When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty- three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperat_ith him and to keep notes of his doings, it will be clear that I have a mas_f material at my command. The problem has always been not to find but t_hoose. There is the long row of year-books which fill a shelf and there ar_he dispatch-cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student no_nly of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victoria_ra. Concerning these latter, I may say that the writers of agonized letters, who beg that the honour of their families or the reputation of famou_orebears may not be touched, have nothing to fear. The discretion and hig_ense of professional honour which have always distinguished my friend ar_till at work in the choice of these memoirs, and no confidence will b_bused. I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which hav_een made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of thes_utrages is known, and if they are repeated I have Mr. Holmes's authority fo_aying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and th_rained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reade_ho will understand.
It is not reasonable to suppose that every one of these cases gave Holmes th_pportunity of showing those curious gifts of instinct and observation which _ave endeavoured to set forth in these memoirs. Sometimes he had with muc_ffort to pick the fruit, sometimes it fell easily into his lap. But the mos_errible human tragedies were often involved in those cases which brought hi_he fewest personal opportunities, and it is one of these which I now desir_o record. In telling it, I have made a slight change of name and place, bu_therwise the facts are as stated.
One forenoon — it was late in 1896 — I received a hurried note from Holme_sking for my attendance. When I arrived I found him seated in a smoke-lade_tmosphere, with an elderly, motherly woman of the buxom landlady type in th_orresponding chair in front of him.
"This is Mrs. Merrilow, of South Brixton," said my friend with a wave of th_and. "Mrs. Merrilow does not object to tobacco, Watson, if you wish t_ndulge your filthy habits. Mrs. Merrilow has an interesting story to tel_hich may well lead to further developments in which your presence may b_seful."
"Anything I can do —"
"You will understand, Mrs. Merrilow, that if I come to Mrs. Ronder I shoul_refer to have a witness. You will make her understand that before we arrive."
"Lord bless you, Mr. Holmes," said our visitor, "she is that anxious to se_ou that you might bring the whole parish at your heels!"
"Then we shall come early in the afternoon. Let us see that we have our fact_orrect before we start. If we go over them it will help Dr. Watson t_nderstand the situation. You say that Mrs. Ronder has been your lodger fo_even years and that you have only once seen her face."
"And I wish to God I had not!" said Mrs. Merrilow.
"It was, I understand, terribly mutilated."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, you would hardly say it was a face at all. That's how i_ooked. Our milkman got a glimpse of her once peeping out of the upper window, and he dropped his tin and the milk all over the front garden. That is th_ind of face it is. When I saw her — I happened on her unawares — she covere_p quick, and then she said, 'Now, Mrs. Merrilow, you know at last why it i_hat I never raise my veil.' "
"Do you know anything about her history?"
"Nothing at all."
"Did she give references when she came?"
"No, sir, but she gave hard cash, and plenty of it. A quarter's rent righ_own on the table in advance and no arguing about terms. In these times a poo_oman like me can't afford to turn down a chance like that."
"Did she give any reason for choosing your house?"
"Mine stands well back from the road and is more private than most. Then, again, I only take the one, and I have no family of my own. I reckon she ha_ried others and found that mine suited her best. It's privacy she is after, and she is ready to pay for it."
"You say that she never showed her face from first to last save on the on_ccidental occasion. Well, it is a very remarkable story, most remarkable, an_ don't wonder that you want it examined."
"I don't, Mr. Holmes. I am quite satisfied so long as I get my rent. You coul_ot have a quieter lodger, or one who gives less trouble."
"Then what has brought matters to a head?"
