When I consider the many years that I have been intimately acquainted with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I find myself constantly astonished at how little I know of his past life. His complete suppression of every reference to his family and childhood must be viewed as a deliberate effort upon his part, and I am not one to break in upon a man's reticence; but the fact remains that, excepting the incident of the Gloria Scott, the matter of the Musgrave Ritual, and the adventure I am now about to retell, I know nothing of his early years.
Sherlock Holmes had been up all the night before that day, hard at work upon a chemical expreiment which was, he assured me, "of capital importance". The desired result having been attained at about breakfast-time, he had fallen asleep upon the sofa, curled up under a travelling-rug with one thin acid-stained hand dangling over the edge of the cushions. It was late in the evening when he awoke, face flushed, hair tousled, yawning and rubbing his eyes.
I had been engrossed in a yellow-backed novel, but I now laid it aside and asked him what he had dreamt about.
He stopped in the middle of a stretch to probe me with wary grey eyes. "What?"
"I said, what were you dreaming about?"
"I can't recall. Why?"
"Well, you were talking in your sleep."
A little flicker of alarm passed over his expressive face. "Indeed. What about?"
"Something about serpents. You kept saying that the house was so full of venemous creatures that it was ridiculous even to attempt to single one out. Then you grew very agitated and muttered incoherently for some time; you thrashed about and kicked the blanket off. What on earth were you dreaming about to cause you such restlessness?"
"Oh." He had been holding himself rigidly, but now his shoulders relaxed, and he leaned back among the travelling-rugs and pillows. "Oh," he said again. "An early case of mine. I hadn't thought of it in years. I have mentioned the affair before; it concerned Ricoletti of the club foot, and his exceedingly interesting wife."
"Yes," said I; "you once went so far as to call her 'abominable'. I wondered at the time why she deserved such an appellation."
"Ah, well, I shall tell you all about it, and you shall judge for yourself the stuff that woman was made of." He crossed his legs, laced his fingers together, leaned forward and began:
"As you know, Watson, when I first embarked upon my career as a consulting detective, I had my lodgings in Montague Street, around the corner from the British Museum, in which latter I spent most of my time, reading and researching into criminal history and any other branch of science which I felt would be useful. I could afford to do this as at this time, not only was I almost unknown, but I was also very young—and people, as is commonly shown, are disinclined to attach any importance to the opinions or advice of anyone younger than themselves. At the end of a whole twelve months I had been engaged not more than seven times, and I was beginning to worry. My finances were very low, I was barely able to meet the rents, and frankly, Watson, I had begun to wonder whether I should abandon the profession I had created and take to some more commonplace line of work."
"It was fortunate that you did not."
"Well, I must admit that had I done so, I would have led a much less adventurous life. At any rate, it was upon a bleak day in February that my case really began. I had sat in my consulting room all morning, fidgeting and playing the violin; but the landlord, Larkin, who was a huge, bristling, scarlet-faced man, had roared for me to stop the screeching. My nerves were not very good in those days, for I was generally up at all hours walking about the city, and consequently I lost my temper, had a row, and slammed out of the house. I found myself standing in the pouring rain without an umbrella. My pride would not allow me to step back inside to get one, and at any rate the street was as awash with filthy water and floating refuse as a sinking ship in the Thames. I had no friend or club I could take refuge in, and so I waded my way to the British Museum—I had no money for a cab—arriving sopping wet, spattered with mud, and in an even worse humour, if possible, than before. This changed, however, as I entered the library, procured a seat, and proceeded to engross myself in a learned monograph entitled Effects and Antidotes of the Venoms of Various Serpents. It was an excellent work, well-researched and captivating, and as I read I became nearly insensible to the world around me—that is, until someone tripped, fell on top of me, got entangled with the chair, and sent us both sprawling to the floor.
"I was up on my feet again in an instant, kicking the chair aside and assisting the other man to rise. As I did so I took measure of him with that faculty of observation which is habitual with me. He was a thin, frail fellow of not more than five-and-thirty, dark-skinned and dark-eyed, with very untidy, mismatched clothes, a head of close-cropped curly black hair, the hands of a gentleman—though these last were curiously nicked and scarred—and the air of one of those unworldly scholars who remain cloistered away among dusty tomes all day, and who can be found in any college. And as I bent over to retrieve his stick for him—it was a fine one, Watson, light but sturdy—I perceived that he was club-footed.
"The gentleman had by this time set his pince-nez, which had fallen off in his headlong tumble, back upon his nose, and was squinting at me in a peering fashion, sending worry lines in a V across his forehead. Then he stooped awkwardly, picked up my book, and gazed at it with speculative eyes for some time before finally turning back to me.
" 'You are interested in poisonous reptiles, then, young man,' said he, in a husky, introspective voice.
" 'Quite. Are you?'
" 'Yes, indeed,' he answered, in the tone of a fanatic whose favourite subject is mentioned. 'I am a naturalist, and all poisons of both flora and fauna are my area of expertise.'
" 'Excellent,' said I. 'And as you are also fond of photography, you no doubt have a fine collection of plates.' As you have no doubt observed, Watson, it is always wise to impress people with a sense of your own power. In this case my ploy had apparently been successful, for the man blinked at me through his thick lenses in some surprise and raised his already curved eyebrows into perfect half-circles.
" 'Why, yes indeed. Have we met before? I fear that my memory is not very good.'
" 'No,' I answered, and proceeded to give him the data which your Machiavellian intellect, Watson, has no doubt suggested to you: flash-powder burns upon his right shirt-cuff. The man seemed quite excited over my elementary deduction, and clapped his hands softly together as if to applaud me.
" 'Wonderful, young man, wonderful,' he exclaimed. 'I see that I have had the good fortune to meet a fellow genius.'
" 'Fellow?' I repeated.
"He tapped the cover of the book I had recently been perusing. 'Who wrote this?'
" 'A fellow by the name of Angelo Ricoletti,' I answered.
" 'Precisely. That is my name, sir; I wrote the book, and I have been told upon good authority that it is the most exhaustive work of its kind now in circulation. It is magnificent, it is brilliant; am I not a genius?'
"I was inclined to agree with him, and said as much. Ricoletti beamed and lowered himself awkwardly into the chair beside me, shifting his crippled foot so as to tuck it our of sight. "You are very perceptive, young man,' said he. 'Very perceptive indeed. May I ask your own name? Mr. Sherlock Holmes! Very good, sir. Well, Mr. Holmes, it is some time since I met an enthusiast in this branch of science. Perhaps you yourself are studying to be a naturalist?'
" 'I am a detective.'
" 'I see. In your line of work of course you must be conversant in poisons. Have you any objection to serpents? Not afraid of them, I hope?'
" 'Well, I should not care to meet one loose, but—'
" 'Excellent, for I intend to invite you home for dinner, and as I have a collection of live specimens I thought it as well to ask beforehand. I have had several rather dreadful episodes caused by my thoughtlessness. Well, what about it, Mr. Holmes?'
