The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
Complete story, ready to print -- free -- by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
In choosing a few typical cases which illustrate the remarkable
mental qualities of my friend, Sherlock Holmes, I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to select those which presented the
minimum of sensationalism, while offering a fair field for his
talents. It is, however, unfortunately impossible entirely to separate the sensational from the criminal, and a chronicler is left in
the dilemma that he must either sacrifice details which are
essential to his statement and so give a false impression of the
problem, or he must use matter which chance, and not choice,
has provided him with. With this short preface I shall turn to my
notes of what proved to be a strange, though a peculiarly terrible, chain of events.
It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an
oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of
the house across the road was painful to the eye. It was hard to
believe that these were the same walls which loomed so gloomily
through the fogs of winter. Our blinds were half-drawn, and
Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter
which he had received by the morning post. For myself, my term
of service in India had trained me to stand heat better than cold,
and a thermometer at ninety was no hardship. But the morning
paper was uninteresting. Parliament had risen. Everybody was
out of town, and I yearned for the glades of the New Forest or
the shingle of Southsea. A depleted bank account had caused me
to postpone my holiday, and as to my companion, neither the
country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He
loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his
filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to
every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation
of nature found no place among his many gifts, and his only
change was when he turned his mind from the evil-doer of the
town to track down his brother of the country.
Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had
tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair I fell
into a brown study. Suddenly my companion's voice broke in
upon my thoughts:
"You are right, Watson," said he. "It does seem a most
preposterous way of settling a dispute."
"Most preposterous!" I exclaimed, and then suddenly realizing how he had echoed the inmost thought of my soul, I sat up in
my chair and stared at him in blank amazement.
"What is this, Holmes?" I cried. "This is beyond anything
which I could have imagined."
He laughed heartily at my perplexity.
"You remember," said he, "that some little time ago when I
read you the passage in one of Poe's sketches in which a close
reasoner follows the unspoken thoughts of his companion, you
were inclined to treat the matter as a mere tour-de-force of the
author. On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of
doing the same thing you expressed incredulity."
"Perhaps not with your tongue, my dear Watson, but certainly
with your eyebrows. So when I saw you throw down your paper
and enter upon a train of thought, I was very happy to have the
oportunity of reading it off, and eventually of breaking into it,
as a proof that I had been in rapport with you."
But I was still far from satisfied. "In the example which you
read to me," said I, "the reasoner drew his conclusions from the
actions of the man whom he observed. If I remember right, he
stumbled over a heap of stones, looked up at the stars, and so
on. But I have been seated quietly in my chair, and what clues
can I have given you?"
"You do yourself an injustice. The features are given to man
as the means by which he shall express his emotions, and yours
are faithful servants."
"Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from
"Your features and especially your eyes. Perhaps you cannot
yourself recall how your reverie commenced?"
"No, I cannot."
"Then I will tell you. After throwing down your paper, which
was the action which drew my attention to you, you sat for half a
minute with a vacant expression. Then your eyes fixed themselves upon your newly framed picture of General Gordon, and I
saw by the alteration in your face that a train of thought had been
started. But it did not lead very far. Your eyes flashed across to
the unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher which stands upon
the top of your books. Then you glanced up at the wall, and of
course your meaning was obvious. You were thinking that if the
portrait were framed it would just cover that bare space and
correspond with Gordon's picture over there."
"You have followed me wonderfully!" I exclaimed.
"So far I could hardly have gone astray. But now your
thoughts went back to Beecher, and you looked hard across as if
you were studying the character in his features. Then your eyes
ceased to pucker, but you continued to look across, and your
face was thoughtful. You were recalling the incidents of Beecher's career. I was well aware that you could not do this
without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of
the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your
expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he
was received by the more turbulent of our people. You felt so
strongly about it that I knew you could not think of Beecher
without thinking of that also. When a moment later I saw your
eyes wander away from the picture, I suspected that your mind
had now turned to the Civil War, and when I observed that your
lips set, your eyes sparkled, and your hands clenched I was
positive that you were indeed thinking of the gallantry which was
shown by both sides in that desperate struggle. But then, again,
your face grew sadder; you shook your head. You were dwelling
upon the sadness and horror and useless waste of life. Your hand
stole towards your own old wound and a smile quivered on your
lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of
settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind.
At this point I agreed with you that it was preposterous and was
glad to find that all my deductions had been correct."
"Absolutely!" said I. "And now that you have explained it, I
confess that I am as amazed as before."
"It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I assure you. I
should not have intruded it upon your attention had you not
shown some incredulity the other day. But I have in my hands
here a little problem which may prove to be more difficult of
solution than my small essay in thought reading. Have you
observed in the paper a short paragraph referring to the remarkable contents of a packet sent through the post to Miss Cushing,
of Cross Street, Croydon?"
