The Adventure of the First Class Carriage
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Adventure of the First Class Carriage
By Ronald A. Knox.
After Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Illustrated by Tom Purvis
In Loving Memory of Sidney Paget.
The general encouragement extended to my efforts by the public is my excuse, if excuse were needed, for continuing to act as chronicler of my friend Sherlock Holmes. But even if I confine myself to those cases in which I have had the honour of being personally associated with him, I find it difficult to make a selection among the large amount of matter at my disposal.
As I turn over my records, I find that some of them deal with events of national or even international importance; but the time has not yet come when it would be safe to disclose (for instance) the true facts about the recent change of government in Paraguay. Others (like the case of the Missing Omnibus) would do more to gratify the modern craving for sensation; but I am well aware that my friend himself is the first to deplore it when I indulge what is, in his own view, a weakness.
My preference is for recording incidents whose bizarre features gave special opportunity for the exercise of that analytical talent which he possessed in such a marked degree. Of these, the case of the Tattooed Nurseryman and that of the Luminous Cigar-Box naturally suggest themselves to the mind. But perhaps my friend's gifts were even more signally displayed when he had occasion to investigate the disappearance of Mr. Nathaniel Swithinbank, which provoked so much speculation in the early days of September, five years back.
Mr. Sherlock Holmes was, of all men, the least influenced by what are called class distinctions. To him the rank was but the guinea stamp; a client was a client. And it did not surprise me, one evening when I was sitting over the familiar fire in Baker Street — the days were sunny but the evenings were already falling chill — to be told that he was expecting a visit from a domestic servant, a woman who "did" for a well-to-do, childless couple in the southern Midlands. "My last visit," he explained, "was from a countess. Her mind was uninteresting, and she had no great regard for the truth; the problem she brought was quite elementary. I fancy Mrs. John Hennessy will have something more important to communicate."
"You have met her already, then?"
"No, I have not had the privilege. But anyone who is in the habit of receiving letters from strangers will tell you the same — handwriting is often a better form of introduction than hand-shaking. You will find Mrs. Hennessy's letter on the mantelpiece; and if you care to look at her j's and her w's, in particular, I think you will agree that it is no ordinary woman we have to deal with. Dear me, there is the bell ringing already; in a moment or two, if I mistake not, we shall know what Mrs. Hennessy, of the Cottage, Guiseborough St. Martin, wants of Sherlock Holmes."
There was nothing in the appearance of the old dame who was shown up, a few minutes later, by the faithful Mrs. Hudson to justify Holmes's estimate. To the outward view she was a typical representative of her class; from the bugles on her bonnet to her elastic-sided boots everything suggested the old-fashioned caretaker such as you may see polishing the front doorsteps of a hundred office buildings any spring morning in the city of London. Her voice, when she spoke, was articulated with unnecessary care, as that of the respectable working-class woman is apt to be. But there was something precise and business-like about the statement of her case which made you feel that this was a mind which could easily have profited by greater educational advantages.
"I have read of you, Mr. Holmes," she began, "and when things began to go wrong up at the Hall it wasn't long before I thought to myself, If there's one man in England who will be able to see light here, it's Mr. Sherlock Holmes. My husband was in good employment, till lately, on the railway at Chester; but the time came when the rheumatism got hold of him, and after that nothing seemed to go well with us until he had thrown up his job, and we went to live in a country village not far from Banbury, looking out for any odd work that might come our way.
"We had only been living there a week when a Mr. Swithinbank and his wife took the old Hall, that had long been standing empty. They were newcomers to the district, and their needs were not great, having neither chick nor child to fend for; so they engaged me and Mr. Hennessy to come and live in the lodge, close by the house, and do all the work of it for them. The pay was good and the duties light, so we were glad enough to get the billet."
"One moment!" said Holmes. "Did they advertise, or were you indebted to some private recommendation for the appointment?"
"They came at short notice, Mr. Holmes, and were directed to us for temporary help. But they soon saw that our ways suited them, and they kept Us on. They were people who kept very much to themselves, and perhaps they did not want a set of maids who would have followers, and spread gossip in the village."
"That is suggestive. You state your case with admirable clearness. Pray proceed."
