The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

[In publishing these short sketches based upon the numerous cases in which my companion's singular gifts have made us the listeners to, and eventually the actors in, some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures. And this not so much for the sake of his reputation—for, indeed, it was when he was at his wits' end that his energy and his versatility were most admirable—but because where he failed it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was left forever without a conclusion. Now and again, however, it chanced that even when he erred, the truth was still discovered. I have noted of some half-dozen cases of the kind; the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual and that which I am about to recount are the two which present the strongest features of interest.]

Adventure II. The Yellow Face

Sherlock Holmes was a man who seldom took exercise for exercise's sake. Few men were capable of greater muscular effort, and he was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen; but he looked upon aimless bodily exertion as a waste of energy, and he seldom bestirred himself save when there was some professional object to be served. Then he was absolutely untiring and indefatigable. That he should have kept himself in training under such circumstances is remarkable, but his diet was usually of the sparest, and his habits were simple to the verge of austerity. Save for the occasional use of cocaine, he had no vices, and he only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.

One day in early spring he had so far relaxed as to go for a walk with me in the Park, where the first faint shoots of green were breaking out upon the elms, and the sticky spear-heads of the chestnuts were just beginning to burst into their five-fold leaves. For two hours we rambled about together, in silence for the most part, as befits two men who know each other intimately. It was nearly five before we were back in Baker Street once more.

"Beg pardon, sir,” said our page-boy, as he opened the door. "There's been a gentleman here asking for you, sir.”

Holmes glanced reproachfully at me. "So much for afternoon walks!” said he. "Has this gentleman gone, then?”

"Yes, sir.”

"Didn't you ask him in?”

"Yes, sir; he came in.”

"How long did he wait?”

"Half an hour, sir. He was a very restless gentleman, sir, a-walkin' and a-stampin' all the time he was here. I was waitin' outside the door, sir, and I could hear him. At last he outs into the passage, and he cries, 'Is that man never goin' to come?' Those were his very words, sir. 'You'll only need to wait a little longer,' says I. 'Then I'll wait in the open air, for I feel half choked,' says he. 'I'll be back before long.' And with that he ups and he outs, and all I could say wouldn't hold him back.”

"Well, well, you did your best,” said Holmes, as we walked into our room. "It's very annoying, though, Watson. I was badly in need of a case, and this looks, from the man's impatience, as if it were of importance. Hullo! That's not your pipe on the table. He must have left his behind him. A nice old brier with a good long stem of what the tobacconists call amber. I wonder how many real amber mouthpieces there are in London? Some people think that a fly in it is a sign. Well, he must have been disturbed in his mind to leave a pipe behind him which he evidently values highly.”

"How do you know that he values it highly?” I asked.

"Well, I should put the original cost of the pipe at seven and sixpence. Now it has, you see, been twice mended, once in the wooden stem and once in the amber. Each of these mends, done, as you observe, with silver bands, must have cost more than the pipe did originally. The man must value the pipe highly when he prefers to patch it up rather than buy a new one with the same money.”

"Anything else?” I asked, for Holmes was turning the pipe about in his hand, and staring at it in his peculiar pensive way.

He held it up and tapped on it with his long, thin fore-finger, as a professor might who was lecturing on a bone.

"Pipes are occasionally of extraordinary interest,” said he. "Nothing has more individuality, save perhaps watches and bootlaces. The indications here, however, are neither very marked nor very important. The owner is obviously a muscular man, left-handed, with an excellent set of teeth, careless in his habits, and with no need to practise economy.”

My friend threw out the information in a very offhand way, but I saw that he cocked his eye at me to see if I had followed his reasoning.

"You think a man must be well-to-do if he smokes a seven-shilling pipe,” said I.

"This is Grosvenor mixture at eightpence an ounce,” Holmes answered, knocking a little out on his palm. "As he might get an excellent smoke for half the price, he has no need to practise economy.”

"And the other points?”

"He has been in the habit of lighting his pipe at lamps and gas-jets. You can see that it is quite charred all down one side. Of course a match could not have done that. Why should a man hold a match to the side of his pipe? But you cannot light it at a lamp without getting the bowl charred. And it is all on the right side of the pipe. From that I gather that he is a left-handed man. You hold your own pipe to the lamp, and see how naturally you, being right-handed, hold the left side to the flame. You might do it once the other way, but not as a constancy. This has always been held so. Then he has bitten through his amber. It takes a muscular, energetic fellow, and one with a good set of teeth, to do that. But if I am not mistaken I hear him upon the stair, so we shall have something more interesting than his pipe to study.”

An instant later our door opened, and a tall young man entered the room. He was well but quietly dressed in a dark-gray suit, and carried a brown wide-awake in his hand. I should have put him at about thirty, though he was really some years older.

"I beg your pardon,” said he, with some embarrassment; "I suppose I should have knocked. Yes, of course I should have knocked. The fact is that I am a little upset, and you must put it all down to that.” He passed his hand over his forehead like a man who is half dazed, and then fell rather than sat down upon a chair.

"I can see that you have not slept for a night or two,” said Holmes, in his easy, genial way. "That tries a man's nerves more than work, and more even than pleasure. May I ask how I can help you?”

"I wanted your advice, sir. I don't know what to do and my whole life seems to have gone to pieces.”

"You wish to employ me as a consulting detective?”

"Not that only. I want your opinion as a judicious man—as a man of the world. I want to know what I ought to do next. I hope to God you'll be able to tell me.”

He spoke in little, sharp, jerky outbursts, and it seemed to me that to speak at all was very painful to him, and that his will all through was overriding his inclinations.

"It's a very delicate thing,” said he. "One does not like to speak of one's domestic affairs to strangers. It seems dreadful to discuss the conduct of one's wife with two men whom I have never seen before. It's horrible to have to do it. But I've got to the end of my tether, and I must have advice.”

"My dear Mr. Grant Munro—” began Holmes.

Our visitor sprang from his chair. "What!” he cried, "you know my name?”

"If you wish to preserve your incognito,” said Holmes, smiling, "I would suggest that you cease to write your name upon the lining of your hat, or else that you turn the crown towards the person whom you are addressing. I was about to say that my friend and I have listened to a good many strange secrets in this room, and that we have had the good fortune to bring peace to many troubled souls. I trust that we may do as much for you. Might I beg you, as time may prove to be of importance, to furnish me with the facts of your case without further delay?”

Our visitor again passed his hand over his forehead, as if he found it bitterly hard. From every gesture and expression I could see that he was a reserved, self-contained man, with a dash of pride in his nature, more likely to hide his wounds than to expose them. Then suddenly, with a fierce gesture of his closed hand, like one who throws reserve to the winds, he began.

"The facts are these, Mr. Holmes,” said he. "I am a married man, and have been so for three years. During that time my wife and I have loved each other as fondly and lived as happily as any two that ever were joined. We have not had a difference, not one, in thought or word or deed. And now, since last Monday, there has suddenly sprung up a barrier between us, and I find that there is something in her life and in her thought of which I know as little as if she were the woman who brushes by me in the street. We are estranged, and I want to know why.

"Now there is one thing that I want to impress upon you before I go any further, Mr. Holmes. Effie loves me. Don't let there be any mistake about that. She loves me with her whole heart and soul, and never more than now. I know it. I feel it. I don't want to argue about that. A man can tell easily enough when a woman loves him. But there's this secret between us, and we can never be the same until it is cleared.”

"Kindly let me have the facts, Mr. Munro,” said Holmes, with some impatience.

"I'll tell you what I know about Effie's history. She was a widow when I met her first, though quite young—only twenty-five. Her name then was Mrs. Hebron. She went out to America when she was young, and lived in the town of Atlanta, where she married this Hebron, who was a lawyer with a good practice. They had one child, but the yellow fever broke out badly in the place, and both husband and child died of it. I have seen his death certificate. This sickened her of America, and she came back to live with a maiden aunt at Pinner, in Middlesex. I may mention that her husband had left her comfortably off, and that she had a capital of about four thousand five hundred pounds, which had been so well invested by him that it returned an average of seven per cent. She had only been six months at Pinner when I met her; we fell in love with each other, and we married a few weeks afterwards.