"Her health, Mr. Holmes. She seems to be wasting away. And there's somethin_errible on her mind. 'Murder!' she cries. 'Murder!' And once I heard her:
'You cruel beast! You monster!' she cried. It was in the night, and it fai_ang through the house and sent the shivers through me. So I went to her i_he morning. 'Mrs. Ronder,' I says, 'if you have anything that is troublin_our soul, there's the clergy,' I says, 'and there's the police. Between the_ou should get some help.' 'For God's sake, not the police!' says she, 'an_he clergy can't change what is past. And yet,' she says, 'it would ease m_ind if someone knew the truth before I died.' 'Well,' says I, 'if you won'_ave the regulars, there is this detective man what we read about' -beggin'
your pardon, Mr. Holmes. And she, she fair jumped at it. 'That's the man,'
says she. 'I wonder I never thought of it before. Bring him here, Mrs.
Merrilow, and if he won't come, tell him I am the wife of Ronder's wild beas_how. Say that, and give him the name Abbas Parva. Here it is as she wrote it, Abbas Parva. 'That will bring him if he's the man I think he is.' "
"And it will, too," remarked Holmes. "Very good, Mrs. Merrilow. I should lik_o have a little chat with Dr. Watson. That will carry us till lunch-time.
About three o'clock you may expect to see us at your house in Brixton."
Our visitor had no sooner waddled out of the room — no other verb can describ_rs. Merrilow's method of progression — than Sherlock Holmes threw himsel_ith fierce energy upon the pile of commonplace books in the corner. For a fe_inutes there was a constant swish of the leaves, and then with a grunt o_atisfaction he came upon what he sought. So excited was he that he did no_ise, but sat upon the floor like some strange Buddha, with crossed legs, th_uge books all round him, and one open upon his knees.
"The case worried me at the time, Watson. Here are my marginal notes to prov_t. I confess that I could make nothing of it. And yet I was convinced tha_he coroner was wrong. Have you no recollection of the Abbas Parva tragedy?"
"And yet you were with me then. But certainly my own impression was ver_uperficial. For there was nothing to go by, and none of the parties ha_ngaged my services. Perhaps you would care to read the papers?"
"Could you not give me the points?"
"That is very easily done. It will probably come back to your memory as _alk. Ronder, of course, was a household word. He was the rival of Wombwell, and of Sanger, one of the greatest showmen of his day. There is evidence, however, that he took to drink, and that both he and his show were on the dow_rade at the time of the great tragedy. The caravan had halted for the nigh_t Abbas Parva, which is a small village in Berkshire, when this horro_ccurred. They were on their way to Wimbledon, travelling by road, and the_ere simply camping and not exhibiting, as the place is so small a one that i_ould not have paid them to open.
"They had among their exhibits a very fine North African lion. Sahara King wa_ts name, and it was the habit, both of Ronder and his wife, to giv_xhibitions inside its cage. Here, you see, is a photograph of the performanc_y which you will perceive that Ronder was a huge porcine person and that hi_ife was a very magnificent woman. It was deposed at the inquest that ther_ad been some signs that the lion was dangerous, but, as usual, familiarit_egat contempt, and no notice was taken of the fact.
"It was usual for either Ronder or his wife to feed the lion at night.
Sometimes one went, sometimes both, but they never allowed anyone else to d_t, for they believed that so long as they were the food-carriers he woul_egard them as benefactors and would never molest them. On this particula_ight, seven years ago, they both went, and a very terrible happenin_ollowed, the details of which have never been made clear.
"It seems that the whole camp was roused near midnight by the roars of th_nimal and the screams of the woman. The different grooms and employees rushe_rom their tents, carrying lanterns, and by their light an awful sight wa_evealed. Ronder lay, with the back of his head crushed in and deep claw-mark_cross his scalp, some ten yards from the cage, which was open. Close to th_oor of the cage lay Mrs. Ronder upon her back, with the creature squattin_nd snarling above her. It had torn her face in such a fashion that it wa_ever thought that she could live. Several of thc circus men, headed b_eonardo, the strong man, and Griggs, the clown, drove the creature off wit_oles, upon which it sprang back into the cage and was at once locked in. Ho_t had got loose was a mystery. It was conjectured that the pair intended t_nter the cage, but that when the door was loosed the creature bounded ou_pon them. There was no other point of interest in the evidence save that th_oman in a delirium of agony kept screaming, 'Coward! Coward!' as she wa_arried back to the van in which they lived. It was six months before she wa_it to give evidence, but the inquest was duly held, with the obvious verdic_f death from misadventure."
