"Holmes!" I shouted, brandishing a length of red flannel at his surprised, and annoyed, yet still infuriatingly supercilious face. "What is the meaning of this?"
Holmes pushed his chair away from his chemical apparatus, probably so that if I hurled something at him it would not upset the experiment he was conducting.
"No! No, wait a moment," I said. "I will deduce the importance of this strange phenomenon for myself!"
"If you would let me explain..." Holmes went on, but by now he could see it was no use.
"Observation: My flannel underclothes have appeared in the trunk I had packed for our holiday on the continent," I said. "I did not place them there myself. Inference: they were surreptitiously introduced into it by one Sherlock Holmes."
"You gave me leave to include anything I thought we were likely to need--" Holmes protested.
"Fact: the weather in the south of France is far too warm to require flannel underclothes at this time of year. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that this fact has escaped the notice of the great Sherlock Holmes, encyclopedic compendium of all useful knowledge. And yet, Sherlock Holmes has placed this garment in our trunk, along with sundry other articles of clothing adapted for use in a cooler climate, because he thinks we will be likely to need them. Inescapable conclusion--"
"My dear fellow--"
"Inescapable conclusion," I shouted, "Sherlock Holmes knows that we are not going to the south of France at all!"
The underclothes streamed in a red flannel arc from my outstretched hand, striking him about the face. He tossed them impatiently aside and rose hurriedly from the chair, perhaps in order to impress me with his superior height.
I was not impressed, however. "We are not going on our continental holiday, are we, Holmes?"
"Watson, I was afraid you would cause a scene like this if I told you--"
"--if you told me that your master plan was to decoy me to the railway station with promises of warm sun and inexpensive wine, and then inform me that we are going back to that miserable western hole known as Stoke Moran?"
Once again, I was gratified to witness the rare and precious sight of Sherlock Holmes standing dumbstruck and dumbfounded. But my joy was short-lived.
"This is all your fault, Watson!" Holmes retorted.
"If you had not insisted on introducing me to that horrible American brat--"
"Miss Varegia is my poor departed sister's only living issue. I wish you would not use such vile language when you speak of her."
"I don't believe she is related to you at all. I have never heard you mention a sister, in all the years I have known you, and any name as outlandish as Ophidia Varegia must be an alias."
"As I have explained to you, Holmes, my poor sister Lamia was devoted to herpetology--"
"--which is how that child comes to be an expert on poisonous snakes. The entire situation is highly suspicious, and if I had not looked the information up myself I would not believe a word she said. Indeed, I suspect her of having looked the information up on purpose simply to humiliate me."
"Holmes, I will not have this. I know how you hate to be wrong, but you must simply accept the facts. There is no such thing as an Indian swamp adder, and even if there were, it could not physically have lived in that safe, heard Roylott's whistle, drunk the milk you found near it, or climbed down that bell-rope."
Holmes began cursing to himself under his breath as he paced the carpet.
"It is not your fault that you have not made a special study of the habits of exotic reptiles. You cannot be expected to know everything."
He looked at me as if it were the first time anyone had suggested this to him.
The expression on his face softened my anger, as I had known he eventually would. It was clear to me then that whatever the world might expect of him, Holmes himself expected much more. Holmes believed that he could--that, for some reason, he had to--know everything. And that was why it was more important to him to go back to Stoke Moran and find out what had really happened than to come with me to the south of France. I found this knowledge--like so many things I was learning about Holmes--simultaneously tremendously touching, and ineffably frustrating.
"Holmes," I said. "You saved Miss Stoner--excuse me, Mrs. Armitage--from her stepfather's rage, and helped to bring divine vengeance to a man who had undoubtedly murdered his other stepdaughter for the most mercenary reasons imaginable. Do the details matter so much?"
Holmes slumped onto the settee, dejected.
"Watson," he said, wearily. "You have no idea what this has done to me."
I sat down next to him. "They why not explain it to me."
"I was absolutely sure that my theory was right," Holmes went on. "Absolutely sure. As I have been absolutely sure so many times in my career. If I can be absolutely sure, and still be so horribly wrong...how will I ever know, again, that I am right?"
I finally felt, looking at him, the pain that underlay all of his blustering about poor Ophidia, all of his rants after that ill-fated dinner about how it was a mistake to educate women, and his burning desire to go back to Stoke Moran and make himself equally absolutely sure that he had finally found the right answer.
I was willing to go with him, now that I felt all of these things. But I would not go without apprehension. I had been a doctor and I knew--if Holmes did not--that there was not always a right answer. And I was afraid that this journey might force Holmes to realize that not every mystery had a solution.
He had investigated cases that were never solved--because there was insufficient information, because a suspect eluded detention, because the client had terminated the investigation under circumstances that did not allow him to disregard the client's wishes. But never before had he suddenly discovered, years after the fact, that one of the airtight and impressive theories he had constructed was simply not true. Not inconsistent, not implausible, not logically flawed, but simply not factually true. I was afraid, not so much of what we would find if we went to Stoke Moran, but of what we would not find.
But, as I was learning to my sorrow, I was willing to follow him, even and especially to places that frightened me.
"Holmes," I said. "I will go with you to Stoke Moran on one condition."
"And what is that?" Holmes asked, gloomily.
"That the instant we return you come with me to the continent."
"I accept your terms," Holmes said, with a look in his eye that might have been gratitude.
"Very well," I said. "Have we any idea who owns Stoke Moran now? Did Mrs. Armitage inherit it after all?"
"That," said Holmes, "is one of the few things I do know. Thanks to a Byzantine entailment, the property passed to a distant relative who still bears the Moran name. He has never been resident on the property, however. I propose that we first visit Mrs. Armitage, on the chance that she may remember something now that might shed some light on our inquiry..."
"...and then continue our long tradition of violating the laws relating to trespassing and personal property whenever the mood suits you."
"If you have no objection."
"I am a creature of impulse, Watson," he said, some of his old spirit coming back. "You're very good to humor me this way."
"I don't mind."
"You wouldn't mind humoring another impulse for me, would you?"
I looked at the color rising in his cheeks and said, without the least hesitation, "Not at all."
After all, the trunk was already packed, and if we happened to miss the next train, there would always be another.
* * *
"So, Watson," said Holmes, as we walked up the short gravel drive. "You are getting your seaside holiday after all."
I did not dignify this with a response. Holmes was perfectly well aware that this damp, cold, sodden Brighton landscape could not at all compare to the Riviera. However, it was where Percy Armitage had removed after marriage, on the advice of their physician, who felt the sea air would do his wife good. In her response to our letter, in addition to expressing her warmest thanks to Holmes for the assistance he had rendered her those years ago, she had mentioned that her health had never recovered from the shock of those terrible events. Indeed, the relative shabbiness and dinginess of the little house we were approaching indicated that the expense of employing a nurse to look after her had strained their modest finances.
A young and obviously local waiting maid opened the door and showed us into the sitting room. A slight, sandy-haired man of medium height, dressed in a good if worn brown suit, rose to greet us.
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he said, shaking my friend's extended hand. "And Dr. Watson. I am so glad to have the pleasure, as my wife has often spoken of you. My wife has been confined to her bed this morning, I am afraid--the damp does not agree with her nerves. But she did especially ask me to send you up to her."
"Well," I hesitated, "if it wouldn't be a strain on her..."
Holmes, who had already started up the stairs, paused to wait impatiently for his answer.
"Oh no, Dr. Watson, she's not so ill as all that. I expect she will be down later this afternoon. It is simply that...well, the mornings are difficult."
Holmes was not looking at him as he said those words. But I was; and the sadness in his honest brown eyes was almost like a memory. I had never met the man, and knew nothing of their marriage. Yet I knew from his voice and his face what he was feeling as he watched the woman he loved struggle with something no one could cure.
"I understand," I said. "We won't be long."
Holmes reached the landing much faster than I did. As he rapped on the door, he shot me a look which made me feel that I had displeased him somehow, in some way. But the nurse opened the door, and we entered the invalid's bedroom.
Mrs. Armitage was some years older than when we had last seen her, and her hair was whiter. But even as she lay propped against the pillows of her bed, I could still see the courage and determination that had been so visible that morning she first walked into our sitting room. She greeted us warmly, extending one thin arm to wave us to a chair.
Holmes took his seat, leaning toward her with his elbows on his knees, all concentration.
"Miss Stoner--excuse me, Mrs. Armitage," he began. "I believe I mentioned in our note to you..."
"Yes," she said, bringing one white hand across her brow. "I am of course happy to assist you in whatever inquiries you wish to make, but I'm afraid I don't understand why you find it necessary. My poor sister is at peace, my stepfather is beyond the reach of the law, and I am...happy."
The wan smile with which she said the word twisted my heartstrings. As she dropped her hand onto the coverlet, I noticed something that quite distracted me from her conversation with Holmes.
Starting at the wrist, and meandering in a broken line over her forearm, was a pattern of faint, but still visible discolorations that looked almost like age spots. She was, as I knew, too young to have them; and as I also knew, only too well, these were not spots at all. They were old scars, left behind by small blisters that had sprung up on the skin above the veins in her arm, then burst and faded. More than once.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Holmes," she said. "But I am afraid that I remember nothing more about that terrible time, other than what I told you when I came to you, and what you know from your own experience. I do not speak of my life at Stoke Moran any more, except to Percy; and I have not made an effort to keep the memory green."