"I am a hop merchant myself, and as I have an income of seven or eight hundred, we found ourselves comfortably off, and took a nice eighty-pound-a-year villa at Norbury. Our little place was very countrified, considering that it is so close to town. We had an inn and two houses a little above us, and a single cottage at the other side of the field which faces us, and except those there were no houses until you got half way to the station. My business took me into town at certain seasons, but in summer I had less to do, and then in our country home my wife and I were just as happy as could be wished. I tell you that there never was a shadow between us until this accursed affair began.

"There's one thing I ought to tell you before I go further. When we married, my wife made over all her property to me—rather against my will, for I saw how awkward it would be if my business affairs went wrong. However, she would have it so, and it was done. Well, about six weeks ago she came to me.

"'Jack,' said she, 'when you took my money you said that if ever I wanted any I was to ask you for it.'

"'Certainly,' said I. 'It's all your own.'

"'Well,' said she, 'I want a hundred pounds.'

"I was a bit staggered at this, for I had imagined it was simply a new dress or something of the kind that she was after.

"'What on earth for?' I asked.

"'Oh,' said she, in her playful way, 'you said that you were only my banker, and bankers never ask questions, you know.'

"'If you really mean it, of course you shall have the money,' said I.

"'Oh, yes, I really mean it.'

"'And you won't tell me what you want it for?'

"'Some day, perhaps, but not just at present, Jack.'

"So I had to be content with that, though it was the first time that there had ever been any secret between us. I gave her a check, and I never thought any more of the matter. It may have nothing to do with what came afterwards, but I thought it only right to mention it.

"Well, I told you just now that there is a cottage not far from our house. There is just a field between us, but to reach it you have to go along the road and then turn down a lane. Just beyond it is a nice little grove of Scotch firs, and I used to be very fond of strolling down there, for trees are always a neighborly kind of things. The cottage had been standing empty this eight months, and it was a pity, for it was a pretty two-storied place, with an old-fashioned porch and honeysuckle about it. I have stood many a time and thought what a neat little homestead it would make.

"Well, last Monday evening I was taking a stroll down that way, when I met an empty van coming up the lane, and saw a pile of carpets and things lying about on the grass-plot beside the porch. It was clear that the cottage had at last been let. I walked past it, and wondered what sort of folk they were who had come to live so near us. And as I looked I suddenly became aware that a face was watching me out of one of the upper windows.

"I don't know what there was about that face, Mr. Holmes, but it seemed to send a chill right down my back. I was some little way off, so that I could not make out the features, but there was something unnatural and inhuman about the face. That was the impression that I had, and I moved quickly forwards to get a nearer view of the person who was watching me. But as I did so the face suddenly disappeared, so suddenly that it seemed to have been plucked away into the darkness of the room. I stood for five minutes thinking the business over, and trying to analyze my impressions. I could not tell if the face were that of a man or a woman. It had been too far from me for that. But its color was what had impressed me most. It was of a livid chalky white, and with something set and rigid about it which was shockingly unnatural. So disturbed was I that I determined to see a little more of the new inmates of the cottage. I approached and knocked at the door, which was instantly opened by a tall, gaunt woman with a harsh, forbidding face.

"'What may you be wantin'?' she asked, in a Northern accent.

"'I am your neighbor over yonder,' said I, nodding towards my house. 'I see that you have only just moved in, so I thought that if I could be of any help to you in any—'

"'Ay, we'll just ask ye when we want ye,' said she, and shut the door in my face. Annoyed at the churlish rebuff, I turned my back and walked home. All evening, though I tried to think of other things, my mind would still turn to the apparition at the window and the rudeness of the woman. I determined to say nothing about the former to my wife, for she is a nervous, highly strung woman, and I had no wish that she would share the unpleasant impression which had been produced upon myself. I remarked to her, however, before I fell asleep, that the cottage was now occupied, to which she returned no reply.

"I am usually an extremely sound sleeper. It has been a standing jest in the family that nothing could ever wake me during the night. And yet somehow on that particular night, whether it may have been the slight excitement produced by my little adventure or not I know not, but I slept much more lightly than usual. Half in my dreams I was dimly conscious that something was going on in the room, and gradually became aware that my wife had dressed herself and was slipping on her mantle and her bonnet. My lips were parted to murmur out some sleepy words of surprise or remonstrance at this untimely preparation, when suddenly my half-opened eyes fell upon her face, illuminated by the candle-light, and astonishment held me dumb. She wore an expression such as I had never seen before—such as I should have thought her incapable of assuming. She was deadly pale and breathing fast, glancing furtively towards the bed as she fastened her mantle, to see if she had disturbed me. Then, thinking that I was still asleep, she slipped noiselessly from the room, and an instant later I heard a sharp creaking which could only come from the hinges of the front door. I sat up in bed and rapped my knuckles against the rail to make certain that I was truly awake. Then I took my watch from under the pillow. It was three in the morning. What on this earth could my wife be doing out on the country road at three in the morning?

"I had sat for about twenty minutes turning the thing over in my mind and trying to find some possible explanation. The more I thought, the more extraordinary and inexplicable did it appear. I was still puzzling over it when I heard the door gently close again, and her footsteps coming up the stairs.

"'Where in the world have you been, Effie?' I asked as she entered.

"She gave a violent start and a kind of gasping cry when I spoke, and that cry and start troubled me more than all the rest, for there was something indescribably guilty about them. My wife had always been a woman of a frank, open nature, and it gave me a chill to see her slinking into her own room, and crying out and wincing when her own husband spoke to her.

"'You awake, Jack!' she cried, with a nervous laugh. 'Why, I thought that nothing could awake you.'

"'Where have you been?' I asked, more sternly.

"'I don't wonder that you are surprised,' said she, and I could see that her fingers were trembling as she undid the fastenings of her mantle. 'Why, I never remember having done such a thing in my life before. The fact is that I felt as though I were choking, and had a perfect longing for a breath of fresh air. I really think that I should have fainted if I had not gone out. I stood at the door for a few minutes, and now I am quite myself again.'

"All the time that she was telling me this story she never once looked in my direction, and her voice was quite unlike her usual tones. It was evident to me that she was saying what was false. I said nothing in reply, but turned my face to the wall, sick at heart, with my mind filled with a thousand venomous doubts and suspicions. What was it that my wife was concealing from me? Where had she been during that strange expedition? I felt that I should have no peace until I knew, and yet I shrank from asking her again after once she had told me what was false. All the rest of the night I tossed and tumbled, framing theory after theory, each more unlikely than the last.

"I should have gone to the City that day, but I was too disturbed in my mind to be able to pay attention to business matters. My wife seemed to be as upset as myself, and I could see from the little questioning glances which she kept shooting at me that she understood that I disbelieved her statement, and that she was at her wits' end what to do. We hardly exchanged a word during breakfast, and immediately afterwards I went out for a walk, that I might think the matter out in the fresh morning air.

"I went as far as the Crystal Palace, spent an hour in the grounds, and was back in Norbury by one o'clock. It happened that my way took me past the cottage, and I stopped for an instant to look at the windows, and to see if I could catch a glimpse of the strange face which had looked out at me on the day before. As I stood there, imagine my surprise, Mr. Holmes, when the door suddenly opened and my wife walked out.

"I was struck dumb with astonishment at the sight of her; but my emotions were nothing to those which showed themselves upon her face when our eyes met. She seemed for an instant to wish to shrink back inside the house again; and then, seeing how useless all concealment must be, she came forward, with a very white face and frightened eyes which belied the smile upon her lips.

"'Ah, Jack,' she said, 'I have just been in to see if I can be of any assistance to our new neighbors. Why do you look at me like that, Jack? You are not angry with me?'

"'So,' said I, 'this is where you went during the night.'

"'What do you mean?' she cried.

"'You came here. I am sure of it. Who are these people, that you should visit them at such an hour?'

"'I have not been here before.'

"'How can you tell me what you know is false?' I cried. 'Your very voice changes as you speak. When have I ever had a secret from you? I shall enter that cottage, and I shall probe the matter to the bottom.'

"'No, no, Jack, for God's sake!' she gasped, in uncontrollable emotion. Then, as I approached the door, she seized my sleeve and pulled me back with convulsive strength.

