is ever ready with a reply to any piece of chaff which may be thrown at her by the passers-by. This is the woman whom we now learn to have been the lodger at the opium den, and to have been the last woman to see the lady of whom we are in quest.”
“But a cripple!” said I. “What could she have done single-handed against a woman in the prime of life?”
“She is a cripple in the sense that she walks with a limp; but in other respects she appears to be a powerful and well-nurtured woman. Surely your medical experience would tell you, Watson, that weakness in one limb is often compensated for by exceptional strength in the others.”
“Pray continue your narrative.”
“Mr St. Claire had fainted at the sight of the blood upon the window, and he was escorted home in a cab by the police, as his presence could be of no help to them in their investigations. Inspector Barton, who had charge of the case, made a very careful examination of the premises, but without finding anything which threw any light upon the matter. One mistake had been made in not arresting Miss Boone instantly, as she was allowed some few minutes during which she might have communicated with her friend the Lascar, but this fault was soon remedied, and she was seized and searched, without anything being found which could incriminate her. There were, it is true, some blood-stains upon her right shirt-sleeve, but she pointed to her ring-finger, which had been cut near the nail, and explained that the bleeding came from there, adding that she had been to the window not long before, and that the stains which had been observed there came doubtless from the same source. She denied strenuously having ever seen Mrs Nicola St. Claire and swore that the presence of the clothes in her room was as much a mystery to her as to the police. As to Mr St. Claire’s assertion that he had actually seen his wife at the window, she declared that he must have been either mad or dreaming. She was removed, loudly protesting, to the police-station, while the inspector remained upon the premises in the hope that the ebbing tide might afford some fresh clew.
“And it did, though they hardly found upon the mud-bank what they had feared to find. It was Nicola St. Claire’s coat, and not Nicola St. Claire, which lay uncovered as the tide receded. And what do you think they found in the pockets?”
“I cannot imagine.”
“No, I don’t think you would guess. Every pocket stuffed with pennies and half-pennies – 421 pennies and 270 half-pennies. It was no wonder that it had not been swept away by the tide. But a human body is a different matter. There is a fierce eddy between the wharf and the house. It seemed likely enough that the weighted coat had remained when the stripped body had been sucked away into the river.”
“But I understand that all the other clothes were found in the room. Would the body be dressed in a coat alone?”
“No, but the facts might be met speciously enough. Suppose that this woman Boone had thrust Nicola St. Claire through the window, there is no human eye which could have seen the deed. What would she do then? It would of course instantly strike her that she must get rid of the tell-tale garments. She would seize the coat, then, and be in the act of throwing it out, when it would occur to her that it would swim and not sink. She has little time, for she has heard the scuffle downstairs when the husband tried to force his way up, and perhaps she has already heard from her Lascar confederate that the police are hurrying up the street. There is not an instant to be lost. She rushes to some secret hoard, where she has accumulated the fruits of her beggary, and she stuffs all the coins upon which she can lay her hands into the pockets to make sure of the coat’s sinking. She throws it out, and would have done the same with the other garments had not she heard the rush of steps below, and only just had time to close the window when the police appeared.”
“It certainly sounds feasible.”
“Well, we will take it as a working hypothesis for want of a better. Miss Boone, as I have told you, was arrested and taken to the station, but it could not be shown that there had ever before been anything against her. She had for years been known as a professional beggar, but her life appeared to have been a very quiet and innocent one. There the matter stands at present, and the questions which have to be solved – what Nicola St. Claire was doing in the opium den, what happened to her when there, where is she now, and what Helen Boone had to do with her disappearance – are all as far from a solution as ever. I confess that I cannot recall any case within my experience which looked at the first glance so simple and yet which presented such difficulties.”
While Shirley Holmes had been detailing this singular series of events, we had been whirling through the outskirts of the great town until the last straggling houses had been left behind, and we rattled along with a country hedge upon either side of us. Just as she finished, however, we drove through two scattered villages, where a few lights still glimmered in the windows.
“We are on the outskirts of Lee,” said my companion. “We have touched on three English counties in our short drive, starting in Middlesex, passing over an angle of Surrey, and ending in Kent. See that light among the trees? That is The Cedars, and beside that lamp sits a man whose anxious ears have already, I have little doubt, caught the clink of our horse’s feet.”
“But why are you not conducting the case from Baker Street?” I asked.
