The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
by Sir Arthur
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 center 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
Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had
tossed side the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair I fell
into a brown study. Suddenly my companion's voice broke in upon
"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 opportunity
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
"Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my
"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 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 I 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 Packet."
"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 case."
"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 your
"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
"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 I 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 Homes 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
"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 of 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
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 instrument, 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
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 to." 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
"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 gentlemen 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
"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
"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 the
"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
"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
There was a cab passing as we came out, and Holmes hailed it.
"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 drive 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 police-
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
"Have you found out anything?"
"I have found out everything!"
"What!" Lestrade stared at him in amazement. "You are joking."
"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 it."
"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 or 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 had
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 sail-makers
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.
"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 call 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 tomorrow 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 Aldrige, 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 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 and soul.
"'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 cold 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 God's mercy.
"'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 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 I 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? For 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 as 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."