Once again, Robert Ryan collaborates with Arthur Conan Doyle to produce brand new Holmes/Watson stories: from THE CASE OF THE SIX WATSONS (Simon & Schuster, available as a free Kindle download from September 3): an exclusive story for Crime Time! THE CASE OF THE SIX WATSONS by JOHN H. WATSON
Based on a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and edited and expanded by Robert Ryan
The Case of the Six Watsons: No. 1
The Beetle Lover
This immediately struck me as one of Conan Doyle’s short stories that most resembled a Holmes tale. It has a mysterious newspaper advertisement (as in ‘The Red-Headed League’), a job opportunity at a country house with some strange provisos (‘The Copper Beeches’) and the original narrator of ‘The Beetle Hunter’ (1898) was indeed a doctor, albeit somewhat younger than Watson. Until now. As with all the stories in this collection, I have changed the title slightly (from "Hunter" to "Lover") so that there is no chance of confusion with the non-Watson original.
I have written before of how, after my marriage and my subsequent purchase of a private medical practice, the relations which had existed between Holmes and myself became somewhat modified. I still called on him from time to time for the pleasure of sharing a pipe of Arcadia before his fire and listening to his latest adventures. And he still called upon me from time to time when he desired a companion in his investigations. On those occasions Mrs Watson was usually most accommodating, realising the friendship predated our marriage and that it oft did me good to see my old friend again for extended periods.
And so my notes recall that it was a bright morning in early May 1890 when I called on Holmes and first heard talk of beetles. It was the kind of day that makes a man feel the need to hum a cheery tune and puts a spring in his step. Cherry blossom was swirling on the breeze and London appeared to have shrugged off the torpor of an overlong winter and a dank, uninspiring April. Mrs Hudson was crouched behind the door of 221b in the vestibule, straightening, she later explained, the contents of the umbrella stand in the hallway, and so opened the door on my first ring. She showed me up and promised tea. I found Holmes at the window, peering down at the street. He did not turn.
‘You have had a visitor this morning,’ I declared after a moment. ‘A youngish, clean-shaven man, in something of a hurry. And, I would imagine, of a nervous disposition.’
He turned from the window and raised an eyebrow. ‘Watson, what a pleasant surprise! Come and sit down and tell me how you deduced such a thing.’
‘It is true, though, is it not?’ I asked, with some trepidation.
‘Quite true. I just want to hear how you learned the trick.’
Both seated, I let him have my reasoning. ‘I detect the aroma of extract of limes, an astringent for closing the skin after a shave. It is the trademark of Trumper’s of Curzon Street, which tends to attract a younger clientele than Truelove. Whoever the caller was, he carelessly knocked over the umbrella-and-cane stand in the hallway, probably when he was leaving. Mrs Hudson would have shooed him out, preferring to tidy it up herself, which she was doing when I rang the bell. I suspect, therefore, he was rushed, clumsy and possibly nervous, as many of your clients tend to be before or after meeting you.’
Holmes said nothing.
‘Well? Aren’t you going to tell me how wrong I am in every aspect? That it was an old, arthritic gentleman with a full set of whiskers?’
‘No,’ Holmes said softly. ‘You did well, Watson. Those years spent together in these rooms were far from wasted.’
I couldn’t help feeling a warm glow inside at the compliment. ‘So, Holmes, what has caught your attention? This newly shaved client?’
Holmes dismissed that thought with the wave of a hand. ‘A most straightforward matter. The man’s father is having a dalliance with the housekeeper and together they stole the jewellery. Even Lestrade should have no trouble with that. No, I feel my mind stagnating for the want of an interesting case. But you might be in luck. Tell me, Watson, how are you fixed for a few days?’
‘Where is your wife?’
‘She is visiting her family.’
He nodded as if this were good news. ‘And the practice? Could you free yourself from its duties for a time?’
‘Alas,’ I said truthfully, ‘that would be all too easy. London is not yet hammering on my door for consultations. What do you have in mind?’
‘How much do you know about beetles?’
‘Beetles? Insects, you mean? Not a great deal.’
‘You haven’t read my monograph on using the presence of certain beetle species to determine how long a corpse had been buried?’
‘I’m afraid I missed that one,’ I admitted.
‘No matter. Have a look at this.’
He threw me a copy of The Times and directed my attention to a small notice at the bottom of Page 1. ‘Read it aloud, if you will.’
I did as he asked. ‘"Wanted for one or more days, the services of a medical man. It is essential that he should be a man of strong physique, of steady nerves and of a resolute nature. Must be an entomologist – coleopterist preferred. Apply, in person, at 77B, Brook Street. A substantial remuneration will await the successful candidate. Application must be made before twelve o’clock tomorrow."’
