by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1924
Promptly at ten o’clock next morning Ferguson strode into our room. I had remembered him as a long, slab-sided man with loose limbs and a fine turn of speed which had carried him round many an opposing back. There is surely nothing in life more painful than to meet the wreck of a fine athlete whom one has known in his prime. This great frame had fallen in, his flaxen hair was scanty, and his shoulders were bowed. I fear that I roused corresponding emotions in him.
“Hullo, Watson,” said he, and his voice was still deep and hearty. “You don’t look quite the man you did when I threw you over the ropes into the crowd at the Old Deer Park. I expect I have changed a bit also. But it’s this last day or two that has aged me. I see by your telegram, Mr. Holmes, that it is no use my pretending to be anyone’s deputy.”
“It is simpler to deal direct,” said Holmes.
“Of course it is. But you can imagine how difficult it is when you are speaking of the one woman whom you are bound to protect and help. What can I do? How am I to go to the police with such a story? And yet the kiddies have got to be protected. Is it madness, Mr. Holmes? Is it something in the blood? Have you any similar case in your experience? For God’s sake, give me some advice, for I am at my wit’s end.”
“Very naturally, Mr. Ferguson. Now sit here and pull yourself together and give me a few clear answers. I can assure you that I am very far from being at my wit’s end, and that I am confident we shall find some solution. First of all, tell me what steps you have taken. Is your wife still near the children?”
“We had a dreadful scene. She is a most loving woman, Mr. Holmes. If ever a woman loved a man with all her heart and soul, she loves me. She was cut to the heart that I should have discovered this horrible, this incredible, secret. She would not even speak. She gave no answer to my reproaches, save to gaze at me with a sort of wild, despairing look in her eyes. Then she rushed to her room and locked herself in. Since then she has refused to see me. She has a maid who was with her before her marriage, Dolores by name – a friend rather than a servant. She takes her food to her.”
“Then the child is in no immediate danger?”
“Mrs. Mason, the nurse, has sworn that she will not leave it night or day. I can absolutely trust her. I am more uneasy about poor little Jack, for, as I told you in my note, he has twice been assaulted by her.”
“But never wounded?”
“No, she struck him savagely. It is the more terrible as he is a poor little inoffensive cripple.” Ferguson’s gaunt features softened as he spoke of his boy. “You would think that the dear lad’s condition would soften anyone’s heart. A fall in childhood and a twisted spine, Mr. Holmes. But the dearest, most loving heart within.”
Holmes had picked up the letter of yesterday and was reading it over. “What other inmates are there in your house, Mr. Ferguson?”
“Two servants who have not been long with us. One stable-hand, Michael, who sleeps in the house. My wife, myself, my boy Jack, baby, Dolores, and Mrs. Mason. That is all.”
“I gather that you did not know your wife well at the time of your marriage?”
“I had only known her a few weeks.”
“How long had this maid Dolores been with her?”
“Then your wife’s character would really be better known by Dolores than by you?”
“Yes, you may say so.”
Holmes made a note.
“I fancy,” said he, “that I may be of more use at Lamberley than here. It is eminently a case for personal investigation. If the lady remains in her room, our presence could not annoy or inconvenience her. Of course, we would stay at the inn.”
Ferguson gave a gesture of relief.
“It is what I hoped, Mr. Holmes. There is an excellent train at two from Victoria if you could come.”
“Of course we could come. There is a lull at present. I can give you my undivided energies. Watson, of course, comes with us. But there are one or two points upon which I wish to be very sure before I start. This unhappy lady, as I understand it, has appeared to assault both the children, her own baby and your little son?”
“That is so.”
“But the assaults take different forms, do they not? She has beaten your son.”
“Once with a stick and once very savagely with her hands.”
“Did she give no explanation why she struck him?”
“None save that she hated him. Again and again she said so.”
“Well, that is not unknown among stepmothers. A posthumous jealousy, we will say. Is the lady jealous by nature?”
“Yes, she is very jealous – jealous with all the strength of her fiery tropical love.”
“But the boy – he is fifteen, I understand, and probably very developed in mind, since his body has been circumscribed in action. Did he give you no explanation of these assaults?”
“No, he declared there was no reason.”
“Were they good friends at other times?”
“No, there was never any love between them.”
“Yet you say he is affectionate?”
“Never in the world could there be so devoted a son. My life is his life. He is absorbed in what I say or do.”
Once again Holmes made a note. For some time he sat lost in thought.
“No doubt you and the boy were great comrades before this second marriage. You were thrown very close together, were you not?”
“Very much so.”