"No, I saw nothing."
"Ah! then you must have overlooked it. Just toss it over to
me. Here it is, under the financial column. Perhaps you would
be good enough to read it aloud."
I picked up the paper which he had thrown back to me and
read the paragraph indicated. It was headed "A Gruesome
"Miss Susan Cushing, living at Cross Street, Croydon,
has been made the victim of what must be regarded as a
peculiarly revolting practical joke unless some more sinister
meaning should prove to be attached to the incident. At two
o'clock yesterday afternoon a small packet, wrapped in
brown paper, was handed in by the postman. A cardboard
box was inside, which was filled with coarse salt. On
emptying this, Miss Cushing was horrified to find two
human ears, apparently quite freshly severed. The box had
been sent by parcel post from Belfast upon the morning
before. There is no indication as to the sender, and the
matter is the more mysterious as Miss Cushing, who is a
maiden lady of fifty, has led a most retired life, and has so
few acquaintances or correspondents that it is a rare event
for her to receive anything through the post. Some years
ago, however, when she resided at Penge, she let apartments in her house to three young medical students,
whom she was obliged to get rid of on account of their
noisy and irregular habits. The police are of opinion that
this outrage may have been perpetrated upon Miss Cushing by these youths, who owed her a grudge and who
hoped to frighten her by sending her these relics of the
dissecting-rooms. Some probability is lent to the theory
by the fact that one of these students came from the
north of Ireland, and, to the best of Miss Cushing's
belief, from Belfast. In the meantime, the matter is being
actively investigated, Mr. Lestrade, one of the very smartest of our detective officers, being in charge of the
"So much for the Daily Chronicle," said Holmes as I finished
reading. "Now for our friend Lestrade. I had a note from him
this morning, in which he says:
"I think that this case is very much in your line. We have
every hope of clearing the matter up, but we find a little
difficulty in getting anything to work upon. We have, of
course, wired to the Belfast post-office, but a large number
of parcels were handed in upon that day, and they have no
means of identifying this particular one, or of remembering
the sender. The box is a half-pound box of honeydew
tobacco and does not help us in any way. The medical
student theory still appears to me to be the most feasible,
but if you should have a few hours to spare I should be very
happy to see you out here. I shall be either at the house or
in the police-station all day.
What say you, Watson? Can you rise superior to the heat and
run down to Croydon with me on the off chance of a case for
"I was longing for something to do."
"You shall have it then. Ring for our boots and tell them to
order a cab. I'll be back in a moment when I have changed my
dressing-gown and filled my cigar-case."
A shower of rain fell while we were in the train, and the heat
was far less oppressive in Croydon than in town. Holmes had
sent on a wire, so that Lestrade, as wiry, as dapper, and as
ferret-like as ever, was waiting for us at the station. A walk of
five minutes took us to Cross Street, where Miss Cushing resided.
It was a very long street of two-story brick houses, neat and
prim, with whitened stone steps and little groups of aproned
women gossiping at the doors. Halfway down, Lestrade stopped
and tapped at a door, which was opened by a small servant girl.
Miss Cushing was sitting in the front room, into which we were
ushered. She was a placid-faced woman, with large, gentle eyes,
and grizzled hair curving down over her temples on each side. A
worked antimacassar lay upon her lap and a basket of coloured
silks stood upon a stool beside her.
"They are in the outhouse, those dreadful things," said she as
Lestrade entered. "I wish that you would take them away
"So I shall, Miss Cushing. I only kept them here until my
friend, Mr. Holmes, should have seen them in your presence."
"Why in my presence, sir?"
"In case he wished to ask any questions."
"What is the use of asking me questions when I tell you I
know nothing whatever about it?"
"Quite so, madam," said Holmes in his soothing way. "I
have no doubt that you have been annoyed more than enough
already over this business."
"Indeed, I have, sir. I am a quiet woman and live a retired
life. It is something new for me to see my name in the papers
and to find the police in my house. I won't have those things in
here, Mr. Lestrade. If you wish to see them you must go to the
It was a small shed in the narrow garden which ran behind the
house. Lestrade went in and brought out a yellow cardboard box,
with a piece of brown paper and some string. There was a bench
at the end of the path, and we all sat down while Holmes
examined, one by one, the articles which Lestrade had handed to
"The string is exceedingly interesting," he remarked, holding
it up to the light and sniffing at it. "What do you make of this
"It has been tarred."
"Precisely. It is a piece of tarred twine. You have also, no
doubt, remarked that Miss Cushing has cut the cord with a
scissors, as can be seen by the double fray on each side. This is
"I cannot see the importance," said Lestrade.