‘Does it not cause a faint stirring of the memory?’
We were interrupted by Mrs Hudson with the tea tray, which gave me a chance to rack my brains, but to no avail. ‘I can’t say it does, Holmes.’
He looked vaguely disappointed. And then he quoted another notice, from two years previously. ‘"On account of the bequest of the late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, USA, there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of four pounds a week for purely nominal services. All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years are eligible. Apply in person on Monday, at eleven o’clock, to Duncan Ross, at the offices of the Red-Headed League, 7 Pope’s Court, Fleet Street."’
‘Indeed, who could forget the Red-Headed League?’ I said. ‘You think this beetle business is something similar?’
‘It doesn’t . . .’ – his face wrinkled, as if he had caught a whiff of smelling salts – ‘smell right.’
‘And what do you propose to do?’ I asked.
‘Of all branches of zoology, the study of insects is the most attractive to me, and of all insects beetles are the most fascinating. Oh, butterfly collectors are numerous and fashionable these days, but beetles are far more varied, and more accessible in these islands than are butterflies. I can teach a man like you everything you need to know about them by tomorrow morning.’
‘But, Holmes—’ I began.
‘As to the other requisites of the advertisement, I know that your nerves can be depended upon, and were you not a very fine rugby player in your youth? And you are still capable of a burst of speed? And resolute? There is no more resolute fellow in the whole of London. Clearly, you are the very man for the vacancy.’
I shook the paper at him. ‘But, Holmes, what if there is simply an innocent explanation?’
‘Then, Watson, you shall be richer by a substantial remuneration.’
One would hardly call what I made at the practice in a whole week substantial. Mrs Watson, at least, would be pleased if I returned with a fat pocket book.
Holmes could sense my temptation. ‘We could start your lessons at once and finish with dinner at Goldoni’sGoldini’s. I shall send for an overnight bag from your maid, and you can spend the night here. What do you say?’
At eleven o’clock the next day I was in a cab on my way to Brook Street, my head spinning with the likes of the lesser thorn-tipped longhorn beetle and the etymology of scarabs. As the vehicle proceeded drove, I kept turning the matter over in my mind, trying to make a guess as to what sort of employment it could be which needed such curious qualifications. A strong physique, a resolute nature, a medical training and a knowledge of beetles – what connection could there be between these various requisites? What had Holmes seen in this combination that I had missed? The more I pondered over it the more unintelligible did it become; but, at the end of my meditations, I always came back to the ground fact that, come what might, I had nothing to lose and, I had to admit, the day in Holmes’s company and a fine dinner at Goldini’s was enough reward for whatever I was about to face.
No. 77B, Brook Street, was one of those dingy and yet imposing houses, dun-coloured and flat-faced, with the intensely respectable and solid air which marks the Georgian builder. As I alighted from the cab, a young man came out of the door and walked swiftly down the street. He cast an inquisitive and somewhat malevolent glance at me as he passed by, and I took the incident as a good omen, for his appearance was that of a rejected candidate, and, if he resented my application, it meant that the vacancy was not yet filled up. Full of hope, I ascended the broad steps and rapped with the heavy knocker.
A footman in powder and livery opened the door. Clearly, I was in touch with the people of wealth and fashion.
‘Yes, sir?’ said the footman.
‘I came in answer to the notice in The Times.’
There was a hesitation as he looked me up and down. I was obviously older than the average applicant. ‘Quite so, sir,’ said the footman eventually. ‘Lord Linchmere will see you at once in the library.’
I had vaguely heard the name, but could not for the instant recall anything about him. Following the footman, I was shown into a large, book-lined room in which there was seated behind a writing desk a small man with a pleasant, clean-shaven, mobile face, and long hair shot with grey, brushed back from his forehead. He looked me up and down with a very shrewd, penetrating glance, holding the card that the footman had given him in his right hand. It did not contain my real name, Holmes feeling that what little celebrity I had might be too much to ensure anonymity.
‘You have come in answer to my advertisement, Dr Hamilton?’ he asked.
‘Do you fulfil the conditions which are there laid down?’
‘I believe that I do.’
‘Older than I expected.’
‘I recently quit my practice, sir, after a disagreement over my partner’s rather old-fashioned ideas.’
‘I see. You are fit for your age, or so I should judge from your appearance.’
‘I hope so.’ Associating with Sherlock Holmes had a way of keeping one in trim. ‘I think that I am fairly strong.’
‘I believe so.’
‘Have you ever known what it is to be exposed to imminent danger?’
How to answer that? There is peril, too in being Holmes’s companion. ‘I have army experience. Afghanistan.’
‘Excellent. And you think you would be prompt and cool if you faced peril again?’
‘I think I might.’