"'I implore you not to do this, Jack,' she cried. 'I swear that I will tell you everything some day, but nothing but misery can come of it if you enter that cottage.' Then, as I tried to shake her off, she clung to me in a frenzy of entreaty.

"'Trust me, Jack!' she cried. 'Trust me only this once. You will never have cause to regret it. You know that I would not have a secret from you if it were not for your own sake. Our whole lives are at stake in this. If you come home with me, all will be well. If you force your way into that cottage, all is over between us.'

"There was such earnestness, such despair, in her manner that her words arrested me, and I stood irresolute before the door.

"'I will trust you on one condition, and on one condition only,' said I at last. 'It is that this mystery comes to an end from now. You are at liberty to preserve your secret, but you must promise me that there shall be no more nightly visits, no more doings which are kept from my knowledge. I am willing to forget those which are passed if you will promise that there shall be no more in the future.'

"'I was sure that you would trust me,' she cried, with a great sigh of relief. 'It shall be just as you wish. Come away—oh, come away up to the house.'

"Still pulling at my sleeve, she led me away from the cottage. As we went I glanced back, and there was that yellow livid face watching us out of the upper window. What link could there be between that creature and my wife? Or how could the coarse, rough woman whom I had seen the day before be connected with her? It was a strange puzzle, and yet I knew that my mind could never know ease again until I had solved it.

"For two days after this I stayed at home, and my wife appeared to abide loyally by our engagement, for, as far as I know, she never stirred out of the house. On the third day, however, I had ample evidence that her solemn promise was not enough to hold her back from this secret influence which drew her away from her husband and her duty.

"I had gone into town on that day, but I returned by the 2.40 instead of the 3.36, which is my usual train. As I entered the house the maid ran into the hall with a startled face.

"'Where is your mistress?' I asked.

"'I think that she has gone out for a walk,' she answered.

"My mind was instantly filled with suspicion. I rushed upstairs to make sure that she was not in the house. As I did so I happened to glance out of one of the upper windows, and saw the maid with whom I had just been speaking running across the field in the direction of the cottage. Then of course I saw exactly what it all meant. My wife had gone over there, and had asked the servant to call her if I should return. Tingling with anger, I rushed down and hurried across, determined to end the matter once and forever. I saw my wife and the maid hurrying back along the lane, but I did not stop to speak with them. In the cottage lay the secret which was casting a shadow over my life. I vowed that, come what might, it should be a secret no longer. I did not even knock when I reached it, but turned the handle and rushed into the passage.

"It was all still and quiet upon the ground floor. In the kitchen a kettle was singing on the fire, and a large black cat lay coiled up in the basket; but there was no sign of the woman whom I had seen before. I ran into the other room, but it was equally deserted. Then I rushed up the stairs, only to find two other rooms empty and deserted at the top. There was no one at all in the whole house. The furniture and pictures were of the most common and vulgar description, save in the one chamber at the window of which I had seen the strange face. That was comfortable and elegant, and all my suspicions rose into a fierce bitter flame when I saw that on the mantelpiece stood a copy of a full-length photograph of my wife, which had been taken at my request only three months ago.

"I stayed long enough to make certain that the house was absolutely empty. Then I left it, feeling a weight at my heart such as I had never had before. My wife came out into the hall as I entered my house; but I was too hurt and angry to speak with her, and pushing past her, I made my way into my study. She followed me, however, before I could close the door.

"'I am sorry that I broke my promise, Jack,' said she; 'but if you knew all the circumstances I am sure that you would forgive me.'

"'Tell me everything, then,' said I.

"'I cannot, Jack, I cannot,' she cried.

"'Until you tell me who it is that has been living in that cottage, and who it is to whom you have given that photograph, there can never be any confidence between us,' said I, and breaking away from her, I left the house. That was yesterday, Mr. Holmes, and I have not seen her since, nor do I know anything more about this strange business. It is the first shadow that has come between us, and it has so shaken me that I do not know what I should do for the best. Suddenly this morning it occurred to me that you were the man to advise me, so I have hurried to you now, and I place myself unreservedly in your hands. If there is any point which I have not made clear, pray question me about it. But, above all, tell me quickly what I am to do, for this misery is more than I can bear.”

Holmes and I had listened with the utmost interest to this extraordinary statement, which had been delivered in the jerky, broken fashion of a man who is under the influence of extreme emotions. My companion sat silent for some time, with his chin upon his hand, lost in thought.

"Tell me,” said he at last, "could you swear that this was a man's face which you saw at the window?”

"Each time that I saw it I was some distance away from it, so that it is impossible for me to say.”

"You appear, however, to have been disagreeably impressed by it.”

"It seemed to be of an unnatural color, and to have a strange rigidity about the features. When I approached, it vanished with a jerk.”

"How long is it since your wife asked you for a hundred pounds?”

"Nearly two months.”

"Have you ever seen a photograph of her first husband?”

"No; there was a great fire at Atlanta very shortly after his death, and all her papers were destroyed.”

"And yet she had a certificate of death. You say that you saw it.”

"Yes; she got a duplicate after the fire.”

"Did you ever meet any one who knew her in America?”


"Did she ever talk of revisiting the place?”


"Or get letters from it?”


"Thank you. I should like to think over the matter a little now. If the cottage is now permanently deserted we may have some difficulty. If, on the other hand, as I fancy is more likely, the inmates were warned of your coming, and left before you entered yesterday, then they may be back now, and we should clear it all up easily. Let me advise you, then, to return to Norbury, and to examine the windows of the cottage again. If you have reason to believe that it is inhabited, do not force your way in, but send a wire to my friend and me. We shall be with you within an hour of receiving it, and we shall then very soon get to the bottom of the business.”

"And if it is still empty?”

"In that case I shall come out to-morrow and talk it over with you. Good-by; and, above all, do not fret until you know that you really have a cause for it.”

"I am afraid that this is a bad business, Watson,” said my companion, as he returned after accompanying Mr. Grant Munro to the door. "What do you make of it?”

"It had an ugly sound,” I answered.

"Yes. There's blackmail in it, or I am much mistaken.”

"And who is the blackmailer?”

"Well, it must be the creature who lives in the only comfortable room in the place, and has her photograph above his fireplace. Upon my word, Watson, there is something very attractive about that livid face at the window, and I would not have missed the case for worlds.”

"You have a theory?”

"Yes, a provisional one. But I shall be surprised if it does not turn out to be correct. This woman's first husband is in that cottage.”

"Why do you think so?”

"How else can we explain her frenzied anxiety that her second one should not enter it? The facts, as I read them, are something like this: This woman was married in America. Her husband developed some hateful qualities; or shall we say that he contracted some loathsome disease, and became a leper or an imbecile? She flies from him at last, returns to England, changes her name, and starts her life, as she thinks, afresh. She has been married three years, and believes that her position is quite secure, having shown her husband the death certificate of some man whose name she has assumed, when suddenly her whereabouts is discovered by her first husband; or, we may suppose, by some unscrupulous woman who has attached herself to the invalid. They write to the wife, and threaten to come and expose her. She asks for a hundred pounds, and endeavors to buy them off. They come in spite of it, and when the husband mentions casually to the wife that there are new-comers in the cottage, she knows in some way that they are her pursuers. She waits until her husband is asleep, and then she rushes down to endeavor to persuade them to leave her in peace. Having no success, she goes again next morning, and her husband meets her, as he has told us, as she comes out. She promises him then not to go there again, but two days afterwards the hope of getting rid of those dreadful neighbors was too strong for her, and she made another attempt, taking down with her the photograph which had probably been demanded from her. In the midst of this interview the maid rushed in to say that the master had come home, on which the wife, knowing that he would come straight down to the cottage, hurried the inmates out at the back door, into the grove of fir-trees, probably, which was mentioned as standing near. In this way he found the place deserted. I shall be very much surprised, however, if it is still so when he reconnoitres it this evening. What do you think of my theory?”

"It is all surmise.”

"But at least it covers all the facts. When new facts come to our knowledge which cannot be covered by it, it will be time enough to reconsider it. We can do nothing more until we have a message from our friend at Norbury.”

But we had not a very long time to wait for that. It came just as we had finished our tea. "The cottage is still tenanted,” it said. "Have seen the face again at the window. Will meet the seven o'clock train, and will take no steps until you arrive.”