"Now, what you must understand, Watson, is that I had been living for some weeks upon nothing more substantial than bread and sausage—and very little of that—and that I had been saving every penny toward my rent, which was due later that week. Therefore it was either have supper with Ricoletti or go without; and, also, my curiosity was getting the better of me; naturally I consented.
"We were soon rattling off in a cab to the suburbs. I knew which was Ricoletti's house instantly, for it had a stonework cobra—a sort of idol, I believe—set out in the front garden among the dead February flowerbed. As we walked past this object to the door I could see various statues hidden among the shrubbery, all of reptiles or lizards. Then Ricoletti pushed open the front door, and I found myself in a large room with the queerest decorating scheme that ever I laid eyes upon, for all four walls were lined with glass cages, and in these cages were reptiles of every description, about half of which lifted their scaly flattened heads and hissed as we entered. Ricoletti was just beginning to perform the introductions when a woman swept into the room—one of those dark, sleek, catlike woman, with brilliant green eyes glittering like twin jewels under dark brows. They exactly corresponded shade of her dress, which appeared to be made of velvet, or some such clingy material. She really was an extraordinary creature, Watson. As I watched she made right for where Ricoletti and I were standing, and looked me up and down with those emerald eyes before taking my companion's arm and asking,
" 'Well, husband mine, is this another of your victims?' in a light, teasing tone.
" 'Really, dear! This is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, whom I met in the Museum to-day. He expressed an intelligent interest in my work, and—'
" 'And so you brought him home to educate him,' the lady finished, with a coquettish toss of her head. 'Well, Angelo, I don't mind your showing him your pets; but you must do it later, for cook has set the dinner out, and your Mr. Holmes looks quite underfed. Now come before the roast gets cold!'
"Our conversation over the meal was a remarkable one, for it was all about the various stages of death from the venom of a black widow spider. The lady, whose name, I later found out, was Margaret Ricoletti, joined in with a will, and even went so far as to compare it with the brown recluse. She was evidently a woman of strong nerve and sensible temperament, absolutely lacking in the usual feminine squeamishness about such subejcts. I had further proof of this later, when she accompanied us back to the animal room, standing quietly by the aquarium which bubbled in the centre and playing with a small garter snake, letting it wrap itself around her wrist while her husband fluttered nervously about, showing me his collection with something of the air of a schoolboy exhibiting his playthings.
" 'Here is a dart frog,' he announced, indicating a small, vibrantly coloured amphibian. 'My correspondent in South America sent it to me. This frog is used by the natives there as an arrow poison, and with good reason, for the venom is reported to be eleven times more powerful than cyanide, and is absorbable through the skin. Here are the only poisonous birds now known—the hooded pitohui, scientifically known as the pitohui dichrous. They are native to New Guinea—such a remarkable island!—and the aborigines call it the 'rubbish bird' and are not known to use it as food, although the venom is contained only in the skin and feathers. Mr. Holmes, are you listening?'
"I had gone over to look at the king cobra. You may have seen it in your travels, Watson: a long black whiplash of a snake, and the hook-and-eye device upon the hood. It raised it head and flicked its forked tongue at me as I put my finger to the glass panel which separated us.
"I moved my hand slowly from side to side. It followed my every motion, swaying and hissing with its hood swelling, and then it suddenly lashed out with amazing speed, its curved ivory fangs flashing out and clicking against the glass.
"I smiled and ran my hand down the slick barrier, and once more it struck at me, then hissed angrily and coiled itself for yet another spring. As it did so Ricoletti came to my side, a monstrous furry black-and-yellow spider clinging to the lapel of his coat like some repulsive club-pin, and peered into the cage at his venemous pet.
" 'I see that you have been admiring my king cobra, Mr. Holmes,' said he softly. 'Yes, he is one of my favourites, are you not, my pretty? An extremely dangerous animal.'
" 'Evidently.' I trailed my finger down the glass again, and again there was the white gleam of fangs contrasted with the red mouth.
" 'Ah, you are hungry then, my pretty,' crooned Ricoletti, bending down and pulling a little wooden box, perforated with holes, from its place on a ledge beneath the cage. As he did so there was a curious scratching, scuffling noise, which led me to believe that there was a live animal contained within, a hypothesis soon confirmed by my companion's sliding back the lid, diving his hand in, and drawing it out again with his fingers tightly wrapped about a mouse in such a way as to prevent it from struggling.
" 'As you know,' he remarked, turning to me and indicating his captive, 'snakes will only eat live animals. Now, observe, Mr. Holmes; what you are about to witness is an outstanding example of the hunting techniques of the king cobra.' And with that he shifted the wire netting which covered the top of the cage and dropped the mouse in.
"The unfortunate creature, on perceiving the snake, was evidently too terrified even to move, for it sat quivering on the spot where it had landed, and moved not a muscle as the long black creature—it was at least three feet, Watson—slithered toward it. The light glinted off its scales, and at that moment it seemed almost beautiful, in a dangerous, perverse fashion. Its curving motion was almost hypnotic, and we watched, fascinated, as it glided toward the paralysed mouse and coiled itself, a compressed spring of energy, and remained thus for some moments—until the spring was released and the keen fangs met their target even as the victim made a futile attempt to escape. I swear that mouse shrieked like a human being, Watson. Cobra venom must be fast-acting, for within seconds it ceased even to twitch, and the cobra swallowed it down.
" 'There,' said Ricoletti contentedly, as soon as the mouse had been reduced to a mere bulge along the slim sinuous body of the reptile. 'I shall feed him a rabbit later, but for now he is content, and you, Mr. Holmes, have witnessed a very engrossing little drama—eh?'
" 'Very,' said a feminine voice beside me. I turned to find Mrs. Ricoletti gazing composedly at the king cobra. She had been standing there, Watson, the whole time, and had not turned a hair. Her eyes were coolly scientific in a way that I had seldom seen in anyone, let alone a woman, as she asked me what I thought of it. I answered that the hunting techniques of the cobra could be applied to daily London life, and she found that amusing, mocking me with those glittering eyes of hers. She had earlier laughed at me outright when I expressed surprise at her knowledge of poisons and told me that when one shared a house with such a man as her husband, one could hardly help it.
"Well, to make a long story shorter, the evening ended by a cordial invitation back. After that one dinner, the two Ricolettis and I saw a good deal of each other. Ricoletti had evidently a vast store of knowledge not only of the one subject, but also of South America and several other places. He had travelled widely, read extensively, and was a peculiar combination of morbidity and cheerfulness which I found very appealing; besides which, he was very happy to fill the vast excesses of my spare time. He was very interested in my line of work, asking many intelligent questions upon the subject; and having had the occasion to observe one or two of my trifling displays of deduction and inference, he recommended me to several individuals in trouble. They were, I must say, quite pleased with the result, and in turn directed clients to my door; and thanks to Ricoletti my business began to pick up; rather to the annoyance of my landlord, who, I verily believe, thought me mad for my irregular habits. He was not at all pleased at having all sorts of peculiar characters coming through his doors at even more peculiar hours, but as I paid him, he tolerated it.