‘Well, I think so too. I have the more confidence in you because you do not pretend to be certain as to what you would do in a position that is new to you. My impression is that, so far as personal qualities go, you are the very man of whom I am in search. The fact that you are of more years than your rivals also counts in your favour – I have seen nothing but rather immature applicants, more larva than imago you might say. That being settled, we may pass on to the next point.’
‘To talk to me about beetles.’
I looked across to see if he was joking, but, on the contrary, he was leaning eagerly forward across his desk, and there was an expression of something like anxiety in his eyes.
‘I am afraid that you do not know about beetles,’ he said.
‘On the contrary, sir. Of all the branches of zoology, the study of insects is the most attractive to me, and of all insects beetles are the most fascinating. Oh, butterfly collectors are numerous and fashionable these days, but beetles are far more varied, and more accessible in these islands than are butterflies.’
‘I am overjoyed to hear it. Please talk to me about beetles.’
I talked. I do not profess to have said anything other than what Holmes had primed me to say. I gave a short sketch of the characteristics of the beetle, and ran over the more common species, with some allusions to the specimens and a reference to my article upon ‘Burying Beetles’, which was awaiting publication in the Journal of Entomological Science.
‘You are certainly the very man in London for my purpose,’ he said when I had finished. ‘I thought that among five millions of people there must be such a man, but the difficulty is to lay one’s hands upon him. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in finding you.’
He rang a gong upon the table, and the footman entered.
‘Ask Lady Rossiter to have the goodness to step this way,’ said his lordship, and a few moments later the lady was ushered into the room. She was a small, middle-aged woman, very like Lord Linchmere in appearance, with the same quick, alert features and grey-black hair. The expression of anxiety, however, which I had observed upon his face was very much more marked upon hers. Some great grief seemed to have cast its shadow over her features. As Lord Linchmere presented me, she turned her face full upon me, and I was shocked to observe a half-healed scar extending for two inches over her right eyebrow. It was partly concealed by plaster, but, nonetheless, I could see that it had been a serious wound and not long inflicted.
‘Dr Hamilton is the very man for our purpose, Evelyn,’ said Lord Linchmere. ‘And he is inordinately fond of beetles.’
‘Really!’ said Lady Rossiter. ‘Then you must have heard of my husband. Everyone who knows anything about beetles must have heard of Sir Thomas Rossiter.’
Thank goodness for Holmes’s thoroughness, for he had tutored me not just on beetles, but on the most eminent experts on the subject in the land. Foremost he spoke of Sir Thomas Rossiter. He had made beetles his lifelong study, and had written a most exhaustive work upon it. I hastened to assure her that I had read and appreciated it.
‘Have you met my husband?’ she asked.
‘No, I have not,’ I admitted.
‘But you shall,’ said Lord Linchmere, with decision.
The lady was standing beside the desk, and she put her hand upon his shoulder. It was obvious to me as I saw their faces together that they were brother and sister.
‘Are you really prepared for this, Charles? It is noble of you, but you fill me with fears.’ Her voice quavered with apprehension, and he appeared to me to be equally moved, though he was making strong efforts to conceal his agitation.
‘Yes, yes, dear, it is all settled, it is all decided; in fact, there is no other possible way, that I can see.’
‘There is one obvious way.’
‘No, no, Evelyn, I shall never abandon you – never. It will come right – depend upon it; it will come right, and surely it looks like the interference of Providence that so perfect an instrument should be put into our hands.’
My position was embarrassing, for I felt that for the instant they had forgotten my presence. Their conversation, however, reassured me that Holmes was right: there was more here than a merely eccentric request. Lord Linchmere came back suddenly to me and to my engagement.
‘The business for which I want you, Dr Hamilton,I have in mind for you is that you should put yourselfinvolves putting yourself absolutely at my disposal. I wish you to come for a short journey with me, to remain always at my side, and to promise to do without question whatever I may ask you, however unreasonable it may appear to you to be.’
‘That is a good deal to ask,’ I said.
‘Unfortunately I cannot put it more plainly, for I do not myself know what turn matters may take. You may be sure, however, that you will not be asked to do anything of which your conscience does not approve; and I promise you that, when all is over, you will be proud to have been concerned in so good a work.’
‘If it ends happily,’ said the lady.
‘Exactly, if it ends happily,’ his lordship repeated.
‘And terms?’ I asked, remembering the substantial remuneration promised.
‘Twenty pounds a day.’
I was amazed at the sum, and my surprise must have shown itself.
‘It is a rare combination of qualities, as must have struck you when you first read the advertisement,’ said Lord Linchmere. ‘Such varied gifts may well command a high return, and I do not conceal from you that your duties might be arduous or even dangerous. Besides, it is possible that one or two days may bring the matter to an end.’
‘Please God!’ sighed his sister.