"The importance lies in the fact that the knot is left intact, and
that this knot is of a peculiar character."
"It is very neatly tied. I had already made a note to that
effect," said Lestrade complacently.
"So much for the string, then," said Holmes, smiling, "now
for the box wrapper. Brown paper, with a distinct smell of
coffee. What, did you not observe it? I think there can be no
doubt of it. Address printed in rather straggling characters: 'Miss
S. Cushing, Cross Street, Croydon.' Done with a broad-pointed
pen, probably a J, and with very inferior ink. The word 'Croydon'
has been originally spelled with an 'i,' which has been changed
to 'y.' The parcel was directed, then, by a man -- the printing is
distinctly masculine -- of limited education and unacquainted with
the town of Croydon. So far, so good! The box is a yellow
half-pound honeydew box, with nothing distinctive save two
thumb marks at the left bottom corner. It is filled with rough salt
of the quality used for preserving hides and other of the coarser
commercial purposes. And embedded in it are these very singular enclosures."
He took out the two ears as he spoke, and laying a board
across his knee he examined them minutely, while Lestrade and
I, bending forward on each side of him, glanced alternately at
these dreadful relics and at the thoughtful, eager face of our
companion. Finally he returned them to the box once more and
sat for a while in deep meditation.
"You have observed, of course," said he at last, "that the
ears are not a pair."
"Yes, I have noticed that. But if this were the practical joke
of some students from the dissecting-rooms, it would be as easy
for them to send two odd ears as a pair."
"Precisely. But this is not a practical joke."
"You are sure of it?"
"The presumption is strongly against it. Bodies in the dissecting rooms are injected with preservative fluid. These ears bear no
signs of this. They are fresh, too. They have been cut off with a
blunt ihstrument, which would hardly happen if a student had
done it. Again, carbolic or rectified spirits would be the preservatives which would suggest themselves to the medical mind,
certainly not rough salt. I repeat that there is no practical joke
here, but that we are investigating a serious crime."
A vague thrill ran through me as I listened to my companion's
words and saw the stern gravity which had hardened his features.
This brutal preliminary seemed to shadow forth some strange and
inexplicable horror in the background. Lestrade, however, shook
his head like a man who is only half convinced.
"There are objections to the joke theory, no doubt," said he,
"but there are much stronger reasons against the other. We know
that this woman has led a most quiet and respectable life at
Penge and here for the last twenty years. She has hardly been
away from her home for a day during that time. Why on earth,
then, should any criminal send her the proofs of his guilt,
especially as, unless she is a most consummate actress, she
understands quite as little of the matter as we do?"
"That is the problem which we have to solve," Holmes
answered, "and for my part I shall set about it by presuming that
my reasoning is correct, and that a double murder has been
committed. One of these ears is a woman's, small, finely formed,
and pierced for an earring. The other is a man's, sun-burned,
discoloured, and also pierced for an earring. These two people
are presumably dead, or we should have heard their story before
now. To-day is Friday. The packet was posted on Thursday
morning. The tragedy, then, occurred on Wednesday or Tuesday
or earlier. If the two people were murdered, who but their
murderer would have sent this sign of his work to Miss Cushing?
We may take it that the sender of the packet is the man whom we
want. But he must have some strong reason for sending Miss
Cushing this packet. What reason then? It must have been to tell
her that the deed was done! or to pain her, perhaps. But in that
case she knows who it is. Does she know? I doubt it. If she
knew, why should she call the police in? She might have buried
the ears, and no one would have been the wiser. That is what she
would have done if she had wished to shield the criminal. But if
she does not wish to shield him she would give his name. There
is a tangle here which needs straightening out." He had been
talking in a high, quick voice, staring blankly up over the garden
fence, but now he sprang briskly to his feet and walked towards
"I have a few questions to ask Miss Cushing," said he.
"In that case I may leave you here," said Lestrade, "for I
have another small business on hand. I think that I have nothing
further to learn from Miss Cushing. You will find me at the
"We shall look in on our way to the train," answered Holmes.
A moment later he and I were back in the front room, where the
impassive lady was still quietly working away at her antimacassar. She put it down on her lap as we entered and looked at us
with her frank, searching blue eyes.
"I am convinced, sir," she said, "that this matter is a mistake, and that the parcel was never meant for me at all. I have
said this several times to the gentleman from Scotland Yard, but
he simply laughs at me. I have not an enemy in the world, as far
as I know, so why should anyone play me such a trick?"