"No, of course not," said Holmes, although he was visibly disappointed. "I'm terribly sorry to have troubled you this way--"
"Excuse me," I finally blurted out. "I do apologize, Mrs. Armitage, but it is a personal as well as a professional matter, and--"
Holmes and Mrs. Armitage were both frankly staring at me. I went on.
"Your husband said that the mornings are--difficult. Is it because they...because you wake up nauseated?"
She seemed startled, and I reflected with chagrin that she had reason to be. For a woman to discuss her illness in the presence of a man who was, after all, virtually a stranger to her would be very difficult, and I immediately took myself to task for having allowed my excitement to goad me into putting her in this beastly position.
"I am sorry," I said. "I am not your physician, and have no right to ask--"
"Do not apologize, Dr. Watson," said Mrs. Armitage. "As a matter of fact, you are perfectly right; and if you know anything about this mysterious complaint I beg you to tell me what it is. We have not found a doctor yet who can explain the symptoms, let alone cure them."
I was terribly saddened, but not at all surprised, to hear her say it.
"I am afraid I know very little about it," I said. "All I can say is that I have treated a patient in the past with the same complaint. If you would be willing to give me the name of your doctor, I would be delighted to confer with him--to see whether he has anything to tell me, or whether I might have anything to suggest to him in the way of treatment."
"I would be more than grateful to you, Dr. Watson," said Mrs. Armitage. "Percy will give you his card if you ask."
"Thank you," I said, rising to my feet to bow my way out. "I wish you a good morning, Mrs. Armitage, and I hope that the afternoon will improve."
Holmes, rather confusedly, stood and followed me out. He wanted to stop on the landing, but I was not ready to have the conversation I knew he would begin. I went immediately down the stairs and straight to the sitting room.
By the time Holmes arrived, Percy Armitage was already handing me the doctor's card. "Anything you could do for her, Dr. Watson, we would be eternally grateful for. My wife bears the pain very bravely, but I would give anything if I could finally take it from her."
"I am afraid I can offer very little," I said. "There are some drugs that might make her more comfortable, which your doctor may not yet have tried. But aside from that, I am as much in the dark as he is."
"Speaking of being in the dark," put in Holmes. "Mr. Armitage, I wonder if you would know where we might find the young man who was engaged to Miss Julia. I wondered if he might throw any light on the events surrounding her death."
Armitage seemed suddenly flustered. Holmes looked at him, puzzled.
"But Miss Julia was never engaged," Armitage finally said.
All Holmes could do was repeat, "Never engaged?"
"Not to my knowledge, Mr. Holmes. There was some talk about her and a half-pay major in the marines who was stationed near Stoke Moran, but the company moved on after a month and nothing came of it."
"And this...flirtation..." Holmes said, struggling to regain his footing. "Was how long before her death?"
"I believe they shipped out just after the Christmas holidays," Armitage said. "And Miss Julia's anniversary is in May."
"Oh, well, if he left the picture five months before than he can know very little of any use to us," said Holmes airily, as if none of this had been in the least a shock for him. "Thank you very much for your help, Mr. Armitage, and I do hope that your wife's health will improve."
The young maid showed us out the door. Our boots crunched on the damp gravel as a fine rain began to fall.
"This is terrible, Holmes," I said.
"Absolutely," Holmes answered. "If the sister was never engaged, then there was no motive. My entire theory was founded on false information. Dr. Roylott may have been entirely innocent of the crime. It may not have been a crime at all. In fact--"
"Damn it, Holmes!" I shouted.
Holmes stopped walking. I stood uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
"What I meant was," I said, "it is terrible about Miss Stoner's illness."
He did not correct my use of her maiden name. Perhaps that meant he was beginning to understand the depth of my emotion.
"Yes, it is most unfortunate, and very mysterious," he said. "And you say you have treated a patient for the same complaint?"
"Dear me, that is too bad. Who was it?"
I turned and began walking as I gave the answer.
"It was Mary."
For a long moment he stood on the gravel, watching me walk away. Then I heard his footsteps hurrying after me.
"Watson!" he cried. "Watson, wait."
I would not wait. I did not want to talk to him. Not at that moment. And I knew he would not want to see the tears. Not when they were for her.
* * *
"I'm afraid I won't be able to tell you much more than you know already," said Dr. Christison.
"Anything you can tell us will be of immense use to us, no matter how small," said Holmes.
I would have been angry with Holmes for inserting himself into what was, after all, a professional consultation, but I felt I owed it to him to indulge him. I had at length allowed him to overtake me on the street outside the Armitages' little house; but I had not responded to his attempts to draw me out, and we had trudged to the railway station in silence. During our entire journey we had hardly exchanged a word. Now we were back in London, in the consulting rooms of Dr. Christison, the specialist whose address had been on the card Percy Armitage gave me. In front of this dapper little Scotsman with his neat red beard and round spectacles we had returned to some semblance of our usual manner; but I knew that I was hurting him by my silence, and I was beginning to be afraid that it was because I wanted to.
"The scars you observed are from the blisters, of course," Christison went on, "produced by the inflammation. I am sure you observed the same pattern of blistering and scarring in the early stages of your wife's illness."
Holmes nodded, as if he knew something about it. I said, "Early stages?"
"Yes," said Dr. Christison, slightly startled by my surprise. "The blisters first occurred shortly before she consulted me; when I first examined her they had already burst. She soon suffered a second outbreak, however, and I was able to extract some of the fluid; but I'm afraid my analysis yielded very little in the way of a diagnosis." He pulled over a leatherbound clinical notebook and began leafing through it. "I didn't see her again until after her stepfather’s death, and by then the scarring had taken place. I had hoped that perhaps the blisters were a hysterical symptom brought on by the morbid life that she surely led in that house with that ogre of a stepfather, and would be cured by his disappearance; but as you see, the illness persists even though the blisters do not."
He looked up from his notes and caught my expression. Being a doctor himself, I suppose, he knew what it meant.
"Your wife's case progressed differently, Doctor Watson?" he asked.
It was a moment before I could answer.
"My wife's illness lasted a little over a month. The blisters appeared on the first day. As soon as the scars had healed they would burst out again in different spots. That continued unchanged until she finally succumbed."
I strove to make my tone as clinical and detached as possible. I thought I might have deceived Christison, but I was quite sure I was not deceiving Holmes.
"Very interesting," said Christison. "I had assumed that the blisters were simply the first stage in the progression of the illness. Perhaps Mrs. Armitage's case is anomalous in that respect."
"What was your hypothesis about the cause of this illness, Doctor?" put in Holmes.
"Another thing I'm afraid I cannot help you with," said Christison. "It is an absolutely baffling disease, as I am sure Dr. Watson will attest. In many ways it behaves much like a tropical fever, but it does not appear to be contagious; Mr. Armitage has never had the slightest hint of a symptom, nor have any of their domestic staff."
Holmes looked not a whit less puzzled than when he had first entered the room. "Why do you say it behaves like a tropical fever?" he asked.
"Along with the blistering, the patient demonstrates fever, chills, and palpitations," Christison said. "However, those symptoms subside with the blisters, giving way to something more like the ague--generalized soreness, mild nausea, fatigue. I had hoped that removing Mrs. Armitage from Stoke Moran might help; but of course I should have known better. But I am an old man, after all, and habits die hard."
I laughed. Holmes looked from me to Christison, vexed at not being able to share the joke.
"You were hoping it was miasmatic in origin, then?" I said.
"Foolish of me, of course," Christison murmured. "The poor miasma has gone the way of bloodletting and leeches, I am afraid, and now we must do battle with sepsis and sewage and bacilli. Still, miasma or contagion, it has got the better of me, and I will take my hat off to any man who comes up with a theory, no matter how outlandish, that will allow me to get my poor patient some relief."
I finally took pity on Holmes, and began to explain. "We were taught in medical school that diseases like malaria were caused by unhealthy vapors exhaled from the earth by rotting vegetation," I said, while Christison nodded. "That is what we mean by 'miasma.' Of course now we know better. But it is puzzling, is it not, that the thing is not contagious? And it must not be, for I never suffered any symptoms myself."
"Absolutely it is puzzling," agreed Christison. "I have been treating Mrs. Armitage for years now and I have yet to send her a bill. She was referred to me by someone who guaranteed that I would do her some good; and since I have not, I feel it would be wrong to charge."
Christison said this last with a cheerful wink at me. I liked the little man immensely, despite his inability to answer any of the questions that were pressing on me even harder and heavier than they were on Holmes. It seemed unfair to me that he was toiling in such relative obscurity, when from speaking with him it seemed that he was at least as intelligent and effective as many more highly-acclaimed specialists.
"Whoever referred her to you did her a great service," I said, standing. "Thank you for your time, Dr. Christison."
"It's been a pleasure," said Christison. "I am a great follower of yours, Mr. Holmes; and of course yours too, Dr. Watson."
Holmes stood and bowed with me. Then, as I was about to turn and walk out, Holmes suddenly asked, "By the way--who did refer Mrs. Armitage to you?"