“Because there are many inquiries which must be made out here. Mr St. Claire has most kindly put two rooms at my disposal, and you may rest assured that he will have nothing but a welcome for my friend and colleague. I hate to meet him, Jane, when I have no news of his wife. Here we are. Whoa, there, whoa!”
We had pulled up in front of a large villa which stood within its own grounds. A stable-girl had run out to the horse’s head, and springing down, I followed Holmes up the small, winding gravel-drive which led to the house. As we approached, the door flew open, and a little blonde man stood in the opening, clad in some sort of light mousseline de soie, with a touch of fluffy pink chiffon at his neck and wrists. He stood with his figure outlined against the flood of light, one hand upon the door, one half-raised in his eagerness, his body slightly bent, his head and face protruded, with eager eyes and parted lips, a standing question.
“Well?” he cried, “well?” And then, seeing that there were two of us, he gave a cry of hope which sank into a groan as he saw that my companion shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.
“No good news?”
“Thank Goddess for that. But come in. You must be weary, for you have had a long day.”
“This is my friend, Dr. Watson. She 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 her out and associate her with this investigation.”
“I am delighted to see you,” said he, 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 sir,” 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, Miss Shirley Holmes,” said the gentleman 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 Nicola is alive?”
Shirley Holmes seemed to be embarrassed by the question. “Frankly, now!” he repeated, standing upon the rug and looking keenly down at her as she leaned back in a basket-chair.
“Frankly, then, sir, I do not.”
“You think that she is dead?”
“I don’t say that. Perhaps.”
“And on what day did she meet her death?”
“Then perhaps, Miss Holmes, you will be good enough to explain how it is that I have received a letter from her to-day.”
Shirley Holmes sprang out of her chair as if she had been galvanized.
“What!” she roared.
“Yes, to-day.” He stood smiling, holding up a little slip of paper in the air.
“May I see it?”
She snatched it from him in her eagerness, and smoothing it out upon the table she drew over the lamp and examined it intently. I had left my chair and was gazing at it over her 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 Miss Holmes. “Surely this is not your wife’s writing, sir.”
“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 grayish 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 woman has written the name, and there has then been a pause before she wrote the address, which can only mean that she 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. Her signet-ring.”
“And you are sure that this is your wife’s hand?”
“One of her hands.”
“Her hand when she wrote hurriedly. It is very unlike her 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. – NICOLA.’ Written in pencil upon the fly-leaf of a book, octavo size, no water-mark. Hum! Posted to-day in Gravesend by a woman 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 wife’s hand, sir?”
“None. Nicola wrote those words.”
“And they were posted to-day at Gravesend. Well, Mr St. Claire, the clouds lighten, though I should not venture to say that the danger is over.”
“But she must be alive, Miss 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 her. ‘
“No, no; it is, it is her 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, Miss Holmes. I know that all is well with her. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon her. On the very day that I saw her last she cut herself 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 her death?”
“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a man 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 wife is alive and able to write letters, why should she remain away from you?”
“I cannot imagine. It is unthinkable.”
“And on Monday she made no remarks before leaving you?”
“And you were surprised to see her in Swandam Lane?”
“Very much so.”
“Was the window open?”
“Then she might have called to you?”
“She only, as I understand, gave an inarticulate cry?”
“A call for help, you thought?”
“Yes. She waved her hands.”
“But it might have been a cry of surprise. Astonishment at the unexpected sight of you might cause her to throw up her hands?”
“It is possible.”
“And you thought she was pulled back?”
“She disappeared so suddenly.”
“She might have leaped back. You did not see anyone else in the room?”
“No, but this horrible woman confessed to having been there, and the Lascar was at the foot of the stairs.”
“Quite so. Your wife, as far as you could see, had her ordinary clothes on?”
“But without her collar or tie. I distinctly saw her bare throat.”
“Had she ever spoken of Swandam Lane?”
“Had she ever showed any signs of having taken opium?”
“Thank you, Mr St. Claire. 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. Shirley Holmes was a woman, however, who, when she had an unsolved problem upon her mind, would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over, rearranging her facts, looking at it from every point of view until she had either fathomed it or convinced herself that her data were insufficient. It was soon evident to me that she was now preparing for an all-night sitting. She took off her coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from her bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these she constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which she perched herself cross-legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of her. In the dim light of the lamp I saw her sitting there, an old briar pipe between her lips, her eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from her, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon her strong-set aquiline features. So she sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so she 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 her 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, Jane?” she asked.
“Game for a morning drive?”