"I am coming to be of the same opinion, Miss Cushing," said
Holmes, taking a seat beside her. "I think that it is more than
probable " he paused, and I was surprised, on glancing round
to see that he was staring with singular intentness at the lady's
profile. Surprise and satisfaction were both for an instant to be
read upon his eager face, though when she glanced round to find
out the cause of his silence he had become as demure as ever. I
stared hard myself at her flat, grizzled hair, her trim cap, her
little gilt earrings, her placid features; but I could see nothing
which could account for my companion's evident excitement.
"There were one or two questions --"
"Oh, I am weary of questions!" cried Miss Cushing impatiently.
"You have two sisters, I believe."
"How could you know that?"
"I observed the very instant that I entered the room that you
have a portrait group of three ladies upon the mantelpiece, one of
whom is undoubtedly yourself, while the others are so exceedingly like you that there could be no doubt of the relationship."
"Yes, you are quite right. Those are my sisters, Sarah and
"And here at my elbow is another portrait, taken at Liverpool,
of your younger sister, in the company of a man who appears to
be a steward by his uniform. I observe that she was unmarried at
"You are very quick at observing."
"That is my trade."
"Well, you are quite right. But she was married to Mr.
Browner a few days afterwards. He was on the South American
line when that was taken, but he was so fond of her that he
couldn't abide to leave her for so long, and he got into the
Liverpool and London boats."
"Ah, the Conqueror, perhaps?"
"No, the May Day, when last I heard. Jim came down here to
see me once. That was before he broke the pledge; but afterwards he would always take drink when he was ashore, and a
little drink would send him stark, staring mad. Ah! it was a bad
day that ever he took a glass in his hand again. First he dropped
me, then he quarrelled with Sarah, and now that Mary has
stopped writing we don't know how things are going with them."
It was evident that Miss Cushing had come upon a subject on
which she felt very deeply. Like most people who lead a lonely
life, she was shy at first, but ended by becoming extremely
communicative. She told us many details about her brother-in-law
the steward, and then wandering off on the subject of her former
lodgers, the medical students, she gave us a long account of their
delinquencies, with their names and those of their hospitals.
Holmes listened attentively to everything, throwing in a question
from time to time.
"About your second sister, Sarah," said he. "I wonder, since
you are both maiden ladies, that you do not keep house together."
"Ah! you don't know Sarah's temper or you would wonder no
more. I tried it when I came to Croydon, and we kept on until
about two months ago, when we had to part. I don't want to say
a word against my own sister, but she was always meddlesome
and hard to please, was Sarah."
"You say that she quarrelled with your Liverpool relations."
"Yes, and they were the best of friends at one time. Why, she
went up there to live in order to be near them. And now she has
no word hard enough for Jim Browner. The last six months that
she was here she would speak of nothing but his drinking and his
ways. He had caught her meddling, I suspect, and given her a bit
of his mind, and that was the start of it."
"Thank you, Miss Cushing," said Holmes, rising and bowing. "Your sister Sarah lives, I think you said, at New Street
Wallington? Good-bye, and I am very sorry that you should have
been troubled over a case with which, as you say, you have
nothing whatever to do."
There was a cab passing as we came out, and Holmes hailed
"How far to Wallington?" he asked.
"Only about a mile, sir."
"Very good. Jump in, Watson. We must strike while the iron
is hot. Simple as the case is, there have been one or two very
instructive details in connection with it. Just pull up at a telegraph office as you pass, cabby."
Holmes sent off a short wire and for the rest of the drive lay
back in the cab, with his hat tilted over his nose to keep the sun
from his face. Our driver pulled up at a house which was not
unlike the one which we had just quitted. My companion ordered
him to wait, and had his hand upon the knocker, when the door
opened and a grave young gentleman in black, with a very shiny
hat, appeared on the step.
"Is Miss Cushing at home?" asked Holmes.
"Miss Sarah Cushing is extremely ill," said he. "She has
been suffering since yesterday from brain symptoms of great
severity. As her medical adviser, I cannot possibly take the
responsibility of allowing anyone to see her. I should recommend you to call again in ten days." He drew on his gloves,
closed the door, and marched off down the street.
"Well, if we can't we can't," said Holmes, cheerfully.
"Perhaps she could not or would not have told you much."
"I did not wish her to tell me anything. I only wanted to look
at her. However, I think that I have got all that I want. Drive us
to some decent hotel, cabby, where we may have some lunch,
and afterwards we shall drop down upon friend Lestrade at the
We had a pleasant little meal together, during which Holmes
would talk about nothing but violins, narrating with great exultation how he had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was
worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker's in Tottenham
Court Road for fifty-five shillings. This led him to Paganini, and
we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me
anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man. The afternoon
was far advanced and the hot glare had softened into a mellow
glow before we found ourselves at the police-station. Lestrade was
waiting for us at the door.
