Part 1 – The Tragedy of Birlstone
Chapter 5 – The People of the Drama
“Have you seen all you want of the study?” asked White Mason as we reentered the house.
“For the time,” said the inspector, and Holmes nodded.
“Then perhaps you would now like to hear the evidence of some of the people in the house. We could use the dining room, Ames. Please come yourself first and tell us what you know.”
The butler’s account was a simple and a clear one, and he gave a convincing impression of sincerity. He had been engaged five years before, when Douglas first came to Birlstone. He understood that Mr. Douglas was a rich gentleman who had made his money in America. He had been a kind and considerate employer—not quite what Ames was used to, perhaps; but one can’t have everything. He never saw any signs of apprehension in Mr. Douglas: on the contrary, he was the most fearless man he had ever known. He ordered the drawbridge to be pulled up every night because it was the ancient custom of the old house, and he liked to keep the old ways up.
Mr. Douglas seldom went to London or left the village; but on the day before the crime he had been shopping at Tunbridge Wells. He (Ames) had observed some restlessness and excitement on the part of Mr. Douglas that day; for he had seemed impatient and irritable, which was unusual with him. He had not gone to bed that night; but was in the pantry at the back of the house, putting away the silver, when he heard the bell ring violently. He heard no shot; but it was hardly possible he would, as the pantry and kitchens were at the very back of the house and there were several closed doors and a long passage between. The housekeeper had come out of her room, attracted by the violent ringing of the bell. They had gone to the front of the house together.
As they reached the bottom of the stairs he had seen Mrs. Douglas coming down it. No, she was not hurrying; it did not seem to him that she was particularly agitated. Just as she reached the bottom of the stair Mr. Barker had rushed out of the study. He had stopped Mrs. Douglas and begged her to go back.
“For God’s sake, go back to your room!” he cried. “Poor Jack is dead! You can do nothing. For God’s sake, go back!”
After some persuasion upon the stairs Mrs. Douglas had gone back. She did not scream. She made no outcry whatever. Mrs. Allen, the housekeeper, had taken her upstairs and stayed with her in the bedroom. Ames and Mr. Barker had then returned to the study, where they had found everything exactly as the police had seen it. The candle was not lit at that time; but the lamp was burning. They had looked out of the window; but the night was very dark and nothing could be seen or heard. They had then rushed out into the hall, where Ames had turned the windlass which lowered the drawbridge. Mr. Barker had then hurried off to get the police.
Such, in its essentials, was the evidence of the butler.
The account of Mrs. Allen, the housekeeper, was, so far as it went, a corroboration of that of her fellow servant. The housekeeper’s room was rather nearer to the front of the house than the pantry in which Ames had been working. She was preparing to go to bed when the loud ringing of the bell had attracted her attention. She was a little hard of hearing. Perhaps that was why she had not heard the shot; but in any case the study was a long way off. She remembered hearing some sound which she imagined to be the slamming of a door. That was a good deal earlier—half an hour at least before the ringing of the bell. When Mr. Ames ran to the front she went with him. She saw Mr. Barker, very pale and excited, come out of the study. He intercepted Mrs. Douglas, who was coming down the stairs. He entreated her to go back, and she answered him, but what she said could not be heard.
“Take her up! Stay with her!” he had said to Mrs. Allen.
She had therefore taken her to the bedroom, and endeavoured to soothe her. She was greatly excited, trembling all over, but made no other attempt to go downstairs. She just sat in her dressing gown by her bedroom fire, with her head sunk in her hands. Mrs. Allen stayed with her most of the night. As to the other servants, they had all gone to bed, and the alarm did not reach them until just before the police arrived. They slept at the extreme back of the house, and could not possibly have heard anything.
So far the housekeeper could add nothing on cross-examination save lamentations and expressions of amazement.
Cecil Barker succeeded Mrs. Allen as a witness. As to the occurrences of the night before, he had very little to add to what he had already told the police. Personally, he was convinced that the murderer had escaped by the window. The bloodstain was conclusive, in his opinion, on that point. Besides, as the bridge was up, there was no other possible way of escaping. He could not explain what had become of the assassin or why he had not taken his bicycle, if it were indeed his. He could not possibly have been drowned in the moat, which was at no place more than three feet deep.
In his own mind he had a very definite theory about the murder. Douglas was a reticent man, and there were some chapters in his life of which he never spoke. He had emigrated to America when he was a very young man. He had prospered well, and Barker had first met him in California, where they had become partners in a successful mining claim at a place called Benito Canyon. They had done very well; but Douglas had suddenly sold out and started for England. He was a widower at that time. Barker had afterwards realized his money and come to live in London. Thus they had renewed their friendship.
