Holmes looked at his watch. “I have no doubt we can get the necessary permits this morning and reach Winchester by the evening train. When I have seen this young lady it is very possible that I may be of more use to you in the matter, though I cannot promise that my conclusions will necessarily be such as you desire.”
There was some delay in the official pass, and instead of reaching Winchester that day we went down to Thor Place, the Hampshire estate of Mr. Neil Gibson. He did not accompany us himself, but we had the address of Sergeant Coventry, of the local police, who had first examined into the affair. He was a tall, thin, cadaverous man, with a secretive and mysterious manner which conveyed the idea that he knew or suspected a very great deal more than he dared say. He had a trick, too, of suddenly sinking his voice to a whisper as if he had come upon something of vital importance, though the information was usually commonplace enough. Behind these tricks of manner he soon showed himself to be a decent, honest fellow who was not too proud to admit that he was out of his depth and would welcome any help.
“Anyhow, I’d rather have you than Scotland Yard, Mr. Holmes,” said he. “If the Yard gets called into a case, then the local loses all credit for success and may be blamed for failure. Now, you play straight, so I’ve heard.”
“I need not appear in the matter at all,” said Holmes to the evident relief of our melancholy acquaintance. “If I can clear it up I don’t ask to have my name mentioned.”
“Well, it’s very handsome of you, I am sure. And your friend, Dr. Watson, can be trusted, I know. Now, Mr. Holmes, as we walk down to the place there is one question I should like to ask you. I’d breathe it to no soul but you.” He looked round as though he hardly dare utter the words. “Don’t you think there might be a case against Mr. Neil Gibson himself?”
“I have been considering that.”
“You’ve not seen Miss Dunbar. She is a wonderful fine woman in every way. He may well have wished his wife out of the road. And these Americans are readier with pistols than our folk are. It was his pistol, you know.”
“Was that clearly made out?”
“Yes, sir. It was one of a pair that he had.”
“One of a pair? Where is the other?”
“Well, the gentleman has a lot of firearms of one sort and another. We never quite matched that particular pistol — but the box was made for two.”
“If it was one of a pair you should surely be able to match it.”
“Well, we have them all laid out at the house if you would care to look them over.”
“Later, perhaps. I think we will walk down together and have a look at the scene of the tragedy.”
This conversation had taken place in the little front room of Sergeant Coventry’s humble cottage which served as the local police-station. A walk of half a mile or so across a wind-swept heath, all gold and bronze with the fading ferns, brought us to a side-gate opening into the grounds of the Thor Place estate. A path led us through the pheasant preserves, and then from a clearing we saw the widespread, half-timbered house, half Tudor and half Georgian, upon the crest of the hill. Beside us there was a long, reedy pool, constricted in the centre where the main carriage drive passed over a stone bridge, but swelling into small lakes on either side. Our guide paused at the mouth of this bridge, and he pointed to the ground.
“That was where Mrs. Gibson’s body lay. I marked it by that stone.”
“I understand that you were there before it was moved?”
“Yes, they sent for me at once.”
“Mr. Gibson himself. The moment the alarm was given and he had rushed down with others from the house, he insisted that nothing should be moved until the police should arrive.”
“That was sensible. I gathered from the newspaper report that the shot was fired from close quarters.”
“Yes, sir, very close.”
“Near the right temple?”
“Just behind it, sir.”
“How did the body lie?”
“On the back, sir. No trace of a struggle. No marks. No weapon. The short note from Miss Dunbar was clutched in her left hand.”
“Clutched, you say?”
“Yes, sir, we could hardly open the fingers.”
“That is of great importance. It excludes the idea that anyone could have placed the note there after death in order to furnish a false clue. Dear me! The note, as I remember, was quite short:
“I will be at Thor Bridge at nine o’clock.”
Was that not so?”
“Did Miss Dunbar admit writing it?”
“What was her explanation?”
“Her defence was reserved for the Assizes. She would say nothing.”
“The problem is certainly a very interesting one. The point of the letter is very obscure, is it not?”
“Well, sir,” said the guide, “it seemed, if I may be so bold as to say so, the only really clear point in the whole case.”
Holmes shook his head.
“Granting that the letter is genuine and was really written, it was certainly received some time before — say one hour or two. Why, then, was this lady still clasping it in her left hand? Why should she carry it so carefully? She did not need to refer to it in the interview. Does it not seem remarkable?”
“Well, sir, as you put it, perhaps it does.”
“I think I should like to sit quietly for a few minutes and think it out.” He seated himself upon the stone ledge of the bridge, and I could see his quick gray eyes darting their questioning glances in every direction. Suddenly he sprang up again and ran across to the opposite parapet, whipped his lens from his pocket, and began to examine the stonework.
“This is curious,” said he.