He was waiting on the platform when we stepped out, and we could see in the light of the station lamps that he was very pale, and quivering with agitation.

"They are still there, Mr. Holmes,” said he, laying his hand hard upon my friend's sleeve. "I saw lights in the cottage as I came down. We shall settle it now once and for all.”

"What is your plan, then?” asked Holmes, as he walked down the dark tree-lined road.

"I am going to force my way in and see for myself who is in the house. I wish you both to be there as witnesses.”

"You are quite determined to do this, in spite of your wife's warning that it is better that you should not solve the mystery?”

"Yes, I am determined.”

"Well, I think that you are in the right. Any truth is better than indefinite doubt. We had better go up at once. Of course, legally, we are putting ourselves hopelessly in the wrong; but I think that it is worth it.”

It was a very dark night, and a thin rain began to fall as we turned from the high road into a narrow lane, deeply rutted, with hedges on either side. Mr. Grant Munro pushed impatiently forward, however, and we stumbled after him as best we could.

"There are the lights of my house,” he murmured, pointing to a glimmer among the trees. "And here is the cottage which I am going to enter.”

We turned a corner in the lane as he spoke, and there was the building close beside us. A yellow bar falling across the black foreground showed that the door was not quite closed, and one window in the upper story was brightly illuminated. As we looked, we saw a dark blur moving across the blind.

"There is that creature!” cried Grant Munro. "You can see for yourselves that some one is there. Now follow me, and we shall soon know all.”

We approached the door; but suddenly a woman appeared out of the shadow and stood in the golden track of the lamp-light. I could not see her face in the darkness, but her arms were thrown out in an attitude of entreaty.

"For God's sake, don't Jack!” she cried. "I had a presentiment that you would come this evening. Think better of it, dear! Trust me again, and you will never have cause to regret it.”

"I have trusted you too long, Effie,” he cried, sternly. "Leave go of me! I must pass you. My friends and I are going to settle this matter once and forever!” He pushed her to one side, and we followed closely after him. As he threw the door open an old woman ran out in front of him and tried to bar his passage, but he thrust her back, and an instant afterwards we were all upon the stairs. Grant Munro rushed into the lighted room at the top, and we entered at his heels.

It was a cosey, well-furnished apartment, with two candles burning upon the table and two upon the mantelpiece. In the corner, stooping over a desk, there sat what appeared to be a little girl. Her face was turned away as we entered, but we could see that she was dressed in a red frock, and that she had long white gloves on. As she whisked round to us, I gave a cry of surprise and horror. The face which she turned towards us was of the strangest livid tint, and the features were absolutely devoid of any expression. An instant later the mystery was explained. Holmes, with a laugh, passed his hand behind the child's ear, a mask peeled off from her countenance, and there was a little coal black negress, with all her white teeth flashing in amusement at our amazed faces. I burst out laughing, out of sympathy with her merriment; but Grant Munro stood staring, with his hand clutching his throat.

"My God!” he cried. "What can be the meaning of this?”

"I will tell you the meaning of it,” cried the lady, sweeping into the room with a proud, set face. "You have forced me, against my own judgment, to tell you, and now we must both make the best of it. My husband died at Atlanta. My child survived.”

"Your child?”

She drew a large silver locket from her bosom. "You have never seen this open.”

"I understood that it did not open.”

She touched a spring, and the front hinged back. There was a portrait within of a man strikingly handsome and intelligent-looking, but bearing unmistakable signs upon his features of his African descent.

"That is John Hebron, of Atlanta,” said the lady, "and a nobler man never walked the earth. I cut myself off from my race in order to wed him, but never once while he lived did I for an instant regret it. It was our misfortune that our only child took after his people rather than mine. It is often so in such matches, and little Lucy is darker far than ever her father was. But dark or fair, she is my own dear little girlie, and her mother's pet.” The little creature ran across at the words and nestled up against the lady's dress. "When I left her in America,” she continued, "it was only because her health was weak, and the change might have done her harm. She was given to the care of a faithful Scotch woman who had once been our servant. Never for an instant did I dream of disowning her as my child. But when chance threw you in my way, Jack, and I learned to love you, I feared to tell you about my child. God forgive me, I feared that I should lose you, and I had not the courage to tell you. I had to choose between you, and in my weakness I turned away from my own little girl. For three years I have kept her existence a secret from you, but I heard from the nurse, and I knew that all was well with her. At last, however, there came an overwhelming desire to see the child once more. I struggled against it, but in vain. Though I knew the danger, I determined to have the child over, if it were but for a few weeks. I sent a hundred pounds to the nurse, and I gave her instructions about this cottage, so that she might come as a neighbor, without my appearing to be in any way connected with her. I pushed my precautions so far as to order her to keep the child in the house during the daytime, and to cover up her little face and hands so that even those who might see her at the window should not gossip about there being a black child in the neighborhood. If I had been less cautious I might have been more wise, but I was half crazy with fear that you should learn the truth.

"It was you who told me first that the cottage was occupied. I should have waited for the morning, but I could not sleep for excitement, and so at last I slipped out, knowing how difficult it is to awake you. But you saw me go, and that was the beginning of my troubles. Next day you had my secret at your mercy, but you nobly refrained from pursuing your advantage. Three days later, however, the nurse and child only just escaped from the back door as you rushed in at the front one. And now to-night you at last know all, and I ask you what is to become of us, my child and me?” She clasped her hands and waited for an answer.

It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door.

"We can talk it over more comfortably at home,” said he. "I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

Holmes and I followed them down the lane, and my friend plucked at my sleeve as we came out.

"I think,” said he, "that we shall be of more use in London than in Norbury.”

Not another word did he say of the case until late that night, when he was turning away, with his lighted candle, for his bedroom.

"Watson,” said he, "if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper 'Norbury' in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

La cara groga

[En publicar aquests breus esbossos basats en els nombrosos casos en què els regals singulars del meu company ens han fet els oients i, finalment, en els actors, en algun drama estrany, és natural que hagi de meditar més sobre els seus èxits que no pas sobre els seus fracassos. I això no tant pel bé de la seva reputació - perquè, de fet, era quan estava a punt de perdre el seny que la seva energia i la seva versatilitat eren d'allò més admirables -, sinó perquè, allà on fracassava, passava massa sovint que ningú no se'n sortia, i que el relat quedava per sempre sense una conclusió. De tant en tant, però, s'adonava que, fins i tot quan es va equivocar, la veritat encara era descoberta. M'he fixat en una mitja dotzena de casos d'aquests: L'Aventura del Musgrave Ritual i el que estic a punt de relatar són els dos que presenten els trets més forts de l'interès.

La cara groga

Sherlock Holmes era un home que rarament feia exercici per fer exercici. Pocs homes eren capaços de fer un esforç més gran i musculós, i sens dubte era un dels millors boxejadors del seu pes que he vist mai; però contemplava l'esforç corporal sense rumb com un malbaratament d'energia, i poques vegades es preparava per salvar-se quan hi havia algun objecte professional per servir. Després es va mostrar absolutament descoratjador i infatigable. Que s'hagués d'haver entrenat en aquestes circumstàncies és remarcable, però la seva dieta solia ser de les més escasses, i els seus hàbits eren senzills fins al límit de l'austeritat. Tret de l'ús ocasional de la cocaïna, no tenia vicis, i només es girava cap a la droga com a protesta contra la monotonia de l'existència quan els casos eren escassos i els papers no eren interessants.

Un dia, a començaments de primavera, s'havia relaxat tant que havia d'anar a fer un volt amb mi pel Parc, on els primers brots de verd es trencaven sobre els oms, i les puntes de llança enganxoses de les castanyes tot just començaven a irrompre a les seves fulles de cinc plecs. Durant dues hores vam divagar junts, en silenci la major part, com correspon a dos homes que es coneixen íntimament. Eren gairebé les cinc quan vam tornar a ser a Baker Street.

- us demano perdó, senyor - va dir el nostre grum, mentre obria la porta -. - aquí hi ha un senyor que demana per vostè, senyor.

Holmes em va mirar amb retret. - tantes coses per a les passejades de la tarda! - digué ell -. - ja se n'ha anat, aquest senyor?

- sí, senyor.

- no li has demanat que entrés?