"One such day, I was sorting through my morning post when my door was violently flung open, and a dishevelled doctor walked with a sort of desperate calmness into the room. I say a doctor, for the cylindrical form of a stethoscope protruded from his overcoat pocket. He was evidently much perturbed, for not only was he without gloves, but he set his immaculate top hat into the remains of the toast and jam upon the table.
" 'You are Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the detective,' he stated rather than asked, in a slightly uneven voice. 'I understand that you are a friend of Mr. Angelo Ricoletti's. Well, Ricoletti died not an hour ago; dropped off right before my eyes. I wish you to come over right away.'
" 'Who are you?' I demanded, jumping from my chair and reaching for my coat. 'How did he die? And how did you know my address?'
" 'I am Doctor Moore Agar, a friend of Ricoletti's, and I haven't the faintest notion how he died. I am notifying you as a friend; Mrs. Ricoletti requested me to. It was she who gave me the address. There is a cab at the door; I shall tell you all about it as we go.' He retrieved his hat from the remains of my breakfast, examined the brim, and tucked it under his arm without a word; which showed me that his composure was artificial, for that hat was an expensive one.
"Once safely in the cab, Doctor Agar let out a sigh and slumped in his seat, tipping his head back and closing his eyes wearily. I took the liberty of glancing him over. He was a trim fellow; trim clothes, trim, pointed brown beard and moustache, trim face—one of those typical guarded, soothing, bored faces which a family practitioner generally wears—and blue eyes as sharp as scalpels. He was not more than forty; he had had eggs for breakfast, did not smoke, was unmarried, and was in the habit of mending his own clothes. So much had I deduced, when he suddenly raised his head and inspected me, much the same way that I had him, and then pronounced his conclusion.
" 'You are very young.'
" 'Quite,' I said, a bit stiffly.
"He smiled a typical doctor's smile, professional, reassuring, and absolutely insincere. 'I beg your pardon, Mr. Holmes; I meant no offence. It was merely that, having heard of your amazing powers from poor Ricoletti, I was surprised at seeing one so young. But numbers mean nothing in terms of mental acuity, correct?'
"Now, Watson, I have read in one of your exaggerated and melodramatic accounts of my cases that you are of the opinion that I am susceptible to flattery. That is not true; I merely take the praise that is due me. But looking back upon the matter, I can see that the doctor was definitely trying to get into my good graces; and I fear he was successful, for I relaxed instantly. He saw it, of course; he was a very sharp man, a shrewd judge of character.
" 'I see you agree,' he said. 'After all, I have always held that—'
" 'Tell me about Ricoletti,' I interrupted. 'How did he die?'
" 'Ah, yes. I beg your pardon. Well, I have recently put up my plate in this section of the City, and, being rather good friends with Ricoletti, I sometimes spent the night at his house, or vice versa. I received an invitation for something of the sort yesterday, which I gladly accepted. He was as cheerful in his own fashion as ever, and showed a new creature he had got in. Ricoletti is a good fellow—we were at school together from the fifth form on—but I never have cared for his preoccupation with poisonous animals. Why, even when he was a boy he would talk incessantly of snakes, and how he was going to put them in the beds of all those who tormented him about his poor foot, and how they would swell up and so forth. He was quite graphic, and really—'
" 'What sort of animal had he got in?' I asked.
"Doctor Agar shrugged. 'Some unspeakable serpent. He gave me a good deal of Latin upon it, but I forgot it immediately.'
" 'Pray continue.'
" 'We dined, and discussed all the different forms of cyanide. It was Margaret—Mrs. Ricoletti—who brought the subject up. You have met her, I presume? Is she not a marvelous woman? I have an immense experience of women, and I may tell you that I have never met a more winning, charming—'
" 'The facts, Doctor Agar?'
"The doctor flushed and gave me a sidelong glance which was less than cordial. 'Quite so. By the bye, young man, is it presumptuous of me to inquire whether you have ever learned any respect for your elders? Well, well, no matter,' he added, in his smooth voice. 'To continue, after dinner we sat about and talked about various things. I do wish Ricoletti would not smoke; it is a filthy habit—ruins the wind. At about eleven we retired, Ricoletti and his wife to their bedroom, and I to the spare room. He seemed to be in perfect health; as a doctor, I should know. His colour was excellent, he walked with as much spring as possible, and he was laughing—now, who laughs if they feel unwell? None that I know of,' he answered himself. 'He was not even depressed. So it was until the next morning at breakfast, when he seemed rather pensive and troubled, but not disturbed physically.'
" 'How were your seats arranged?'
" 'Ricoletti in the middle, and Margaret and I upon either side of him.'
" 'And you were eating eggs.'
" 'Exactly!' Agar leaned back and studied me again. 'I begin to believe all the extraordinary things that Ricoletti has said about you.'
" 'Never mind that. Get on with it, get on with it!'
" 'Very well,' said Agar, with a flash of annoyance. 'We were discussing gardening for quite some time, Mrs. Ricoletti and I, when we all of a sudden noticed that Ricoletti had been silent for some little time. We both stopped and turned to him. He had turned a dreadful colour, Mr. Holmes; his eyes were glazed, and his body limp. I instantly felt for a pulse and found none. Nor was he breathing. I tried to revive him, but to no avail; Ricoletti had died silently, right next to me, while I had been talking about vegetables!' His voice rose in bitter self-condemnation, and he thumped his head back upon the cushions. After a few deep breaths he resumed:
" 'Yes; cause of death apparently was lung failure. The police are there now, and I hope to goodness that they are not fools enough to get themselves bitten by one of those wretched serpents.'
" We had pulled up before Ricoletti's house whilst this exchange was taking place, and found a beefy police inspector in the doorway smoking a cheap cigar, while a very young apple-cheeked constable was wandering aimlessly about, poking sticks into the gutter. As I got out he raised his eyebrows.
" 'And just who or what are you?' he said, in piqued tones.
" 'My name is Sherlock Holmes. I am a consulting detective.'
" ' "Consulting detective"!' he repeated derisively. 'Well, we shan't need you here, for we have had our doctor examine him, and he declares that the man died naturally of lung failure. Though I don't see how he managed to live as long as he did, what with all the strange animals in the house.' The policeman tapped his nose with a finger and looked wise. 'Twasn't natural. The man was mad, if you ask me. Josephs!' he bellowed at the constable, who jumped as if he had been stung and dropped the stick. 'Come along!' And with that he marched impressively down the road, with the constable following along behind.
"Doctor Agar turned round on me, and used his scalpel eyes to dissect me. 'I know that you are a detective,' said he, 'but I want you to understand that there is no detection to be done here. It was a natural death; we merely invited you over as a friend of Ricoletti's.'