"A telegram for you, Mr. Holmes," said he.
"Ha! It is the answer!" He tore it open, glanced his eyes over
it, and crumpled it into his pocket. "That's all right," said he.
"Have you found out anything?"
"I have found out everything!"
"What!" Lestrade stared at him in amazement. "You are
"I was never more serious in my life. A shocking crime has
been committed, and I think I have now laid bare every detail of
"And the criminal?"
Holmes scribbled a few words upon the back of one of his
visiting cards and threw it over to Lestrade.
"That is the name," he said. "You cannot effect an arrest
until to-morrow night at the earliest. I should prefer that you do
not mention my name at all in connection with the case, as I
choose to be only associated with those crimes which present
some difficulty in their solution. Come on, Watson." We strode
off together to the station, leaving Lestrade still staring with a
delighted face at the card which Holmes had thrown him.
"The case," said Sherlock Holmes as we chatted over our
cigars that night in our rooms at Baker Street, "is one where, as
in the investigations which you have chronicled under the names
of 'A Study in Scarlet' and of 'The Sign of Four,' we have been
compelled to reason backward from effects to causes. I have
written to Lestrade asking him to supply us with the details
which are now wanting, and which he will only get after he has
secured his man. That he may be safely trusted to do, for
although he is absolutely devoid of reason, he is as tenacious as
a bulldog when he once understands what he has to do, and,
indeed, it is just this tenacity which has brought him to the top at
"Your case is not complete, then?" I asked.
"It is fairly complete in essentials. We know who the author of
the revolting business is, although one of the victims still escapes
us. Of course, you have formed your own conclusions."
"I presume that this Jim Browner, the steward of a Liverpool
boat, is the man whom you suspect?"
"Oh! it is more than a suspicion."
"And yet I cannot see anything save very vague indications."
"On the contrary, to my mind nothing could be more clear.
Let me run over the principal steps. We approached the case,
you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always
an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there
to observe and to draw inferences from our observations. What
did we see first? A very placid and respectable lady, who seemed
quite innocent of any secret, and a portrait which showed me that
she had two younger sisters. It instantly flashed across my mind
that the box might have been meant for one of these. I set the
idea aside as one which could be disproved or confirmed at our
leisure. Then we went to the garden, as you remember, and we
saw the very singular contents of the little yellow box.
"The string was of the quality which is used by sailmakers
aboard ship, and at once a whiff of the sea was perceptible in our
investigation. When I observed that the knot was one which is
popular with sailors, that the parcel had been posted at a port,
and that the male ear was pierced for an earring which is so
much more common among sailors than landsmen, I was quite
certain that all the actors in the tragedy were to be found among
our seafaring classes.
"When I came to examine the address of the packet I observed that it was to Miss S. Cushing. Now, the oldest sister
would, of course, be Miss Cushing, and although her initial was
'S' it might belong to one of the others as well. In that case we
should have to commence our investigation from a fresh basis
altogether. I therefore went into the house with the intention of
clearing up this point. I was about to assure Miss Cushing that I
was convinced that a mistake had been made when you may
remember that I came suddenly to a stop. The fact was that I had
just seen something which filled me with surprise and at the
same time narrowed the field of our inquiry immensely.
"As a medical man, you are aware, Watson, that there is no
part of the body which varies so much as the human ear. Each
ear is as a rule quite distinctive and differs from all other ones.
In last year's Anthropological Journal you will find two short
monographs from my pen upon the subject. I had, therefore,
examined the ears in the box with the eyes of an expert and had
carefully noted their anatomical peculiarities. Imagine my surprise, then, when on looking at Miss Cushing I perceived that
her ear corresponded exactly with the female ear which I had just
inspected. The matter was entirely beyond coincidence. There
was the same shortening of the pinna, the same broad curve of
the upper lobe, the same convolution of the inner cartilage. In all
essentials it was the same ear.
"Of course I at once saw the enormous importance of the
observation. It was evident that the victim was a blood relation
and probably a very close one. I began to talk to her about her
family, and you remember that she at once gave us some exceedingly valuable details
"In the first place, her sister's name was Sarah, and her
address had until recently been the same, so that it was quite
obvious how the mistake had occurred and for whom the packet
was meant. Then we heard of this steward, married to the third
sister, and learned that he had at one time been so intimate with
Miss Sarah that she had actually gone up to Liverpool to be near
the Browners, but a quarrel had afterwards divided them. This
quarrel had put a stop to all communications for some months,
so that if Browner had occasion to address a packet to Miss
Sarah, he would undoubtedly have done so to her old address.
