from the lost files of Sir Arthur Donan Coyle
“Watson, my dear fellow, I am at your disposal whenever you are ready to discuss the problem.”
I started, shaken out of the reverie into which I had fallen. “Good Lord, Holmes! It is true that I have been considering whether to consult you over something, but how did you know?”
Holmes smiled kindly. “You have been gazing into the fire all morning, only now and again glancing across at me, sometimes shaking your head, and sometimes nodding. It is clear that something troubles you, and that you are making up your mind as to whether to lay the matter before me. I assume it is connected to your visit to the Spiritualist meeting yesterday evening.”
“By Heavens, Holmes, this is sorcery! How could you possibly know about that?”
Holmes laughed. “You are too honest and open a fellow to ever keep a secret, Watson! Yesterday afternoon, you looked at the advertisement column in the evening newspaper at least three times, then made such a great to-do about going out to meet a friend that it was clear you were hiding something. I glanced at the section you had been perusing, and since I assumed you were interested in neither Dr Quick’s Liver Pills, nor Madame Fifi’s Corsetry Emporium, it was easy to deduce that you had gone to the meeting at the Marylebone Spiritualist Association. You have been unusually quiet ever since you returned, a clear sign that you are troubled in mind.”
“I am, Holmes, very troubled, but I know your scepticism regarding the subject of spiritualism, and am unsure you will be able to help. However, I admit it would be a great relief simply to discuss the matter with you, if you are willing.”
Holmes indicated that I should continue, so I began my story.
“Yesterday, as you may recall, was the second anniversary of the death of my beloved wife, Mary.” Holmes reached across and patted my knee gently. I continued: “It seemed, therefore, a sign, when I saw that the Marylebone Spiritualist Association had a meeting planned, with the design of helping the bereaved to communicate with those they had lost. I determined to attend.” I glanced at Holmes, half-expecting a scornful response, but he merely smiled sympathetically and gestured for me to go on.
“To keep the matter short, I shall say at once that I was not fortunate enough to contact my dear Mary.” I paused to blow my nose. “Next to me, there sat a woman, dressed all in black, and visibly shaking. The meeting wore on, with various audience members receiving messages via the medium from those who have passed before us to a better life. Then it seemed as if the medium slumped into an even deeper trance, and from her came a gruff voice, unmistakeably the voice of a man!
““Ruby!” the voice said. “Ruby! You have betrayed me, Ruby, and you shall pay with your life! Expect me this time tomorrow…”
“The woman next to me sprang to her feet with a terrible shriek, and fell to the floor in a dead faint. I had her carried to a quiet room and laid on a sofa, and after a brief time, I managed to revive her. But while I was examining her, I discovered that her pulse was faint and irregular, and her lips had the bluish tinge that comes with disease. I fear her heart is very weak, Holmes, and if she were to sustain another such shock, it may kill her.
“When she came round, she told me that the voice was that of her deceased first husband, Albert Simpson, who had been a well-respected lawyer. She has recently married again, to a Mr Josiah Engle, and came to the meeting to seek Albert’s approval. His accusation of betrayal has distressed her profoundly, and she is in terror of his promise that he will come to her later today. It seems he was a kindly husband to her in life, so his apparent cruelty now has been doubly upsetting.”
“A strange story indeed,” said my friend, as he reached for his pipe. We sat in silence for some time, he with the expression that told me he was thinking deeply, and I, comforted already by having shared my worry with him, and hopeful that somehow his great intellect would suggest a way to save this poor woman.
Finally Holmes knocked out his pipe and asked if I had Mrs Engle’s address. On my replying that I had, he leapt to his feet with that eager energy that indicates he is on the scent. “Come then, Watson, we have only a few hours – we must make haste!”
It was the last day of October, and the winter fog was already darkening the sky, while the damp air bit coldly. We walked the few streets to Mrs Engle’s home in one of the quiet little squares off the Marylebone Road. She seemed relieved to see me, though her state of nervous excitement was pitiable indeed. I gave her a tincture to calm her a little, and introduced my friend. Holmes’ reassuring manner quickly put her at her ease, and he then said gently “I have just two questions for you, madam, and then we shall leave you for a few hours, but I promise we shall both be here well before the appointed hour this evening You need have no fear – all will be well. Now, firstly, what was your maiden name?”
Mrs Engle looked surprised, but answered readily, “Gardner, sir. Ruby Ethel Gardner.”
“And what is Mr Engle’s profession?”
“Why,” she said, with a little hesitation, “why, he has no profession just at present. He… he… is looking out for a suitable opening.”
