“Must you interfere? Does it really matter if he marries the girl?”
“Considering that he undoubtedly murdered his last wife, I should say it mattered very much. Besides, the client! Well, well, we need not discuss that. When you have finished your coffee you had best come home with me, for the blithe Shinwell will be there with his report.”
We found him sure enough, a huge, coarse, red-faced, scorbutic man, with a pair of vivid black eyes which were the only external sign of the very cunning mind within. It seems that he had dived down into what was peculiarly his kingdom, and beside him on the settee was a brand which he had brought up in the shape of a slim, flame-like young woman with a pale, intense face, youthful, and yet so worn with s v½? in and sorrow that one read the terrible years which had left their leprous mark upon her.
“This is Miss Kitty Winter,” said Shinwell Johnson, waving his fat hand as an introduction. “What she don’t know — well, there, she’ll speak for herself. Put my hand right on her, Mr. Holmes, within an hour of your message.”
“I’m easy to find,” said the young woman. “Hell, London, gets me every time. Same address for Porky Shinwell. We’re old mates, Porky, you and I. But, by cripes! there is another wht to be down in a lower hell than we if there was any justice in the world! That is the man you are after, Mr. Holmes.”
Holmes smiled. “I gather we have your good wishes, Miss Winter.”
“If I can help to put him where he belongs, I’m yours to the rattle,” said our visitor with fierce energy. There was an intensity of hatred in her white, set face and her blazing eyes such as woman seldom and man never can attain.
“You needn’t go into my past, Mr. Holmes. That’s neither here nor there. But what I am Adelbert Gruner made me. If I could pull him down!” She clutched frantically with her hands into the air. “Oh, if I could only pull him into the pit where he has pushed so many!”
“You know how the matter stands?”
“Porky Shinwell has been telling me. He’s after some other poor fool and wants to marry her this time. You want to stop it. Well, you surely know enough about this devil to prevent any decent girl in her senses wanting to be in the same parish with him.”
“She is not in her senses. She is madly in love. She has been told all about him. She cares nothing.”
“Told about the murder?”
“My Lord, she must have a nerve!”
“She puts them all down as slanders.”
“Couldn’t you lay proofs before her silly eyes?”
“Well, can you help us do so?”
“Ain’t I a proof myself? If I stood before her and told her how he used me —”
“Would you do this?”
“Would I? Would I not!”
“Well, it might be worth trying. But he has told her most of his sins and had pardon from her, and I understand she will not reopen the question.”
“I’ll lay he didn’t tell her all,” said Miss Winter. “I caught a glimpse of one or two murders besides the one that made such a fuss. He would speak of someone in his velvet way and then look at me with a steady eye and say: ‘He died within a month.’ It wasn’t hot air, either. But I took little notice -you see, I loved him myself at that time. Whatever he did went with me, same as with this poor fool! There was just one thing that shook me. Yes, by cripes! if it had not been for his poisonous, lying tongue that explains and soothes. I’d have left him that very night. It’s a book he has — a brown leather book with a lock, and his arms in gold on the outside. I think he was a bit drunk that night, or he would not have shown it to me.”
“What was it, then?”
“I tell you. Mr. Holmes. this man collects women, and takes a pride in his collection. as some men collect moths or butterflies. He had it all in that book. Snapshot photographs. names, details, everything about them. It was a beastly book — a book no man, even if he had come from the gutter, could have put together. But it was Adelbert Gruner’s book all the same. ‘Souls I have ruined.’ He could have put that on the outside if he had been so minded. However, that’s neither here nor there, for the book would not serve you, and, if it would, you can’t get it.”
“Where is it?”
“How can I tell you where it is now? It’s more than a year since I left him. I know where he kept it then. He’s a precise, tidy cat of a man in many of his ways, so maybe it is still in the pigeon-hole of the old bureau in the inner study. Do you know his house?”
“I’ve been in the study,” said Holmes.
“Have you. though? You haven’t been slow on the job if you only started this morning. Maybe dear Adelbert has met his match this time. The outer study is the one with the Chinese crockery in it — big glass cupboard between the windows. Then behind his desk is the door that leads to the inner study — a small room where he keeps papers and things.”
“Is he not afraid of burglars?”
“Adelbert is no coward. His worst enemy couldn’t say that of him. He can look after himself. There’s a burglar alarm at night. Besides, what is there for a burglar — unless they got away with all this fancy crockery?”
“No good,” said Shinwell Johnson with the decided voice of the expert. “No fence wants stuff of that sort that you can neither melt nor sell.”
“Quite so,” said Holmes. “Well, now, Miss Winter. if you would call here tomorrow evening at five. I would consider in the meanwhile whether your suggestion of seeing this lady personally may not be arranged. I am exceedingly obliged to you lor vour cooperation. I need not say that my clients will consider liberally —”
“None of that, Mr. Holmes,” cried the young woman. “I am not out for money. Let me see this man in the mud, and I’ve got all I’ve worked for — in the mud with my foot on his cursed face. That’s my price. I’m with you tomorrow or any other day so long as you are on his track. Porky here can tell you always where to find me.”
I did not see Holmes again until the following evening when we dined once more at our Strand restaurant. He shrugged his shoulders when I asked him what luck he had had in his interview. Then he told the story, which I would repeat in this way. His hard, dry statement needs some little editing to soften it into the terms of real life.
“There was no difficulty at all about the appointment,” said Holmes, “for the girl glories in showing abject filial obedience in all secondary things in an attempt to atone for her flagrant breach of it in her engagement. The General phoned that all was ready, and the fiery Miss W. turned up according to schedule, so that at half-past five a cab deposited us outside 104 Berkeley Square, where the old soldier resides — one of those awful gray London castles which would make a church seem frivolous. A footman showed us into a great yellow-curtained drawing-room, and there was the lady awaiting us, demure, pale, self-contained, as inflexible and remote as a snow image on a mountain.
“I don’t quite know how to make her clear to you, Watson. Perhaps you may meet her before we are through, and you can use your own gift of words. She is beautiful, but with the ethereal other-world beauty of some fanatic whose thoughts are set on high. I have seen such faces in the pictures of the old masters of the Middle Ages. How a beastman could have laid his vile paws upon such a being of the beyond I cannot imagine. You may have noticed how extremes call to each other, the spiritual to the animal, the cave-man to the angel. You never saw a worse case than this.
“She knew what we had come for, of course — that villain had lost no time in poisoning her mind against us. Miss Winter’s advent rather amazed her, I think, but she waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess receiving two rather leprous mendicants. If your head is inclined to swell. my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.
” ‘Well, sir,’ said she in a voice like the wind from an iceberg, ‘your name is familiar to me. You have called. as I understand, to malign my fiance, Baron Gruner. It is only by my father’s request that I see you at all, and I warn you in advance that anything you can say could not possibly have the slightest effect upon my mind.’