"A friend of mine named Goulding," said Christison, mildly surprised at his interest. "Mrs. Armitage told me her sister had seen him when she was suddenly taken ill on a journey to London, and he had impressed her so much that she sought him out when she fell ill. Poor Miss Julia," he went on. "I never met the lady, of course; but what a horrible death! I am so glad you were able to put Dr. Roylott out of his daughters' misery. As a doctor I suppose I should not condone it; but I don't need to have met the man to know he made them both wretched, and I can't help thinking that if you had not sent that snake back through the ventilator at him, Providence would have found a way to rid the world of him sooner or later."
Holmes pursed his lips as if he were trying to swallow something bitter. "Thank you," he forced out.
I had already descended the steps to the consulting room before I noticed that Holmes was still standing at the top, lost in thought.
"Are you coming?" I said.
"That depends," he answered, returning to earth, and to something of an ill temper.
He started down the steps. I did not want to look at him, but I could not help it.
"Watson," he said. "I know that I was beastly to you when you first married, and I am sorry for it. I never had anything but the highest respect and admiration for Mary. I know how much it must have hurt you to lose her--"
"--but all the same," I shouted, "you are glad she's out of the way!"
Holmes stared back at me, as stunned and hurt as if I had struck him. And indeed, I felt as if I had.
"That is a terrible thing to say to anyone, Watson," he finally answered. "And a terrible thing to believe about me. And if you really think that I am callous and selfish enough to have wished that on you, then I do not understand how you can bring yourself to touch me."
He turned on his heel and walked away up the street.
"Where are you going?" I called out, knowing from the speed of his walk how much I had upset him.
"To see this Doctor Goulding," Holmes shouted back, over his shoulder. "And if you really want to find out what happened to poor Mary, I think you had better come with me!"
I was a little afraid of the emotion in his voice, and more than a little ashamed of the way I was behaving toward him. But I had to know what he meant. I hurried forward, although it was hard work to match his stride.
"What has Doctor Goulding to do with anything?" I panted.
"You will perhaps not have noticed," said Holmes, acidly, "that from Christison's description, it appears that Miss Helen's symptoms first appeared shortly before she consulted me." He kicked a piece of brick viciously out of his way. "That was what brought her to us, Watson. She observed these symptoms, and she knew that she had been infected with the same illness that had killed her sister. She knew that the doctors might not be any use. So she came to me."
"But..." I went on, trying to return to our normal mode of conversation. "But Miss Julia died of that snakebite--"
Holmes stopped, swung around, and began a tirade so forceful that I could only stop and listen agog.
"Miss Julia obviously did not die of a snakebite," Holmes seethed. "I constructed that hypothesis based purely on details about Miss Julia's death relayed to me by Miss Helen, who, sympathetic as she is, clearly cannot be trusted, since as we now know she lied to us about her sister's engagement in order to fabricate a motive that would point to her stepfather. Miss Julia, obviously, died of the same illness that continues to afflict Miss Helen."
I had been going to ask how he knew, but he did not give me a chance.
"I never doubted Miss Helen's story, Watson. I accepted it lock stock and barrel and so I never took the simplest of steps to verify it. She told me the coroner's report was inconclusive; well, I did not even trouble to determine whether there in fact had been an inquest. There was no one who could either have confirmed or deny her story about how Miss Julia died, save for that stepfather of hers, who obviously would have told me nothing even if I had asked. She made it up, Watson, she constructed the entire plot in her own head and came down here to feed it to me."
Since he had finally paused for breath, I said, "But why would she do such a thing?"
"Obviously," Holmes went on, still angry and impatient, "so that I should do exactly what I did--which was travel to Stoke Moran, observe the props she had arranged for me in Julia's room, leap to the conclusion to which she expected me to leap, and finally punish--legally or otherwise--her hated stepfather for having murdered her sister!"
I was beginning to fear that my brutality toward him had unhinged him. "But Holmes...you just said that she was not murdered..."
"Julia was not murdered by means of the serpent, Watson," Holmes repeated. "We've known that ever since our conversation with your insufferable American niece. But she was murdered--by whatever dread disease it is that Dr. Roylott somehow brought with him from India, and somehow infected his stepdaughters with, for some motive which we do not understand. Miss Helen suspected this when Julia died; she must have realized it for certain when she began to demonstrate the same symptoms that had been fatal to her sister. She knew that she would never be able to prove him responsible in a court of law. And so she brought me up to Stoke Moran to investigate--taking the precaution of framing him first."
"So your hypothesis now," I said, trying to keep everything in place in my head, "is that she fabricated the story about the snake, the bell-pull and the ventilator in order to frame a guilty man?"
The familiar accents of the familiar phrase made it almost seem as if the last ten minutes had never happened, and my heart was twisted in a sudden pang of mingled affection and remorse.
"Holmes," I said. "I...I am terribly sorry for...for what I said to you just now."
"And well you should be," he answered, his anger covering his relief.
"I do not know what possessed me to say it," I said, "unless it is that I have sometimes wondered whether I, myself, had...wished this upon her."
Holmes looked at me with those searching eyes. He brought a hand up toward me, but we were in public, and it dropped before it reached my face.
"You obviously did not, Watson," he said. "Or you would not still be grieving for her."
We looked at each other for a long moment, while the freshening wind promised another shower of rain.
"Come on," Holmes finally said, with a tentative little smile. "Let us go see this Goulding, and see what he has to tell us. Because even if I finally have the solution to my little conundrum, I will not be able to rest until we have made some progress on yours."
"On mine?" I asked.
"Watson," Holmes said, gently. "Dr. Christison tells us this disease is not contagious. It is therefore impossible that you could have somehow transmitted it from Stoke Moran to Mary--"
I uttered a sudden cry of comprehension that caused Holmes to break off in mid-sentence.
"Watson?" he said.
"Never mind," I answered. "I just--never mind. Go on."
That was the explanation. The instant I saw those scars on Mrs. Armitage's wrist, I had been holding myself responsible for Mary's death. And lashing out at Holmes because, in the dark recesses of my heart, I had been holding him responsible too.
"And that means," he finally said, "that Mary must have been infected too."
"Well, of course she was infected," I answered, a little put out that he was being so patronizing.
"I mean infected by someone," he repeated. And, as I still looked blank, he said, "Watson, what I am trying to tell you is that if in fact Julia Stoner was murdered, it is highly likely that Mary was murdered too."
I stood stock still on the pavement, unable for the moment to move.
Holmes slipped his arm into mine. "Come, Watson. Come with me and we will get to the bottom of it. If I am, after all, something more than a hack and a fraud, then we will find out who did wish Mary dead, and how they killed her, and why. And by heaven, Watson, I will promise you this--whoever it is will pay."
From the emotion in his voice I was almost afraid to look at him. But I did. And I realized, looking at him, that if he did mean what I thought he meant by "pay," I would not be sorry. That, indeed, I would only be grateful, and love him all the more for it.
With his arm in mine, and his gentle voice still urging me onward, I began the long walk toward Goulding, and the answer.
* * *
By the time we reached Goulding's office, it was late afternoon. I did not realize until we were seated in his consulting room that I had not eaten since we left Baker Street that morning. I was not hungry. I wondered, as Holmes began to explain, whether this was how Holmes felt during those long periods when he would go without regular meals or sleep. Was it perhaps not so much the thrill of the chase that spurred him on, but the sort of queasy, numbing dread that was currently draining my appetite and blunting my senses? Was he driven to put aside all else but the problem on which he was engaged, not because he enjoyed his work more than he enjoyed a well-done fowl, but because an unsolved mystery simply destroyed his ability to enjoy anything else? I did not know; but I had to admit that if Holmes felt, while pursuing a difficult case, as badly as I had felt since we left Mrs. Armitage's bedchamber that morning, I ought to respond to his fits of hyperactivity with compassion rather than resentment.
"Ah, you mean Miss Stoner," Goulding finally said. "Oh, certainly I remember her. Christison must have told me she had married but I'm afraid I had forgotten. My mind is only of middling size, you understand, Mr. Holmes," he said, with wry good humour. "I have just enough brain to make a good general practitioner. But when something happens that is out of the ordinary, I pass the poor patient on right away to a more distinguished colleague who might actually be of some assistance; and once a patient starts seeing another doctor, I fear I begin to lose interest. Mercenary of me, of course. But let me find you her case file, if indeed I still have it..."
He began opening drawers and boxes. Holmes continued to question him. "Doctor Christison said she came to you because you had helped her sister?"
"Ah yes, Mrs. Whitworth," said Goulding, turning his back on us as he dove into a strong box that was bursting with clinical records. "It was kind of her to remember me at all. I was not the lady's regular physician, of course; but I suppose she might remember me fondly, as by lucky chance I happened to be the bearer of good tidings."
Fortunately, Goulding's back was still turned, and he did not see the look of vexed astonishment on Holmes's face, or the look of horrified comprehension on mine.
"Say nothing," I mouthed silently to Holmes. "Let me ask the questions."
