[Narration by Doctor John Watson, M.D.]
We arrived back from Cumberland – yes I did get to sample first-class sleeper travel again and yes, it was wonderful - to a capital in full swing for Christmas, with all that that entailed. Even criminals seemed to be imbued with at least some small part of festive cheer; I noted that my friend's workload lessened during these times. But this particular season we did not make it to the end of Christmastide with our next case arriving some two days into a New Year which, God willing, would mark fifty years of Queen Victoria on the throne of the British Empire.
As I have said before, only a small few cases that hit the papers during my friend's long absence drew my interest as I generally found them painful reminders of what I had had taken from me. We had of course recently had cause to revisit one (the tragic Brackhampton Affair) and another that had managed to catch my attention during those dark years had been the Hill House Murder in late 'Eighty-Four. Lady Alicia Easington, the sole daughter of her father the Imperial Office minister Sir Beresford, had just married a young bank clerk called Mr. Hilary Gilbertson and they had moved into 'Hill House' (one of her father's many properties) while they sought a place of their own. Sir Beresford had been in the process of trying to sell the place along with several other of his properties so that he might retire to The Lakes; he was a patient at my practice though not one of mine. The sale had been delayed due to the sadly all too predictable local council incompetence as they could not decide whether they wished to purchase the house as building land or not and would not allow a sale while they tried to first find and then make up their minds. Some things did not change.
It is also important that I mention two other matters appurtenant to this case. Firstly Sir Beresford had just purchased a five-year commission for his only other child, his son Oughtred who had left for India to serve as an army doctor. And secondly, most unusually in this day and age, his son and daughter had been equal co-heirs to his estate making Lady Alicia a fine catch for her new husband.
Only four just days after Doctor Oughtred Easington had left the country, tragedy had struck when two masked robbers had broken into the house and had been surprised by Lady Alicia. She had been struck on the head and had died not long after. Efforts to reach her brother had proved fruitless – unfortunately his ship had broken down and put into one of the French ports and it was not known how he had proceeded thereon - and Sir Beresford had been forced to send a telegram to India to catch him there. The widower Mr. Gilbertson had moved out of the house soon after and it had had several tenants since, none of them staying for any length of time. In the odd way that some properties can it just seemed to have become an unlucky house.
Despite a substantial reward having been offered by Sir Beresford the robbers had still not been caught some two and a half years later. I remember thinking at the time how I had wished that Sherlock had been there to effect his own brand of justice and clear everything up as he always did. I little knew that that was exactly what I would indeed see happen and in such a way as to shock even me.
“I had a visit from a member of the nobility this morning”, Sherlock said casually as I unwrapped my scarf at the door. It had been snowing heavily all day with a bitter northerly wind and despite my many layers I was freezing. “Sir Beresford Easington.”
I frowned for a moment as I tried to recall the name but then I remembered. Father to the slain Lady Alicia.
“The poor old fellow”, I said. “At least his son is back in the country now; he is taking patients as a locum not far from my surgery.”
Sherlock looked at me in apparent surprise before seeming to realize something.
“Of course you missed the paper-boy with your early start today”, he said (I had had to rush off when a client's baby had decided that the small hours of the morning were an excellent time to make his arrival; I had only just made it for one of the quickest births that I had ever managed). “You had better get out of all those wet clothes while I stoke up the fire and pour you a brandy.”
“Thank you Mother!” I teased.
He shook his head at me but smiled.
I finished reading the article and looked across at my friend.
“Sir Beresford wants your help with this?” I asked curiously. “It does not really seem in your line of business.”
“A mysterious and unexplained death?” he said. “It seems exactly in my line of business. But this article does leave out certain salient facts which put things in a somewhat different light. I shall tell you of the whole then you can tell me what you think.”
I nodded, sipped my drink and sat back. The wind was blowing up a storm outside but with a warm fire and my best friend sat across from me, 221B was a wonderful place to be right now.
“After he sold 'Hill House' and certain other properties”, Sherlock began, “Sir Beresford purchased three new properties. For himself a country estate in Westmorland; for his absent son a house in Bayswater which was suitable to be adapted for a doctor's practice if he so wished as well as being close to the famous Harley Street, and for his one-time son-in-law a house in St. John's Wood named 'Sedbergh House'. As I suspect you may have read Lady Alicia had made a will directly after her marriage apparently without the knowledge of any of her family, including her husband. Her moneys reverted to her father during his lifetime but he could only touch the interest although he could use the capital to purchase items for Mr. Gilbertson, hence the new house. Upon her father's death the capital passed whole to her husband.”