"And now the matter had begun to straighten itself out wonderfully. We had learned of the existence of this steward, an
impulsive man, of strong passions -- you remember that he threw
up what must have been a very superior berth in order to be
nearer to his wife -- subject, too, to occasional fits of hard drinking. We had reason to believe that his wife had been murdered,
and that a man -- presumably a seafaring man -- had been murdered at the same time. Jealousy, of course, at once suggests
itself as the motive for the crime. And why should these proofs
of the deed be sent to Miss Sarah Cushing? Probably because
during her residence in Liverpool she had some hand in bringing
about the events which led to the tragedy. You will observe that
this line of boats calls at Belfast, Dublin, and Waterford; so that,
presuming that Browner had committed the deed and had embarked
at once upon his steamer, the May Day, Belfast would be the
first place at which he could post his terrible packet.
"A second solution was at this stage obviously possible, and
although I thought it exceedingly unlikely, I was determined to
elucidate it before going further. An unsuccessful lover might
have killed Mr. and Mrs. Browner, and the male ear might have
belonged to the husband. There were many grave objections to
this theory, but it was conceivable. I therefore sent off a telegram to my friend Algar, of the Liverpool force, and asked him
to find out if Mrs. Browner were at home, and if Browner had
departed in the May Day. Then we went on to Wallington to visit
"I was curious, in the first place, to see how far the family ear
had been reproduced in her. Then, of course, she might give us
very important information, but I was not sanguine that she
would. She must have heard of the business the day before, since
all Croydon was ringing with it, and she alone could have
understood for whom the packet was meant. If she had been
willing to help justice she would probably have communicated
with the police already. However, it was clearly our duty to see
her, so we went. We found that the news of the arrival of the
packet -- for her illness dated from that time -- had such an effect
upon her as to bring on brain fever. It was clearer than ever that
she understood its full significance, but equally clear that we
should have to wait some time for any assistance from her.
"However, we were really independent of her help. Our
answers were waiting for us at the police-station, where I had
directed Algar to send them. Nothing could be more conclusive.
Mrs. Browner's house had been closed for more than three days,
and the neighbours were of opinion that she had gone south to
see her relatives. It had been ascertained at the shipping offices
that Browner had left aboard of the May Day, and I calculate that
she is due in the Thames to-morrow night. When he arrives he
will be met by the obtuse but resolute Lestrade, and I have no
doubt that we shall have all our details filled in."
Sherlock Holmes was not disappointed in his expectations.
Two days later he received a bulky envelope, which contained a
short note from the detective, and a typewritten document, which
covered several pages of foolscap.
"Lestrade has got him all right," said Holmes, glancing up at
me. "Perhaps it would interest you to hear what he says.
"MY DEAR MR. HOLMES:
"In accordance with the scheme which we had formed in
order to test our theories" ["the 'we' is rather fine, Watson, is it not?"] "I went down to the Albert Dock yesterday
at 6 P. M., and boarded the S. S. May Day, belonging to the
Liverpool, Dublin, and London Steam Packet Company. On
inquiry, I found that there was a steward on board of the
name of James Browner and that he had acted during
the voyage in such an extraordinary manner that the captain
had been compelled to relieve him of his duties. On descending to his berth, I found him seated upon a chest with
his head sunk upon his hands, rocking himself to and fro.
He is a big, powerful chap, clean-shaven, and very swarthy -something like Aldridge, who helped us in the bogus laundry affair. He jumped up when he heard my business, and I
had my whistle to my lips to call a couple of river police,
who were round the corner, but he seemed to have no heart
in him, and he held out his hands quietly enough for the
darbies. We brought him along to the cells, and his box as
well, for we thought there might be something incriminating; but, bar a big sharp knife such as most sailors have, we
got nothing for our trouble. However, we find that we shall
want no more evidence, for on being brought before the
inspector at the station he asked leave to make a statement,
which was, of course, taken down, just as he made it, by
our shorthand man. We had three copies typewritten, one of
which I enclose. The affair proves, as I always thought it
would, to be an extremely simple one, but I am obliged to
you for assisting me in my investigation. With kind regards,
"Yours very truly,
"Hum! The investigation really was a very simple one,"
remarked Holmes, "but I don't think it struck him in that light
when he first called us in. However, let us see what Jim Browner
has to say for himself. This is his statement as made before
Inspector Montgomery at the Shadwell Police Station, and it has
the advantage of being verbatim."
* * *
" 'Have I anything to say? Yes, I have a deal to say. I have to
make a clean breast of it all. You can hang me, or you can leave
me alone. I don't care a plug which you do. I tell you I've not
shut an eye in sleep since I did it, and I don't believe I ever will
again until I get past all waking. Sometimes it's his face, but
most generally it's hers. I'm never without one or the other
before me. He looks frowning and black-like, but she has a kind
o' surprise upon her face. Ay, the white lamb, she might well be
surprised when she read death on a face that had seldom looked
anything but love upon her before.