He nodded. I am sure it was only because he could not imagine what was happening to the universe. Julia Stoner had begun the day as an engaged woman, then become single, and now gotten married all in one day--and all this while being several years dead. It was certainly puzzling--to anyone who had not been to medical school, or had never had the opportunity to spend some time after dinner in a drawing room with more than one doctor and a good bottle of port.
"It was you who told her the happy news, then," I said.
Goulding turned around with his hands still empty. He had not found the case file, and it was bothering him, so that he answered more unguardedly than he might have. "Well, she confessed during our consultation that she had had her suspicions; but she had been too busy to consult her own physician right away, and then while accompanying her sister to town she had suddenly taken ill. They were both relieved to hear the fortunate diagnosis, and to know that she was simply suffering the usual intermittent weakness and nausea."
I asked, "So Miss Helen was with her?"
"Oh yes, they had come to town that day to have some dresses made, and as they were passing along the street Mrs. Whitworth had a fainting spell. My secretary happened to see them through his window, and so of course we went to their aid."
"Of course," I murmured. And, as he was about to rifle another desk drawer, I added, "Please, Doctor Goulding, if you cannot find the case file then you cannot find it, that is all. Please do not give yourself any further trouble over it. But if it should turn up, would you mind sending us a note at our Baker street address?"
"Not at all," said Goulding. "I am sorry I could not be more helpful."
"On the contrary," I said. "You have been immensely helpful. Thank you very much for your time, and good afternoon."
Holmes followed me out. He waited until we were on the street and out of earshot. He waited for me to begin. I waited for him to ask.
He broke first.
"Immensely helpful, Watson?" Holmes demanded.
Holmes stopped walking. I turned and waited. It was a struggle, but he was finally forced to submit to his own desperate need to know.
"What is it that you learned in there that I did not?" he cried, infuriated with himself and more than a little irritated with me. "I mean, aside from the obvious fact that the Misses Stoner--if indeed either or both was still a miss--staged that fainting fit in order to give them the opportunity to consult an unknown and not overbright London physician without making an appointment? Which, I presume, they could not do without corresponding, and taking the risk that such correspondence would fall into Roylott's hands. From this we can deduce that they had very strong reasons for preventing Roylott from discovering not only why Miss Julia wished to see a doctor, but the fact that she was seeing one at all."
Even at sea, Holmes could still find his bearings. I was sure I would not have been able to arrive at those conclusions, had I not had the professional experience that had for once allowed me to get the upper hand.
"However," Holmes went on, as he saw that I was softening. "More is evidently clear to you than is clear to me, and I humbly beg you to vouchsafe me a few crumbs of the knowledge upon which you now feast."
He was working hard to amuse me. With everything that he did not understand about me, about Mary, about that horrible time, he understood enough to know I was miserable. I could not laugh, but looking at his keen yet compassionate eyes I felt a surge of gratitude that I knew might turn into tears if I was not careful.
"First of all," I answered, trying to play the game, "you are no doubt wondering why she presented herself to Goulding as Mrs. Whitworth?"
"I would have said, in order that he should not be able to trace her--but if she wanted to give an alias, why did not Miss Helen do the same?"
"Indeed," I answered. "I do not think that can explain it. I believe, on the contrary, that her intention in presenting herself as Mrs. Whitworth was not so much to provide Goulding with a false name as to convince Goulding that she was married."
"Because?" Holmes demanded.
"Because the reason she wanted to see him," I said, trying to sound as patient-yet-with-a-hint-of-patronization as he always had, "was that she wanted to know for certain whether she was pregnant."
"If you had ever worked in a teaching hospital, Holmes, this would not surprise to you in the least. No woman who consults a doctor for that purpose ever presents herself as a Miss. I have heard my colleagues make merry, many a time, over how transparent the pretense can become. Stamford was particularly amused by the attempt one patient had made at turning a sixpenny nickel ring into a gold wedding band. I always considered it the height of cruelty to laugh at the poor creatures...but in any case, Holmes, poor Miss Julia is not at all unusual, at least in that respect. She simply happens to have been a better liar than most."
"A trait which runs in the family, evidently," muttered Holmes darkly. "And the 'happy news,' I suppose, is that she was in fact expecting."
"Ah, I see, Watson," he said, as a smile tweaked one corner of his mouth. "Now that you have explained your reasoning to me...it is all so absurdly simple."
I laughed. It was a weak laugh, but it was real.
"Well, Watson!" Holmes went on. "Now that you have discovered this, there is only one thing for it."
"And that thing is?" I asked.
"The hour of the flannel is at hand," he intoned with mock solemnity. "We must catch the last train to Stoke Moran."
He slipped his arm through mine and began walking briskly up the street.
* * *
It was dark outside the window of our private compartment. The countryside rushed past us; but I could not distinguish more than vague, shifting shapes, all dark and all, to my mind, ominous. Holmes sat opposite me, his knees drawn up, absorbed in his own thoughts.
I had lapsed into silence early, as my own thoughts were not ones that merited communication. I was thinking of Mary, of those last painful days before heaven finally granted her peace. My hand still remembered the terrible pressure of the white fingers that had clutched it during those last gasping spasms. Long as the month of her illness had been, the disease at the end took her swiftly and terribly enough.
Through it all she never had a word of reproach for me. All she would say, during those long night hours when I watched at her bedside and wept in shame and grief over my failure as a physician--and my failures as a husband--was that she loved me, and she was glad that I was there. In the weeks after her death, before Holmes's startling return, those moments had haunted me persistently. Hearing her voice was more painful somehow because all it had for me were words of love. "Don't blame yourself, John," she had said, in one of her last lucid moments. "You have done all that love could do."
All that love could do. Looking at the darkness behind the windowpanes I could see nothing but a reflection of my own shame. It had come to me, on one of those dark fever-ridden nights, that I had probably spent more time with Mary during the month of her illness than I had in the first year of our marriage. I despised myself bitterly for the time I had wasted because I had foolishly thought that she would always be there. I even resented her for not having complained more, for allowing me to neglect her for Holmes and adventure without ever raising her voice or putting her foot down. I never felt, at any moment, that I had ever done for her all that love could do. And even as I felt grief for her tearing at my heart, I was not even sure on some of those long nights that I had even loved her. Because if I had loved her, why would I not have realized that she was a precious gift lent to me for a short time, that every day I spent without her would come back to reproach me after she was gone?
"Watson," said Holmes.
I tried to recall myself to the present time. "Yes, Holmes?"
"What are you thinking about?"
I tried to pass it off lightly. "Surely you must know, Holmes?"
"If I were asked to deduce it, of course," Holmes answered, his voice gentle and his eyes softened, "I would say that you were thinking about poor Mary. But I am sure of nothing these days."
I blinked, swallowed, and said, "You are right, Holmes."
"I know how this has upset you," said Holmes. "Of course it is a terrible thing to suddenly discover that you were deprived of her not by Providence, but by some human minion of the devil. I was wrong, perhaps, to say what I was thinking."
"No," I said, deciding not to explain that the idea of murder had not in fact been what I was brooding on. "Of course you were right to tell me, but I do not understand it at all, Holmes. Who could possibly want to harm poor Mary?"
Holmes shrugged. "That is the darkest part of a mystery that grows ever darker, Watson. My hope is that if we can shed some light on the events that transpired those years ago at Stoke Moran, they may illuminate the mystery surrounding Mary's death."
"But surely that mystery is already illuminated," I said. "If Miss Helen simply fabricated all of the evidence--"
"Ah, but Watson," said Holmes, wearily. "It cannot possibly be as simple as that."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that although Miss Helen's story may be utterly false, some of the clues I examined must have been real. That bed was bolted to the floor. That ventilator had been installed, and installed in a place where it could serve no useful purpose. Destructive and completely useless repairs had been begun on Miss Helen's own room. Miss Helen could have strung up the bell-pull, put out the dish of milk, and tied the dog-leash; but unless she is involved in a secret compact with the local builders, she could not have done any of those other things herself."
I considered this for a moment. "So what does that mean, Holmes?" I finally asked.
"My hypothesis, at this moment--and of course it is liable to change," said Holmes, with a touch of bitterness, "is that Roylott is responsible for those clues that Miss Helen could not have arranged herself. Which means that he had that bed bolted, the ventilator installed, and the repairs begun. These things are all related, somehow, to Julia Stoner's eventual death from the same disease that now afflicts her sister. Our task is to try to understand how."
I nodded. The train continued to rattle through the darkness.
"You are the doctor, Watson," said Holmes. "Have you any idea why Mrs. Armitage survived, while Julia and Mary did not?"
I tried not to let him see the pain that his question caused me. He did, after all, mean well.
"It has crossed my mind," I answered, "that perhaps it was simply because Mrs. Armitage had better medical care."
I was surprised to see water come to Holmes's eyes. His hand reached across the compartment, as if it did not know quite what to do, and finally rested on my knee.
"Watson," he said. "If you say that because I have, over the years, occasionally made some remarks as to the quality of your intellect or the breadth of your professional knowledge, I am truly sorry for it."
I was so taken aback by this sudden flux of emotion that I hardly knew what to answer, except, "No, of course not. My dear Holmes, do not blame yourself."
Holmes evidently interpreted my slumping back morosely into my seat as further evidence that he had wounded my feelings.