“Thank you. Come, Watson, we have no time to waste!”
And off we went again into the deepening gloom of the afternoon. Holmes hailed a cab and shouted to the driver “The Strand, man, as quickly as you can. There’s a sovereign in it if you get us there by four of the clock!”
“Where are we going, Holmes?” I asked.
“To Somerset House,” he replied, and lying back against the cushions with his eyes closed, would say no more.
We got there ten minutes before the hour struck, and Holmes told me to stay in the cab while he entered the imposing building. I knew that Somerset House was where the records of all the births, marriages and deaths in England were stored, but I was at a loss to understand my friend’s reason for coming here. No more than twenty minutes passed before he emerged, jumping into the cab and shouting “Back to Marylebone, my good man!”
As he settled back against the cushions, he said, “Better than I hoped, Watson! It is a strange thing, my dear fellow, that so many people enter into marriage without taking the simplest precautions.” And not another word would he say on the matter until we reached our destination.
Mrs Engle was even more anxious than she had been earlier in the afternoon, and I feared she would become seriously ill if we could not find a way to relieve her fears quickly. I said as much to Holmes, and hinted that I hoped he would not allow his love for the dramatic flourish to delay any reassurance he could give. He assented gravely, and asked Mrs Engle when she expected her husband to return home. As he spoke, there was a loud knock on the door and Mrs Engle said “He is here!”
“Halloa, Ruby, my dear!” A florid-faced little man, dressed in a loud checked suit, bustled busily into the room. “Who are your friends?”
“I,” said Holmes, coldly, “am Sherlock Holmes, and you, sir, are a cad!”
Engle paled visibly, and blustered, “How dare you, sir! What do you mean by this outrage?”
“I mean by it, sir, that you are the same Josiah Engle who married Elizabeth Cooper in 1885… and that you are still her husband, and father to her seven children! And now, having married this poor woman bigamously, you have set out to frighten her into an early grave, leaving all her late husband’s wealth in your unscrupulous hands!”
I feared the effect of this astounding statement on poor Mrs Engle – or, as it would appear, once again Mrs Simpson – but when I turned to attend to her, I was astonished to see a look of dawning hope on her face.
“Oh, Mr Holmes, do you mean… do you really mean that I am not, that I have never been married to this dreadful little man? Oh, how can I ever thank you? You have freed me from the prospect of a life of misery and regret!” And she put her face in her hands and wept tears of joy.
Later, once Holmes had thrown Engle unceremoniously out of the house, commanding him never to return on peril of arrest on a charge of bigamy and perhaps even attempted murder, Mrs Simpson and I begged him to tell us how he had deduced Engle’s villainous plan.
“It was elementary,” he said. “Working on the premise that the spirit world rarely interferes with our own, it was immediately obvious that the medium was a fraud, delivering a false message. The assumption therefore was that she was in the pay of someone who wanted to frighten Mrs Simpson. Why would anyone wish to do such a thing? Mrs Simpson’s address told me that she was a woman of some wealth, and Dr Watson had informed me that a severe shock may be enough to kill her. The usual question is often the right one – who would benefit? In this case, her new husband. I admit I was fortunate in my visit to Somerset House, where I went to check the terms of Mr Simpson’s will, to discover that Engle’s marriage to Mrs Simpson was in fact bigamous. That simplified matters greatly, since he has no legal claim whatsoever over the lady or her property. If only people would carry out these simple checks prior to marrying, if marry they must.”
We left a grateful and relieved Mrs Simpson, happily writing to ask her spinster sister to come and share her home, so that she would never again be driven by loneliness into a rash act.
I was happy, of course, at the outcome for Mrs Simpson, and grateful to my friend for all he had done to save her. However, I couldn’t shake my sorrow that the medium had proven to be a fraud. Without a true intermediary, I feared I would have to accept that I would never be able to contact my dear Mary. It was with a heavy heart that I retired for the night, and I lay awake for some time remembering my lost happiness. Eventually, kind sleep began to call to me and I fell into that half-dozing state when we are most receptive to those influences that are too fragile to withstand the full glare and hubbub of the waking world. As the clock struck midnight, as if from afar I heard my Mary’s sweet voice…
“Don’t give up, dear John. The veil that parts us is thick indeed, but may yet be torn asunder by the faith and courage of a true and loving heart.”
I came full awake and found my face wet with tears. Were they my own, or a last gift of love from my darling? And then, like a fading echo, I seemed again to hear her: “Keep faith, my dear one. Keep faith.”
“Always,” I whispered huskily into the night. “Always.”