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 him.
“The string is exceedingly interesting,” he remarked, holding it up to the light and sniffing at it. “What do you make of this string, Lestrade?”
“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 of importance.”
“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 the house.
“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 police-station.”
“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.