"Watson," he went on. "I watched you talk to Christison. He may have a more lustrous nameplate and a larger office than you ever had, but even after treating Mrs. Armitage for years he has found no better way to treat her than you ever did--nor, indeed, did he know as much about the disease or its symptoms as you do. And the way you handled Goulding was nothing short of magnificent. You are as good a doctor as any of the specialists you called in to treat her. And if Mrs. Armitage could be saved and Mary could not, Watson, it must simply be because something about Mrs. Armitage's case is different."
The first thing I thought of to say was, "Holmes, how do you know I consulted specialists about Mary?"
I was afraid I was in for another twenty-step logical process. Instead, he said simply, "It was mentioned in her death notice in the Times."
He had read the death notice. Thousands of miles from London, hiding from certain death under an assumed name, he had read about Mary's death, and remembered the details still. He had never told me how he knew that Mary had died. I had never asked him, just as he had never asked me how it had happened or why.
"There are two possibilities," I said. "One is that Mrs. Armitage was not exposed to the causal agent as often or as intensely as Julia and Mary were. The other is that there is simply something different about Mrs. Armitage's organism which causes the disease to affect her differently."
Holmes brooded on this for a moment.
"I suppose..." he said, tentatively. "I suppose Mary could not have been pregnant, too?"
It was an effort to curb my anger, until I remembered that he could not know why that question was so intolerably insolent.
"No, Holmes," I answered. "That would have been impossible."
He nodded, about to take my word for it. But I was driven somehow to continue.
"Mary and I had not...been together...since her third miscarriage."
Holmes leaned forward, and dropped his voice with a furtive glance out the window at the hallway.
"Third miscarriage?" Holmes whispered.
"Watson," Holmes said, astounded. "You never told me there had been a first miscarriage."
"Well, you never asked!"
My voice was now raised. I did not know who could hear us, and I did not care.
"You never asked because you never wondered. And why you never wondered I simply do not understand. You could deduce my financial decisions, my problems with the servants, my social activities and my train of thought but it never occurred to you even once that when a young, devoted, and otherwise healthy couple remain childless year after year, that means that something is wrong!"
I was ashamed to be shouting, but I could not help it, any more than I could help the tears that followed.
I heard Holmes getting to his feet, then felt him sliding onto the bench next to me. I felt his arms around my shoulders and heard his voice in my ear.
"Watson," he murmured. "I am sorry. I am so sorry."
I turned toward him and buried my head on his shoulder. I had not cried for any of them, at the time. I did not know why I could cry now. Unless it was that with him, I did not have to be the strong one. Not, at any rate, all the time.
I had not known that all the tears Mary wept for those three lost children had found their way into my heart. It was only one of the many things I was learning there in that rattling train car, with my head on his shoulder and his arms around me, and neither of us caring, for the moment, who saw us, or what they thought, or how Julia Stoner had died.
* * *
I stood there with my red flannel underclothes in one hand, staring at them as if I had forgotten their purpose entirely. Holmes had gone down the hall to the taproom to negotiate something with the innkeeper, and I was alone in the small ground-floor room he had given us with only the trunk and my memories for company. I was still standing there, fully dressed, when Holmes returned in his shirtsleeves, his jacket draped over one shoulder. He tossed the jacket onto the bed, and was in the act of unfastening his collar when he finally noticed my immobility.
"Watson?" he asked, gently.
I shook my head.
"What is it?" Holmes said, stealing up softly behind me.
"I can't sleep," I finally said. "I can't even undress. I can't do anything until we find out what happened. I know that it is the middle of a moonless night and it is a long walk over strange country to Roylott's pile, but Holmes, we're here, and I cannot--simply--"
"Of course not, Watson," he said, quickly. "Give me a moment to get into my burglar's black, and we will make our way thither under the cover of darkness. If you would be so good as to unpack the windowcutting and safebreaking tools, which I secreted between the trunk walls and the lining...and there should be a disassembled dark lantern between the false bottom and the real bottom."
By the time we had assembled the lantern and Holmes had collected his tools, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of this expedition. "Perhaps we should wait until daylight, after all...it will be difficult to make a complete examination in the dark, will it not?"
"One thing I have learned over the years," Holmes replied, adjusting the collar of his black overcoat, "is never to disobey an urge of that kind. If you are consumed with a desire to get into that ancient pile this very instant, then you must have a good reason for that. And so we will go, impractical as it may seem. No, not that way, I don't want the landlord to know our movements. This way, out the window."
I was not sure, as I followed his shadowy form across those dark unlit downs, that my hunch was as trustworthy as Holmes's usually had been. But then it had surprised me to hear him come so close to admitting the part that intuition had played in his success. Intuition certainly came to his rescue now; at least, I cannot explain any other way the fact that we did at last reach the grounds, and find ourselves looking up at that black brooding hulk of an ancestral hall.
Holmes led us around to the servant's entrance. The door yielded to him quickly, and we passed down the long corridor, unveiling the dark lantern. Dust was thick everywhere, undisturbed by human feet although the tracks of mice and other animals were visible. The hall had clearly been shut up for some time, although it was impossible to say for how long. Had the furniture been covered and the windows shuttered the instant Miss Helen had removed her things and herself from this unlucky place? Or had that distant cousin who inherited it come down, tried to make the place live again, and then finally abandoned it in despair?
"We will begin with the bedroom," Holmes whispered, and got to work on the door.
When it opened we crept into the room, somehow feeling a need for silence even though our light would surely be visible to anyone in that house. But there was nobody there. The room was empty--the hangings and bedding had been removed, and most of the furniture was gone. Probably the heir had taken or sold most of what had any value. All that was left was the bolted bed--which must have seemed too much trouble to remove--and the bell-pull. And, of course, the ventilator.
I stood looking up at the curving tendrils of the wrought-iron grille that separated this room from the study next door to it. It had been worked in a floral design, with the air coming in through the spaces between the stems and leaves and little flowers. But to my eyes the vines looked like so many serpents, twisting on each other, laying snares in that innocent flowerbed for the imprudent and unwary.
Holmes shook his head.
"It yields up nothing more now than it could have then," he said. "Let us venture into Roylott's chamber."
Roylott's room had been almost totally denuded. The only thing that had been left in it, almost, was the large cast-iron safe. It was still locked. No doubt, once Roylott had died, nobody knew the combination; and even if they had, they could not have been keen on the idea of opening a safe containing a deadly serpent. And as it was, after all, too heavy to move, they had left it where it was.
Holmes crouched down by the safe and began to work his magic upon it. While he was dealing with the combination lock my eyes went back to the ventilator. Something seemed to be stirring in the back of my mind, but I could not tell yet what it was.
"Holmes," I finally said.
"In a moment, Watson," Holmes answered. "This is a delicate operation."
I did wait. But I could not wait as long as it was taking him to open the safe.
"Holmes, I have been thinking about what Christison said, about the disease being miasmatic in origin."
Realizing he would not have peace until he let me finish, and no doubt inclined to indulge me after my outburst in the railway carriage and its aftermath, he put down his tools and turned to face me.
"Yes, Watson?" he said, encouragingly.
"Suppose Roylott wanted to poison his daughter," I said. "Miss Helen said that they used to see to all of the housework because they had no regular servants. They must have done the cooking. It would have been risky for Roylott to introduce something into their foor or drink, since they oversaw all the preparations and would certainly have remarked upon his presence in the kitchen. Since they bolted their doors and windows at night he could not have administered it to them while they slept, in the form of an injection or other such thing. But if he could create a poisonous vapour, which he could introduce into the next room through that ventilator..."
I broke off. Something new had just occurred to me. Holmes was watching with a combination of interest and impatience.
"But Watson, you did say that theory about fever being bad air had been exploded..."
"Holmes, when you saw that saucer of milk on the safe--you are sure it was milk?"
Holmes looked crestfallen.
"It looked like milk," he finally said, defensively.
"Did you smell it or taste it?"
He dropped his eyes and muttered, "No."
"What if it wasn't milk?" I said. "Or what if the milk was simply being used as a medium? Suppose the poison was dissolved in that milky liquid, and he was killed in the act of vapourising it?"
Holmes threw a hand out impatiently. "Watson, to do that he would have needed some sort of heat source, and we never found..."
Now he had trailed off, and it was my turn to prompt him.
He had returned suddenly to the safe, and was applying himself to the lock with savage and desperate vengeance. The door at last swung open. Holmes drew back from the smell of decay that assailed our nostrils.
His eager hands were soon plunged into the safe, sorting through its contents. He brought one hand out, holding gingerly by a finger and thumb a long, bony, brittle object wrapped in what looked to me like dirty oilskin.
"Item one on our inventory, Watson," Holmes said, flinging it into a corner. "One snake, speckled, extremely dead."
So the safe had not been opened since that horrible day. Holmes reached further back, and drew out a ring of metal that surrounded a short, shallow canister whose interior was caked with a black, gummy substance.
"Well, Watson," he said. "Surely you recognize this from your days in the army?"
"It is the burner from a camp stove," I said, feeling a chill settle in my stomach.
Holmes sat back on his haunches, staring at the twisted and slightly blackened object before him.