- sí, senyor; ha entrat.

- quant de temps va esperar?

- mitja hora, senyor. Era un cavaller molt inquiet, senyor, que no parava de caminar i de picar de peus. Jo estava a l'altra banda de la porta, senyor, i el sentia. Finalment, surt al passadís i crida: Aquestes eren les seves mateixes paraules, senyor. - només haurà d'esperar una mica més - diu jo -. - aleshores m'esperaré a l'aire lliure, perquè em sento mig ennuegat - diu -. - tornaré abans de temps. I amb això s'aixeca i se'n va, i tot el que li puc dir no el retindria.

- bé, bé, has fet el que has pogut - va dir Holmes mentre entràvem a la nostra habitació -. - però és molt empipador, Watson. Necessitava desesperadament un cas, i aquesta mirada, per la impaciència de l'home, era com si fos d'importància. Hola! Això no és la teva pipa sobre la taula. Devia haver deixat el seu darrere. Un bon brier vell amb una tija molt llarga del que els estancs anomenen ambre. Em pregunto quants trossos d'ambre de debò hi ha a Londres. Hi ha gent que es pensa que una mosca és un senyal. Bé, deu haver estat pertorbat mentalment per deixar una pipa darrere seu que, evidentment, valora molt.

- com saps que valora molt? - li vaig preguntar.

- bé, hauria de posar el cost original de la pipa a les set i sis penics. Ara ha estat sargit dues vegades, una a la tija de fusta i una altra a l'ambre. Cada un d'aquests remeis, fet, com observeu, amb bandes de plata, deu haver costat més del que la canonada va fer originàriament. L'home ha de valorar molt la pipa quan prefereix apedaçar-la en lloc de comprar-ne una de nova amb els mateixos diners.

- res més? - vaig preguntar, perquè Holmes feia girar la pipa a la seva mà, i la mirava amb la seva peculiar expressió pensarosa.

El va aixecar i hi va donar uns copets amb el dit del davant, llarg i prim, com un professor que fes classe en un os.

- les canonades de tant en tant tenen un interès extraordinari - va dir -. - res no té més individualitat, excepte potser rellotges i cordons. Les indicacions aquí, però, no són ni gaire marcades ni gaire importants. És evident que el propietari és un home musculós, esquerrà, amb unes dents excel·lents, despreocupat en els seus hàbits i sense necessitat de practicar economia.

El meu amic va llençar la informació d'una manera molt brusca, però vaig veure que em mirava per veure si havia seguit el seu raonament.

- creus que un home ha de ser benestant si fuma una pipa de set xílings? - va dir jo.

- aquesta barreja és de Grosvenor als vuitanta-cinc penics - va respondre Holmes, i es va donar uns copets al palmell de la mà -. Com que podria aconseguir un fum excel·lent per la meitat del preu, no té cap necessitat de practicar economia.

- i els altres punts?

- té el costum d'encendre la pipa a les llànties i als gas-jets. Es veu que està completament carbonitzat per un costat. És clar que un partit no ho hauria pogut fer. Per què un home hauria de tenir un llumí al costat de la pipa? Però no es pot encendre amb un llum sense que el bol es calmi. I tot és al costat dret de la canonada. D'això dedueixo que és un home esquerrà. Mantens la teva pròpia pipa al llum, i veus amb quina naturalitat tu, sent dretà, subjectes el costat esquerre a la flama. Podries fer-ho un cop a l'altra banda, però no com a constància. Això sempre s'ha mantingut així. Després s'ha mossegat l'ambre. Cal un tipus musculós i enèrgic, i un altre amb un bon joc de dents, per fer-ho. Però si no m'equivoco, el sento a l'escala, o sigui que tindrem alguna cosa més interessant que la seva pipa per estudiar.

Un instant després la nostra porta es va obrir i un jove alt va entrar a la sala. Anava ben vestit, però sense fer soroll, amb un vestit gris fosc, i duia un vestit marró ben despert a la mà. L'hauria d'haver posat als trenta anys, tot i que en realitat era uns quants anys més gran.

- perdona - va dir ell, una mica avergonyit -. Sí, és clar que hauria d'haver trucat. El fet és que estic una mica trasbalsada, i ho has de deixar tot per a això. - es va passar la mà pel front com un home que està mig atordit, i després va caure en comptes d'asseure's en una cadira -.

- veig que no heu dormit durant una o dues nits - va dir Holmes, amb la seva manera fàcil i cordial -. - això prova els nervis d'un home més que no pas la feina, i més encara que el plaer. Puc preguntar-li com el puc ajudar?

- volia el seu consell, senyor. No sé què fer i sembla que tota la meva vida s'hagi fet miques.

- em vol contractar com a inspector de consultoria?

- no només això. Vull la seva opinió com a home assenyat, com a home de món. Vull saber què hauria de fer a continuació. Espero que m'ho puguis dir.

Parlava en petits moments, aguts i espasmòdics, i em va semblar que parlar-li li feia molt de mal, i que la seva voluntat era dominar les seves inclinacions.

- és una cosa molt delicada - digué ell -. No li agrada parlar dels afers domèstics amb desconeguts. Em sembla espantós parlar de la conducta de la dona amb dos homes que no havia vist mai. És horrible haver-ho de fer. Però he d'acabar amb la meva corda, i he de tenir consell.

- estimat senyor Grant Munro... - començà Holmes.

El nostre visitant va saltar de la cadira. - què! - cridà -.

- si voleu conservar el vostre incògnit - va dir Holmes, somrient -, us suggeriria que deixéssiu d'escriure el vostre nom al folre del vostre barret, o bé que giréssiu la corona cap a la persona a qui us dirigiu. Estava a punt de dir que el meu amic i jo hem escoltat molts secrets estranys en aquesta sala, i que hem tingut la sort de portar la pau a moltes ànimes problemàtiques. Confio que podem fer el mateix per tu. Us puc suplicar, com pot ser que el temps tingui importància, que em proporcioni els fets del vostre cas sense més dilació?

El nostre visitant es va tornar a passar la mà pel front, com si li costés molt. Per cada gest i cada expressió veia que era un home reservat i independent, amb un rampell d'orgull per la seva naturalesa, més probable que amagués les ferides que no pas que les desemmascarés. Llavors, de sobte, amb un gest ferotge de la mà tancada, com qui llança reserva als vents, va començar.

- els fets són aquests, senyor Holmes - va dir -. Sóc un home casat, i fa tres anys que ho sóc. Durant aquest temps la meva dona i jo ens hem estimat amb tant d'afecte i hem viscut tan feliços com tots els dos que s'havien unit. No hem tingut cap diferència, ni una, en el pensament, ni en la paraula ni en l'escriptura. I ara, des del dilluns passat, de sobte s'ha aixecat una barrera entre nosaltres, i m'adono que hi ha alguna cosa en la seva vida i en el seu pensament que sé tan poc com si fos la dona que em passa pel costat pel carrer. Estem distanciats, i vull saber per què.

- ara hi ha una cosa que vull impressionar-vos abans de continuar, senyor Holmes. L'Effie m'estima. No deixis que hi hagi cap error en això. M'estima amb tot el seu cor i ànima, i mai més que ara. Ho sé. Ho noto. No vull discutir sobre això. Un home pot endevinar fàcilment quan una dona l'estima. Però hi ha un secret entre nosaltres, i mai no podrem ser el mateix fins que no s'hagi aclarit.

- permeti'm que li expliqui els fets, senyor Munro - va dir Holmes, amb certa impaciència -.

- et diré el que sé de la història de l'Effie. Era vídua quan la vaig conèixer, tot i que molt jove, només tenia vint-i-cinc anys. Aleshores es deia senyora Hebron. Va anar a Amèrica quan era petita i vivia a la ciutat d'Atlanta, on es va casar amb aquest Hebron, que era advocat amb una bona pràctica. Van tenir un fill, però la febre groga va esclatar de mala manera en aquell lloc, i tant marit com fill en van morir. He vist el seu certificat de defunció. Això la fastiguejava d'Amèrica, i va tornar a viure amb una tia donzella a Pinner, a Middlesex. Puc esmentar que el seu marit l'havia deixat còmodament fora de combat, i que tenia una capital d'unes quatre mil cinc-centes lliures, que havia estat tan ben invertida per ell que li va retornar una mitjana de set per cent.

