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"Have you come from Holmes?" he asked.
"I have just left him."
"What about Holmes? How is he?"
"He is desperately ill. That is why I have come."
The man motioned me to a chair, and turned to resume his own. As he did so I caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror over the mantelpiece. I could have sworn that it was set in a malicious and abominable smile. Yet I persuaded myself that it must have been some nervous contraction which I had surprised, for he turned to me an instant later with genuine concern upon his features.
"I am sorry to hear this," said he. "I only know Mr. Holmes through some business dealings which we have had, but I have every respect for his talents and his character. He is an amateur of crime, as I am of disease. For him the villain, for me the microbe. There are my prisons," he continued, pointing to a row of bottles and jars which stood upon a side table. "Among those gelatine cultivations some of the very worst offenders in the world are now doing time."
"It was on account of your special knowledge that Mr. Holmes desired to see you. He has a high opinion of you and thought that you were the one man in London who could help him."
The little man started, and the jaunty smoking-cap slid to the floor.
"Why?" he asked. "Why should Mr. Homes think that I could help him in his trouble?"
"Because of your knowledge of Eastern diseases."
"But why should he think that this disease which he has contracted is Eastern?"
"Because, in some professional inquiry, he has been working among Chinese sailors down in the docks."
Mr. Culverton Smith smiled pleasantly and picked up his smoking-cap. "Oh, that's it--is it?" said he. "I trust the matter is not so grave as you suppose. How long has he been ill?"
"About three days."
"Is he delirious?"
"Tut, tut! This sounds serious. It would be inhuman not to answer his call. I very much resent any interruption to my work, Dr. Watson, but this case is certainly exceptional. I will come with you at once."
I remembered Holmes's injunction.
"I have another appointment," said I.
"Very good. I will go alone. I have a note of Mr. Holmes's address. You can rely upon my being there within half an hour at most."
It was with a sinking heart that I reentered Holmes's bedroom. For all that I knew the worst might have happened in my absence. To my enormous relief, he had improved greatly in the interval. His appearance was as ghastly as ever, but all trace of delirium had left him and he spoke in a feeble voice, it is true, but with even more than his usual crispness and lucidity.
"Well, did you see him, Watson?"
"Yes; he is coming."
"Admirable, Watson! Admirable! You are the best of messengers."
"He wished to return with me."
"That would never do, Watson. That would be obviously impossible. Did he ask what ailed me?"
"I told him about the Chinese in the East End."
"Exactly! Well, Watson, you have done all that a good friend could. You can now disappear from the scene."
"I must wait and hear his opinion, Holmes."
"Of course you must. But I have reasons to suppose that this opinion would be very much more frank and valuable if he imagines that we are alone. There is just room behind the head of my bed, Watson."
"My dear Holmes!"
"I fear there is no alternative, Watson. The room does not lend itself to concealment, which is as well, as it is the less likely to arouse suspicion. But just there, Watson, I fancy that it could be done." Suddenly he sat up with a rigid intentness upon his haggard face. "There are the wheels, Watson. Quick, man, if you love me! And don't budge, whatever happens--whatever happens, do you hear? Don't speak! Don't move! Just listen with all your ears." Then in an instant his sudden access of strength departed, and his masterful, purposeful talk droned away into the low, vague murmurings of a semi-delirious man.
From the hiding-place into which I had been so swiftly hustled I heard the footfalls upon the stair, with the opening and the closing of the bedroom door. Then, to my surprise, there came a long silence, broken only by the heavy breathings and gaspings of the sick man. I could imagine that our visitor was standing by the bedside and looking down at the sufferer. At last that strange hush was broken.
"Holmes!" he cried. "Holmes!" in the insistent tone of one who awakens a sleeper. "Can't you hear me, Holmes?" There was a rustling, as if he had shaken the sick man roughly by the shoulder.
"Is that you, Mr. Smith?" Holmes whispered. "I hardly dared hope that you would come."
The other laughed.
"I should imagine not," he said. "And yet, you see, I am here. Coals of fire, Holmes--coals of fire!"
"It is very good of you--very noble of you. I appreciate your special knowledge."
Our visitor sniggered.
"You do. You are, fortunately, the only man in London who does. Do you know what is the matter with you?"
"The same," said Holmes.
"Ah! You recognize the symptoms?"
"Only too well."
"Well, I shouldn't be surprised, Holmes. I shouldn't be surprised if it WERE the same. A bad lookout for you if it is. Poor Victor was a dead man on the fourth day--a strong, hearty young fellow. It was certainly, as you said, very surprising that he should have contracted and out-of-the-way Asiatic disease in the heart of London--a disease, too, of which I had made such a very special study. Singular coincidence, Holmes. Very smart of you to notice it, but rather uncharitable to suggest that it was cause and effect."
"I knew that you did it."
"Oh, you did, did you? Well, you couldn't prove it, anyhow. But what do you think of yourself spreading reports about me like that, and then crawling to me for help the moment you are in trouble? What sort of a game is that--eh?"
I heard the rasping, laboured breathing of the sick man. "Give me the water!" he gasped.
"You're precious near your end, my friend, but I don't want you to go till I have had a word with you. That's why I give you water. There, don't slop it about! That's right. Can you understand what I say?"
"Do what you can for me. Let bygones be bygones," he whispered. "I'll put the words out of my head--I swear I will. Only cure me, and I'll forget it."
"Well, about Victor Savage's death. You as good as admitted just now that you had done it. I'll forget it."
"You can forget it or remember it, just as you like. I don't see you in the witnessbox. Quite another shaped box, my good Holmes, I assure you. It matters nothing to me that you should know how my nephew died. It's not him we are talking about. It's you."
"The fellow who came for me--I've forgotten his name--said that you contracted it down in the East End among the sailors."
"I could only account for it so."
"You are proud of your brains, Holmes, are you not? Think yourself smart, don't you? You came across someone who was smarter this time. Now cast your mind back, Holmes. Can you think of no other way you could have got this thing?"
"I can't think. My mind is gone. For heaven's sake help me!"
"Yes, I will help you. I'll help you to understand just where you are and how you got there. I'd like you to know before you die."
"Give me something to ease my pain."
"Painful, is it? Yes, the coolies used to do some squealing towards the end. Takes you as cramp, I fancy."
"Yes, yes; it is cramp."
"Well, you can hear what I say, anyhow. Listen now! Can you remember any unusual incident in your life just about the time your symptoms began?"
"No, no; nothing."
"I'm too ill to think."
"Well, then, I'll help you. Did anything come by post?"
"A box by chance?"
"I'm fainting--I'm gone!"
"Listen, Holmes!" There was a sound as if he was shaking the dying man, and it was all that I could do to hold myself quiet in my hiding-place. "You must hear me. You SHALL hear me. Do you remember a box--an ivory box? It came on Wednesday. You opened it--do you remember?"
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