Douglas had given him the impression that some danger was hanging over his head, and he had always looked upon his sudden departure from California, and also his renting a house in so quiet a place in England, as being connected with this peril. He imagined that some secret society, some implacable organization, was on Douglas’s track, which would never rest until it killed him. Some remarks of his had given him this idea; though he had never told him what the society was, nor how he had come to offend it. He could only suppose that the legend upon the placard had some reference to this secret society.
“How long were you with Douglas in California?” asked Inspector MacDonald.
“Five years altogether.”
“He was a bachelor, you say?”
“Have you ever heard where his first wife came from?”
“No, I remember his saying that she was of German extraction, and I have seen her portrait. She was a very beautiful woman. She died of typhoid the year before I met him.”
“You don’t associate his past with any particular part of America?”
“I have heard him talk of Chicago. He knew that city well and had worked there. I have heard him talk of the coal and iron districts. He had travelled a good deal in his time.”
“Was he a politician? Had this secret society to do with politics?”
“No, he cared nothing about politics.”
“You have no reason to think it was criminal?”
“On the contrary, I never met a straighter man in my life.”
“Was there anything curious about his life in California?”
“He liked best to stay and to work at our claim in the mountains. He would never go where other men were if he could help it. That’s why I first thought that someone was after him. Then when he left so suddenly for Europe I made sure that it was so. I believe that he had a warning of some sort. Within a week of his leaving half a dozen men were inquiring for him.”
“What sort of men?”
“Well, they were a mighty hard-looking crowd. They came up to the claim and wanted to know where he was. I told them that he was gone to Europe and that I did not know where to find him. They meant him no good—it was easy to see that.”
“Were these men Americans—Californians?”
“Well, I don’t know about Californians. They were Americans, all right. But they were not miners. I don’t know what they were, and was very glad to see their backs.”
“That was six years ago?”
“And then you were together five years in California, so that this business dates back not less than eleven years at the least?”
“That is so.”
“It must be a very serious feud that would be kept up with such earnestness for as long as that. It would be no light thing that would give rise to it.”
“I think it shadowed his whole life. It was never quite out of his mind.”
“But if a man had a danger hanging over him, and knew what it was, don’t you think he would turn to the police for protection?”
“Maybe it was some danger that he could not be protected against. There’s one thing you should know. He always went about armed. His revolver was never out of his pocket. But, by bad luck, he was in his dressing gown and had left it in the bedroom last night. Once the bridge was up, I guess he thought he was safe.”
“I should like these dates a little clearer,” said MacDonald. “It is quite six years since Douglas left California. You followed him next year, did you not?”
“That is so.”
“And he had been married five years. You must have returned about the time of his marriage.”
“About a month before. I was his best man.”
“Did you know Mrs. Douglas before her marriage?”
“No, I did not. I had been away from England for ten years.”
“But you have seen a good deal of her since.”
Barker looked sternly at the detective. “I have seen a good deal of HIM since,” he answered. “If I have seen her, it is because you cannot visit a man without knowing his wife. If you imagine there is any connection—”
“I imagine nothing, Mr. Barker. I am bound to make every inquiry which can bear upon the case. But I mean no offense.”
“Some inquiries are offensive,” Barker answered angrily.
“It’s only the facts that we want. It is in your interest and everyone’s interest that they should be cleared up. Did Mr. Douglas entirely approve your friendship with his wife?”
Barker grew paler, and his great, strong hands were clasped convulsively together. “You have no right to ask such questions!” he cried. “What has this to do with the matter you are investigating?”
“I must repeat the question.”
“Well, I refuse to answer.”
“You can refuse to answer; but you must be aware that your refusal is in itself an answer, for you would not refuse if you had not something to conceal.”
Barker stood for a moment with his face set grimly and his strong black eyebrows drawn low in intense thought. Then he looked up with a smile. “Well, I guess you gentlemen are only doing your clear duty after all, and I have no right to stand in the way of it. I’d only ask you not to worry Mrs. Douglas over this matter; for she has enough upon her just now. I may tell you that poor Douglas had just one fault in the world, and that was his jealousy. He was fond of me—no man could be fonder of a friend. And he was devoted to his wife. He loved me to come here, and was forever sending for me. And yet if his wife and I talked together or there seemed any sympathy between us, a kind of wave of jealousy would pass over him, and he would be off the handle and saying the wildest things in a moment. More than once I’ve sworn off coming for that reason, and then he would write me such penitent, imploring letters that I just had to. But you can take it from me, gentlemen, if it was my last word, that no man ever had a more loving, faithful wife—and I can say also no friend could be more loyal than I!”