‘So now, Dr Hamilton, may I rely upon your aid?’
‘Most undoubtedly,’ said I. ‘You have only to tell me what my duties are.’
‘Your first duty will be to return to your home. You will pack up whatever you may need for a short visit to the country. We start together from Paddington Station at three thirty this very afternoon.’
‘Do we go far?’
‘As far as Pangbourne. And thence to Delamere Court. Meet me at the bookstall at three fifteen. I shall have the tickets. Goodbye, Dr Hamilton! And, by the way, there are two things which I should be very glad if you would bring with you, in case you have them. One is a case for collecting beetles, and the other is a stick, and the thicker and heavier the better.’
I had plenty to think on from the time that I left Brook Street until I set out to meet Lord Linchmere at Paddington. The whole fantastic business kept arranging and rearranging itself in kaleidoscopic forms inside my brain, until I had thought out a dozen explanations, each of them more grotesquely improbable than the last. And yet I felt that the truth must be something grotesquely improbable also. At last I gave up all attempts at finding a solution, and contented myself with exactly carrying out the instructions which I had received. I called at 221b to tell Holmes, over a bottle of Montrachet and some cold meats, of the developments so far. He listened without comment to my account of all that had transpired at Brook Street.
‘Well, Holmes, what do make of it?’
‘I think we are dealing not with crime, at least not of the kind that called for the creation of a Red-Headed League. But it is possible that murder might be involved.’
‘That I don’t know. But have a care, Watson, have a care. I may have propelled you into a singularly unattractive situation. Unfortunately, I must travel, too, for I have been engaged by the Abernetty family in Oxfordshire and you must excuse me.’ He stood and reached for the Bradshaw’s railway guide.
‘But, Holmes, all this is your doing,’ I protested.
He gave a wintry smile. ‘You can thank me later.’
And so, with a hand valise, specimen case and a loaded cane, I was waiting at the Paddington bookstall when Lord Linchmere arrived. He was an even smaller man than I had thought – frail and peaky, with a manner which was more nervous than it had been in the morning. He wore a long, thick travelling ulster, and I observed that he carried a heavy blackthorn cudgel in his hand.
‘I have the tickets,’ he said, leading the way up the platform.
‘This is our train. I have engaged a carriage, for I am particularly anxious to impress one or two things upon you while we travel down.’
And yet all that he had to impress upon me might have been said in a sentence, for it was that I was to remember that I was there as a protection to himself, and that I was not on any consideration to leave him for an instant. This he repeated again and again as our journey drew to a close, with an insistence that showed that his nerves were thoroughly shaken.
‘Yes,’ he said at last, in answer to my looks rather than to my words, ‘I am nervous, Dr Hamilton. I have always been a timid man, and my timidity depends upon my frail physical health. But my soul is firm, and I can bring myself up to face a danger which a less nervous man might shrink from. What I am doing now is done from no compulsion, but entirely from a sense of duty, and yet it is, beyond doubt, a desperate risk. If things should go wrong, I will have some claims to the title of martyr.’
This riddle was too much for me, for I was no Sherlock Holmes. I felt that I must put a term to it.
‘I think it would very much better, sir, if you were to trust me entirely,’ I said. ‘It is impossible for me to act effectively when I do not know our objective, or even where we are going.’
‘Oh, as to where we are going, there need be no mystery about that,’ he said. ‘We are going to Delamere Court, the residence of Sir Thomas Rossiter, with whose work you are so conversant. As to the exact object of our visit, I do not know that at this stage of the proceedings anything would be gained, Dr Hamilton, by taking you into my complete confidence. I may tell you that we are acting – I say "we" because my sister, Lady Rossiter, takes the same view as myself – with the one object of preventing anything in the nature of a family scandal. That being so, you can understand that I am loath to give any explanations which are not absolutely necessary. It would be a different matter, Dr Hamilton, if I were asking your advice. As matters stand, it is only your active help which I need, and I will indicate to you from time to time how you can best give it.’
There was nothing more to be said, but I felt nonetheless that Lord Linchmere was acting rather scurvily. I realised I must trust to my own eyes and ears to solve this mystery, but, with Holmes’s confidence in me to shore me up, I had every confidence that I should not trust to them in vain.
Delamere Court lies a good five miles from Pangbourne Station, and we drove for that distance in an open fly. Lord Linchmere sat in deep thought during the time, and he never opened his mouth until we were close to our destination. When he did speak it was to give me a piece of information that surprised me.
‘Perhaps you are not aware,’ said he, ‘that I am a medical man like yourself.’
‘No, sir, I did not know it.’
‘Yes, I qualified in my younger days, when there were several lives between me and the peerage. I have not had occasion to practise, but I have found it a useful education all the same. I never regretted the years which I devoted to medical study. These are the gates of Delamere Court.’
