“Well?” she cried, “well?” And then, seeing that there were two of us, she gave a cry of hope which sank into a groan as she saw that my companion shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“No good news?”
“Thank God for that. But come in. You must be weary, for you have had a long day.”
“This is my friend, Dr. Watson. He has been of most vital use to me in several of my cases, and a lucky chance has made it possible for me to bring him out and associate him with this investigation.”
“I am delighted to see you,” said she, pressing my hand warmly. “You will, I am sure, forgive anything that may be wanting in our arrangements, when you consider the blow which has come so suddenly upon us.”
“My dear madam,” said I, “I am an old campaigner, and if I were not I can very well see that no apology is needed. If I can be of any assistance, either to you or to my friend here, I shall be indeed happy.”
“Now, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said the lady as we entered a well-lit dining-room, upon the table of which a cold supper had been laid out, “I should very much like to ask you one or two plain questions, to which I beg that you will give a plain answer.”
“Do not trouble about my feelings. I am not hysterical, nor given to fainting. I simply wish to hear your real, real opinion.”
“Upon what point?”
“In your heart of hearts, do you think that Neville is alive?”
Sherlock Holmes seemed to be embarrassed by the question. “Frankly, now!” she repeated, standing upon the rug and looking keenly down at him as he leaned back in a basket-chair.
“Frankly, then, madam, I do not.”
“You think that he is dead?”
“I don’t say that. Perhaps.”
“And on what day did he meet his death?”
“Then perhaps, Mr. Holmes, you will be good enough to explain how it is that I have received a letter from him to-day.”
Sherlock Holmes sprang out of his chair as if he had been galvanized.
“What!” he roared.
“Yes, to-day.” She stood smiling, holding up a little slip of paper in the air.
“May I see it?”
He snatched it from her in his eagerness, and smoothing it out upon the table he drew over the lamp and examined it intently. I had left my chair and was gazing at it over his shoulder. The envelope was a very coarse one and was stamped with the Gravesend postmark and with the date of that very day, or rather of the day before, for it was considerably after midnight.
“Coarse writing,” murmured Holmes. “Surely this is not your husband’s writing, madam.”
“No, but the enclosure is.”
“I perceive also that whoever addressed the envelope had to go and inquire as to the address.”
“How can you tell that?”
“The name, you see, is in perfectly black ink, which has dried itself. The rest is of the grayish colour, which shows that blottingpaper has been used. If it had been written straight off, and then blotted, none would be of a deep black shade. This man has written the name, and there has then been a pause before he wrote the address, which can only mean that he was not familiar with it. It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles. Let us now see the letter. Ha! there has been an enclosure here!”
“Yes, there was a ring. His signet-ring.”
“And you are sure that this is your husband’s hand?”
“One of his hands.”
“His hand when he wrote hurriedly. It is very unlike his usual writing, and yet I know it well.”
“Dearest do not be frightened. All will come well. There is a huge error which it may take some little time to rectify. Wait in patience.
Written in pencil upon the fly-leaf of a book, octavo size, no water-mark. Hum! Posted to-day in Gravesend by a man with a dirty thumb. Ha! And the flap has been gummed, if I am not very much in error, by a person who had been chewing tobacco. And you have no doubt that it is your husband’s hand, madam?”
“None. Neville wrote those words.”
“And they were posted to-day at Gravesend. Well, Mrs. St. Clair, the clouds lighten, though I should not venture to say that the danger is over.”
“But he must be alive, Mr. Holmes.”
“Unless this is a clever forgery to put us on the wrong scent. The ring, after all, proves nothing. It may have been taken from him.
“No, no; it is, it is his very own writing!”
“Very well. It may, however, have been written on Monday and only posted to-day.”
“That is possible.”
“If so, much may have happened between.”
“Oh, you must not discourage me, Mr. Holmes. I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the diningroom rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle and yet be ignorant of his death?”
“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner. And in this letter you certainly have a very strong piece of evidence to corroborate your view. But if your husband is alive and able to write letters, why should he remain away from you?”
“I cannot imagine. It is unthinkable.”
“And on Monday he made no remarks before leaving you?”
“And you were surprised to see him in Swandam Lane?”
“Very much so.”
“Was the window open?”
“Then he might have called to you?”
“He only, as I understand, gave an inarticulate cry?”
“A call for help, you thought?”
“Yes. He waved his hands.”
“But it might have been a cry of surprise. Astonishment at the unexpected sight of you might cause him to throw up his hands?”
“It is possible.”
“And you thought he was pulled back?”
“He disappeared so suddenly.”
“He might have leaped back. You did not see anyone else in the room?”
“No, but this horrible man confessed to having been there, and the lascar was at the foot of the stairs.”
“Quite so. Your husband, as far as you could see, had his ordinary clothes on?”
“But without his collar or tie. I distinctly saw his bare throat.”
“Had he ever spoken of Swandam Lane?”
“Had he ever showed any signs of having taken opium?”
“Thank you, Mrs. St. Clair. Those are the principal points about which I wished to be absolutely clear. We shall now have a little supper and then retire, for we may have a very busy day to-morrow.”