" 'I shall be the one to decide that,' said I.
"He sighed and shook his head at me. 'I should like to discuss this later,' he said. 'As of now, come into the house.'
"Mrs. Ricoletti was standing in the dining room under the chandelier. She looked something like a painting: her crimson dress—she had a propensity for bright colours—against the dark wood paneling, and the light shining upon her black hair, holding herself rigidly with her head down, her shoulders well back, her arms very stiff at her sides, her hands clenched. She was angry, Watson. I could tell as much. At the sound of her footsteps she whisked round upon us and glared at us with reddened eyes.
" 'I hate that policeman,' she said, in a tense, violent undertone. 'I hate him! He acted as if Angelo were some—some dead animal, instead of—' she broke off and clamped her mouth tight against a sob, turning her face away. Doctor Agar went quickly to her side and put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. She buried her face in the lapels of his coat.
" 'Poor Angelo,' she whispered.
"This demonstration was immensely uncomfortable to me, and so I thought it best to return to the matter at hand. 'I should like to see him, if I may.'
"Mrs. Ricoletti looked at me in a dazed fashion, and Agar scowled at me. 'Great heavens, Mr. Holmes,' said he, 'you are really the most cold-blooded—'
" 'Never mind that,' Mrs. Ricoletti interrupted. 'Angelo is in the bedroom. Do what you like; I am going up to the study and I beg you not to disturb me upon any pretext. Good day!' With that she was up the stairs like a tongue of flame, and I saw her no more.
"I left Agar, who was by this time standing listlessly in front of the dining-room fireplace and jabbing the crumbling black logs into fragments with a poker, and proceeded to the bedroom, closing the door behind me.
"Poor Ricoletti really was a piteous spectacle. His dark face and lips were tinged with blue, and not only his face but his whole body was slack with death. I studied him for some time, but found nothing indicating anything out of the ordinary. Of course, had there been, that exceedingly unpleasant inspector should have arrested the whole household as suspects—but that is irrelevant. He showed no symptoms of cyanide, strychnine, arsenic, antimony, or any of the seven other poisons I had in mind. Nor had he been injected with anything, though his hands were, as usual, scratched; and he might have gotten something in them; or perhaps he had taken some medicine. With that last thought I went and rummaged amongst the drawers of the bureau and wardrobe, but found nothing even remotely suggestive; nor was there in the secret compartment under the floor that Ricoletti had showed me with pride some weeks earlier, nor any other possible hiding-place. I was pulling up a chair to the bedside when the door swung open and in came Agar, rather creepingly so as not to make a sound. He stole softly up to me and placed a hand upon my shoulder; and I instantly pushed it off again. At that he smiled in an irritatingly condescending manner and said,
" 'You know, young man, your passage in life would be smoother if you were not so proud.'
"I stood up. 'Are you in love with Mrs. Ricoletti?'
"He stared up at me—I was a good three inches taller than he was—with cold affront gleaming in those knifelike eyes. 'I do not see that my personal feelings are any of your concern, sir.'
" 'Nor are mine, yours,' I answered; but my suspicions had been confirmed. I was not too young to know the meaning of certain glances bestowed upon women by the male of the species.
"The doctor shifted and glanced away, and then back at me with his family practitioner air firmly recovered. 'Well,' said he, in a kindly tone which was indescribably annoying, 'at any rate, I wish you to know that I am sorry about Ricoletti. I know how much you were attached to him.'
" 'Do you think this death is natural?' I demanded.
" 'Of course. What else could it be?'
" 'But if I recall correctly, the cause of death was certified as lung failure. Ricoletti had excellent lungs, did he not?'
" 'Apparently,' answered the doctor, with reserve.
" 'Well then!' I thrust my hands into my pockets. I do not know how to explain it, Watson, but I somehow felt that there was something odd about the death. I knew in my bones that I ought to investigate further. Apparently the good doctor had no such opinions, for he smiled and shook his head at me.
" 'You are a very hardened sceptic.'
" 'I know a man who is much experienced in autopsies,' I said, ignoring his last observation. 'Perhaps he might do the honours.'
"Agar made a face in which distaste and incredulity were equally blended. 'Don't be repulsive, Holmes; neither I nor Margaret—Mrs. Ricoletti—will allow you to haul in some corpse-cutter to dissect poor Angelo. I understand your feeling bad over the loss of your friend, and I know that you wish to distract your mind, but you will not help matters by making a great fuss over what is a commonplace and natural event.'
"He should have gone on condescending for hours, I have no doubt, but for the fact that I walked out upon him and went to the kitchen to speak to the cook—a large, round, red-faced woman, tied round with an apron, who serenely polished china while her dead master lay in the room above her head. She was quite taciturn, asking specific questions only, instead of elaborating upon the household as I had hoped. No, her master took no medicine, and had no doctor other than Agar. No, she had never taken note of the animals, for it wasn't natural to have such things in the house. She had herself cooked the breakfast, and had not left the kitchen for a moment, and therefore she could be certain that no-one had entered and tampered with the eggs. Nothing unusual had happened in the last week except that the maid was always forgetting to lay the silver, and the master was obliged to keep sending back for spoons and such during meals. The cook would not be surprised if the maid was to be given notice, for some of the silver spoons were missing, and she suspected the maid had stolen them.
"I found this last statement irrelevant in the extreme.
"I now had the responsibility of deciding upon the next course of action. As you no doubt have observed, Watson, one can learn a great deal about people from their wills; all their relatives, friends, and property, their shortcomings, their grudges, are laid bare. With this object in mind I went to the Strand and visited Somerset House."
"I have never heard of it."
"Somerset House, my dear boy, contains the national archives of wills, births, marriages, and death certificates; a most useful hunting-ground. I turned up Ricoletti's will after some little trouble, and found that he had bequeathed the main portion of his money to his wife, although leaving a substantial sum to Doctor Moore Agar and also, I was surprised to see, a fair amount to me. His animals, said the will, were to be equally divided between Mrs. Margaret Ricoletti and a man by the name of George Mordhurst—"a very old, valued, and useful friend." The will was witnessed by a lawyer by the name of Stephens, Dr. Agar, and Margaret Ricoletti.
"I felt that I should make an effort to meet this George Mordhurst. A man prepared to accept twenty-odd snakes into his house could by no stretch of imagination be conventional. I noted this down on my shirtcuff so as not to forget and went back to searching through the files in the hopes of finding more references to anyone named 'Ricoletti', a marriage certificate perhaps. Imagine my shock when I found three death certificates—for Gabriel, Elaine, and Delwyn Ricoletti. They were children, Watson: five, three, and two years of age; they had died within days of each other, and the certificate had been signed by none other than Doctor Moore Agar.
"I jotted that information beneath the first.
