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"Could they have forged a medical certificate?"
"Dangerous, Watson, very dangerous. No, I hardly see them doing that. Pull up, cabby! This is evidently the undertaker's, for we have just passed the pawnbroker's. Would go in, Watson? Your appearance inspires confidence. Ask what hour the Poultney Square funeral takes place to-morrow."
The woman in the shop answered me without hesitation that it was to be at eight o'clock in the morning. "You see, Watson, no mystery; everything above-board! In some way the legal forms have undoubtedly been complied with, and they think that they have little to fear. Well, there's nothing for it now but a direct frontal attack. Are you armed?"
"Well, well, we shall be strong enough. 'Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.' We simply can't afford to wait for the police or to keep within the four corners of the law. You can drive off, cabby. Now, Watson, we'll just take our luck together, as we have occasionally in the past."
He had rung loudly at the door of a great dark house in the centre of Poultney Square. It was opened immediately, and the figure of a tall woman was outlined against the dim-lit hall.
"Well, what do you want?" she asked sharply, peering at us through the darkness.
"I want to speak to Dr. Shlessinger," said Holmes.
"There is no such person here," she answered, and tried to close the door, but Holmes had jammed it with his foot.
"Well, I want to see the man who lives here, whatever he may call himself," said Holmes firmly.
She hesitated. Then she threw open the door. "Well, come in!" said she. "My husband is not afraid to face any man in the world." She closed the door behind us and showed us into a sitting-room on the right side of the hall, turning up the gas as she left us. "Mr. Peters will be with you in an instant," she said.
Her words were literally true, for we had hardly time to look around the dusty and moth-eaten apartment in which we found ourselves before the door opened and a big, clean-shaven bald-headed man stepped lightly into the room. He had a large red face, with pendulous cheeks, and a general air of superficial benevolence which was marred by a cruel, vicious mouth.
"There is surely some mistake here, gentlemen," he said in an unctuous, make-everything-easy voice. "I fancy that you have been misdirected. Possibly if you tried farther down the street- -"
"That will do; we have no time to waste," said my companion firmly. "You are Henry Peters, of Adelaide, late the Rev. Dr. Shlessinger, of Baden and South America. I am as sure of that as that my own name is Sherlock Holmes."
Peters, as I will now call him, started and stared hard at his formidable pursuer. "I guess your name does not frighten me, Mr. Holmes," said he coolly. "When a man's conscience is easy you can't rattle him. What is your business in my house?"
"I want to know what you have done with the Lady Frances Carfax, whom you brought away with you from Baden."
"I'd be very glad if you could tell me where that lady may be," Peters answered coolly. "I've a bill against her for a nearly a hundred pounds, and nothing to show for it but a couple of trumpery pendants that the dealer would hardly look at. She attached herself to Mrs. Peters and me at Baden--it is a fact that I was using another name at the time--and she stuck on to us until we came to London. I paid her bill and her ticket. Once in London, she gave us the slip, and, as I say, left these out-of-date jewels to pay her bills. You find her, Mr. Holmes, and I'm your debtor."
In MEAN to find her," said Sherlock Holmes. "I'm going through this house till I do find her."
"Where is your warrant?"
Holmes half drew a revolver from his pocket. "This will have to serve till a better one comes."
"Why, you're a common burglar."
"So you might describe me," said Holmes cheerfully. "My companion is also a dangerous ruffian. And together we are going through your house."
Our opponent opened the door.
"Fetch a policeman, Annie!" said he. There was a whisk of feminine skirts down the passage, and the hall door was opened and shut.
"Our time is limited, Watson," said Holmes. "If you try to stop us, Peters, you will most certainly get hurt. Where is that coffin which was brought into your house?"
"What do you want with the coffin? It is in use. There is a body in it."
"I must see the body."
"Never with my consent."
"Then without it." With a quick movement Holmes pushed the fellow to one side and passed into the hall. A door half opened stood immediately before us. We entered. It was the dining-room. On the table, under a half-lit chandelier, the coffin was lying. Holmes turned up the gas and raised the lid. Deep down in the recesses of the coffin lay an emaciated figure. The glare from the lights above beat down upon an aged and withered face. By no possible process of cruelty, starvation, or disease could this wornout wreck be the still beautiful Lady Frances. Holmes's face showed his amazement, and also his relief.
"Thank God!" he muttered. "It's someone else."
"Ah, you've blundered badly for once, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Peters, who had followed us into the room.
"Who is the dead woman?"
"Well, if you really must know, she is an old nurse of my wife's, Rose Spender by name, whom we found in the Brixton Workhouse Infirmary. We brought her round here, called in Dr. Horsom, of 13 Firbank Villas--mind you take the address, Mr. Holmes--and had her carefully tended, as Christian folk should. On the third day she died--certificate says senile decay--but that's only the doctor's opinion, and of course you know better. We ordered her funeral to be carried out by Stimson and Co., of the Kennington Road, who will bury her at eight o'clock to-morrow morning. Can you pick any hole in that, Mr. Holmes? You've made a silly blunder, and you may as well own up to it. I'd give something for a photograph of your gaping, staring face when you pulled aside that lid expecting to see the Lady Frances Carfax and only found a poor old woman of ninety."
Holmes's expression was as impassive as ever under the jeers of his antagonist, but his clenched hands betrayed his acute annoyance.
"I am going through your house," said he.
"Are you, though!" cried Peters as a woman's voice and heavy steps sounded in the passage. "We'll soon see about that. This way, officers, if you please. These men have forced their way into my house, and I cannot get rid of them. Help me to put them out."
A sergeant and a constable stood in the doorway. Holmes drew his card from his case.
"This is my name and address. This is my friend, Dr. Watson."
"Bless you, sir, we know you very well," said the sergeant, "but you can't stay here without a warrant."
"Of course not. I quite understand that."
"Arrest him!" cried Peters.
"We know where to lay our hands on this gentleman if he is wanted," said the sergeant majestically, "but you'll have to go, Mr. Holmes."
"Yes, Watson, we shall have to go."
A minute later we were in the street once more. Holmes was as cool as ever, but I was hot with anger and humiliation. The sergeant had followed us.
"Sorry, Mr. Holmes, but that's the law."
"Exactly, Sergeant, you could not do otherwise."
"I expect there was good reason for your presence there. If there is anything I can do--"
"It's a missing lady, Sergeant, and we think she is in that house. I expect a warrant presently."
"Then I'll keep my eye on the parties, Mr. Holmes. If anything comes along, I will surely let you know."
It was only nine o'clock, and we were off full cry upon the trail at once. First we drove to Brixton Workhoused Infirmary, where we found that it was indeed the truth that a charitable couple had called some days before, that they had claimed an imbecile old woman as a former servant, and that they had obtained permission to take her away with them. No surprise was expressed at the news that she had since died.
The doctor was our next goal. He had been called in, had found the woman dying of pure senility, had actually seen her pass away, and had signed the certificate in due form. "I assure you that everything was perfectly normal and there was no room for foul play in the matter," said he. Nothing in the house had struck him as suspicious save that for people of their class it was remarkable that they should have no servant. So far and no further went the doctor.
Finally we found our way to Scotland Yard. There had been difficulties of procedure in regard to the warrant. Some delay was inevitable. The magistrate's signature might not be obtained until next morning. If Holmes would call about nine he could go down with Lestrade and see it acted upon. So ended the day, save that near midnight our friend, the sergeant, called to say that he had seen flickering lights here and there in the windows of the great dark house, but that no one had left it and none had entered. We could but pray for patience and wait for the morrow.
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