"What alternative could be conceived?" said I.
"You may well say so. And yet there were one or two points which worried youn_dmunds, of the Berkshire Constabulary. A smart lad that! He was sent later t_llahabad. That was how I came into the matter, for he dropped in and smoked _ipe or two over it."
"A thin, yellow-haired man?"
"Exactly. I was sure you would pick up the trail presently."
"But what worried him?"
"Well, we were both worried. It was so deucedly difficult to reconstruct th_ffair. Look at it from the lion's point of view. He is liberated. What doe_e do? He takes half a dozen bounds forward, which brings him to Ronder.
Ronder turns to fly — the claw-marks were on the back of his head — but th_ion strikes him down. Then, instead of bounding on and escaping, he return_o the woman, who was close to the cage, and he knocks her over and chews he_ace up. Then, again, those cries of hers would seem to imply that her husban_ad in some way failed her. What could the poor devil have done to help her?
You see the difficulty?"
"And then there was another thing. It comes back to me now as I think it over.
There was some evidence that just at the time the lion roared and the woma_creamed, a man began shouting in terror."
"This man Ronder, no doubt."
"Well, if his skull was smashed in you would hardly expect to hear from hi_gain. There were at least two witnesses who spoke of the cries of a man bein_ingled with those of a woman."
"I should think the whole camp was crying out by then. As to the other points, I think I could suggest a solution."
"I should be glad to consider it."
"The two were together, ten yards from the cage, when the lion got loose. Th_an turned and was struck down. The woman conceived the idea of getting int_he cage and shutting the door. It was her only refuge. She made for it, an_ust as she reached it the beast bounded after her and knocked her over. Sh_as angry with her husband for having encouraged the beast's rage by turning.
If they had faced it they might have cowed it. Hence her cries of 'Coward!' "
"Brilliant, Watson! Only one flaw in your diamond."
"What is the flaw, Holmes?"
"If they were both ten paces from the cage, how came the beast to get loose?"
"Is it possible that they had some enemy who loosed it?"
"And why should it attack them savagely when it was in the habit of playin_ith them, and doing tricks with them inside the cage?"
"Possibly the same enemy had done something to enrage it."
Holmes looked thoughtful and remained in silence for some moments.
"Well, Watson, there is this to be said for your theory. Ronder was a man o_any enemies. Edmunds told me that in his cups he was horrible. A huge bull_f a man, he cursed and slashed at everyone who came in his way. I expec_hose cries about a monster, of which our visitor has spoken, were nocturna_eminiscences of the dear departed. However, our speculations are futile unti_e have all the facts. There is a cold partridge on the sideboard, Watson, an_ bottle of Montrachet. Let us renew our energies before we make a fresh cal_pon them."
When our hansom deposited us at the house of Mrs. Merrilow, we found tha_lump lady blocking up the open door of her humble but retired abode. It wa_ery clear that her chief preoccupation was lest she should lose a valuabl_odger, and she implored us, before showing us up, to say and do nothing whic_ould lead to so undesirable an end. Then, having reassured her, we followe_er up the straight, badly carpeted staircase and were shown into the room o_he mysterious lodger.
It was a close, musty, ill-ventilated place, as might be expected, since it_nmate seldom left it. From keeping beasts in a cage, the woman seemed, b_ome retribution of fate, to have become herself a beast in a cage. She sa_ow in a broken armchair in the shadowy corner of the room. Long years o_naction had coarsened the lines of her figure, but at some period it mus_ave been beautiful, and was still full and voluptuous. A thick dark vei_overed her face, but it was cut off close at her upper lip and disclosed _erfectly shaped mouth and a delicately rounded chin. I could well conceiv_hat she had indeed been a very remarkable woman. Her voice, too, was wel_odulated and pleasing.
"My name is not unfamiliar to you, Mr. Holmes," said she. "I thought that i_ould bring you."
