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Authors: Donald Thomas

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‘Read the end of it,' Mr Smith said curtly.

‘
If you wish to retain me, just write a few lines on paper, saying, “Mr Fred Smith wishes to see Mr Bayne, the barrister, at once.” Paste this on one of your windows at 186 Strand next Tuesday morning. I will drop in and have a private interview with you. I can save you if you retain me in time, but not otherwise. Yours truly, H. M. Bayne, Barrister
.'

Holmes looked up from the paper again and there was a moment of silence, save for the wind from the street rattling the windows.

‘It may comfort you to know, Mr Smith, that you are not the only person to be persecuted by the malicious letters of this madman. It is, I assure you, malice rather than blackmail. As a criminal expert, it is my habit to keep track of such murders as may occur in this city. Indeed, I am fortunate enough to be admitted every day or two to the counsels of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. I may tell you that, to my certain knowledge, no young person by the name of Lou or Louisa Harvey has been found murdered or reported murdered. As to Miss Ellen Donworth—or Linnell—it seems that she was taken ill with a terminal attack of delirium tremens on Saturday evening and that she died on the way to St Thomas's Hospital. My colleague Dr Watson was in the Waterloo Road at the time and was able to render some comfort to the poor soul until the arrival of the hospital assistant. I think you may confidently put aside all thought of accusation or scandal. I recognize your correspondent only too well.'

Frederick Smith sat upright in his chair.

‘You know his name?'

Holmes shook his head.

‘At present, I merely recognize his type. One of my student textbooks, long since, was Henry Maudsley's
On Criminal Responsibility
. Your antagonist is the hardest type of the criminally insane to deal with. Such a personality is moved by impulses and attracted to beliefs at which you and I could scarcely guess. Worse still he is, like Iago, a man who will smile and smile, and be a villain. May we turn to the second letter which is said to have been found among the unfortunate Miss Donworth's possessions?'

He scowled at it and began to read.

‘
Miss Ellen Linnell, I wrote and warned you once before that Frederick Smith of W. H. Smith & Son was going to poison you. If you take any of the medicine he gave you, you will die. I saw Fred Smith prepare the medicine he gave you, and I saw him put enough strychnine in it to kill a horse. Signed H.M.B
.'

Frederick Smith leant forward in his chair.

‘There is no H. M. Bayne in the lists of the Inns of Court. That has been checked. I infer that the medicine he describes was a preparation to procure an abortion.'

‘Put blackmail from your mind, sir.'

Holmes handed me the letters. Their copper-plate was a script taught to every child at school. It seemed as impersonal as scraps cut from a newspaper.

‘You are entirely right, Mr Holmes,' Frederick Smith said simply. ‘Of course it is quite mad. Whoever heard of a blackmailer demanding that his victim should employ him as an attorney? He would be arrested the minute he showed himself. I shall burn this poisonous nonsense and forget the matter.'

Sherlock Holmes looked truly alarmed.

‘On no account can you do that, Mr Smith. This villain must be caught. You will greatly oblige me by putting the message in your window as he commands. Meantime, I beg you to take these letters at once to Inspector Lestrade at Scotland Yard. The blackmail threats are too absurd to be carried out and our man must know that. What then is his true object? Perhaps to divert suspicion from some crime of his own that he intends. He shows all the characteristics of a psychopath, and he is at large. There is no time to be lost in the matter. As for his absurd and malicious accusations, I may promise you that no publicity will attend them.'

I should like to say that Frederick Smith looked reassured but that was not so. He stood up and, with a look of reluctance, prepared to make his way to Scotland Yard. As our guest took his hat, Holmes called him back.

‘One moment, Mr Smith. A question had best be asked now, since it will be asked sooner or later. Where were you on Saturday evening when this unfortunate girl, Ellen Donworth, died?'

A brief resentment glimmered in the eyes of our visitor but it was soon gone.

‘You are quite right, Mr Holmes. That question must be asked and answered. From seven o'clock until half-past ten, I was with the platform party at the Christian Guild meeting in Exeter Hall. I dined at home before that. The Bishop of London was my guest. If you want from me what I suppose you would call an alibi, I was in company from four in the afternoon until a little after eleven.'