It was spoken with fervour and feeling, and yet Inspector MacDonald could not dismiss the subject.
“You are aware,” said he, “that the dead man’s wedding ring has been taken from his finger?”
“So it appears,” said Barker.
“What do you mean by ‘appears’? You know it as a fact.”
The man seemed confused and undecided. “When I said ‘appears’ I meant that it was conceivable that he had himself taken off the ring.”
“The mere fact that the ring should be absent, whoever may have removed it, would suggest to anyone’s mind, would it not, that the marriage and the tragedy were connected?”
Barker shrugged his broad shoulders. “I can’t profess to say what it means,” he answered. “But if you mean to hint that it could reflect in any way upon this lady’s honour”—his eyes blazed for an instant, and then with an evident effort he got a grip upon his own emotions—“well, you are on the wrong track, that’s all.”
“I don’t know that I’ve anything else to ask you at present,” said MacDonald, coldly.
“There was one small point,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. “When you entered the room there was only a candle lighted on the table, was there not?”
“Yes, that was so.”
“By its light you saw that some terrible incident had occurred?”
“You at once rang for help?”
“And it arrived very speedily?”
“Within a minute or so.”
“And yet when they arrived they found that the candle was out and that the lamp had been lighted. That seems very remarkable.”
Again Barker showed some signs of indecision. “I don’t see that it was remarkable, Mr. Holmes,” he answered after a pause. “The candle threw a very bad light. My first thought was to get a better one. The lamp was on the table; so I lit it.”
“And blew out the candle?”
Holmes asked no further question, and Barker, with a deliberate look from one to the other of us, which had, as it seemed to me, something of defiance in it, turned and left the room.
Inspector MacDonald had sent up a note to the effect that he would wait upon Mrs. Douglas in her room; but she had replied that she would meet us in the dining room. She entered now, a tall and beautiful woman of thirty, reserved and self-possessed to a remarkable degree, very different from the tragic and distracted figure I had pictured. It is true that her face was pale and drawn, like that of one who has endured a great shock; but her manner was composed, and the finely moulded hand which she rested upon the edge of the table was as steady as my own. Her sad, appealing eyes travelled from one to the other of us with a curiously inquisitive expression. That questioning gaze transformed itself suddenly into abrupt speech.
“Have you found anything out yet?” she asked.
Was it my imagination that there was an undertone of fear rather than of hope in the question?
“We have taken every possible step, Mrs. Douglas,” said the inspector. “You may rest assured that nothing will be neglected.”
“Spare no money,” she said in a dead, even tone. “It is my desire that every possible effort should be made.”
“Perhaps you can tell us something which may throw some light upon the matter.”
“I fear not; but all I know is at your service.”
“We have heard from Mr. Cecil Barker that you did not actually see—that you were never in the room where the tragedy occurred?”
“No, he turned me back upon the stairs. He begged me to return to my room.”
“Quite so. You had heard the shot, and you had at once come down.”
“I put on my dressing gown and then came down.”
“How long was it after hearing the shot that you were stopped on the stair by Mr. Barker?”
“It may have been a couple of minutes. It is so hard to reckon time at such a moment. He implored me not to go on. He assured me that I could do nothing. Then Mrs. Allen, the housekeeper, led me upstairs again. It was all like some dreadful dream.”
“Can you give us any idea how long your husband had been downstairs before you heard the shot?”
“No, I cannot say. He went from his dressing room, and I did not hear him go. He did the round of the house every night, for he was nervous of fire. It is the only thing that I have ever known him nervous of.”
“That is just the point which I want to come to, Mrs. Douglas. You have known your husband only in England, have you not?”
“Yes, we have been married five years.”
“Have you heard him speak of anything which occurred in America and might bring some danger upon him?”
Mrs. Douglas thought earnestly before she answered. “Yes,” she said at last, “I have always felt that there was a danger hanging over him. He refused to discuss it with me. It was not from want of confidence in me—there was the most complete love and confidence between us—but it was out of his desire to keep all alarm away from me. He thought I should brood over it if I knew all, and so he was silent.”
“How did you know it, then?”
Mrs. Douglas’s face lit with a quick smile. “Can a husband ever carry about a secret all his life and a woman who loves him have no suspicion of it? I knew it by his refusal to talk about some episodes in his American life. I knew it by certain precautions he took. I knew it by certain words he let fall. I knew it by the way he looked at unexpected strangers. I was perfectly certain that he had some powerful enemies, that he believed they were on his track, and that he was always on his guard against them. I was so sure of it that for years I have been terrified if ever he came home later than was expected.”