Jo també sóc comerciant de salt, i com que tinc uns ingressos de set-cents o vuit-cents, ens vam trobar còmodament fora de combat i vam agafar una bonica vil·la de vuitanta-un anys a Norbury. El nostre petit lloc va ser molt contrarestat, tenint en compte que és molt a prop de la ciutat. Teníem una fonda i dues cases una mica més amunt, i una sola caseta a l'altra banda del camp que ens mirava, i excepte les que no hi havia cases fins que no arribaves a l'estació. Els meus negocis em portaven al poble en certes estacions, però a l'estiu tenia menys coses a fer, i després, a la nostra casa de camp, la meva dona i jo érem tan feliços com podíem desitjar. Et dic que mai no hi va haver una ombra entre nosaltres fins que va començar aquesta maleïda aventura.

- hi ha una cosa que t'hauria de dir abans de continuar. Quan ens vam casar, la meva dona em va fer totes les seves propietats, més aviat en contra de la meva voluntat, perquè vaig veure que seria molt difícil que els meus assumptes de negocis anessin malament. Tanmateix, ella ho tindria així, i ja estava fet. Bé, fa unes sis setmanes em va venir a veure.

- Jack - va dir ella -, quan vas agafar els meus diners vas dir que si mai en volia cap, t'ho demanaria.

- certament - va dir jo -. És tota teva.

- bé - va dir ella -.

- això em va fer trontollar una mica, perquè m'havia imaginat que era simplement un vestit nou o alguna cosa per l'estil que buscava.

- per què dimonis? - què passa? - vaig preguntar.

- oh - va dir ella, a la seva manera juganera -.

- si ho dius de debò, és clar que tindràs els diners - va dir jo -.

- oh, sí, de debò.

- ¿i no em vol dir per què la vol?

- potser algun dia, però no només de moment, Jacky.

- per tant, m'havia d'acontentar amb això, tot i que era la primera vegada que hi havia hagut algun secret entre nosaltres. Li vaig donar un xec i no vaig tornar a pensar en res més. Potser no té res a veure amb el que va venir després, però vaig pensar que era correcte esmentar-ho.

- bé, ja t'he dit ara que hi ha una cabanya no gaire lluny de casa nostra. Només hi ha un camp entre nosaltres, però per arribar-hi has d'anar per la carretera i després girar per un camí. Just a l'altra banda hi ha un petit bosquet de scotch, i a mi m'agradava molt passejar-me per allà, perquè els arbres sempre són una mena de coses de bon viure. Feia vuit mesos que la cabanya era buida, i era una llàstima, perquè era un lloc bonic de dos pisos, amb un porxo antiquat i un xuclamel al voltant. M'he estat dret moltes vegades i he pensat que seria una casa petita i polida.

- bé, dilluns passat al vespre anava a fer un tomb per aquell camí, quan vaig trobar una furgoneta buida que pujava pel caminoi, i vaig veure una pila de catifes i coses escampades per l'herba que hi havia al costat del porxo. Era clar que per fi havien deixat entrar la cabanya. Hi vaig passar pel costat i em vaig preguntar quina mena de gent eren que havien vingut a viure tan a prop nostre. I quan vaig mirar, de sobte em vaig adonar que una cara em mirava des d'una de les finestres de dalt.

- no sé què hi havia en aquella cara, senyor Holmes, però em va semblar que em venia un calfred a l'esquena. Era una mica lluny, de manera que no en podia distingir les faccions, però hi havia alguna cosa antinatural i inhumana en aquella cara. Aquesta era la impressió que tenia, i vaig avançar ràpidament per tenir una visió més propera de la persona que em mirava. Però en fer-ho la cara va desaparèixer de sobte, tan de sobte que semblava que l'haguessin arrencat en la foscor de l'habitació. Em vaig quedar cinc minuts pensant en el tema i intentant analitzar les meves impressions. No sabria dir si la cara era la d'un home o una dona. Havia estat massa lluny de mi per a això. Però el color era el que més m'havia impressionat. Era d'un blanc lívid com el guix, i tenia alguna cosa que no era natural. Estava tan trasbalsat que em vaig entestar a veure una mica més els nous interns de la cabanya. M'hi vaig acostar i vaig trucar a la porta, que immediatament va ser oberta per una dona alta i demacrada amb un rostre sever i sever.

- què és el que vols? - què passa? - va preguntar amb accent del nord.

- sóc el seu veí de més enllà - va dir jo, assenyalant casa meva amb el cap -. - ja veig que s'acaba d'instal·lar, o sigui que he pensat que si li podia ajudar en res...

- ja t'ho preguntarem quan vulguem - va dir ella, i em va tancar la porta als nassos. Empipat per aquell rebuig tan groller, em vaig girar d'esquena i vaig tornar a casa. Tota la nit, tot i que intentava pensar en altres coses, la meva ment encara es desviava cap a l'aparició a la finestra i la grolleria de la dona. Vaig decidir no dir res de l'anterior a la meva dona, perquè és una dona nerviosa i molt lligada, i no tenia cap ganes de compartir la desagradable impressió que m'havia produït. Li vaig comentar, però, abans d'adormir-me, que la cabanya estava ocupada, a la qual cosa ella no va respondre.

Normalment sóc un dormilega d'allò més sonor. Ha estat una broma de peu dret a la família que res no em podria despertar durant la nit. I, no obstant això, aquella nit en concret, si podia haver estat la lleugera excitació que produïa la meva petita aventura o no, no ho sé, però vaig dormir molt més a la lleugera que de costum. Mig en els meus somnis era vagament conscient que a l'habitació passava alguna cosa, i de mica en mica es va anar adonant que la meva dona s'havia vestit i s'havia posat el mantell i el barret. Els meus llavis es van separar per murmurar algunes paraules endormiscades de sorpresa o de retret davant d'aquella prematura preparació, quan, de sobte, els meus ulls mig oberts van caure sobre el seu rostre, il·luminats per la llum de l'espelma, i l'astorament em va fer emmudir. Tenia una expressió com no l'havia vista mai abans, com la que jo hauria pensat que era incapaç d'assumir. Estava molt pàl·lida i respirava de pressa, mirant furtivament cap al llit mentre es cordava el mantell, per veure si m'havia molestat. Llavors, pensant que encara dormia, es va esmunyir sense fer soroll de l'habitació, i al cap d'un moment vaig sentir un cruixit agut que només podia sortir de les frontisses de la porta d'entrada. Em vaig asseure al llit i vaig picar amb els nusos dels dits a la barana per assegurar-me que estava realment desperta. Després vaig treure el rellotge de sota el coixí. Eren les tres de la matinada. Què dimonis podia estar fent la meva dona a la carretera del camp a les tres de la matinada?

- feia uns vint minuts que seia donant voltes a la cosa i mirant de trobar alguna explicació possible. Com més hi pensava, més extraordinari i inexplicable semblava. Encara hi rumiava quan vaig sentir que la porta es tornava a tancar amb suavitat i que les seves passes pujaven les escales.

- on dimonis has estat, Effie? - què passa? - vaig preguntar quan ella va entrar.

- va fer un crit violent i una mena de crit ofegat quan vaig parlar, i aquell crit i aquell sobresalt em van preocupar més que tota la resta, perquè hi havia alguna cosa indescriptiblement culpable en ells. La meva dona sempre havia estat una dona d'una naturalesa franca i oberta, i em va venir un calfred en veure-la entrar a la seva habitació i cridar i fer una ganyota quan el seu marit li parlava.

- desperta't, Jack! Va plorar, amb una rialla nerviosa. - per què?

- on eres? - de debò? - vaig preguntar, amb més severitat.

- no m'estranya que et sorprengui - va dir ella, i vaig veure que li tremolaven els dits mentre es descordava les tanques del mantell. No recordo haver fet mai una cosa així. El fet és que em sentia com si m'estigués ennuegant i tingués un desig perfecte d'una alenada d'aire fresc. Realment penso que m'hauria d'haver desmaiat si no hagués sortit. Em vaig quedar uns minuts a la porta, i ara ja sóc ben bé jo mateixa.