Since he appeared for the moment to be lost in contemplation, I turned my attention to the inside of hte safe. It contained only two more objects. One was a piece of paper, slightly charred at the edges. The other was a string bag, through which a small hole had been burnt. Bringing the lantern close, I could see that the bag was stuffed full of dried leaves, which had begun to crumble, and leak out of the hole onto the floor of the safe.
"What is it, Watson?" Holmes said, looking finally in my direction.
I had drawn out a handful of the loose, crumbled leaf fragments and was peering at it in the dark. It was impossible to guess the shape of the leaves, but what I could tell was that they had been dried, carefully, by someone who understood the knack of preserving herbs.
I brought the lantern close to the paper. It was charred at the edges, and the ink was very faint.
"It is not in cipher," I said, finally, "but it is in a doctor's handwriting, I think, and that is much worse."
"Worse yet," Holmes said, looking over my shoulder, "it is in Latin."
"It is easy enough to parse, however," I said. "They are all common medical terms. 'Bis in diem,' for instance..."
For a moment I could not go on. Sitting in that dark, empty house with the ghosts of the past gathering around me, I found the words all the more monstrous because they were so familiar.
"Twice a day," I finally said, huskily. "And this means, 'crushed and dissolved.' And..." I shook my head, and swallowed the lump in my throat. "Holmes, this is a prescription. These are Roylott's notes to himself about how to use whatever this herb is. The instructions about dosage..." I cleared my throat, but it did not help. "The instructions about dosage have been amended..."
I could not continue. Holmes was not looking at the paper. He was looking at me, and that was enough for him.
"The original instructions specified the dosage necessary to cause the patient--or let us say, victim--to miscarry," he said, gently. "The amended instructions specify the dose necessary to cause death."
"Ah, Watson," he said, sadly.
"It says here," I finally answered when I could speak, "that the effect appears to be cumulative."
I think Holmes had learned it all already. But I continued to explain, hoping it would steady me.
"Administered twice a day for two days, sufficient to induce abortion. Administered twice a day over seven days, sufficient to cause death," I said. "That is what the instructions say."
I looked up at him. He stared right back at me.
"You began," he said, solemnly. "You finish."
I did not know exactly what he meant, but I went on.
"He knew that his daughter was pregnant," I said. "It would not have been difficult for him to suspect, and their trip to London must have confirmed it for him. If she were pregnant by that half-pay marine, it meant that either they had been secretly married, or they shortly would have to be married, or she would be giving birth to an unfathered bastard child. None of these possibilities were acceptable to Roylott. His first thought was to induce the miscarriage," I said, with a dark sigh. "Then, perhaps, it occurred to him that a miscarriage was simply a temporary solution. Either the marine would return, and they would marry, or Julia would find another husband, but sooner or later he must lose her income. And so after he had induced the abortion...he continued administering the poison. Conscientiously noting, as any good doctor would, the effects that each dosage produced on the patient."
The wind was up now, whistling in the corners of the house. The light of the dark lantern danced over Holmes's pallid features and reflected in the irises of his saddened eyes.
"Miss Helen simply never received the required dosage," I said, bitterly. "She recognized her symptoms, and came to London to consult Goulding, then Christison, then us. Her exposure to this vile stuff was enough to destroy her health forever. But it was not enough to kill her. We came up here, and we kept watch in her room...and we interrupted him just as he had begun to administer one of the day's two doses."
"And then?" Holmes prompted.
"He heard you shouting and striking at the bell-pull. He knew he had been discovered. He put out the flame and flung the burner into the safe. He was in the act of shutting the door when the snake killed him."
I shook my head. "I am wrong on many points, I am sure. And I cannot explain how the snake came to have killed him."
Holmes's voice, when he spoke, was unexpectedly husky.
"No, Watson," he said. "You are not wrong. There are only three questions that your theory does not answer, and I ask them not because I do not believe your solution is the true one, but because I desire to make it more complete."
I waited, in some astonishment, for him to put them to me.
"One: why was Roylott himself not affected by this noxious vapour, as he must surely have been much more directly exposed to it than his poor victim? Two: where did that snake come from, how did it get to him, and why? Three: Is Mary's death simply the result of a different assailant using the same methods, or are they somehow related?"
"I do not have answers for any of them," I said.
"I cannot answer the first," said Holmes simply. "I believe I can answer the second."
He rubbed his eyes wearily with his long white fingers, then began the explanation.
"That tied dog-leash was Roylott's. He used it to handle an extremely poisonous serpent which he kept as a pet, because keeping deadly animals as pets is the kind of thing that depraved and brilliant criminals do. Miss Helen knew of the snake's existence, and she knew how her sister had died; she considered the recent installation of the ventilator and the bolted bed and reached the not unreasonable conclusion that it was the snake that had killed her sister. Her only error--a moral rather than a tactical one, I suppose--was in deciding that the available evidence might not support her hypothesis, and therefore fabricating a new clue in order to put me upon what she believed was the right scent."
"The bell-pull," I said.
"Exactly. She provided me with the link between the ventilator and the bed. That was enough to guide me in that direction." He sighed. "That night I heard a hiss. I assumed, because I had already formed my theory, that it was the hiss of a snake. You, however, compared it in your account of the incident to the sound of steam. You had hit upon the solution then, Watson; you simply did not realize it."
"Good Lord," I said.
"I rushed to the bell-pull, from which I expected the danger to come, and began slashing at it," Holmes said, dejectedly. "I remember asking you if you saw it. You did not--because you were not expecting to see it."
He paused for a long morose moment, and shook his head.
"There was no snake there, Watson. There was a snake in my mind, but around that ventilator there was only the deadly miasma. But Roylott did not know that I had made that mistake. He thought we had caught him; and after hurriedly but ineffectively hiding the evidence, he grabbed the snake, with the intention of using it against us as a weapon. In his haste he mishandled it--with what results, we well know."
We sat silent, looking at each other in the uncertain light of the lantern.
"Holmes," I said, "you have hit upon the answer, I am sure of it."
"No, Watson," he answered. "You have hit upon the answer. You are the one who solved this mystery."
I did not know how to answer that. I did not even know for sure what I felt.
"Watson," he said, "I have known you for a long time, in many strange situations. You are handsome when you are courageous; you are charming when you are loyal; and you are endearing even when you are dense. But when you are brilliant, Watson, you are absolutely breathtaking."
In my entire life I had never heard anyone apply the word "brilliant" to me. Nor, certainly, the word "breathtaking."
"I see that you are skeptical of that last assertion," Holmes said, with a self-deprecating smile. "If I were entirely sure that you had recovered from the emotional shock of today's events, I would tell you to gather up the evidence from that safe, climb back onto the grounds with me, go into the woods until we are far away both from this evil and from the eyes of the local populace, and prove it to you by means of an empirical demonstration. But if you are not in the mood, I cannot blame you."
I was exhausted, drained, soaked with grief and horror. And yet, as I looked at him, I began to wonder if Holmes had not perhaps hit upon the only prescription for the sickness that had gripped me.
"Let us get out of this place," I said, "and we will see what that does for my mood."
Holmes scooped up the bag, stuffing it into the sack that held his tools. The paper he slipped inside his jacket. We climbed out of the window and into the darkness of the wilderness that the Roylott estate had become.
* * *
"Well, Watson," said Holmes, leaning back in the railway carriage. "What is our next move?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"We have now solved--so far as we know--the mystery of what happened to Julia Stoner alias Whitworth, Helen Armitage nee Stoner, and Dr. Roylott. We do not yet understand is how your wife came to die of the same symptoms several years later. I, at this moment, cannot think of any more productive course of action than to attempt to determine the name, origin and provenance of the poison Roylott was using. Can you?"
"No, Holmes," I said humbly. "That seems to me much the best way to proceed."
"And have you any thoughts about how to identify this toxin?" Holmes went on.
"You could analyze it in your laboratory, surely?" I said.
"I could," Holmes agreed. "And a month or two later I might have isolated the active chemical agent, but that would not tell us what plant these leaves used to be attached to or where it grows, which is what we need to know if we are to determine how the same poison came to be in the possession both of the late Dr. Roylott and whoever murdered Mary."
I thought for some time, while Holmes lapsed into silence.
"The question is," I finally said, "whether it is really a poison at all."
"It certainly seems to behave like one," Holmes observed dryly.
"What I mean," I replied, "is that almost any drug will become a poison if it is administered improperly. The same medicines we prescribe for heart complaints, for instance, can easily bring on heart failure if the apothecary or the physician makes an honest mistake. What Roylott gave Julia and Helen may be a respected member of the orthodox pharmacopaeia--which he abused for his own evil ends."
"May be," Holmes said, reading my expression, "but probably is not."
"If this drug really is an abortifacient, then as of 1861 it has been illegal," I answered. "If it was ever used by the regular medical profession, it will have been removed from both the dispensaries and the current medical literature before I ever studied medicine; and therefore neither I nor my colleagues would ever have heard of it."
"How do we find out what it is, then?" said Holmes.
"Well," I answered, "I think this is a job that requires a woman's touch."
"What do you mean?"
I leaned forward and lowered my voice.