“Surely such a will was open to challenge?” I asked. Two Property Acts had greatly improved the position of women when it came to holding property during a marriage, but the husband still held the whip hand so to speak.
“Mr. Gilbertson most probably could have done that but declined so to do”, Sherlock said. “He seems to have been well rewarded for his restraint all things considered. To continue, Doctor Oughtred Easington had been due to serve for five years in British India but decided to come home after a little under three. I do not know why; perhaps he found it too hard out there as the climate can break many a man. He returned home two weeks ago and the dramatic events of last night are what his father came to Baker Street to discuss earlier today.”
“Last night Doctor Easington was invited round to his brother-in-law's house for dinner. 'Sedbergh House' was formerly 'Eastern Promise' – I know! - and had belonged to a Portuguese merchant who had made a fortune in the spice trade before returning to his native land. It was known locally as the House of Spices which I think is only marginally less atrocious, and each room bears the name of a herb or spice.”
“Ah!” I said. “That is why the dramatically headlined article referred to a 'Paradol Chamber', then?”
(I should explain that at the time of this case the word 'paradol' was in fairly common usage but when I finally published this tale in my first expanded collection of Sherlock;s achievements barely three decades later (1921) it had largely fallen from favour. It is the principal ingredient in the Guinea pepper and also present in ginger. Back in those far-off days one could buy small bottles of it as a general spice although I have not seen any for some years now).
“Indeed”, Sherlock said. “Dinner proceeded as normal with just the two men and the servants present. They adjourned to the smoking-room – the Cinnamon Chamber - at the back of the house for drinks and the doctor excused himself to visit the water closet or as it was in this case, the Ginger Chamber. How that wretched merchant made a fortune while showing such execrable taste is something that I find frankly incomprehensible!”
I smiled at his annoyance.
“The doctor returned to find his host lying dead on the floor having clearly been strangled. Mr. Gilbertson lay directly in front of a small store-cupboard labelled 'the Paradol Chamber' the door to which was slightly ajar. I should mention that the French doors were open upon the doctor's return whereas they had not been earlier. The door into the smoking-room was also slightly ajar when he re-entered the room; he was sure that he had shut it when he had left in order to keep the warmth in.”
“I am surprised that they did not immediately suspect the doctor”, I observed. Sherlock shook his head.
“He entered the room just as a maid was passing down the corridor; she heard him call out and came in after him. She says that he left the door open when he went in and there was a delay of but a few seconds before she got there. Certainly not long enough for him to strange a fellow human being, let alone his being a doctor pledged to do no harm.”
“Did they search this 'Paradol Chamber'?” I asked.
“They did”, Sherlock said. “The maid said that the store-cupboard was usually locked and that the master and housekeeper both had keys, although the housekeeper was then dining with some of the rest of the staff downstairs. The search revealed only one unusual item, a skull that no-one in the house recognized. Not a real one I might add but the sort purchased from theatrical shops.”
“Strangled”, I said thoughtfully. “Probably killed by someone who escaped via the French doors then. Did they check for footprints?”
“Unfortunately the weather that night was atrocious”, Sherlock said. “Next day they tried but there were only a few marks. One odd thing perhaps; the prints they did find were on a small bank that was not in line between the gate at the back, which presumably was used as the entrance as the front is on a busy road, and the French doors. It it was an outside attacker then quite why they detoured that way is unknown; they could not see the house or anything from the bank.”
“How strange”, I said.
“The maid – a different one - who took the food in and out at dinner said that both men seemed perfectly relaxed”, he said, “and the butler said that they were talking amiably enough as he brought in their coffees to the smoking-room. And Doctor Easington seemingly had no motive to kill his brother-in-law.”
“No-one heard anything?” I asked.
“The smoking-room is in the rear corner of the house for privacy”, Sherlock said. “Sir Beresford has arranged that if you are willing you can sit in on the post mortem which is tomorrow. I know that police doctors are good but I would prefer to have someone whose judgement is unimpeachable in this matter. Certainly someone more professional than this God-forsaken newspaper writer who deserves to spend some time in Purgatory for choosing 'Hell House 2' as his headline!”
“Of course I will”, I smiled.