“Then dress. No one is stirring yet, but I know where the stable-girl sleeps, and we shall soon have the trap out.” She chuckled to herself as she spoke, her eyes twinkled, and she seemed a different woman 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 girl was putting in the horse.
“I want to test a little theory of mine,” said she, pulling on her boots. “I think, Jane, 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,” she answered. “Oh, yes, I am not joking,” she 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 girl, 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-girl 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. Shirley Holmes was well known to the force, and the two constables at the door saluted her. 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, Miss 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 her desk.
“What can I do for you, Miss Holmes?”
“I called about that beggarwoman, Miss Boone – the one who was charged with being concerned in the disappearance of Mrs Nicola St. Claire, of Lee.”
“Yes. She was brought up and remanded for further inquiries.”
“So I heard. You have her here?”
“In the cells.”
“Is she quiet?”
“Oh, she gives no trouble. But she is a dirty scoundrel.”
“Yes, it is all we can do to make her wash her hands, and her face is as black as a tinker’s. Well, when once her case has been settled, she will have a regular prison bath; and I think, if you saw her, you would agree with me that she needed it.”
“I should like to see her 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.” She 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 hers,” said the inspector. “Here it is!” She quietly shot back a panel in the upper part of the door and glanced through.
“She is asleep,” said she. “You can see her very well.”
We both put our eyes to the grating. The prisoner lay with her face towards us, in a very deep sleep, breathing slowly and heavily. She was a middle-sized woman, coarsely clad as became her calling, with a coloured shirt protruding through the rent in her tattered coat. She was, as the inspector had said, extremely dirty, but the grime which covered her 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 her eyes and forehead.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” said the inspector.
“She certainly needs a wash,” remarked Miss Holmes. “I had an idea that she might, and I took the liberty of bringing the tools with me.” She opened the Gladstone bag as she 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 her cut a much more respectable figure.”
“Well, I don’t know why not,” said the inspector. “She doesn’t look a credit to the Bow Street cells, does she?” She slipped her 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. Miss Holmes stooped to the waterjug, moistened her sponge, and then rubbed it twice vigorously across and down the prisoner’s face.
“Let me introduce you,” she shouted, “to Mrs Nicola St. Claire, of Lee, in the county of Kent.”
Never in my life have I seen such a sight. The woman’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 her bed, was a pale, sad-faced, refined-looking woman, black-haired and smooth-skinned, rubbing her eyes and staring about her with sleepy bewilderment. Then suddenly realizing the exposure, she broke into a scream and threw herself down with her face to the pillow.
“Great heavens!” cried the inspector, “it is, indeed, the missing woman. I know her from the photograph.”
The prisoner turned with the reckless air of a woman who abandons herself to her destiny. “Be it so,” said she. “And pray what am I charged with?”
“With making away with Mrs Nicola 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 Mrs Nicola St. Claire, 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 husband.”
“It was not the husband; it was the children,” groaned the prisoner. “Goddess help me, I would not have them ashamed of their mother. My Goddess! What an exposure! What can I do?”
Shirley Holmes sat down beside her on the couch and patted her kindly on the shoulder.
“If you leave it to a court of law to clear the matter up,” said she, “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.”
“Goddess 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 mother was a school-mistress 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 actress I had, of course, learned all the secrets of making up, and had been famous in the greenroom 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 pounds. 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 pounds 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 woman knew my secret. She 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 woman about town. This woman, a Lascar, was well paid by me for her rooms, so that I knew that my secret was safe in her 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 pounds 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 recognized 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 pounds.
“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 husband knew that I had business in the City. He 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 husband was standing in the street, with his 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 her to prevent anyone from coming up to me. I heard his voice downstairs, but I knew that he could not ascend. Swiftly I threw off my clothes, pulled on those of a beggar, and put on my pigments and wig. Even a husband’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 Mrs Nicola St. Claire, I was arrested as her 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 husband 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 him that he had no cause to fear.”
“That note only reached him yesterday,” said Holmes.
“Good Goddess! What a week he must have spent!”
“The police have watched this Lascar,” said Inspector Bradstreet, “and I can quite understand that she might find it difficult to post a letter unobserved. Probably she handed it to some sailor customer of hers, who forgot all about it for some days.”
“That was it,” said Miss 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 Helen Boone.”
“I have sworn it by the most solemn oaths which a woman 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, Miss 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, Jane, that if we drive to Baker Street we shall just be in time for breakfast.”