“And the boy, having so affectionate a nature, was devoted, no doubt, to the memory of his mother?”
“He would certainly seem to be a most interesting lad. There is one other point about these assaults. Were the strange attacks upon the baby and the assaults upon your son at the same period?”
“In the first case it was so. It was is if some frenzy had seized her, and she had vented her rage upon both. In the second case it was only Jack who suffered. Mrs. Mason had no complaint to make about the baby.”
“That certainly complicates matters.”
“I don’t quite follow you, Mr. Holmes.”
“Possibly not. One forms provisional theories and waits for time or fuller knowledge to explode them. A bad habit, Mr. Ferguson, but human nature is weak. I fear that your old friend here has given an exaggerated view of my scientific methods. However, I will only say at the present stage that your problem does not appear to me to be insoluble, and that you may expect to find us at Victoria at two o’clock.”
It was evening of a dull, foggy November day when, having left our bags at the Chequers, Lamberley, we drove through the Sussex clay of a long winding lane and finally reached the isolated and ancient farmhouse in which Ferguson dwelt. It was a large, straggling building, very old in the centre, very new at the wings with towering Tudor chimneys and a lichen-spotted, high-pitched roof of Horsham slabs. The doorsteps were worn into curves, and the ancient tiles which lined the porch were marked with the rebus of a cheese and a man after the original builder. Within, the ceilings were corrugated with heavy oaken beams, and the uneven floors sagged into sharp curves. An odour of age and decay pervaded the whole crumbling building.
There was one very large central room into which Ferguson led us. Here, in a huge old-fashioned fireplace with an iron screen behind it dated 1670, there blazed and spluttered a splendid log fire.
The room, as I gazed round, was a most singular mixture of dates and of places. The half-panelled walls may well have belonged to the original yeoman farmer of the seventeenth century. They were ornamented, however, on the lower part by a line of well-chosen modern water-colours; while above, where yellow plaster took the place of oak, there was hung a fine collection of South American utensils and weapons, which had been brought, no doubt, by the Peruvian lady upstairs. Holmes rose, with that quick curiosity which sprang from his eager mind, and examined them with some care. He returned with his eyes full of thought.
“Hullo!” he cried. “Hullo!”
A spaniel had lain in a basket in the corner. It came slowly forward towards its master, walking with difficulty. Its hind legs moved irregularly and its tail was on the ground. It licked Ferguson’s hand.
“What is it, Mr. Holmes?”
“The dog. What’s the matter with it?”
“That’s what puzzled the vet. A sort of paralysis. Spinal meningitis, he thought. But it is passing. He’ll be all right soon – won’t you, Carlo?”
A shiver of assent passed through the drooping tail. The dog’s mournful eyes passed from one of us to the other. He knew that we were discussing his case.
“Did it come on suddenly?”
“In a single night.”
“How long ago?”
“It may have been four months ago.”
“Very remarkable. Very suggestive.”
“What do you see in it, Mr. Holmes?”
“A confirmation of what I had already thought.”
“For God’s sake, what do you think, Mr. Holmes? It may be a mere intellectual puzzle to you, but it is life and death to me! My wife a would-be murderer – my child in constant danger! Don’t play with me, Mr. Holmes. It is too terribly serious.”
The big Rugby three-quarter was trembling all over. Holmes put his hand soothingly upon his arm.
“I fear that there is pain for you, Mr. Ferguson, whatever the solution may be,” said he. “I would spare you all I can. I cannot say more for the instant, but before I leave this house I hope I may have something definite.”
“Please God you may! If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I will go up to my wife’s room and see if there has been any change.”
He was away some minutes, during which Holmes resumed his examination of the curiosities upon the wall. When our host returned it was clear from his downcast face that he had made no progress. He brought with him a tall, slim, brownfaced girl.
“The tea is ready, Dolores,” said Ferguson. “See that your mistress has everything she can wish.”
“She verra ill,” cried the girl, looking with indignant eyes at her master. “She no ask for food. She verra ill. She need doctor. I frightened stay alone with her without doctor.”
Ferguson looked at me with a question in his eyes.
“I should be so glad if I could be of use.”
“Would your mistress see Dr. Watson?”
“I take him. I no ask leave. She needs doctor.”
“Then I’ll come with you at once.”
I followed the girl, who was quivering with strong emotion, up the staircase and down an ancient corridor. At the end was an iron-clamped and massive door. It struck me as I looked at it that if Ferguson tried to force his way to his wife he would find it no easy matter. The girl drew a key from her pocket, and the heavy oaken planks creaked upon their old hinges. I passed in and she swiftly followed, fastening the door behind her.