"All this was no longer ago than last July. Since then they have once been away in London, but for the most part they have lived at Guiseborough, seeing very little of the folk round about. Parson called, but he is not a man to put his nose in where he is not wanted, and I think they must have made it clear they would sooner have his room than his company. So there was more guessing than gossiping about them in the country-side. But, sir, you can't be in domestic employment without finding out a good deal about how the land lies; and it wasn't long before my husband and I were certain of two things. One was that Mr. and Mrs. Swithinbank were deep in debt. And the other was that they got on badly together."
"Debts have a way of reflecting themselves in a man's correspondence," said Holmes, "and whoever has the clearing of his waste-paper basket will necessarily be conscious of them. But the relations between man and wife? Surely they must have gone very wrong indeed before there is quarrelling in public."
"That's as may be, Mr. Holmes, but quarrel in public they did. Why, it was only last week I came in with the blanc-mange, and he was saying, The fact is, no one would be better pleased than you to see me in my coffin. To be sure, he held his tongue after that, and looked a bit confused; and she tried to put a brave face on it. But I've lived long enough, Mr. Holmes, to know when a woman's been crying. Then last Monday, when I'd been in drawing the curtains, he burst out just before I'd closed the door behind me, The world isn't big enough for both of us. That was all I heard, and right glad I'd have been to hear less. But I've not come round here just to repeat servants'-hall gossip.
"To-day, when I was cleaning out the waste-paper basket, I came across a scrap of a letter that tells the same story, in his own handwriting. Cast you eye over that, Mr. Holmes, and tell me whether a Christian woman has the right to sit by and do nothing about it."
She had dived her hand into a capacious reticule and brought out, with a triumphant flourish, her documentary evidence. Holmes knitted his brow over it, and then passed it on to me. It ran: "Being of sound mind, whatever the numbskulls on the jury may say of it."
"Can you identify the writing?" my friend said: "It was my master's,"replied Mrs. Hennessy,"I know it well enough; the bank, I am sure, will tell you the same."
"Mrs. Hennessy, let us make no bones about it. Curiosity is a well-marked instinct of the human species. Your eye having lighted on this document, no doubt inadvertently, I will wager you took a look round the basket for any other fragments it might contain."
"That I did, sir; my husband and I went through it carefully together, for who knew but the life of a fellow-creature might depend on it? But only one other piece could we find written by the same hand, and on the same note-paper. Here it is." And she smoothed out on her knee a second fragment, to all appearances part of the same sheet, yet strangely different in its tenor. It seemed to have been torn away from the middle of a sentence; nothing survived but the words "in the reeds by the lake, taking a bearing at the point where the old tower hides both the middle first-floor windows."
"Come," I said, "this at least gives us something to go upon. Mrs. Hennessy will surely be able to tell us whether there are any landmarks in Guiseborough answering to this description."
"Indeed there are, sir; the directions are plain as a pikestaff. There is an old ruined building which juts out upon the little lake at the bottom of the garden, and it would be easy enough to hit on the place mentioned. I daresay you gentlemen are wondering why we haven't been down to the lake-side ourselves to see what we could find there. Well, the plain fact is, we were scared. My master is a quiet-spoken man enough at ordinary times, but there's a wild look in his eye when he's roused, and I for one should be sorry to cross him. So I thought I'd come to you, Mr. Holmes, and put the whole thing in your hands."
"I shall be interested to look into your little difficulty. To speak frankly, Mrs. Hennessy, the story you have told me runs on such familiar lines that I should have been tempted to dismiss the whole case from my mind. Dr. Watson here will tell you that I am a busy man, and the affairs of the Bank of Mauritius urgently require my presence in London. But this last detail about the reeds by the lake-side is piquant, decidely piquant, and the whole matter shall be gone into. The only difficulty is a practical one. How are we to explain my presence at Guiseborough without betraying to your employers the fact that you and your husband have been intruding on their family affairs?"
"I have thought of that, sir," replied the old dame, "and I think we can find a way out. I slipped away to-day easily enough because my mistress is going abroad to visit her aunt, near Dieppe, and Mr. Swithinbank has come up to Town with her to see her off. I must go back by the evening train, and had half thought of asking you to accompany me. But no, he would get to hear of it if a stranger visited the place in his absence. It would be better if you came down by the quarter-past ten train to-morrow, and passed yourself off for a stranger who was coming to look at the house. They have taken it on a short lease, and plenty of folks come to see it without troubling to obtain an order-to-view."