"Holmes, after the second miscarriage I consulted the most highly respected men I knew who had specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. It is still, as you know, a new discipline; and I
hope you will take it in the spirit of a professional confidence when I tell you privately that every form of treatment any one of them proposed appeared to me to be at best utterly worthless and at worst dangerous and barbaric. Mary was willing to try almost anything, but after she had been subjected to a few of the least invasive and harmful treatments I told her that I would not allow any more of my colleagues to experiment upon her. Because that is what medical treatment amounts to, Holmes, in a new field like gynecology. No doctor will tell you this, of course."
"Of course," Holmes sighed, in a way that told me that he could no longer be surprised by anything.
"But we...we wanted children," I said, my voice beginning to waver. "So since medicine had not helped us, we tried everything else."
I was afraid that Holmes would be shocked, but he simply waited to hear what "everything else" meant.
"There is one woman I can think of who might know about this drug, and for whose opinion and truthfulness I have the highest regard," I went on. "But Holmes, you must be aware that half of what she does for a living is quite illegal, and the other half would result in the suspension of her midwifery license if my colleagues ever learned of it. If I bring you there, I am implicitly giving her my word of honor that whatever we learn from her will never reach any of the official authorities."
"Absolutely, Watson," Holmes said, quickly. "Poor Mary is so long dead that it would be no use going through official channels in any case. Whoever the culprit is--if we can identify him--will have to be dealt with outside the law."
Still unsure of what precisely he meant by that, I said, "Then when we get to London, I will ask you to come with me to consult a woman who will only give her name as Lillith. I warn you in advance that she does not hold with the scientific method, and is not overfond of men."
Holmes crossed his arms over his chest, with something like a smile.
"Not overfond, eh?"
"She does not see us at our best, Holmes."
Something in my tone chastened his rising amusement. Still, I could see that old enthusiasm glimmering in his eye.
"Well, Watson," he said. "I had no idea that in this day and age one could still find a wise woman in the heart of London."
"Well, she does live in the western suburbs," I said, with a straight face.
Holmes laughed. "Very well, Watson, I give you my word that I will do my utmost to avoid giving offence. Lead on into the medical underworld, and I will meekly sit back and enjoy the adventure as it unfolds."
The adventure unfolded in the rather damp sitting room of a decaying but respectably kept-up townhouse in a neighborhood that was barely clinging to lower middle class respectability. I believe that Holmes was disappointed to discover that Lillith was no older than forty, and that she was dressed in a quite ordinary woolen frock and had her straw-colored hair done up in a tidy little bun. Holmes took the seat she offered him, carefully not allowing the slightest vestige of his excitement or amusement to show on his face.
"I'm pleased to see you again, Dr. Watson," Lillith said, taking my hand and shaking it just as if she had been another man. "But I must say I am surprised. You haven't married again, surely?"
"Not quite," I answered, unable to prevent a reflex glance at Holmes, who hid his vexation.
"If it's that kind of trouble," Lillith said, her manner suddenly glacial, "I will only deal with the woman directly, and she must come alone."
"No, no, it is nothing like that," I stammered, much taken aback as I realized what she had assumed. "I am--I mean--I have come here about a professional matter. I need your advice, as--as a colleague."
Her face suddenly brightened. "Ah, well then. That is much more the sort of thing I would expect from you. Mr. Holmes, I presume, can be trusted?"
Urged by some imp within, I said, "Yes, you may speak as freely before him as before myself."
Holmes waited until she had turned to take her chair, and shot me a venomous and yet affectionate glare.
"What can I do for you, Doctor?" Lillith finally said.
I handed her the bag full of dried leaves. "I was wondering if you would recognize this herb at all. I do not, myself, although I believe it may have been used as an abortifacient."
Lillith drew one of the leaves out of the bag, examined it closely, crushed it between her fingers, and sniffed at the dust.
Her expression altered instantly. Holmes leaned forward. We both knew she had recognized it.
"Where did this come from?" Lillith demanded, sharply.
"We were hoping you could tell us," I replied. "Do you know it?"
"I do," she said. "I've been offered the chance to buy it several times, by out of work sailors or soldiers who are selling off their Indian booty. I don't buy it because I don't use it--and neither will any reputable woman in this business."
"What is it?" Holmes demanded.
"Why not?" I asked, at the same time.
Lillith looked from him to me, and decided to answer both of us.
"The plant itself grows naturally in the north of Bengal; but the leaves keep well when dried, and the drug is in general use all over India. The fine young men of our armed forces discover it through the local women, whom they seduce, rape, and otherwise impregnate at what must surely be an alarming rate. It is true that if you dissolve the crushed leaves in hot water and give the liquid to a pregnant woman, her pregnancy will be over in about twenty-four hours. However, in addition to suffering a miscarriage with all its attendant risks, she will also break out in a very unpleasant rash, accompanied by mild fever and nausea."
I nodded. "And that is why you do not use it?"
"That's one reason," Lillith answered, curtly.
"What are the others?" I pressed.
She took a long moment to decide whether she would reveal a professional secret to someone who, warmly as she may have felt toward me, was by virtue of my profession something of a natural enemy.
"The main one," she answered, "is that if you should happen by accident to give this brew to a woman who is not pregnant, it would most likely kill her."
"Ah," said Holmes.
Lillith looked at him. He looked meekly down at the carpet and forbore to comment further.
"And what would happen if it were given to a man?" I asked.
Lillith shrugged. "So far as I know, nothing. It acts upon the womb. I doubt a man who was exposed to it would suffer more than a mild case of theague."
"Have you ever heard of anyone administering it as an inhaled vapour?" Iasked.
"No," she said, surprised. "I suppose it might be possible, but I think steaming it would greatly dilute its impact. And it would be difficult to vapourise the stuff. It makes a kind of milky, viscous solution that is thicker than water."
"Difficult, but not impossible," Holmes murmured.
"No," said Lillith, with a sharp glance in his direction. "Not impossible. Few things are."
"So if you were going to obtain this drug," Holmes said, having now decisively failed at his attempt to sit back and enjoy the adventure, "I suppose it would not be worth applying to you or one of your colleagues, since it has such a sinister reputation?"
"Absolutely not," Lillith said. "There is no reason for us to pay smuggler's prices for a remedy that has potentially fatal consequences when there are indigenous plants that will produce the same result with less danger and suffering."
"But a returning soldier from India--especially one that might have been something of a gay blade, as it were--might have accumulated his own collection?"
"Evidently," Lillith said. "In the past several years they seem to have realized that there is no market for the stuff; I haven't seen it on the black market in over a decade. But before then, you would see it from time to time. Most of the men who approached me about it were or had been officers. I suppose perhaps they have more lesiure time, in which to do more damage."
I stared at the leaves in the bag. Holmes said, "What is the name of the plant?"
"There is a name for it in the native language of the region," she replied. "But we call it 'serpent's tooth.'"
I got to my feet, a little abruptly.
"Thank you, Lillith," I said. "I appreciate your help, and everything that you did for poor Mary."
"I wish I could have helped her," Lillith said, frankly. "She truly wanted children, and I wish I could have made it possible. I have not had the opportunity yet to tell you," she went on, "how sorry I was to read about her death. She was a remarkable woman, and you must miss her terribly."
I missed her so much, at that very moment, that all I could do was press her hand, walk as quickly as possible to the door, while Holmes made our goodbyes.
"I am glad to have met you," Holmes said, as I pushed open the door to the street. "I hope that if I were ever investigating a case where it occurred to me that you might be able to help someone I could not help, you would at least agree to consult with me?"
"Certainly, Mr. Holmes," Lillith answered. "I never pass up the opportunity to help another woman, no matter how it may present itself to me."
"I will keep that in mind," said Holmes. "Thank you for your time."
He joined me out in the street, and began walking with an energy and decision that told me that the balance had shifted again, and he was once more the one who had seen more than I had.
"Where are you going, Holmes?" I cried.
"To find the new heir to Stoke Moran," he said. "I have a few questions I should like to put to him."
"Which are?" I panted, finally catching up with him.
"Time enough when we get there, Watson."
* * *
The servant who opened the door was well-dressed, clean-shaven, and polite, if puzzled at our sudden arrival.
"Good afternoon," said Holmes. "I am Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Will you please inquire if your master is at home? I know the call is unexpected, but it is rather urgent."
The servant ushered us into the sitting room, and went to inquire.
"His name is Lord Ethelred St. John Smythe-Moran," Holmes murmured, while we waited. "He is currently embarked on a Parliamentary career which promises to be distinguished if not brilliant. His mother's family did rather well for itself during the industrial revolution, and in their case income has just about kept pace with their rank. Unfortunately, they do not now possess the cash reserves that would be necessary to restore and revive Roylott's pile."
Holmes probably would have continued, but a slim young man with blond hair and a cheerful, broad face had entered the room, and was looking at us expectantly. Holmes leapt to his feet and bowed.
"Good afternoon, your lordship," he said. "I am Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and this is my partner Dr. Watson."
I was so busy staring at Holmes that I almost forgot to return our host's bow.
"Of course, of course!" cried Lord Smythe-Moran genially. "You look just like Mr. Paget's portraits of you. To what do I owe this great pleasure?"
"Lord Etheldred," Holmes began. "As you are aware, after the death of Dr. Roylott, you came into possession of a country estate with a very dark and sinister history..."