We had come to two high pillars crowned with heraldic monsters, which flanked the opening of a winding avenue. A rather shabby-looking man with a stooped back was waiting at the gate. He had the grime of the road on his face, but he had not forgotten his manners and he removed his hat and bowed low as we approached. Linchmere ordered the driver to slow and tossed him a coin, which he caught with surprising dexterity, as it was a poor throw. ‘I am not the master of this house, but the head gardener is Thornton,’ Linchmere said. ‘He might have some work for you. But use the deliveries entrance, for I fear the real master will give you short shrift.’
The itinerant pulled at his forelock, replaced his hat and shuffled off down the road.
As we clopped along the drive, I peered over the laurel bushes and rhododendrons. I could see a long, many-gabled mansion, girdled with ivy, and toned to the warm, cheery, mellow glow of old brickwork. My eyes were still fixed in admiration upon this delightful house when my companion plucked nervously at my sleeve.
‘Here’s Sir Thomas,’ he whispered. ‘Please talk beetle all you can.’
A tall, thin figure, curiously angular and bony, had emerged through a gap in the hedge of laurels. In his hand he held a small trowelspud, and he wore gauntleted gardener’s gloves. A broad-brimmed, grey hat cast his face into shadow, but it struck me as exceedingly austere, with an ill-nourished beard and harsh, irregular features. The fly pulled up and Lord Linchmere sprang out.
‘My dear Thomas, how are you?’ he said, heartily.
But the heartiness was by no means reciprocal. The owner of the grounds glared at me over his brother-in-law’s shoulder, and I caught broken scraps of sentences – ‘well-known wishes . . . hatred of strangers . . . unjustifiable intrusion . . . perfectly inexcusable.’ Then there was a muttered explanation, and the two of them came over together to the side of the fly.
‘Let me present you to Sir Thomas Rossiter, Dr Hamilton,’ said Lord Linchmere. ‘You will find that you have a strong community of tastes.’
I bowed. Sir Thomas stood very stiffly, looking at me severely from under the broad brim of his hat.
‘Lord Linchmere tells me that you know something about beetles,’ said he. ‘What do you know about beetles?’
‘I know what I have learned from your work upon the Coleoptera, Sir Thomas,’ I answered.
‘Give me the names of the better-known species of the British Scarabaeidaescarabaei,’ said he.
Holmes had suspected an examination and fortunately I was ready for one. My answers seemed to please him, for his stern features relaxed.
‘You appear to have read my book with some profit, sir,’ he said. ‘It is a rare thing for me to meet anyone who takes an intelligent interest in such matters. People can find time for such trivialities as sport or society, and yet the beetles are overlooked. I can assure you that the greater part of the idiots in this part of the country are unaware that I have ever written a book at all – I, the first man who ever described the true function of the elytra. I am glad to see you, sir, and I have no doubt that I can show you some specimens which will interest you.’ He stepped into the fly and rode up with us to the house, expounding to me as we went some recent researches that he had made into the anatomy of the ladybird.
I have said that Sir Thomas Rossiter wore a large hat drawn down over his brows. As he entered the hall he uncovered himself, and I was at once aware of a singular characteristic which the hat had concealed. His forehead, which was naturally high, and higher still on account of receding hair, was in a continual state of movement. Some nervous weakness kept the muscles in a constant spasm, which sometimes produced a mere twitching and sometimes a curious rotary movement unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was strikingly visible as he turned towards us after entering the study, and seemed the more singular from the contrast with the hard, steady, grey eyes which looked out from underneath those palpitating brows.
‘I am sorry,’ said he, ‘that Lady Rossiter is not here to help me to welcome you. By the way, Charles, did Evelyn say anything about the date of her return?’
‘She wished to stay in town for a few more days,’ said Lord Linchmere. ‘You know how ladies’ social duties accumulate if they have been for some time in the country. My sister has many old friends in London at present.’
‘Well, she is her own mistress, and I should not wish to alter her plans, but I shall be glad when I see her again. It is very lonely here without her company.’
‘I was afraid that you might find it so, and that was partly why I ran down. My friend, Dr Hamilton, is so much interested in the subject which you have made your own, that I thought you would not mind his accompanying me.’
He fixed me with a gaze I found hard to match because of the strange ripples traversing his forehead.
‘I lead a retired life, Dr Hamilton, and my aversion to strangers grows upon me,’ said our host. ‘I have sometimes thought that my nerves are not so good as they were. My travels in search of beetles in my younger days took me into many malarious and unhealthy places. But a brother coleopterist like yourself is always a welcome guest, and I shall be delighted if you will look over my collection, which I think I may, without exaggeration, describe as the best in Europe.’