"That is so, madam, though I do not know how you are aware that I wa_nterested in your case."
"l learned it when I had recovered my health and was examined by Mr. Edmunds, the county detective. I fear I lied to him. Perhaps it would have been wise_ad I told the truth."
"It is usually wiser to tell the truth. But why did you lie to him?"
"Because the fate of someone else depended upon it. I know that he was a ver_orthless being, and yet I would not have his destruction upon my conscience.
We had been so close — so close!"
"But has this impediment been removed?"
"Yes, sir. The person that I allude to is dead."
"Then why should you not now tell the police anything you know?"
"Because there is another person to be considered. That other person i_yself. I could not stand the scandal and publicity which would come from _olice examination. I have not long to live, but I wish to die undisturbed.
And yet I wanted to find one man of judgment to whom I could tell my terribl_tory, so that when I am gone all might be understood."
"You compliment me, madam. At the same time, I am a responsible person. I d_ot promise you that when you have spoken I may not myself think it my duty t_efer the case to the police."
"I think not, Mr. Holmes. I know your character and methods too well, for _ave followed your work for some years. Reading is the only pleasure whic_ate has left me, and I miss little which passes in the world. But in an_ase, I will take my chance of the use which you may make of my tragedy. I_ill ease my mind to tell it."
"My friend and I would be glad to hear it."
The woman rose and took from a drawer the photograph of a man. He was clearl_ professional acrobat, a man of magnificent physique, taken with his hug_rms folded across his swollen chest and a smile breaking from under his heav_oustache — the self-satisfied smile of the man of many conquests.
"That is Leonardo," she said.
"Leonardo, the strong man, who gave evidence?"
"The same. And this — this is my husband."
It was a dreadful face — a human pig, or rather a human wild boar, for it wa_ormidable in its bestiality. One could imagine that vile mouth champing an_oaming in its rage, and one could conceive those small, vicious eyes dartin_ure malignancy as they looked forth upon the world. Ruffian, bully, beast — it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
"Those two pictures will help you, gentlemen, to understand the story. I was _oor circus girl brought up on the sawdust, and doing springs through the hoo_efore I was ten. When I became a woman this man loved me, if such lust as hi_an be called love, and in an evil moment I became his wife. From that day _as in hell, and he the devil who tormented me. There was no one in the sho_ho did not know of his treatment. He deserted me for others. He tied me dow_nd lashed me with his ridingwhip when I complained. They all pitied me an_hey all loathed him, but what could they do? They feared him, one and all.
For he was terrible at all times, and murderous when he was drunk. Again an_gain he was had up for assault, and for cruelty to the beasts, but he ha_lenty of money and the fines were nothing to him. The best men all left us, and the show began to go downhill. It was only Leonardo and I who kept it up — with little Jimmy Griggs, the clown. Poor devil, he had not much to be funn_bout, but he did what he could to hold things together.
"Then Leonardo came more and more into my life. You see what he was like. _now now the poor spirit that was hidden in that splendid body, but compare_o my husband he seemed like the angel Gabriel. He pitied me and helped me, till at last our intimacy turned to love — deep, deep, passionate love, suc_ove as I had dreamed of but never hoped to feel. My husband suspected it, bu_ think that he was a coward as well as a bully, and that Leonardo was the on_an that he was afraid of. He took revenge in his own way by torturing me mor_han ever. One night my cries brought Leonardo to the door of our van. We wer_ear tragedy that night, and soon my lover and I understood that it could no_e avoided. My husband was not fit to live. We planned that he should die.
"Leonardo had a clever, scheming brain. It was he who planned it. I do not sa_hat to blame him, for I was ready to go with him every inch of the way. But _hould never have had the wit to think of such a plan. We made a club — Leonardo made it — and in the leaden head he fastened five long steel nails, the points outward, with just such a spread as the lion's paw. This was t_ive my husband his death-blow, and yet to leave the evidence that it was th_ion which we would loose who had done the deed.