"Will your employer be back so early?"
"That is the very train he means to take; and to speak truth, sir, I should be the better for knowing that he was being watched. This wicked talk of making away with himself is enough to make anyone anxious about him. You cannot mistake him, Mr. Holmes," she went on; "what chiefly marks him out is a scar on the left-hand side of his chin, where a dog bit him when he was a youngster."
"Excellent, Mrs. Hennessy; you have thought of everything. To-morrow, then, on the quarter-past ten for Banbury without fail. You will oblige me by ordering the station. fly to be in readiness. Country walks may be good for health, but time is more precious. I will drive straight to your cottage, and you or your husband shall escort me on my visit to this desirable country residence and its mysterious tenant." With a wave of his hand, he cut short her protestations of gratitude.
"Well, Watson, what did you make of her?" asked my companion when the door had closed on our visitor.
"She seemed typical of that noble army of women whose hard scrubbing makes life easy for the leisured classes. I could not see her well because she sat between us and the window, and her veil was lowered over her eyes. But her manner was enough to convince me that she was telling us the truth, and that she is sincere in her anxiety to avert what may be an appalling tragedy. As to its nature, I confess I am in the dark. Like yourself, I was particularly struck by the reference to the reeds by the lake-side. What can it mean? An assignation?"
"Hardly, my dear Watson. At this time of the year a man runs enough risk of cold without standing about in a reed-bed. A hiding-place, more probably, but for what? And why should a man take the trouble to hide something, and then obligingly litter his waste-paper basket with clues to its whereabouts? No, these are deep waters, Watson, and we must have more data before we begin to theorise. You will come with me?"
"Certainly, if I may. Shall I bring my revolver?"
"I do not apprehend any danger, but perhaps it is as well to be on the safe side. Mr. Swithinbank seems to strike his neighbours as a formidable person. And now, if you will be good enough to hand me the more peaceful instrument which hangs beside you, I will try out that air of Scarlatti's, and leave the affairs of Guiseborough St. Martin to look after themselves."
I often had occasion to deprecate Sherlock Holmes's habit of catching trains with just half a minute to spare. But on the morning after our interview with Mrs. Hennessy we arrived at Paddington station no later than ten o'clock — to find a stranger, with a pronounced scar on the left side of his chin, gazing out at us languidly from the window of a first-class carriage.
"Do you mean to travel with him?" I asked, when we were out of earshot.
"Scarcely feasible, I think. If he is the man I take him for, he has secured solitude all the way to Banbury by the simple process of slipping half a crown into the guard's hand." And, sure enough, a few minutes later we saw that functionary shepherd a fussy-looking gentleman, who had been vigorously assaulting the locked door, to a compartment farther on. For ourselves, we took up our post in the carriage next but one behind Mr. Swithinbank. This, like the other first-class compartments, was duly locked when we had entered it; behind us the less fortunate passengers accommodated themselves in seconds.
The case is not without its interest," observed Holmes, laying down his paper as we steamed through Burnham Beeches. "It presents features which recall the affairs of James Phillimore, whose disappearance (though your loyalty may tempt you to forget it) we investigated without success. But this Swithinbank mystery, if I mistake not, cuts even deeper. Why, for example, is the man so anxious to parade his intention of suicide, or fictitious suicide, in the presence of his domestic staff? It can hardly fail to strike you that he chose the moment when the good Mrs. Hennessy was just entering the room, or just leaving it, to make those remarkable 'confidences to his wife. Not content with that, he must leave evidence of his intentions lying about in the waste-paper basket. And yet this involved the risk of having his plans foiled by good-natured interference. Time enough for his disappearance to become public when it became effective! And why, in the name of fortune, does he hide something only to tell us where he has hidden it?"
Amid a maze of railway-tracks, we came to a standstill at Reading. Holmes craned his neck out of the window, but reported that all the doors had been left locked. We were not destined to learn anything about our elusive travelling-companion until, just as we were passing the pretty hamlet of Tilehurst, a little shower of paper fragments fluttered past the window on the right-hand side of the compartment, and two of them actually sailed in through the space we had dedicated to ventilation on that bright morning of autumn. It may easily be guessed with what avidity we had pounced on them.