With so little time spent on the subject I couldn’t vouch for its being the best, but it was certainly impressive. He had a huge, oaken cabinet arranged in shallow drawers, and here, neatly ticketed and classified, were beetles from every corner of the earth – black, brown, blue, green and mottled. Every now and then as he swept his hand over the lines and lines of impaled insects he would catch up some rare specimen, and, handling it with as much delicacy and reverence as if it were a precious relic, he would hold forth upon its peculiarities and the circumstances under which it came into his possession.
It was evidently an unusual thing for him to meet with a sympathetic listener – my opinion was rarely sought – and he talked and talked until the spring evening had deepened into night, and the gong announced that it was time to dress for dinner. All the time Lord Linchmere said nothing, but he stood at his brother-in-law’s elbow, and I caught him continually shooting curious little questioning glances into his face. And his own features expressed some strong emotion, apprehension, sympathy, expectation: I seemed to read them all. I was sure that Lord Linchmere was fearing something and awaiting something, but what that something might be I could not imagine.
The evening passed quietly but pleasantly, and I should have been entirely at my ease if it had not been for that continual sense of tension upon the part of Lord Linchmere. As to our host, I found that he improved upon acquaintance. He spoke constantly with affection of his absent wife, and also of his little son, who had recently been sent to school. The house, he said, was not the same without them. If it were not for his scientific studies, he did not know how he could get through the days. After dinner we smoked for some time in the billiard room, and finally went early to bed.
And then it was that, for the first time, the suspicion that Lord Linchmere was a lunatic crossed my mind. He followed me into my bedroom, when our host had retired.
‘Doctor,’ said he, speaking in a low, hurried voice, ‘you must come with me. You must spend the night in my bedroom.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, taken aback.
‘I prefer not to explain. But this is part of your duties. My room is close by, and you can return to your own before the servant calls you in the morning.’
‘But why?’ I asked.
‘Because I am nervous of being alone,’ said he. ‘That is the reason, since you must have a reason.’
It seemed rank lunacy, but, curious, I followed him to his room.
‘Well,’ said I, ‘there’s only room for one in that bed.’
‘Only one shall occupy it,’ said he.
‘And the other?’
‘Must remain on watch.’
‘Why?’ said I. ‘One would think you expected to be attacked.’
‘Perhaps I do.’
‘In that case, why not lock your door?’
‘Perhaps I want to be attacked.’
‘Want?’ By whom?’
He did not respond. I recalled the tramp at the gate. Had the coin been some sort of payment for an attack? But no, that was just a kindness. It looked more and more like lunacy. However, there was nothing for it but to submit. I shrugged my shoulders and sat down in the armchair beside the empty fireplace.
‘I am to remain on watch, then?’ said I, ruefully.
‘We will divide the night. If you will watch until two, I will watch the remainder.’
‘Call me at two o’clock, then.’
‘I will do so.’
‘Keep your ears open, and if you hear any sounds wake me instantly – instantly, you hear?’
‘You can rely upon it.’ I tried to look as solemn as he did.
‘And for God’s sake don’t go to sleep,’ said he And so, having taken off only his coat, he threw the coverlet over him and settled down for the night.
It was a melancholy vigil, and made more so by my own sense of its folly. Supposing that by any chance Lord Linchmere had cause to suspect that he was subject to danger in the house of Sir Thomas Rossiter, why on earth could he not lock his door and so protect himself?’ His own answer that he might wish to be attacked was absurd. Why should he possibly wish to be attacked? And who would wish to attack him?
Clearly, Lord Linchmere was suffering from some singular delusion, and the result was that, on an imbecile pretext, I was to be deprived of my night’s rest. Still, however absurd it seemed, I was determined to carry out his injunctions to the letter as long as I was in his employment. I sat, therefore, beside the empty fireplace, and listened to a sonorous chiming clock somewhere down the passage, which gurgled and struck every quarter of an hour. It was an endless vigil. Save for that single clock, an absolute silence reigned throughout the great house. A small lamp stood on the table at my elbow, throwing a circle of light round my chair, but leaving the corners of the room draped in shadow. On the bed Lord Linchmere was breathing peacefully. I envied him his quiet sleep, and again and again my own eyelids drooped, but every time my sense of duty came to my help, and I sat up, rubbing my eyes and pinching myself with a determination to see my irrational watch to an end.
And I did so. I passed the final half-hour at the window, peering out into the blackness, my curiosity aroused by a light, glimpsed only for a second, far off in the grounds. From down the passage came the chimes of two o’clock, and I laid my hand upon the shoulder of the sleeper. Instantly he was sitting up, with an expression of the keenest interest upon his face.
‘You have heard something?’
‘No, sir. It is two o’clock.’