"The cause of death had been specified as pthisis—as a doctor, Watson, you surely know the term: tuberculosis of the lungs. That surely was natural enough, but still I found it curious that the whole Ricoletti family was dying one by one; rather too much, I thought, for coincidence.
"After my visit to Somerset House, I was nervous. I had a feeling—a sort of alarm bell ringing in my head. I began to think of ways in which I could see whether the bells were justified in ringing. There was this fellow Mordhurst, who was billed as an 'old friend'; perhaps he could shed some light upon the matter. I therefore went round to an acquaintance of mine—Mr. Langdale Pike—at least, that is his stage name. He was an actor at that point, though now he is merely a piece of his club furniture, but then as now he knew everything about everyone. Pike is a strange fellow, Watson, languid, effeminate, and affecting an annoying upperclass drawl, though indeed he may be upperclass for all I know of him. At any rate, when I mentioned Mordhurst he actually opened his eyes fully, and smirked at me from under his silly mop of long blond hair. 'Ah, yes,' said he, 'George Mordhurst. Excellent fellow. He is something of a world traveller—has been to South America, Africa, Alaska, just about everywhere, don't you know?'
'Where is he now?'
"Pike opened a large scrapbook which was beside him and consulted it. 'Well, he has recently come home from knocking about the Atlantic on a whaler, and he is no doubt in one of two places—27 Thackeray Street near Kensington Gardens, or else 5 Old Castle Street in Whitechapel.'
" 'Yes; odd fellow, he has been out so long among the wild beasts of the jungles that he apparently cannot live without having a taste of the beasts of the city. But I daresay that you are the same way.' He smirked again and brushed the scrapbook with the tip of his finger. 'You don't escape my notice either, you know.'
"With this comforting remark I was sent upon my way. By this time it was night and I went home for a brief rest, arising betimes and forgoing breakfast in my eagerness to be at work. Naturally I went first to Thackeray Street, where I found a note pinned to the door, saying that the master of the establishment had gone out and was not to be expected home for some time; so I caught a cab, and, after stopping briefly at my lodgings, was dropped at Bishopsgate and from thence made my way to Old Castle Street, in the heart of Whitechapel. As you know, I am well acquainted with that particular district of the city, and I had brought a swordstick and a revolver, as by this time dusk was descending. The streets of that terrible place were full of shades, Watson: not of the dead, but of the living, though I could see that many of them were not long from making the transition from the one state to the other. The air was foul, there were drunken men in the gutters, and women, battered, starved, worn with care, got up in mockeries of finery, lurked in the little nooks between the sagging buildings, staring at me with desperately hopeful eyes as I passed. But I have always found the worst part to be the children: their peaked hollow faces prematurely aged and deathly pale beneath the grime, their fingers skeletal, a terrible resignation in their eyes. Those children are older inside than many men of eighty.
"I had a scuffle with a pickpocket before I reached my destination, but escaped unharmed, thanks to my proficiency in boxing. The buildings in Whitechapel always afflict you with a sense of suffocation, and number 5 was worse than most, for they had a decrepit coal stove inside which produced more soot than heat, and that thing glowed crimson through the murk like some vision out of Hell, and would have frightened a more impressionable man than I. An ancient landlady leered at me as I stepped inside, and made several offensive remarks about 'toffs'; but became much more affable at the glint of a half-sovereign, and directed me to the first floor where George Mordhurst was wont to stay.
"I found this gentleman in his shirtsleeves and a battered sunhat, busily kicking travelling-rugs into a corner of his room. He was about fifty, built in an ungainly fashion. If we English still indulged in the practice of bestowing upon a man a last name pertaining to some physical peculiarity of his, this fellow's name should by rights have been Russett, for he was as red as a terra cotta flowerpot from foreign sun, and bushy hair and a great moustache the colour of a grey-striped Irish setter. As I pushed the door open its rusty hinges creaked, and he whipped around at once, with his hand in his pocket, his grim, deeply lined face tightening suspiciously. And then as he took in my costume he relaxed, and his gangly arms dangled once more at his side.
" 'Well, young fellow,' said he, ironically, 'and how did you stumble into this section of London? Out for adventure?'
" 'I walked. Are you Mr. George Mordhurst?'
" 'I am.'
" 'And are you a friend of the late Mr. Angelo Ricoletti?'
" 'Late?' he demanded, stiffening and gazing at me through slitted eyes.
" 'He died earlier today.'
"Mordhurst clenched his fists and cursed. 'And I intending to visit him tomorrow! What in the name of the devil—look here, sir, who exactly are you?'
" 'My name is Mr. Sherlock Holmes.'
" 'Well, Mr. Holmes, I warn you, if this is a joke I'll break you in half.'
"The man looked positively vicious, Watson—teeth bared like an animal's, his whole long-limbed body tensed. I cocked the revolver in my pocket before I replied. 'I assure you that this is no joke. I also am a friend of Ricoletti's, and I have never been more serious in my life.'
"The man chuckled grimly, then thumped his head back against the crumbling plaster wall and stared at the cracked and soot-streaked ceiling for some time. Suddenly he walked with a peculiarly jerky gait to the middle of the room and shook my hand.
" 'Well, thank you for telling me. I am getting out of this blasted hole and—'
" 'Returning to your house in Thackeray Street.'
" 'Exactly,' he said, without surprise. 'Do you wish to come?'
" 'Certainly. There are several grave issues I must discuss with you.'
"Once we were safely in a cab, Mordhurst sighed, ran a hand through his bush of hair, and cut the end off an abominable cheap cigar with his pocketknife before turning back to me. 'So,' he remarked, 'Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Ricoletti used to talk of you; you seem to have made a great impression upon him.' He winced as he slipped back into the present tense. 'He says you can tell things about a man. What have you found out about me?'
" 'Nothing,' I answered, 'except that you are left-handed, use a whetstone to sharpen your penknife, are accustomed to wearing a sham silver wristwatch upon your right wrist, are fond of gardening, and drink coffee.'
"Mordhurst raised his eyebrows. 'Quite. How did you know all that? Did someone tell you?'
" 'Not at all. You are tanned elsewhere, but have a white patch encircling your right wrist, where the sun has not penetrated; and the metal of the watch has left a greenish tint upon your skin; the metal has rubbed off. As to the left-handedness, although you have no distinguishing callosities formed by the act of writing—and therefore are not overenamoured of journals—the blade of your penknife has short, slight, fairly regular scratches upon the right edge. Nothing leaves such a mark except a whetstone; and as the left side has no marks whatsoever, it is fairly safe to assume that only a left-handed person would have difficulty in sharpening the right edge of a knife. There are also marks upon your hand caused by the act of holding a spade.'
"Mordhurst's lips quirked slightly, though his eyes were as sombre as ever, and nodded. 'And the coffee?'
" 'You have had the misfortune to spill grounds upon your cuff. There was a faint scent of coffee in that room of yours in Old Castle Street. You had been quite alone in that room, and therefore you must have been the one to drink it.'