" 'But it was Sarah's fault, and may the curse of a broken
man put a blight on her and set the blood rotting in her veins! It's
not that I want to clear myself. I know that I went back to drink,
like the beast that I was. But she would have forgiven me; she
would have stuck as close to me as a rope to a block if that
woman had never darkened our door. For Sarah Cushing loved
me -- that's the root of the business -- she loved me until all her
love turned to poisonous hate when she knew that I thought more
of my wife's footmark in the mud than I did of her whole body
" 'There were three sisters altogether. The old one was just a
good woman, the second was a devil, and the third was an angel.
Sarah was thirty-three, and Mary was twenty-nine when I married. We were just as happy as the day was long when we set up
house together, and in all Liverpool there was no better woman
than my Mary. And then we asked Sarah up for a week, and the
week grew into a month, and one thing led to another, until she
was just one of ourselves.
" 'I was blue ribbon at that time, and we were putting a little
money by, and all was as bright as a new dollar. My God,
whoever would have thought that it could have come to this?
Whoever would have dreamed it?
" 'I used to be home for the week-ends very often, and
sometimes if the ship were held back for cargo I would have a
whole week at a time, and in this way I saw a deal of my
sister-in-law, Sarah. She was a fine tall woman, black and quick
and fierce, with a proud way of carrying her head, and a glint
from her eye like a spark from a flint. But when little Mary was
there I had never a thought of her, and that I swear as I hope for
" 'It had seemed to me sometimes that she liked to be alone
with me, or to coax me out for a walk with her, but I had never
thought anything of that. But one evening my eyes were opened.
I had come up from the ship and found my wife out, but Sarah at
home. "Where's Mary?" I asked. "Oh, she has gone to pay
some accounts." I was impatient and paced up and down the
room. "Can't you be happy for five minutes without Mary,
Jim?" says she. "It's a bad compliment to me that you can't be
contented with my society for so short a time." "That's all
right, my lass," said I, putting out my hand towards her in a
kindly way, but she had it in both hers in an instant, and they
burned as if they were in a fever. I looked into her eyes and I
read it all there. There was no need for her to speak, nor for me
either. I frowned and drew my hand away. Then she stood by
my side in silence for a bit, and then put up her hand and patted
me on the shoulder. "Steady old Jim!" said she, and with a kind
o' mocking laugh, she ran out of the room.
" 'Well, from that time Sarah hated me with her whole heart
and soul, and she is a woman who can hate, too. I was a fool to
let her go on biding with us -- a besotted fool -- but I never said a
word to Mary, for I knew it would grieve her. Things went on
much as before, but after a time I began to find that there was a
bit of a change in Mary herself. She had always been so trusting
and so innocent, but now she became queer and suspicious,
wanting to know where I had been and what I had been doing,
and whom my letters were from, and what I had in my pockets,
and a thousand such follies. Day by day she grew queerer and
more irritable, and we had ceaseless rows about nothing. I was
fairly puzzled by it all. Sarah avoided me now, but she and Mary
were just inseparable. I can see now how she was plotting and
scheming and poisoning my wife's mind against me, but I was
such a blind beetle that I could not understand it at the time.
Then I broke my blue ribbon and began to drink again, but I
think I should not have done it if Mary had been the same as
ever. She had some reason to be disgusted with me now, and the
gap between us began to be wider and wider. And then this Alec
Fairbairn chipped in, and things became a thousand times blacker.
" 'It was to see Sarah that he came to my house first, but soon
it was to see us, for he was a man with winning ways, and he
made friends wherever he went. He was a dashing, swaggering
chap, smart and curled, who had seen half the world and could
talk of what he had seen. He was good company, I won't deny
it, and he had wonderful polite ways with him for a sailor man,
so that I think there must have been a time when he knew more
of the poop than the forecastle. For a month he was in and out of
my house, and never once did it cross my mind that harm might
come of his soft, tricky ways. And then at last something made
me suspect, and from that day my peace was gone forever.
" 'It was only a little thing, too. I had come into the parlour
unexpected, and as I walked in at the door I saw a light of
welcome on my wife's face. But as she saw who it was it faded
again, and she turned away with a look of disappointment. That
was enough for me. There was no one but Alec Fairbairn whose
step she could have mistaken for mine. If I could have seen him
then I should have killed him, for I have always been like a
madman when my temper gets loose. Mary saw the devil's light
in my eyes, and she ran forward with her hands on my sleeve.