“Might I ask,” asked Holmes, “what the words were which attracted your attention?”
“The Valley of Fear,” the lady answered. “That was an expression he has used when I questioned him. ‘I have been in the Valley of Fear. I am not out of it yet.’—’Are we never to get out of the Valley of Fear?’ I have asked him when I have seen him more serious than usual. ‘Sometimes I think that we never shall,’ he has answered.”
“Surely you asked him what he meant by the Valley of Fear?”
“I did; but his face would become very grave and he would shake his head. ‘It is bad enough that one of us should have been in its shadow,’ he said. ‘Please God it shall never fall upon you!’ It was some real valley in which he had lived and in which something terrible had occurred to him, of that I am certain; but I can tell you no more.”
“And he never mentioned any names?”
“Yes, he was delirious with fever once when he had his hunting accident three years ago. Then I remember that there was a name that came continually to his lips. He spoke it with anger and a sort of horror. McGinty was the name—Bodymaster McGinty. I asked him when he recovered who Bodymaster McGinty was, and whose body he was master of. ‘Never of mine, thank God!’ he answered with a laugh, and that was all I could get from him. But there is a connection between Bodymaster McGinty and the Valley of Fear.”
“There is one other point,” said Inspector MacDonald. “You met Mr. Douglas in a boarding house in London, did you not, and became engaged to him there? Was there any romance, anything secret or mysterious, about the wedding?”
“There was romance. There is always romance. There was nothing mysterious.”
“He had no rival?”
“No, I was quite free.”
“You have heard, no doubt, that his wedding ring has been taken. Does that suggest anything to you? Suppose that some enemy of his old life had tracked him down and committed this crime, what possible reason could he have for taking his wedding ring?”
For an instant I could have sworn that the faintest shadow of a smile flickered over the woman’s lips.
“I really cannot tell,” she answered. “It is certainly a most extraordinary thing.”
“Well, we will not detain you any longer, and we are sorry to have put you to this trouble at such a time,” said the inspector. “There are some other points, no doubt; but we can refer to you as they arise.”
She rose, and I was again conscious of that quick, questioning glance with which she had just surveyed us. “What impression has my evidence made upon you?” The question might as well have been spoken. Then, with a bow, she swept from the room.
“She’s a beautiful woman—a very beautiful woman,” said MacDonald thoughtfully, after the door had closed behind her. “This man Barker has certainly been down here a good deal. He is a man who might be attractive to a woman. He admits that the dead man was jealous, and maybe he knew best himself what cause he had for jealousy. Then there’s that wedding ring. You can’t get past that. The man who tears a wedding ring off a dead man’s—What do you say to it, Mr. Holmes?”
My friend had sat with his head upon his hands, sunk in the deepest thought. Now he rose and rang the bell. “Ames,” he said, when the butler entered, “where is Mr. Cecil Barker now?”
“I’ll see, sir.”
He came back in a moment to say that Barker was in the garden.
“Can you remember, Ames, what Mr. Barker had on his feet last night when you joined him in the study?”
“Yes, Mr. Holmes. He had a pair of bedroom slippers. I brought him his boots when he went for the police.”
“Where are the slippers now?”
“They are still under the chair in the hall.”
“Very good, Ames. It is, of course, important for us to know which tracks may be Mr. Barker’s and which from outside.”
“Yes, sir. I may say that I noticed that the slippers were stained with blood—so indeed were my own.”
“That is natural enough, considering the condition of the room. Very good, Ames. We will ring if we want you.”
A few minutes later we were in the study. Holmes had brought with him the carpet slippers from the hall. As Ames had observed, the soles of both were dark with blood.
“Strange!” murmured Holmes, as he stood in the light of the window and examined them minutely. “Very strange indeed!”
Stooping with one of his quick feline pounces, he placed the slipper upon the blood mark on the sill. It exactly corresponded. He smiled in silence at his colleagues.
The inspector was transfigured with excitement. His native accent rattled like a stick upon railings.
“Man,” he cried, “there’s not a doubt of it! Barker has just marked the window himself. It’s a good deal broader than any bootmark. I mind that you said it was a splay-foot, and here’s the explanation. But what’s the game, Mr. Holmes—what’s the game?”
“Ay, what’s the game?” my friend repeated thoughtfully.
White Mason chuckled and rubbed his fat hands together in his professional satisfaction. “I said it was a snorter!” he cried. “And a real snorter it is!”