- tota l'estona que em va estar explicant aquesta història no em va mirar ni una sola vegada, i la seva veu era molt diferent del seu to habitual. Era evident que deia el que era fals. No vaig dir res en resposta, sinó que vaig girar la cara cap a la paret, malalt de cor, amb el cap ple de mil dubtes i sospites verinoses. Què m'amagava la meva dona? On havia estat durant aquella estranya expedició? Vaig pensar que no hauria de tenir pau fins que no ho sabés, i tot i així em vaig encongir per no tornar-li a preguntar després d'una vegada que m'havia dit què era fals. Tota la resta de la nit vaig començar a donar voltes i més voltes a la teoria, cada vegada més improbable que l'anterior.

- aquell dia hauria d'haver anat a la City, però estava massa atabalat per poder parar atenció als assumptes de negocis. Semblava que la meva dona estava tan trasbalsada com jo, i per les mirades interrogants que no parava de llançar-me, vaig veure que entenia que no em creia la seva afirmació i que estava a punt d'acabar el que havia de fer. Amb prou feines vam intercanviar una paraula durant l'esmorzar, i immediatament després vaig sortir a fer un tomb, per pensar que l'assumpte sortiria a l'aire fresc del matí.

- vaig anar fins al Crystal Palace, vaig passar una hora als jardins i vaig tornar a Norbury cap a la una. Va passar que el meu camí em va portar més enllà de la cabanya, i em vaig aturar un moment per mirar les finestres, i per veure si podia entreveure la cara estranya que m'havia mirat el dia abans. Mentre era allà, imagini's la meva sorpresa, senyor Holmes, quan la porta es va obrir de sobte i la meva dona va sortir.

- em vaig quedar mut de sorpresa en veure-la; però les meves emocions no eren res per a aquells que es reflectien a la seva cara quan les nostres mirades es creuaven. Per un moment va semblar que desitjava tornar a entrar a la casa, i llavors, veient que tot era inútil, s'avançà, amb una cara molt blanca i uns ulls espantats que contradeien el somriure dels seus llavis.

- Ah, Jack - va dir -. Per què em mires així, Jack? No estàs enfadat amb mi?

- així doncs - va dir -, aquí és on vas anar durant la nit.

- ¿què vol dir? Va plorar.

- has vingut aquí. N'estic segur. Qui són aquesta gent, que els hauries de visitar a una hora com aquesta?

- no hi he estat mai.

- ¿com pot dir-me que el que sap és fals? Vaig plorar. La teva veu canvia quan parles. Quan he tingut mai un secret teu? Entraré a la cabanya i examinaré l'assumpte al fons.

- no, no, Jack, per l'amor de Déu! Va esbufegar, amb una emoció incontrolable. Llavors, quan m'acostava a la porta, em va agafar la màniga i em va estirar enrere amb una força convulsiva.

- t'imploro que no ho facis, Jack - va cridar -. - et juro que algun dia t'ho explicaré tot, però no hi ha res més que misèria si entres en aquest llit. Llavors, mentre intentava treure-me-la de sobre, es va aferrar a mi en un rampell de súplica.

- confia en mi, Jack! Va plorar. - confia en mi només una vegada. Mai no tindràs motius per penedir-te'n. Saps que no tindria un secret teu si no fos per tu. Tota la nostra vida està en joc en això. Si véns a casa amb mi, tot anirà bé. Si t'obligues a entrar a la cabanya, tot s'ha acabat entre nosaltres.

- hi havia tanta serietat, tanta desesperació, a la seva manera que les seves paraules em van detenir, i em vaig quedar indecís davant la porta.

- "confiaré en tu amb una condició, i només amb una condició" - va dir -. - és que aquest misteri s'acaba a partir d'ara. Esteu en llibertat per preservar el vostre secret, però m'heu de prometre que no hi haurà més visites nocturnes, ni més activitats que es guardin dels meus coneixements. Estic disposat a oblidar els que han passat si em promets que no hi haurà res més en el futur.

- estava segura que confiaries en mi - va cridar, amb un gran sospir d'alleujament -. - serà tal com vós vulgueu. Vine... Oh, vine a casa.

- encara estirant-me la màniga, em va portar lluny de la cabanya. Mentre caminàvem vaig mirar enrere, i hi havia aquella cara groga i lívida que ens mirava des de la finestra de dalt. Quina relació hi podia haver entre aquella criatura i la meva dona? O com podia ser que aquella dona aspra i aspra que havia vist el dia abans estigués relacionada amb ella? Era un trencaclosques estrany, però tot i així sabia que la meva ment mai no podria tornar a ser tranquil·la fins que no l'hagués resolt.

- durant dos dies, després d'això, em vaig quedar a casa, i la meva dona va semblar que obeïa lleialment el nostre compromís, perquè, que jo sàpiga, no va sortir mai de casa. El tercer dia, però, vaig tenir proves de sobres que la seva promesa solemne no era suficient per apartar-la d'aquella influència secreta que l'allunyava del seu marit i del seu deure.

- aquell dia havia anat al poble, però vaig tornar a les 2.40 en comptes de les 3.36, que és el meu tren habitual. Quan vaig entrar a la casa, la minyona va córrer cap al vestíbul amb cara de sorpresa.

- on és la teva amant? - què passa? - vaig preguntar.

- crec que ha sortit a fer un volt - va respondre -.

- la meva ment es va omplir instantàniament de sospites. Vaig córrer escales amunt per assegurar-me que no era a la casa. En fer-ho, vaig mirar per una de les finestres de dalt i vaig veure la minyona amb qui acabava de parlar corrent pel camp en direcció a la cabanya. Llavors, és clar, vaig veure exactament què volia dir tot allò. La meva dona hi havia anat i havia demanat al criat que li truqués si tornava. Amb un formigueig de ràbia, em vaig precipitar i vaig córrer, decidida a acabar l'assumpte una vegada i una altra. Vaig veure la meva dona i la minyona corrent pel camí, però no em vaig aturar a parlar amb ells. A la cabanya hi havia el secret que projectava una ombra sobre la meva vida. Vaig jurar que, vingui el que passi, ja no seria un secret. Ni tan sols vaig trucar quan hi vaig arribar, sinó que vaig fer girar la maneta i vaig córrer cap al passadís.

Tot era quiet i silenciós a la planta baixa. A la cuina, una tetera cantava al foc, i un gran gat negre jeia cargolat al cistell; però no hi havia ni rastre de la dona que havia vist abans. Vaig córrer cap a l'altra habitació, però estava igualment deserta. Després vaig córrer escales amunt, però vaig trobar dues habitacions més buides i desertes al capdamunt. No hi havia ningú en tota la casa. Els mobles i els quadres eren de la descripció més corrent i vulgar, tret de l'única cambra a la finestra de la qual havia vist aquella cara estranya. Això era còmode i elegant, i totes les meves sospites es van convertir en una intensa flama amarga quan vaig veure que a la lleixa de la llar de foc hi havia un exemplar d'una fotografia de cos sencer de la meva dona, que havia estat feta a petició meva feia només tres mesos.

- m'he quedat prou temps per assegurar-me que la casa era absolutament buida. Després me'n vaig anar, sentint un pes al cor com no l'havia tingut mai. La meva dona va sortir al vestíbul quan vaig entrar a casa meva; però estava massa dolguda i enfadada per parlar amb ella i, apartant-la, vaig entrar al meu estudi. Però em va seguir abans que pogués tancar la porta.

- em sap greu haver trencat la meva promesa, Jack - va dir ella -.

- aleshores, explica-m'ho tot - va dir jo -.

- no puc, Jack, no puc - va cridar -.

- "fins que no em diguis qui és que ha estat vivint en aquella caseta, i qui és a qui has donat aquesta fotografia, no hi pot haver mai cap confiança entre nosaltres" - va dir jo, i apartant-me d'ella, vaig sortir de casa. Això va ser ahir, senyor Holmes, i no l'he vista des d'aleshores, ni sé res més d'aquest estrany assumpte. És la primera ombra que s'ha interposat entre nosaltres, i m'ha trasbalsat tant que no sé què hauria de fer a fi de bé. De cop i volta aquest matí se m'ha acudit que vostè era l'home que m'aconsellava, de manera que ara m'he afanyat cap a vostè, i em poso sense reserves a les seves mans. Si hi ha cap punt que no hagi deixat clar, us prego que m'ho pregunteu. Però, sobretot, digueu-me de seguida què haig de fer, perquè aquesta desgràcia és més del que puc suportar.