‘Very good. I will watch. You can go to sleep.’
I lay down under the coverlet as he had done and was soon unconscious. My last recollection was of that circle of lamplight, and of the small, hunched-up figure and strained, anxious face of Lord Linchmere in the centre of it.
How long I slept I do not know; but I was suddenly aroused by a sharp tug at my sleeve. The room was in darkness, but a hot smell of oil told me that the lamp had only that instant been extinguished.
‘Quick! Quick!’ said Lord Linchmere’s voice in my ear.
I sprang out of bed, he still dragging at my arm.
‘Over here!’ he whispered, and pulled me into a corner of the room. ‘Hush! Listen!’
In the silence of the night I could distinctly hear that someone was coming down the corridor. It was a stealthy step, faint and intermittent, as of a man who paused cautiously after every stride. Sometimes for half a minute there was no sound, and then came the shuffle and creak that told of a fresh advance. My companion was trembling with excitement. His hand, which still held my sleeve, twitched like a branch in the wind.
‘What is it?’ I whispered.
‘It is he!’
‘What does he want?’
‘Hush! Do nothing until I tell you.’
I was conscious now that someone was trying the door. There was the faintest little rattle from the handle, and then I dimly saw a thin slit of subdued light. There was a lamp burning somewhere far down the passage, and it just sufficed to make the outside visible from the darkness of our room. The greyish slit grew broader and broader, very gradually, very gently, and then, outlined against it, I saw the dark figure of a man. He was squat and crouching, with the silhouette of a bulky and misshapen dwarf. Slowly the door swung open with this ominous shape framed in the centre of it. And then, in an instant, the crouching figure shot up; there was a tiger spring across the room and thud, thud, thud, came three tremendous blows from some heavy object upon the bed.
I was so paralysed with amazement that I stood motionless and staring until I was aroused by a yell for help from my companion. The open door shed enough light for me to see the outline of things, and there was little Lord Linchmere with his arms round the neck of his brother-in-law, holding bravely onto him like a game bull terrier with its teeth into a gaunt deerhound.
The tall, bony man dashed himself about, writhing round and round to get a grip upon his assailant; but the other, clutching on from behind, still kept his hold. I sprang to the rescue and found myself joined by another figure. The dirty face and the musty smell told me it was the vagrant from the gate.
The two of us managed to throw Sir Thomas to the ground, though he made his teeth meet in my shoulder. It was a desperate struggle before we could master his frenzied struggles and we did so only with the assistance of Lord Linchmere. Eventually, we secured his arms with the waist cord of the dressing gown that he was wearing. I was holding his legs and the tramp his arms while Lord Linchmere was endeavouring to relight the lamp, when there came the pattering of many feet in the passage, and the butler and two footmen, who had been alarmed by the cries, rushed into the room. With their aid we had no further difficulty in securing our prisoner, who lay foaming and glaring upon the ground. One glance at his face was enough to prove that he was a dangerous maniac, while the short, heavy hammer which lay beside the bed showed how murderous had been his intentions.
‘Do not use any violence!’ said Lord Linchmere, as we raised the struggling man to his feet. ‘He will have a period of stupor after this excitement. I believe that it is coming on already.’ As he spoke the convulsions became less violent, and the madman’s head fell forward upon his breast, as if he were overcome by sleep. We led him down the passage and stretched him upon his own bed, where he lay unconscious, breathing heavily.
‘You, sir, what is the meaning of this?’
Linchmere was pointing at the vagrant, who was already firmly in the grip of the butler.
‘I came here to watch over my friend,’ he replied in a querulous voice.
‘Friend?’ Linchmere demanded. ‘You claim Sir Thomas as your friend?’
But the itinerant pointed at me.
The man tugged at his whiskers, which came away in his hand. The stoop disappeared in a second, and I gasped as I cast my eyes upon a familiar visage. The tremor had disappeared from the voice when he spoke. ‘I am afraid neither of us is quite who we seem. Dr Hamilton is, in fact, my colleague Dr Watson. And I am—’
‘Sherlock Holmes!’ Linchmere exclaimed. ‘What the devil are you doing here?’
‘I was about to ask the same thing,’ I said.
‘Do you mind?’ Holmes shrugged off the grip of the butler, who took two steps back. ‘After Watson left I had a terrible foreboding that my curiosity about your rather peculiar notice in The Times had placed him in great danger. So I cabled the Abernettys that I would be a day or two delayed and to leave the scene of the crime exactly as they had found it. I then caught an earlier train to Pangbourne and adopted the guise of a casual worker. It was no great difficulty to observe the house after dark and your rather strange sleeping arrangements. It was clear you were waiting for some terror to strike during the night. And so I let myself in, found a convenient hiding place and awaited developments.’