"Which I must say makes me like it all the better," he said, with a laugh. "I wish I had the money to refurbish it now. When I do, Mr. Holmes, I will be sure to invite you and Dr. Watson out as soon as the place is fit for visitors. It will after all be thanks to you if the place ever brings in any money."
"Money?" Holmes repeated, politely.
"From the holiday-makers," he explained. "That is the wave of the future, Mr. Holmes. I intend to convert it into an exclusive hotel. The romance connected with it, as a result of Dr. Watson's excellent work, will give it an advantage over the others in the area."
"Yes...yes, that is an excellent idea," Holmes said, surely as appalled by the thought as I was. "It is in fact in connection with that...romance, as you put it, that I wish to speak to you. I suppose that you yourself never had any personal contact with Dr. Roylott before his death, as you were so distantly related?"
"No, never," said Lord Smythe-Moran frankly. "My father always regarded the Roylotts as a subject best left closed. I am afraid he was not very pleased to learn that the estate had finally come to me. But I don't hold with these ideas about curses and ghosts and so on, and if the place has bankrupted five generations of Roylotts, well, that must be the Roylotts' fault. I am a Smythe-Moran, and quite a different article."
"Yes, that is abundantly clear to me even from this short meeting," said Holmes, with a polite smile. "I wondered what had become of Dr. Roylott's personal effects--papers, journals, medical curios, that sort of thing."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, I'm afraid I don't know. You see, I only inherited the property very recently, and when I went to examine the place it was clear that the previous owner had converted most of the valuable property into ready cash. What has happened to Roylott's personal papers I do not know, unless they are still locked within that infernal safe, which nobody could pry open."
"The previous owner," Holmes said, quietly. "This would be Colonel Sebastian Moran?"
Lord Smythe-Moran looked startled. He could not possibly, however, have looked half as startled as I felt.
"Who the previous owner was, and how I came to inherit, are family matters," said Lord Smythe-Moran haughtily. "I regret that I am not at liberty to discuss them with you."
"What I am investigating is a family matter too, your lordship," said Holmes, suddenly steel where he had been silk. "And I absolutely must have the answer, one way or another. If you tell me what I wish to know now, I can promise you that it will never leave this room. If I have to discover it through my own methods at my own time and expense, I really cannot say what I might ultimately do with information that I should consider at that point to be rightfully mine."
I was not surprised to see that Lord Smythe-Moran was backing down. I had seen better men than him crumble at moments like this.
"Of course it is not as if it has to be a closely guarded secret," said Lord Smythe-Moran. "It is already quite well known in our circles that Moran is connected to our family—through a rather circuitous, not to say illegitimate, route. What is less well known is that, in the end, through many accidents of genealogy, Colonel Moran was the nearest male heir who was eligible to inherit Stoke Moran after Roylott's death.
"When Moran actually inherited he was in India. He eventually returned, but not to reside there. He made periodic journeys to Surrey to plunder what he could, but that was only so that he would have more money with which to indulge his vices in London. I have no doubt he would have mortgaged the place if a bank could have been found to take him up on it. Fortunately, he was arrested over that terrible business with Adair, and since his escape from custody he has become a fugitive and thus forfeited his rights to almost everything, including property. And that is how the estate has come to me."
Holmes nodded. "Thank you. I am sorry if I have caused you any pain by asking you to relate these particulars to me. Of course your lordship would prefer that his constituents not know of his intimate connection to one of London's greatest modern criminals. I can assure you that they will never learn it from me--or from Dr. Watson. Good day to you, and I thank you most heartily for your candour."
Outside it had begun to rain again. The street glistened a dark gray, and water dripped from the awnings onto our hats. Holmes did not say a word. It was not until we had reached the main street and begun the search for a cab that the question inside me finally burst into the open.
"Holmes," I said, unable to keep the emotion out of my voice. "I can see now that Colonel Moran might easily have abstracted the herbs from among Roylott's things, and that he may well also have found a copy of the dosage instructions. But why on earth should Colonel Moran want to kill Mary?"
Holmes stepped off the kerb into the middle of the deserted street. He snatched his hat off his head and turned his back to me.
"Holmes!" I cried. "Tell me what you know, and do it quickly, because I am in agony!"
Holmes swung around. I could not read the expression on his face but I knew it was dangerous. I took a step back.
"Moran did not want to kill Mary, Watson!" Holmes shouted, his hands slashing the air in anger. "He wanted to kill me!"
I felt my mouth hanging open in alarm.
"But Holmes--I don't underst--"
"Why do you think I came back to London, Watson?" Holmes went on, almost not noticing my interruption. "Because of that wretched little locked-room mystery surrounding the death of the noble yet phenomenally stupid Ronald Adair?"
"I always thought--well--you had told me--"
"I know what I told you," Holmes went on, still furious with I knew not what. "I would think that at least now you would know better than that, even if you didn't then."
He finally took in the stricken look on my face, and calmed himself somewhat.
"I came back because of Mary, Watson," he said, heavily.
Before I could form words to respond to this revelation, he hurried on.
"I don't want you to think I came back because I thought that with her gone I could finally have--all of this," he said, waving an arm at nothing. "I hope you will believe it when I tell you that I came back only because I read that death notice, and all I could think of afterward was how wretched you must have been through the illness and how miserable and lonely you must be without her. I did not even hear about Adair's death until I arrived in England. I was glad it gave me the opportunity to finally return to my old life. But I did not come back to do that, Watson. I came back...I came back for you."
I could not speak. I was afraid of what would happen if I did.
"Now that you have published your stories my enemies know me better than my own family ever did," Holmes said, the rain now running in gray streams over his distressed face. "Moran wanted to lure me back so that he could finish me once and for all. He knew that killing Mary would do it. And so he found a way to penetrate your household--probably he had one of his accomplices placed as a servant--and do his foul work with that poison."
I knew he was right. And I was struggling with so many different conflicting sensations that I could not do anything but watch him keep talking. Hatred of Moran, guilt for the part I had unwittingly played in her death, a crying and unreasonable grief for Mary, and what I knew was an increasing love for Holmes, who now stood before me as utterly miserable as I had ever known him to be.
"I killed Mary, Watson," Holmes choked out. "As surely as if I had administered the poison myself. I cannot even find the words to tell you how sorry I am for the trouble I have caused you, and how ardently I wish that fate had simply let you live out the happy life you could have had if you had never had the misfortune to meet me."
He turned away from me and began walking up the street, taking no care at all about where he was going or what might be coming in the other direction.
"Holmes!" I shouted, from where I was. "Listen to me!"
He turned around. We ran toward each other. I grasped him by the collar of his overcoat and pulled his head close to mine.
"You will not blame yourself for this," I said, surprised at how forceful my voice could sound. "There is only one man who is responsible for Mary's death. That man is Colonel Moran. And you will not have to deal with him inside or outside of the law, Holmes, because I will deal with him myself if we or the authorities ever find him."
Holmes looked back at me, his face as gray as the rain.
"If I had never met you, I would assuredly never have met her. I could never separate her from you, even while you were both alive, everything is always--so--tangled--"
I broke off for a moment. A cab swerved around us, spattering us both with muddy water. We moved to the kerb.
"We do not know how these things are ordained or by who or why. It is foolish for us to complain or protest or drown in remorse. I am lucky to have loved Mary while I had her. I am lucky that I have you still to love. Come home with me out of his wet and let us hope that Mary is glad to know that we are both alive to remember her."
The rain was letting up. A few cautious strollers had begun to emerge from the doorways in which they had taken shelter. I let go of Holmes. He reached out and touched my face, once, his fingers blurring the tracks of the raindrops.
"All right, Watson," he said. "Let us go home."
I put my arm through his. We began the long walk back to Baker Street.
* * *
"Thank you for coming, Holmes," I said, looking down at the yellow blossoms that stood out vividly against the green. The rain had brightened the grass, and the churchyard looked almost gay, except for the gray stone slabs that stuck out of it like crooked teeth.
"Of course," he said, looking at the inscription on Mary's stone. "I would have come before, if I had thought you wanted me."
I sighed. "There is so much I never told you," I answered. "Simply because I did not think you wanted to know it. When you were afraid that it was not your place to ask."
Holmes slipped a hand into the pocket of my coat and found mine.
"Or perhaps," I said, "I never told you because it is still painful to me to know that much as I loved her, she never had my entire heart."
Holmes was silent for a long time.
"I don't know, Watson," he finally said. "Mary had your ring, your name, and your body. You were devoted to her and you loved her in that beautiful old romantic way. She knew you were...attached, to me, in some strange way she could not possibly have understood. But you were a good husband to her, Watson, whatever you may believe," he said. "And you would have been a good father, if you had had the chance."
I felt his hand tighten on mine.
"She was your wife, Watson," he said. "Maybe she never had your whole heart but she certainly had most of it. And maybe that was enough for her, Watson. Maybe it was enough."
I was still not sure. But I was glad to be standing with him at her grave. And I hoped that she could see us there, and that in some way it could make her happy to know that I had finally begun to tell him about her. That she was still with me, the only way that the dead can be. That I could still love both of them, now--as I knew, now, that I always had then.