‘I think we may say that disposes of the matter,' Holmes said smoothly.

‘Does it? Am I not accused of preparing a mixture for this poor woman which might destroy her whenever she took it, days or weeks later?'

I was happy to intervene and put his mind at rest.

‘You need not concern yourself with that, sir. Miss Donworth showed the classic symptoms of alcoholic poisoning while I was with her. Indeed, there was bromide of potassium on her washstand which had evidently been prescribed by a physician to treat this condition.'

After Frederick Smith had gone, we sat for more than an hour with our glasses of warm whisky and lemon. Holmes was unaccountably silent.

‘I should rather like to be a fly on the wall of Scotland Yard,' I said, as if to cheer him up. ‘I imagine that Sir George Lewis would despatch Lady Russell's letter to Lestrade at once. Just as the poor devil is packing up for the day. Then, no sooner will he have read it and written his report than he will have two more letters brought by Mr Frederick Smith. It would be worth a sovereign to see his face!'

Holmes looked at the door.

‘I believe it would be a wasted journey, my dear fellow. Unless I am greatly mistaken, when Lestrade has read those letters, you will see his face here soon enough.'

I suppose it was a little after nine o'clock when the door-bell sounded below us.

IV

It was no secret that Sherlock Holmes regarded Inspector Lestrade privately as what he called ‘the pick of a bad lot' among the senior detective police of Scotland Yard. However, the inspector's defects of reasoning and intuition were redeemed by a gruff tenacity, when once he got his teeth into a case. Moreover, his habit of looking in upon us of an evening kept us in touch with all that was happening at police headquarters.

Mrs Hudson had returned from her sister in time to take our visitor's waterproof before she showed him up to our quarters. He appeared in the doorway, a small wiry bulldog of a man, his pea-jacket and cravat giving him a decidedly nautical appearance. With a short greeting, he put down the attaché case he had been carrying, seated himself, and lit the cigar that Holmes had given him. Soon he was relaxed before the fire, warming his left hand round a glass of warm toddy. The tone of his visit to us was less amiable than usual. He had the look of a man who has triumphed and is bursting to show it.

‘I hear, gentlemen, you have had visitors this evening. Out of the top drawer, as you might say. Lady Russell and the Honourable Mr Frederick Smith.'

‘Quite,' said Holmes punctiliously, leaning forward with the poker and stirring the fire to new life.

Lestrade shot a fierce look at my companion.

‘Well, we shall have a word about those folk presently, Mr Holmes. In the matter of Ellen Donworth, however, I think you will find that I have been a little in front of you this time!'

The mention of the girl's name knocked the wind from me again. Holmes laid down the poker and looked up.

‘Really, Lestrade? You don't say?'

‘But I do say, Mr Holmes! I fear that I must have given Mr Frederick Smith something of a knock.'

‘I see.'

‘I don't think you do, sir! I don't think you do at all. There were you and the good doctor, promising him that the poor young creature had died of alcoholic poisoning. And there was I, sitting across my desk from Mr Smith, with a post-mortem note on Home Office stationery in my hand. From Dr Stevenson this afternoon. Alcoholic poisoning? Ellen Donworth had enough strychnine in her to kill half of Lambeth! What about that, Mr Holmes? Eh?'

Again, I felt the dull blow of dismay. Holmes gazed into the fire.

‘Were you a medical man, Lestrade, you would know that tetanic convulsions, accompanied by violent vomiting, are symptomatic both of delirium tremens and of acute poisoning by certain vegetable alkaloids. Dr Watson was present and merely rendered what immediate assistance he could. He is not a walking laboratory. I suppose that it took a Home Office autopsy before the combined intelligences of Scotland Yard so much as thought of poison.'

I tried to recall any evidence of poison on that Saturday evening. There was none that could have been obtained, short of laboratory samples from the victim. That Ellen Donworth was under treatment for alcoholism had further compounded the difficulty.

‘She said that she had been given a glass of gin by a man called Fred,' I ventured, ‘a glass that had something white in it.'

Lestrade swung round in his chair with a look of pure satisfaction.

‘So one of the other witnesses heard her say. Jimmy Styles, the market-trader. Quite took the colour out of the Honourable Mr Smith, though, when I told him the man we wanted was called Fred, the same as him.'