"Don't, Jim, don't!" says she. "Where's Sarah?" I asked. "In
the kitchen," says she. "Sarah," says I as I went in, "this man
Fairbairn is never to darken my door again." "Why not?" says
she. "Because I order it." "Oh!" says she, "if my friends are
not good enough for this house, then I am not good enough for it
either." "You can do what you like," says I, "but if Fairbairn
shows his face here again I'll send you one of his ears for a
keepsake." She was frightened by my face, I think, for she
never answered a word, and the same evening she left my house.
" 'Well, I don't know now whether it was pure devilry on the
part of this woman, or whether she thought that she could turn
me against my wife by encouraging her to misbehave. Anyway,
she took a house just two streets off and let lodgings to sailors.
Fairbairn used to stay there, and Mary would go round to have
tea with her sister and him. How often she went I don't know,
but I followed her one day, and as I broke in at the door
Fairbairn got away over the back garden wall, like the cowardly
skunk that he was. I swore to my wife that I would kill her if I
found her in his company again, and I led her back with me,
sobbing and trembling, and as white as a piece of paper. There
was no trace of love between us any longer. I could see that she
hated me and feared me, and when the thought of it drove me to
drink, then she despised me as well.
" 'Well, Sarah found that she could not make a living in
Liverpool, so she went back, as I understand, to live with her
sister in Croydon, and things jogged on much the same as ever at
home. And then came this last week and all the misery and ruin.
" 'It was in this way. We had gone on the May Day for a
round voyage of seven days, but a hogshead got loose and
started one of our plates, so that we had to put back into port for
twelve hours. I left the ship and came home, thinking what a
surprise it would be for my wife, and hoping that maybe she
would be glad to see me so soon. The thought was in my head as
I turned into my own street, and at that moment a cab passed
me, and there she was, sitting by the side of Fairbairn, the two
chatting and laughing, with never a thought for me as I stood
watching them from the footpath.
" 'I tell you, and I give you my word for it, that from that
moment I was not my own master, and it is all like a dim dream
when I look back on it. I had been drinking hard of late, and the
two things together fairly turned my brain. There's something
throbbing in my head now, like a docker's hammer, but that
morning I seemed to have all Niagara whizzing and buzzing in
" 'Well, I took to my heels, and l ran after the cab. I had a
heavy oak stick in my hand, and I tell you I saw red from the
first; but as I ran I got cunning, too, and hung back a little to see
them without being seen. They pulled up soon at the railway
station. There was a good crowd round the booking-office, so I
got quite close to them without being seen. They took tickets for
New Brighton. So did I, but I got in three carriages behind them.
When we reached it they walked along the Parade, and I was
never more than a hundred yards from them. At last I saw them
hire a boat and start for a row, for it was a very hot day, and
they thought, no doubt, that it would be cooler on the water.
" 'It was just as if they had been given into my hands. There
was a bit of a haze, and you could not see more than a few
hundred yards. I hired a boat for myself, and I pulled after them.
I could see the blur of their craft, but they were going nearly as
fast as I, and they must have been a long mile from the shore
before I caught them up. The haze was like a curtain all round
us, and there were we three in the middle of it. My God, shall I
ever forget their faces when they saw who was in the boat that
was closing in upon them? She screamed out. He swore like a
madman and jabbed at me with an oar, for he must have seen
death in my eyes. I got past it and got one in with my stick that
crushed his head like an egg. I would have spared her, perhaps,
for all my madness, but she threw her arms round him, crying
out to him, and calling him "Alec." I struck again, and she lay
stretched beside him. I was like a wild beast then that had tasted
blood. If Sarah had been there, by the Lord, she should have
joined them. I pulled out my knife, and -- well, there! I've said
enough. It gave me a kind of savage joy when I thought how
Sarah would feel when she had such signs as these of what her
meddling had brought about. Then I tied the bodies into the boat,
stove a plank, and stood by until they had sunk. I knew very
well that the owner would think that they had lost their bearings
in the haze, and had drifted off out to sea. I cleaned myself up,
got back to land, and joined my ship without a soul having a
suspicion of what had passed. That night I made up the packet
for Sarah Cushing, and next day I sent it from Belfast.
" 'There you have the whole truth of it. You can hang me, or
do what you like with me, but you cannot punish me as I have
been punished already. I cannot shut my eyes but I see those two
faces staring at me -- staring at me as they stared when my boat
broke through the haze. I killed them quick, but they are killing
me slow; and if I have another night of it I shall be either mad or
dead before morning. You won't put me alone into a cell, sir?
Por pity's sake don't, and may you be treated in your day of
agony as you treat me now.'
"What is the meaning of it, Watson?" said Holmes solemnly
als he laid down the paper. "What object is served by this circle
of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or
else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But
what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which
human reason is as far from an answer as ever."