The messages were in the same handwriting with which Mrs. Hennessy's find had made us familiar; they ran, respectively, "Mean to make an end of it all" and "This is the only way out." Holmes sat over them with knitted brows, till I fairly danced with impatience.
"Should we not pull the communication-cord?" I asked.
"Hardly," answered my companion, "unless five-pound notes are more plentiful with you than they used to be. I will even anticipate your next suggestion, which is that we should look out of the windows on either side of the carriage. Either we have a lunatic two doors off, in which case there is no use in trying to foresee his next move, or he intends suicide, in which case he will not be deterred by the presence of spectators, or he is a man with a scheming brain who is sending us these messages in order to make us behave in a particular way. Quite possibly, he wants to make us lean out of the windows, which seems to me an excellent reason for not leaning out of the windows. At Oxford we shall be able to read the guard a lesson on the danger of locking passengers in."
So indeed it proved; for when the train stopped at Oxford there was no passenger to be found in Mr. Swithinbank's carriage. His overcoat remained, and his wide-brimmed hat; his portmanteau was duly identified in the guard's van. The door on the right-hand side of the compartment, away from the platform, had not swung open; nor did Holmes's lens bring to light any details about the way in which the elusive passenger had made his exit.
It was an impatient horse and an injured cabman that awaited us at Banbury, when we drove through golden woodlands to the little village of Guiseborough St. Martin, nestling under the shadow of Edge Hill. Mrs. Hennessy met us at the door of her cottage, dropping an old-fashioned curtsy; and it may easily be imagined what wringing of hands, what wiping of eyes with her apron, greeted the announcement of her master's disappearance. Mr. Hennessy, it seemed, had gone off to a neighbouring farm upon some errand, and it was the old dame herself who escorted us up to the Hall.
"There's a gentleman there already, Mr. Holmes," she informed us. "Arrived early this morning and would take no denial; and not a word to say what business he came on."
"That is unfortunate," said Holmes. "I particularly wanted a free field to make some investigations. Let us hope that he will be good enough to clear off when he is told that there is no chance of an interview with Mr, Swithinbank."
Guiseborough Hall stands in its own grounds a little way outside the village, the residence of a squire unmistakably, but with no airs of baronial grandeur. The old, rough walls have been refaced with pointed stone, the mullioned windows exchanged for a generous expanse of plate-glass, to suit a more recent taste, and a portico has been thrown out from the front door to welcome the traveller with its shelter. The garden descends at a precipitous slope from the main terrace, and a little lake fringes it at the bottom, dominated by a ruined eminence that serves the modern owner for a gazebo.
Within the house, furniture was of the scantiest, the Swithinbanks having evidently rented it with what fittings it had, and introduced little of their own. As Mrs. Hennessy ushered us into the drawing-room, we were not a little surprised to be greeted by the wiry figure and melancholy features of our old rival, Inspector Lestrade.
"I knew you were quick off the mark, Mr. Holmes," he said, "but it beats me how you ever heard of Mr. Swithinbank's little goings-on; let alone that I didn't think you took much stock in cases of common fraud like this."
"Common fraud?" repeated my companion. "Why, what has he been up to?"
"Drawing cheques, and big ones, Mr. Holmes, when he knew that his bank wouldn't honour them; only little things of that sort. But if you're on his track I don't suppose he's far off, and I'll be grateful for any help you can give me to lay my hands on him."
"My dear Lestrade, if you follow out your usual systematic methods, you will have to patrol the Great Western Line all the way from Reading to Oxford. I trust you have brought a drag-net with you, for the line crossed the river no less than four times in the course of the journey." And he regaled the astonished inspector with a brief summary of our investigations.
Our information worked like a charm on the little detective. He was off in a moment to find the nearest telegraph office and put himself in touch with Scotland Yard, with the Great Western Railway authorities, with the Thames Conservancy. He promised, however, a speedy return, and I fancy Holmes cursed himself for not having dismissed the jarvey who had brought us from the station, an undeserved windfall for our rival.
"Now Watson!" he cried as the sound of the wheels faded away into the distance.
"Our way lies to the lake-side, I presume."
"How often am I to remind you that the place
where the criminal tells you to look is the place not to look? No, the clue to the mystery lies, somehow, in the house, and we must hurry up if we are to find it."