"It was a pitch-dark night when my husband and I went down, as was our custom, to feed the beast. We carried with us the raw meat in a zinc pail. Leonard_as waiting at the corner of the big van which we should have to pass befor_e reached the cage. He was too slow, and we walked past him before he coul_trike, but he followed us on tiptoe and I heard the crash as the club smashe_y husband's skull. My heart leaped with joy at the sound. I sprang forward, and I undid the catch which held the door of the great lion's cage.
"And then the terrible thing happened. You may have heard how quick thes_reatures are to scent human blood, and how it excites them. Some strang_nstinct had told the creature in one instant that a human being had bee_lain. As I slipped the bars it bounded out and was on me in an instant.
Leonardo could have saved me. If he had rushed forward and struck the beas_ith his club he might have cowed it. But the man lost his nerve. I heard hi_hout in his terror, and then I saw him turn and fly. At the same instant th_eeth of the lion met in my face. Its hot, filthy breath had already poisone_e and I was hardly conscious of pain. With the palms of my hands I tried t_ush the great steaming, blood-stained jaws away from me, and I screamed fo_elp. I was conscious that the camp was stirring, and then dimly I remembere_ group of men. Leonardo, Griggs, and others, dragging me from under th_reature's paws. That was my last memory, Mr. Holmes, for many a weary month.
When I came to myself and saw myself in the mirror, I cursed that lion — oh, how I cursed him! — not because he had torn away my beauty but because he ha_ot torn away my life. I had but one desire, Mr. Holmes, and I had enoug_oney to gratify it. It was that I should cover myself so that my poor fac_hould be seen by none, and that I should dwell where none whom I had eve_nown should find me. That was all that was left to me to do — and that i_hat I have done. A poor wounded beast that has crawled into its hole to die — that is the end of Eugenia Ronder."
We sat in silence for some time after the unhappy woman had told her story.
Then Holmes stretched out his long arm and patted her hand with such a show o_ympathy as I had seldom known him to exhibit.
"Poor girl!" he said. "Poor girl! The ways of fate are indeed hard t_nderstand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is _ruel jest. But what of this man Leonardo?"
"I never saw him or heard from him again. Perhaps I have been wrong to feel s_itterly against him. He might as soon have loved one of the freaks whom w_arried round the country as the thing which the lion had left. But a woman'_ove is not so easily set aside. He had left me under the beast's claws, h_ad deserted me in my need, and yet I could not bring myself to give him t_he gallows. For myself, I cared nothing what became of me. What could be mor_readful than my actual life? But I stood between Leonardo and his fate."
"And he is dead?"
"He was drowned last month when bathing near Margate. I saw his death in th_aper."
"And what did he do with this five-clawed club, which is the most singular an_ngenious part of all your story?"
"I cannot tell, Mr. Holmes. There is a chalk-pit by the camp, with a dee_reen pool at the base of it. Perhaps in the depths of that pool —"
"Well, well, it is of little consequence now. The case is closed."
"Yes," said the woman, "the case is closed."
We had risen to go, but there was something in the woman's voice whic_rrested Holmes's attention. He turned swiftly upon her.
"Your life is not your own," he said. "Keep your hands off it."
"What use is it to anyone?"
"How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the mos_recious of all lessons to an impatient world."
The woman's answer was a terrible one. She raised her veil and stepped forwar_nto the light.
"I wonder if you would bear it," she said.
It was horrible. No words can describe the framework of a face when the fac_tself is gone. Two living and beautiful brown eyes looking sadly out fro_hat grisly ruin did but make the view more awful. Holmes held up his hand i_ gesture of pity and protest, and together we left the room.
Two days later, when I called upon my friend, he pointed with some pride to _mall blue bottle upon his mantelpiece. I picked it up. There was a red poiso_abel. A pleasant almondy odour rose when I opened it.
"Prussic acid?" said 1.
"Exactly. It came by post. 'I send you my temptation. I will follow you_dvice.' That was the message. I think, Watson, we can guess the name of th_rave woman who sent it."