" 'You are a sharp fellow,' said Mordhurst, 'and have chosen the right profession. But we can talk of that later. Tell me, what did he die of?'
" 'It was certified as lung failure.'
" 'But you have your doubts—hey?'
" 'Do you remember Ricoletti's three children?' I asked.
"Mordhurst examined the end of his cigar, seemingly the essence of nonchalance, but I had seen him twitch. 'Yes.'
" 'They all died within days of each other; from pthisis. That is what I want to talk you you about. Did you get to see them while they were ill?'
" 'I did.'
" 'Can you describe their symptoms?'
"Mordhurst narrowed his eyes again, and his mouth pulled tight under the moustache. 'I don't like where this is leading, Mr. Holmes, but I shall do as you say. I remember it well, for I was quite fond of the children. The poor creatures were suddenly taken ill with some stomach infection; they were nauseous, vomiting, and complaining of pains in their stomach. This went on for some time, and then they became exhausted and sank quickly.'
" 'Suddenly, you say?'
" 'Did these three children have life insurance?'
"Again Mordhurst examined the end of his cigar. 'They did.'
" 'What about Ricoletti? Was he insured?'
" 'I fear so.'
"Mordhurst chewed irritably at his cigar end. 'Look here, Mr. Holmes, merely because a man has life insurance does not automatically signify that he has been murdered.'
" 'But if four people have life insurance?'
"My companion sighed. 'I beg your pardon; I am still in shock. I understand you to say that Ricoletti was murdered, and his three children before him, and that presumably Mrs. Ricoletti did it?'
"I saw that the time had come for an explanation, and so I leaned forward and told him of all that had occurred, including Doctor Moore Agar's very evident interest in the lady. When I had finished Mordhurst whistled.
" 'You are a very suspicious young man,' said he.
" 'I am a detective,' I answered coldly.
"By this time we had reached Thackeray Street. Mordhurst's house was little more than a cottage, but very well-kept; a fact which puzzled me until I discovered that he was married. He and I sat over coffee in his cramped dining-room, and spoke of Ricoletti's unprecedented death and the peculiar coincidence of the three children. When we had finished Mordhurst was still deeply sceptical, and all my words could not convince him; but he was a gentleman, and, as it was growing late, he very kindly offered me the use of his sofa.
" 'No, thank you,' I answered; 'I am not tired. I am going out to get an order for exhumation.'
"Mordhurst snorted with derisive laughter. 'Well then, young man, you shall not go far. Those children are not under ground.'
" 'What on earth do you mean?'
" 'I mean that they have not been buried. They were cremated.'
"For the moment I sat staring at him, unable to believe in my own luck. Here was another circumstance pointing to the woman's guilt. Cremation! As you are aware, Watson, arsenic and antimony both have the effect of preservation upon any body which contains either of the two. Mrs. Ricoletti must have realised this, and so destroyed the evidence which would convict her. However, arsenic and antimony are also present in bones, and so any fragments could still be tested for poison. With this conviction upon me, I turned back to Mordhurst.
" 'What happened afterward?'
" 'Afterward? Oh, you mean the ashes. Mrs. Ricoletti wanted them scattered to the winds—'to release their souls', she said—but Ricoletti said that if that was true, he should want their souls with him, and kept the remains of the children in separate urns upon the mantelpiece.'
"My mind's eye immediately recalled three clay pots of the Grecian type standing in the spot mentioned. My companion apparently observed my expression, for he said, sternly,
" 'Now then, Mr. Holmes, I insist that you leave things well enough alone. You are trying your hardest to rake up a scandal, and—'
" 'And if there have been four murders, am I to let it rest in peace? Sir, this woman shows every evidence of attaching herself to Agar, who himself is very well off. Shall we wait until she murders him as well before we act?'
"Mordhurst glared, fumbled in his pockets, glanced down at the ground, and pulled out one of those abominable cigars. Having lit it, he blew a few rings of smoke into the air, staring earnestly up at the ceiling with abstracted eyes, before turning back to me.
" 'All right, then,' said he, sighing and shaking his head, as one who humours the whim of a capricious child. 'What do you propose to do?'
"Well, Watson, the long and short of it is, Mordhurst and I participated in a bit of amateur grave-robbing. While he was speaking with Mrs. Ricoletti in the dining-room, and expressing his very sincere sympathies over the loss of his friend, I had pried open all three urns with a jack-knife and shaken some dust and bone fragments into separate labeled envelopes, as well as a chip from the clay container. Having done this, I gummed the lids back on and thrust envelopes and knife into my pocket.
"Mordhurst was singularly silent and depressed when once we were in the street. He walked with tight movements, his shoulders stiff, his fists clenched and at his side, his gait so fast as to almost be running; and though this was no hardship to me, I did have to lengthen my stride considerably in order to keep apace with him.
" 'I have seen death as much as most men,' he said after some time, without turning his head toward me, 'and, though I manage to shut out feelings of dismay, anger and loss a good deal of the time, what irks me beyond endurance is that woman.'
" 'What about her?'
" 'I am not good with words,' he clipped out, abruptly, 'but that blasted woman is merely acting, to that I'll swear, and does not care anything whether Ricoletti is dead or not. Has that struck you?'
" 'Yes; when I first saw her yesterday, she was quite uncharacteristically emotional. She overdid it. Is that it?'
" 'Exactly! She resembled some heroine in a very bad melodrama. Well, Mr. Holmes, I am going home; and I wish to be left alone. Tell me if you find anything unusual with those ashes.'
"I bid him good day and went at once to Montague Street, where I commenced to perform a Marsh's test upon the cremated ashes. Now, Watson, the essence of a Marsh's Test, for the benefit of your avid public which shall no doubt read this in print, is this: one mixes a small amount of sulphuric acid with a piece of zinc, then adds distilled water and the suspect material. The sulphur and zinc react to each other and produce a gas, which can be detected by igniting it; and, if arsenic or antimony is present, it will be deposited upon the piece of glass one holds over the retort. This I did, and almost instantly found a metallic film over my test tube. Further tests proved the substance to be antimony.
"I at once sent a telegram to Mr. George Mordhurst as he had requested. Having done so, I must have fallen asleep at my chemical table, for my next memory is of feeling an iron grip upon my shoulders, and of being shaken violently.
" 'Wake up, you,' said Mordhurst's grim, dry voice in my ear. 'I received your telegram and caught a cab at once. You are certain there is no mistake?'
" 'None,' I answered, with an affronted air. In reality I felt nothing at all, but it was best to let him know that I was not to be trifled with. 'I tested all three samples, several times over.'
" 'But the urns themselves—'
" 'They bear no trace of antimony.'
"Mordhurst laughed mirthlessly, as though he were observing a social convention. 'You are very thorough.'
" 'I should hardly be a detective if I were not.'
" 'Well,' said my companion, after some moments of silence, 'I suppose that settles it. Shall we go to the police?'