‘I’m rather pleased you did,’ admitted Lord Linchmere. ‘And I suppose you would like an explanation?’
‘If it isn’t too much trouble,’ said Holmes, removing the remainder of his false whiskers. ‘I think I have the gist of it. But it would make a pleasant change to hear a solution from another.’
Lord Linchmere pointed at the butler and the footmen. ‘You three stay and watch Sir Thomas – although I suspect he will give you little trouble now. If you, Holmes and Watson, will accompany me to the drawing room, I shall order some coffee and explain the horror of the scandal that has haunted this house for too long.’
Twenty minutes later, with Holmes scrubbed and changed, we were seated in the drawing room and Lord Linchmere addressed us as a welcoming dawn light flooded in through the windows.
‘Come what may, gentlemen, you will never have cause to regret your share in last night’s work. He was stronger than I suspected in his mania. I think he might have had the better of the two of us, Dr Watson, so I give thanks for Mr Sherlock Holmes.’
I nodded and rubbed my shoulder where Sir Thomas had bitten it. Fortunately, although I bore a livid imprint, no skin had been broken.
‘The case may be made clear in a very few words,’ he continued, after the coffee had been served. ‘My poor brother-in-law is one of the best fellows upon earth, a loving husband and an estimable father, but he comes from a stock which is deeply tainted with insanity. He has more than once had homicidal outbreaks, which are the more painful because his inclination is always to attack the very person to whom he is most attached. His son was sent away to school to avoid this danger, and then came an attempt upon my sister, his wife, from which she escaped with injuries that you, Dr Watson, may have observed when you met her in London.
‘The wound on her face?’
‘Quite so. You understand that he knows nothing of the matter when he is in his sound senses, and would ridicule the suggestion that he could under any circumstances injure those whom he loves so dearly. It is often, as you know, a characteristic of such maladies that it is absolutely impossible to convince the man who suffers from them of their existence.’
‘I believe the unfortunate Madame Montpensier suffered from a similar affliction,’ said Holmes.
‘Our great object was, of course, to get him under restraint before he could stain his hands with blood, but the matter was full of difficulty. He is a recluse in his habits, and would not see any medical man. Besides, it was necessary for our purpose that the medical man should convince himself of his insanity; and he is sane as you or I, save on these very rare occasions. But, fortunately, before he has these attacks he always shows certain premonitory symptoms, which are providential danger signals, warning us to be upon our guard.
‘The forehead?’ I suggested. Linchmere nodded and I turned to Holmes. ‘I observed a bizarre nervous contortion of the forehead yesterday.’
‘Yes,’ said Holmes, ‘I have heard of it. Also known as the Thorndyke contraction. I think I see where this is leading and why you needed a doctor who was also a beetle lover with iron nerve. Please, continue.’
‘The phenomenon which always appears from three to four days before his attacks of frenzy. The moment it showed itself his wife came into town on some pretext, and took refuge in my house in Brook Street.
‘It remained for me to convince a medical man of Sir Thomas’s insanity, without which it was impossible to put him where he could do no harm. The first problem was how to get a medical man into his house. I hit upon his passion for beetles, and his love for anyone who shared his tastes. I advertised, therefore, and was fortunate enough to find in you, Watson, the very man I wanted. A stout companion was necessary, for I knew that the lunacy could only be proved by a murderous assault, and I had every reason to believe that that assault would be made upon myself, since he had the warmest regard for me in his moments of sanity. I think your intelligence will supply all the rest. I did not know that the attack would come by night, but I thought it very probable, for the crises of such cases usually do occur in the early hours of the morning. I am a very nervous man myself, but I saw no other way in which I could remove this terrible danger from my sister’s life.
‘And, so, Watson’s role in this was to be both a reliable witness and a doctor of good standing who could sign the lunacy papers,’ said Holmes, ‘that will get Sir Thomas the treatment he requires.’
‘I see you are one step ahead of me, Mr Holmes.’
‘Undoubtedly,’ said Watson. ‘But two signatures are necessary for a commitment.’
‘You forget that I am myself a holder of a medical degree. I have the papers on a side table here, so, if you will be good enough to sign them now, we can have the patient removed this morning.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘And we can be on our way. Mr Holmes has an appointment in Oxfordshire.’
‘One more thing,’ said Holmes, ‘before we leave. Having come all this way, do you think I might cast an eye over Sir Thomas’s collection? I hear it is the finest in Europe.’
‘Of course,’ said Linchmere. ‘I will gladly show it to you.’
Both men, having finished their coffee, stood. I took out my cigarette and extracted a Guinea Gold, which I placed between my lips.
‘I think not, Holmes,’ I said, striking a match. ‘I think I might have had my fill of beetles for the time being.’