Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatchbox with my name, John H. Watson, M. D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine. Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader. Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science. Apart from these unfathomed cases, there are some which involve the secrets of private families to an extent which would mean consternation in many exalted quarters if it were thought possible that they might find their way into print. I need not say that such a breach of confidence is unthinkable, and that these records will be separated and destroyed now that my friend has time to turn his energies to the matter. There remain a considerable residue of cases of greater or less interest which I might have edited before had I not feared to give the public a surfeit which might react upon the reputation of the man whom above all others I revere. In some I was myself concerned and can speak as an eye-witness, while in others I was either not present or played so small a part that they could only be told as by a third person. The following narrative is drawn from my own experience.
It was a wild morning in October, and I observed as I was dressing how the last remaining leaves were being whirled from the solitary plane tree which graces the yard behind our house. I descended to breakfast prepared to find my companion in depressed spirits, for, like all great artists, he was easily impressed by his surroundings. On the contrary, I found that he had nearly finished his meal, and that his mood was particularly bright and joyous, with that somewhat sinister cheerfulness which was characteristic of his lighter moments.
“You have a case, Holmes?” I remarked.
“The faculty of deduction is certainly contagious, Watson,” he answered. “It has enabled you to probe my secret. Yes, I have a case. After a month of trivialities and stagnation the wheels move once more.”
“Might I share it?”
“There is little to share, but we may discuss it when you have consumed the two hard-boiled eggs with which our new cook has favoured us. Their condition may not be unconnected with the copy of the Family Herald which I observed yesterday upon the hall-table. Even so trivial a matter as cooking an egg demands an attention which is conscious of the passage of time and incompatible with the love romance in that excellent periodical.”
A quarter of an hour later the table had been cleared and we were face to face. He had drawn a letter from his pocket.
“You have heard of Neil Gibson, the Gold King?” he said.
“You mean the American Senator?”
“Well, he was once Senator for some Western state, but is better known as the greatest gold-mining magnate in the world.”
“Yes, I know of him. He has surely lived in England for some time. His name is very familiar.”
“Yes, he bought a considerable estate in Hampshire some five years ago. Possibly you have already heard of the tragic end of his wife?”
“Of course. I remember it now. That is why the name is familiar. But I really know nothing of the details.”
Holmes waved his hand towards some papers on a chair. “I had no idea that the case was coming my way or I should have had my extracts ready,” said he. “The fact is that the problem, though exceedingly sensational, appeared to present no difficulty. The interesting personality of the accused does not obscure the clearness of the evidence. That was the view taken by the coroner’s jury and also in the police-court proceedings. It is now referred to the Assizes at Winchester. I fear it is a thankless business. I can discover facts, Watson, but I cannot change them. Unless some entirely new and unexpected ones come to light I do not see what my client can hope for.”
“Ah, I forgot I had not told you. I am getting into your involved habit, Watson, of telling a story backward. You had best read this first.”
The letter which he handed to me, written in a bold, masterful hand, ran as follows:
DEAR MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES:
I can’t see the best woman God ever made go to her death without doing all that is possible to save her. I can’t explain things — I can’t even try to explain them, but I know beyond all doubt that Miss Dunbar is innocent. You know the facts — who doesn’t? It has been the gossip of the country. And never a voice raised for her! It’s the damned injustice of it all that makes me crazy. That woman has a heart that wouldn’t let her kill a fly. Well, I’ll come at eleven to-morrow and see if you can get some ray of light in the dark. Maybe I have a clue and don’t know it. Anyhow, all I know and all I have and all I am are for your use if only you can save her. If ever in your life you showed your powers, put them now into this case.
J. NEIL GIBSON.
“There you have it,” said Sherlock Holmes, knocking out the ashes of his after-breakfast pipe and slowly refilling it. “That is the gentleman I await. As to the story, you have hardly time to master all these papers, so I must give it to you in a nutshell if you are to take an intelligent interest in the proceedings. This man is the greatest financial power in the world, and a man, as I understand, of most violent and formidable character. He married a wife, the victim of this tragedy, of whom I know nothing save that she was past her prime, which was the more unfortunate as a very attractive governess superintended the education of two young children. These are the three people concerned, and the scene is a grand old manor house, the centre of a historical English state. Then as to the tragedy. The wife was found in the grounds nearly half a mile from the house, late at night, clad in her dinner dress, with a shawl over her shoulders and a revolver bullet through her brain. No weapon was found near her and there was no local clue as to the murder. No weapon near her, Watson — mark that! The crime seems to have been committed late in the evening, and the body was found by a gamekeeper about eleven o’clock, when it was examined by the police and by a doctor before being carried up to the house. Is this too condensed, or can you follow it clearly?”
“It is all very clear. But why suspect the governess?”
“Well, in the first place there is some very direct evidence. A revolver with one discharged chamber and a calibre which corresponded with the bullet was found on the floor of her wardrobe.” His eyes fixed and he repeated in broken words, “On — the — floor — of — her — wardrobe.” Then he sank into silence, and I saw that some train of thought had been set moving which I should be foolish to interrupt. Suddenly with a start he emerged into brisk life once more. “Yes, Watson, it was found. Pretty damning, eh? So the two juries thought. Then the dead woman had a note upon her making an appointment at that very place and signed by the governess. How’s that? Finally there is the motive. Senator Gibson is an attractive person. If his wife dies, who more likely to succeed her than the young lady who had already by all accounts received pressing attentions from her employer? Love, fortune, power, all depending upon one middleaged life. Ugly, Watson — very ugly!”
“Yes, indeed, Holmes.”
“Nor could she prove an alibi. On the contrary, she had to admit that she was down near Thor Bridge — that was the scene of the tragedy — about that hour. She couldn’t deny it, for some passing villager had seen her there.”
“That really seems final.”
“And yet, Watson — and yet! This bridge — a single broad span of stone with balustraded sides — carries the drive over the narrowest part of a long, deep, reed-girt sheet of water. Thor Mere it is called. In the mouth of the bridge lay the dead woman. Such are the main facts. But here, if I mistake not, is our client, considerably before his time.”
Billy had opened the door, but the name which he announced was an unexpected one. Mr. Marlow Bates was a stranger to both of us. He was a thin, nervous wisp of a man with frightened eyes and a twitching, hesitating manner — a man whom my own professional eye would judge to be on the brink of an absolute nervous breakdown.