" 'No. Not yet. I want first to speak with Doctor Moore Agar.'
"Accordingly, we went round to Agar's address in Harley Street. I had already worked out a plan in my mind, based upon Agar's personality as I understood it. Agar was a man of slightly above average intelligence; a man of science, but also a man in love. I have observed that people so placed tend to lose their heads as well as their hearts, and commit utterly irrational acts; and the factor may throw the ideal reasoner off-balance, if he does not allow for the personal equation. This is what I allowed for Agar's state of mind: his normally dispassionate, scientific judgement was clouded with this mental state that had come upon him, and I had already detected in him an unwillingness to dwell upon anything scandalous. What would he do? He would endeavour to push the matter to the back of his mind and ignore it. If, however, we could convince him of Mrs. Ricoletti's guilt, he should without question be a powerful ally, both in the investigation and in the witness-box. Horror, fear for his own safety, anger at having been duped, and grief over Ricoletti's death would be composites of his new attitude toward her."
"So you had eliminated him as a suspect, then."
"Yes; he was much too strait-laced and conventional to be involved in murder. You see, he had acted as a gentleman toward Mrs. Ricoletti while she was another man's wife; it was only now that the woman was free that he was in danger. And, also, what had he to gain by poisoning those children? None in the world. Mrs. Ricoletti herself was much too clever and secretive to take in an accomplice. Therefore he must be innocent."
"A judgement based on an individual's character."
"Character is one of the most important evidences. To continue with my narrative, we found Doctor Agar in his consulting-room, evidently balancing a ledger; he looked up as we entered and surveyed the quaint costume of my companion—shirtsleeves and the perennial sunhat—with some amusement.
" 'Well, Mordhurst,' said he, rather disapprovingly, 'it has been some time since I last saw you. What can I do for you, sir?'
" 'We wish to speak to you about Mrs. Ricoletti,' answered the naturalist.
"Agar stiffened slightly in his chair, and sliced into us both with his eyes bright and keen as blades. 'Well, sir?'
" 'Do you remember her children?' I asked.
"The question had an immediate effect upon him. His face took on a saddened expression, though he kept it under the tight control of his professional smoothness.
" 'Yes,' he said, rather less stridently, 'I do. I do indeed.'
"I leant forward and outlined the events of the past few days, my researches and conclusions. When I had finished the doctor was as white as the paper upon which he had been writing, his eyes were wide with anger, and his lips were compressed.
" 'I cannot believe this libellous story, sir,' he said, coldly; 'and I must ask you to leave my house at once.'
" 'I looked at Mordhurst, who had all the appearance of a hunter who sees an animal falling into a trap.
" 'Let me do my best to convince you, then,' he said. 'While our young friend here was experimenting with his bones and things, I was doing a little research myself. I went round, you see, to all the chemists' in the immediate area of Ricoletti's house, and I found that a few days before the children fell ill, Mrs. Ricoletti had bought antimony in Jarvis and Co. I have proofs, if you wish—' and here he fumbled in his pockets.
"Agar fell back in his chair and swore weakly, while Mordhurst and I gazed steadily at him. I had not known this latest, but I was learning not to underestimate my companion. Back to Agar, however, I could see that the information had hit its target, and that the desired sensations and thoughts were occuring in his mind.
" 'Are you convinced, sir?' asked Mordhurst, grimly.
"Agar gathered the shreds of his composure about him with an effort, and nodded. I have seldom seen a man more stunned. His face was like that of a drunken man, dazed and disoriented.
" 'Good,' I said, with a sharp intonation to bring him back to earth. I can omit the rest of the conversation, Watson; it was mainly Agar's lamentations upon the monstrous character of the woman who had infatuated him. He gave us his word that he would testify in court; and upon that note we left him to gather up the pieces of his castle in the air and went to Mordhurst's house, where we attempted to discuss our plan of action but instead nodded off in our chairs, for we had both had a strenuous day of it.
"I awoke at six in the morning, with stiff limbs and an aching neck, to the vision of Mordhurst attempting to smooth out his hat, which he had kept on his head all night. We were both badly in need of tidying, though Mordhurst less than I: he was perennially rumpled, and I have never seen a man with clothes more in need of an iron than his customarily were. When he saw me he grinned in his grimly humourous, ironic fashion, and informed me that he was planning on eating as much as he could hold at Simpson's in the Strand, and would I care to join him, to which offer I responded with alacrity. After a good breakfast, during which we reviewed that which we had discussed the night before, we went round to Scotland Yard.
"Now, as you know, one of the myriad faults of that judicial body is that it is interminably long in processing paperwork; not to mention red tape enough to strangle one. While the inspectors and magistrates argued with one another, Mordhurst and I amused ourselves by regaling each other with various adventures in Whitechapel, a territory with which we were both more familiar, perhaps, than is commonly regarded as proper for a gentleman."
"What on earth do you mean, Holmes?"
"I mean that I once disguised myself for a lark as a resident, and ended up first in a workhouse and then in some den which I will not offend you by describing. As we drew our conversation to a close we had greater mutual respect than we had had before. By this time we had a warrant for arrest and were enabled to set the stage for the final act.
"They sent a plainclothes inspector with us—this was the first time I met Lestrade, Watson—and two policemen. Our caravan disembarked at my late friend's front gate, and was summarily informed that Mrs. Ricoletti was out. We at once went into the sitting-room, where the official police instantly confiscated the urns of ashes, and wandered into the Animal Room to stare at the snakes, who returned our gazes with an accompanying hiss. While Mordhurst strolled about with his hands behind his back, renewing old acquaintances, I stood and gazed absently at the aquarium, watching the fish dart about in the water, their fins undulating, bright flashes of colour. And then suddenly there was a corresponding flash of light in my mind, and the possible solution to the mystery of Ricoletti's own death came upon me.
"I must have exclaimed, for Mordhurst was by my side instantly, staring intently at my face. 'What is it?'
" 'Did Ricoletti ever dispose of any creatures?' I asked.
" 'Not a bit. Have you ever seen a miser with his gold?'
" 'What did he do if they died?'
" 'He had them stuffed. Look here, Mr. Holmes, what is it?'
" 'Suppose you and I go out to the kitchen, Mr. Mordhurst. I have a few questions of vital importance which I wish to put to the cook.'
"We found that household functionary serenely washing dishes; she surveyed me as I entered with a bland, mild, expressionless gaze, like that of a cow, and her features did not alter as I asked her when the spoons began to disappear.
" 'Sometime last week, sir.'
" 'And on the morning Mr. Ricoletti died,' said I, feeling that here at last was the end of a thread which I could unravel from the tangle, 'had the maid forgotten to lay the silver again?'
" 'Why, yes, sir. She had forgot to give the master a spoon, though she said she had laid everything out proper. And the master was going to ring for one, but Mrs. Ricoletti, she ups and says, "Never mind, Angelo, you may have mine." She was always lending him her knives and such.'