Holmes yawned, the inspector's triumph becoming insufferable to him. But there was no quenching the light of satisfaction in Lestrade's dark eyes. His tongue was moving humorously behind his teeth.

‘One word to you,' said Holmes, ‘Mr Smith was in company from six until eleven on Saturday evening. I advise you to tread lightly in these matters.'

The inspector grinned.

‘I know that, Mr Holmes. But you should have seen him all the same.' He fell silent, puffing at his cigar, then added, ‘Mr Smith had no part in this, nor Lord Russell. Whoever the brute was, we deduce he was in the shadows of the Waterloo Road, gloating over his handiwork as she lay there.'

‘Forgive me,' Holmes said quietly, ‘that assumption has the sound of a fine theory and a questionable fact.'

Lestrade shook his head firmly.

‘Oh, no, sir. When Dr Stevenson performed his postmortem this morning, he found the strychnine had been mixed with morphia. Now why should a man do that, if he only meant to kill her, as he knew strychnine must? The only reason, Dr Stevenson says, was to make sure the poor soul should not die too quickly. Without morphia, it would have been over in a few minutes perhaps. This devil wanted to see and hear her lying there, as Mr Styles did, trying to press her stomach on the pavement to ease the agony, pleading with them not to lift her.'

Holmes took a glowing cinder with the tongs and lit his cherrywood pipe. For a moment he said nothing, then he leant back in his chair.

‘Perhaps you should arrest Mr Styles. Or Dr Watson. Or anyone who happened to be outside the York Hotel.' He paused and drew at his pipe. ‘Forgive me, pray continue with your narrative.'

‘The matter of these letters,' the inspector said shortly, ‘I don't know what we shall make of them. The one accusing Mr Smith of murdering Nellie Donworth was written a full day before the poison was found in her by Dr Stevenson. Who could know the truth but the murderer himself?'

Holmes waved his pipe.

‘True. Or very nearly so.'

‘But the letter enclosed with it, and the one to Lady Russell! No one by the name of Matilda Clover or Louisa Harvey is dead, so far as we know, let alone murdered. Wires have gone out to every police district in London and the cities throughout the country. All with the same result. Nothing known for either name.'

‘Will you not include the names of Clover and Harvey in your investigation?'

Lestrade looked at him, as if my friend should have known better.

‘And a pretty dance our man might lead us! Every time he gives us a name we must send men on a murder hunt! He might give us a new name by every post!'

‘And that is the best advice you can offer?'

‘No,' said the inspector, ‘by no means. There is another side to this, though it won't disturb you here in the quiet of Baker Street. Since this morning, rumours have been flying about as to how Ellen Donworth died. We think they came from an attendant at Westminster mortuary, after the post-mortem. You don't need me to tell you that the mention of strychnine has caused a panic among certain classes in Lambeth. So nothing is to be said about Harvey and Clover. It won't do to have the public mind agitated further by rumours of young women murdered who never have been. You know as well as I, gentlemen, that tragedies of this kind are too often an opportunity for sick minds to vent their frustrations.'

‘Indeed,' said Holmes languidly. ‘In this case, however, you tell me that the date of posting proves conclusively that this sick mind knew of the strychnine when the rest of the world still called it alcoholic poisoning.'

‘Which is just what I thought you would say, Mr Holmes. So, as to Clover and Harvey, I left orders that Sergeant Macintyre is to visit Somerset House tomorrow morning and go through the registers of deaths for Clovers and Harveys, from all causes, for two years past. If our man tries us with any other names, we shall do exactly the same. You'll see we can manage these things quite well enough for ourselves, when we have to, Mr Sherlock Holmes.'

V

Somewhat to my surprise, I came down to breakfast on the following morning to find that Sherlock Holmes had already finished his meal. He was sitting in the large old-fashioned chair, eyes gleaming from a haggard face. Beside him on the floor lay the dismembered relics of the morning papers. He looked like a man who has not been to bed all night, rather than one who has risen early.

‘Make the best of it, Watson,' he said, gesturing at the remaining place laid for me, ‘I fancy we shall have another visitor before long.'

BOOK: The Lost Casebooks of Sherlock Holmes
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