Quick as a thought, he began turning out shelves, cupboards, escritoires, while I, at his direction, went through the various rooms of the house to ascertain whether all was in order, and whether anything suggested the anticipation of a hasty flight. By the time I returned to him, having found nothing amiss, he was seated in the most comfortable of the drawing-room armchairs, reading a book he had picked out of the shelves — it dealt, if I remember right, with the aborigines of Borneo.
"The mystery, Holmes!" I cried.
"I have solved it. If you will look on the bureau yonder, you will find the household books which Mrs. Swithinbank has obligingly left behind. Extraordinary how these people always make some elementary mistake. You are a man of the world, Watson; take a look at them and tell me what strikes you as curious."
It was not long before the salient feature occurred to me. "Why, Holmes," I exclaimed, "there is no record of the Hennessys being paid any wages at all!"
"Bravo, Watson! And if you will go into the figures a little more closely, you will find that the Hennessys apparently lived on air. So now the whole facts of the story are plain to you."
"I confess," I replied, somewhat crestfallen, "that the whole case is as dark to me as ever."
"Why, then, take a look at that newspaper I have left on the occasional table; I have marked the important paragraph in blue pencil."
It was a copy of an Australian paper, issued some weeks previously. The paragraph to which Holmes had drawn my attention ran thus:
Romance of rich man's will
The recent lamented death of Mr. John Macready, the well-known sheep-farming magnate, has had an unexpected sequel in the circumstance that the dead man, apparently, left no will. His son, Mr. Alexander Macready, left for England some years back, owing to a misunderstanding with his father — it was said —because he announced his intention of marrying a lady from the stage. The young man has completely disappeared, and energetic steps are being taken by the lawyers to trace his whereabouts. It is estimated that the fortunate heirs, whoever they be, will be the richer by not far short of a hundred thousand pounds sterling.
Horse-hoofs echoed under the archway, and in another minute Lestrade was again of our party. Seldom have I seen the little detective looking so baffled and ill at ease. "They'll have the laugh of me at the Yard over this," he said. "We had word that Swithinbank was in London, but I made sure it was only a feint, and I came racing up here by the early train, instead of catching the quarter-past ten and my man in it. He's a slippery devil, and he may be half-way to the Continent by this time."
"Don't be down-hearted about it, Lestrade. Come and interview Mr. and Mrs. Hennessy, at the lodge; we may get news of your man down there."
A coarse-looking fellow in a bushy red beard sat sharing his tea with our friend of the evening before. His greasy waistcoat and corduroy trousers proclaimed him a manual worker. He rose to meet us with something of a defiant air; his wife was all affability.
"Have you heard any news of the poor 'gentleman?" she asked.
"We may have some before long," answered Holmes. "Lestrade, you might arrest John Hennessy for stealing that porter's cap you see on the dresser, the property of the Great Western Railway Company. Or, if you prefer an alternative charge, you might arrest him as Alexander Macready, alias Nathaniel Swithinbank." And while we stood there literally thunder-struck, he tore off the red beard from a chin marked with a scar on the left-hand side.
"The case was difficult," he said to me afterwards, "only because we had no clue to the motive. Swithinbank's debts would almost have swallowed up Macready's legacy; it was necessary for the couple to disappear, and take up the claim under a fresh alias. This meant a duplication of personalities, but it was not really difficult. She had been an actress; he had really been a railway porter in his hard-up days. When he got out at Reading, and passed along the six-foot way to take his place in a third-class carriage, nobody marked the circumstance, because on the way from London he had changed into a porter's clothes; he had the cap, no doubt, in his pocket. On the sill of the door he left open, he had made a little pile of suicide-messages, hoping that when it swung open these would be shaken out and flutter into the carriages behind."
"But why the visit to London? And, above all, why the visit to Baker Street?"
"That is the most amusing part of the story; we should have seen through it at once. He wanted Nathaniel Swithinbank to disappear finally, beyond all hope of tracing him. And who would hope to trace him, when Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was travelling only two carriages behind, had given up the attempt? Their only fear was that I should find the case uninteresting; hence the random reference to a hiding-place among the reeds, which so intrigued you. Come to think of it, they nearly had Inspector Lestrade in the same train as well. I hear he has won golden opinions with his superiors by cornering his man so neatly. Sic vos non vobis, as Virgil said of the bees; only they tell us nowadays the lines are not by Virgil."