"Here at last was solid evidence! I felt that indescribable thrill which told me that I was at last back upon the scent. I instantly left the kitchen and ascended the stairs which led to the Ricolettis' study, George Mordhurst following me and hissing questions and demands under his breath, all of which I ignored. When I had found my way into Mrs. Ricoletti's chamber, I flung myself down upon my hands and knees, studying the carpet as is my habit.
"Mordhurst laughed in a sarcastic, choppy fashion and sat down in disgust upon a chair. 'I must say that I have never seen a more peculiar spectacle than you crawling about like a dog, not even—'
" 'I silenced him by holding up a long, thin sliver of something which I had found embedded in the matting of the carpet. He came over quickly, drew it from my grasp, and turned it over and over in his hands, the furrows deepening in his heavily lined brow.
" 'That is very interesting,' he said at last, in an altered voice.
" 'You know what it is, then?'
" 'And so you see the immense significance of the missing teaspoon.' I rose to my feet and went down the stairs again.
"Presently there was the sound of a latch-key turning in the lock. I hurried all the policemen into the room adjoining the sitting-room, and together Mordhurst and I awaited the lady.
"She was not long in coming, sweeping into the room as queenly as ever, with her white throat in striking contrast to her black mourning dress, and her cheeks flushed. She stopped short upon seeing us, and then came forward with her hand graciously extended, and a little smile upon her lips.
" 'Well, gentlemen,' said she, 'what can I do for you?'
"Mordhurst had earlier agreed to leave the exposition to me. 'You can tell me,' said I, 'why you found money of greater value than your own husband or children.'
"She was indeed an actress, Watson, of the first water. At my words her head snapped up, and her eyes blazed with indignation.
" 'What are you saying?' she cried. 'Mr. Mordhurst, has he gone mad?'
" 'No,' said Mordhurst, shortly.
" 'Life insurance, Mrs. Ricoletti,' I continued, staring at her in that fashion which I have found seems to exert a hypnotic influence upon people. 'You murdered your husband and your three children for their life insurance. Don't speak! I know that you did it.'
"Her face mocked me. 'How, Mr. Holmes? How did I manage to murder my husband in the view of two other people? Do you suppose that I poisoned the breakfast? What opportunity did I have? I never entered the kitchen. Or do you believe that I poisoned it when it was already upon the table? If so, how did Doctor Agar and I escape the effects? I repeat that you must be mad.'
" 'You did not touch the breakfast. Indeed, you made very certain that all three of you served yourselves from the one dish. And it was irritating, was it not, to have so careless a servant. She would persist in neglecting to lay the silver properly; but was it not odd, madam, that she should declare upon that fatal day that she had set the table perfectly? I myself should believe that someone had pocketed your husband's spoon unnoticed.'
"She laughed outright at that, a ringing, silvery laugh. Oh, she was a brilliant actress, Watson, but she was overdoing it. She seldom laughed under normal circumstances, and certainly not in that fashion. Character again.
" 'What good would it do them?' she cried.
" 'Ah, what indeed. Would it not be remarkably easy to put a poison, which no test now known could detect, upon the bowl of a spoon, and hand it to the intended victim? Openly—in front of a witness, who could swear that you did nothing out of the ordinary? Don't speak! You had planned this for years; you knew where to go to find the perfect weapon: an extremely rare poison, one above all that would suit your purpose. It gave almost no pain, took only half an hour to work, and was so virulent that a drop the size of a pinhead will cause death. I allude to a fish—the Death Puffer, with its deadly blood and liver. Doctor Agar was your alibi. When during the meal your husband discovered that the maid had, by a curious coincidence, forgotten to lay the silver, you lent him the poisoned spoon you had prepared earlier, and murdered him in front of two other people. Quite ingenious.'
" 'May I say the same to you, in regard to this elaborate theory,' said the lady, mocking me. 'It is an intensely riveting tale, but you have no proof.'
" 'Except for this,' and I held up the puffer fish spine I had found upon her carpet a quarter of an hour before.
"With that she changed. It was not that her expression altered; but there was fear in her eyes where there was none before. She was not going to give up without a struggle, however.
" 'And the children?' she asked, with the same ridicule in her tone.
" 'Ah, yes. Your method in that instance can be described in one word: antimony. It was clever of you to remember its preserving effect and have the bodies cremated, but you should have scattered the ashes as you had planned.'
" 'Her eyes flew to the fireplace and took in the empty mantelpiece; then she turned on me like a raging tigress.
" 'Where are they?' she said, in a voice that was almost a shriek. 'What have you done with them?'
" 'They are in the hands of the police. I have already analysed their contents. They contain distinct traces of antimony.'
"Mordhurst, who had been silently observing us, now spoke. 'I have seen the accounts of Jarvis and Co.,' he said with his voice even grimmer than usual. 'And I have photographed the entry where the ledger indicates your purchase of antimony one week before your children fell ill.'
" 'Doctor Moore Agar,' I added, 'has agreed to testify against you in court.'
"She was done for, Watson—pinned like a butterfly to a cork—and she knew it. Her face was horrible as the inspector stepped through the doorway, white as a death mask, those emerald eyes burning with a cold hate. Before he could clap the cuffs on her she threw herself at me and slapped me as hard as she could across the face, then stood in stony silence as her rights were read to her; watching, I imagine, the reddening mark upon my cheek. She looked the same way a few months later, when the judge brought the gavel down like the thud of a coffin lid and sentenced her to death—hanged by the neck until dead. At that moment she turned in the dock to look up at where I sat in the gallery. I shall never forget that face." Holmes sighed and looked at me askance, as though waiting for my reaction, then rose and went to the mantelpiece and lighting a cigarette.
"What became of Doctor Agar?" I asked.
Holmes shrugged, waving out the match and flicking it into the fire. "Oh, he eventually mended his wounded heart, and is now a very fashionable and famous specialist in Harley Street. As for George Mordhurst, he penned a learned monograph upon the Death Puffer while staying the winter in London. Here is an extract," and he propped his elbows on the mantelpiece and recited from memory,
"The Death Puffer or Blowfish is one of the most venemous creatures now known, containing a poison twenty-five times more powerful than that of the dart frog, and fully two hundred and seventy-five times more virulent than cyanide, in its blood and vital organs such as the liver. A drop the size of a pin head can cause death in half an hour. The culprit is a chemical known in scientific circles as tetrodotoxin, which attacks the nerves and paralyses the respiratory system and resulting in suffocation."
He blew a ring of smoke into the air. "He then proceeds to elaborate upon the story I have just told you. All in all, Watson, the case was certainly a singular one."
"I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance money."
--Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four
"As well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife…"
--Sherlock Holmes, The Musgrave Ritual
Dr. Moore Agar of Harley Street, whose dramatic introduction to Holmes I may someday recount…
--The Devil's Foot