Holmes i jo havíem escoltat amb el màxim interès aquesta afirmació extraordinària, que havia estat pronunciada de la manera espasmòdica i trencada d'un home que està sota la influència d'emocions extremes. El meu company va romandre callat una estona, amb la barbeta sobre la mà, perdut en els seus pensaments.

- digueu-me - digué finalment -, podríeu jurar que aquesta era la cara d'un home que vau veure a la finestra?

- cada vegada que l'he vist me n'he allunyat una mica, de manera que m'és impossible dir-ho.

- sembla, però, que l'ha impressionat molt.

- semblava d'un color poc natural, i tenia una estranya rigidesa en les faccions. Quan m'hi vaig acostar, es va esfumar d'una estrebada.

- quant de temps fa que la teva dona et va demanar cent lliures?

- gairebé dos mesos.

- ha vist mai una fotografia del seu primer marit?

- no; hi va haver un gran incendi a Atlanta molt poc després de la seva mort, i tots els seus papers van ser destruïts.

- però tenia un certificat de mort. Dius que ho has vist.

- sí; en va fer un duplicat després de l'incendi.

- va conèixer algú que la conegués a Amèrica?

- no.

- va parlar mai de tornar a visitar la casa?

- no.

O treure'n cartes?

- no.

- gràcies. Ara m'agradaria rumiar una mica. Si ara la cabanya està permanentment deserta, potser tindrem alguna dificultat. Si, d'altra banda, com m'imagino que és més probable, els interns van ser avisats de la vostra arribada, i van marxar abans que hi entréssiu ahir, llavors potser tornaran ara, i ho hauríem d'aclarir tot fàcilment. Deixa'm que t'aconselli, doncs, que tornis a Norbury i que examini de nou les finestres de la cabanya. Si teniu motius per creure que està habitat, no us obligueu a entrar, sinó que envieu un cable al meu amic i a mi. Serem amb tu d'aquí a una hora per rebre'l, i aleshores arribarem al fons del negoci.

- i si encara és buida?

- en aquest cas, sortiré demà al matí i en parlaré amb tu. Adéu; i, sobretot, no t'inquietis fins que no sàpigues que realment tens un motiu per fer-ho.

- em temo que això és un mal assumpte, Watson - va dir el meu company, mentre tornava després d'acompanyar el senyor Grant Munro a la porta -. - què en penses?

- tenia un so lleig - vaig respondre -.

- sí. Hi ha xantatge, o vaig molt errat.

- i qui és el xantatgista?

- bé, deu ser la criatura que viu a l'única habitació confortable del local, i té la seva fotografia sobre la llar de foc. En la meva paraula, Watson, hi ha alguna cosa molt atractiva en aquella cara lívida a la finestra, i no m'hauria perdut el cas per mons.

- tens una teoria?

- sí, un de provisional. Però em sorprendrà que no sigui correcte. El primer marit d'aquesta dona és en aquella cabanya.

- per què ho penses?

- com, si no, podem explicar la seva ansietat frenètica que el segon no hi hagi d'entrar? Els fets, tal com els he llegit, són una cosa així: Aquesta dona estava casada a Amèrica. El seu marit va desenvolupar algunes qualitats odioses; o diguem que va contreure alguna malaltia repugnant, i es va convertir en un leprós o un imbècil? Finalment fuig d'ell, torna a Anglaterra, canvia de nom i comença la seva vida, com ella es pensa, de nou. Ha estat casada tres anys, i creu que la seva posició és força segura, després d'haver mostrat al seu marit el certificat de defunció d'un home el nom del qual ha donat per fet, quan, de sobte, el seu parador és descobert pel seu primer marit; o, suposem, per una dona sense escrúpols que s'ha unit a l'invàlid. Escriuen a la dona i amenacen de venir i desemmascarar-la. Demana cent lliures i intenta comprar-les. Hi vénen malgrat tot, i quan el marit esmenta casualment a la dona que hi ha nouvinguts a la caseta, sap d'alguna manera que són els seus perseguidors. Espera que el seu marit s'adormi, i llavors s'esmuny per intentar convèncer-los que la deixin en pau. Com que no té èxit, se'n torna l'endemà al matí i el seu marit la troba, tal com ens ha dit, quan surt. Ella li promet que no hi tornarà mai més, però dos dies després l'esperança de desfer-se d'aquells veïns esgarrifosos era massa forta per a ella, i va fer un altre intent, enduent-se amb ella la fotografia que probablement li havien exigit. Enmig d'aquesta entrevista, la minyona va córrer a dir que l'amo havia tornat a casa, sobre la qual l'esposa, sabent que baixaria directament a la cabanya, va fer córrer els interns cap a la porta del darrere, cap al bosquet d'avets, probablement, que s'esmentava com a prop. D'aquesta manera va trobar el lloc desert. Em sorprendrà molt, però, si encara és així quan ho reconnoitres aquest vespre. Què en penses, de la meva teoria?

- tot és suposició.

Però almenys cobreix tots els fets. Quan els nous fets arribin als nostres coneixements que no es poden cobrir, ja tindrem temps de reconsiderar-ho. No podem fer res més fins que no tinguem un missatge del nostre amic a Norbury.

Però no teníem gaire temps per esperar. Va arribar just quan ens acabàvem el te. - la cabanya encara està tensa - va dir -. - he tornat a veure la cara a la finestra. Es reunirà amb el tren de les set, i no prendrà mesures fins que vostè arribi.

Estava esperant a l'andana quan vam sortir, i a la llum dels llums de l'estació vam veure que estava molt pàl·lid i que tremolava d'agitació.

- encara hi són, senyor Holmes - va dir ell, posant la mà amb força sobre la màniga del meu amic -. - he vist llums a la caseta quan he baixat. Ho resoldrem ara d'una vegada per totes.

- quin és el vostre pla, doncs? - preguntà Holmes, mentre caminava per la carretera fosca vorejada d'arbres.

- m'obligaré a entrar i a veure personalment qui hi ha a la casa. M'agradaria que tots dos fóssiu allà com a testimonis.

- estàs ben decidit a fer-ho, malgrat l'advertència de la teva dona que és millor que no resolguis el misteri?

- sí, estic decidida.

- bé, crec que tens raó. Qualsevol veritat és millor que un dubte indefinit. Val més que pugem de seguida. És clar que, legalment, ens estem equivocant, però crec que val la pena.

Era una nit molt fosca, i va començar a caure una pluja fina quan vam passar de la carretera alta a un camí estret, molt ple de sots, amb bardisses a banda i banda. El senyor Grant Munro va empènyer amb impaciència cap endavant, però, i vam ensopegar amb ell tan bé com vam poder.

- hi ha els llums de casa meva - va murmurar, assenyalant una lluïssor entre els arbres. I aquí hi ha la cabanya on entraré.

Vam girar una cantonada del camí mentre ell parlava, i al nostre costat hi havia l'edifici. Una barra groga que queia sobre el primer pla negre mostrava que la porta no estava tancada del tot, i una de les finestres del pis de dalt estava molt il·luminada. Mentre miràvem, vam veure una taca fosca que es movia entre els cecs.

- vet aquí aquesta criatura! - exclamà Grant Munro -. Ja veieu que n'hi ha algun. Ara seguiu-me i aviat ho sabrem tot.

Ens vam acostar a la porta; però, de sobte, una dona va aparèixer de l'ombra i es va quedar dreta a la pista daurada de la llum del fanal. No li podia veure la cara en la foscor, però tenia els braços oberts en una actitud de súplica.

― Per l'amor de Déu, Jack! ― va exclamar ―. - tenia el pressentiment que vindries aquest vespre. Pensa-t'ho millor, estimada! Torna a confiar en mi, i mai no tindràs motius per penedir-te'n.

- he confiat en tu massa temps, Effie - va cridar amb severitat -. - deixa'm anar! T'he de passar. Els meus amics i jo resoldrem aquest assumpte una vegada i una altra! - la va empènyer cap a un costat i el vam seguir de prop. Quan va obrir la porta, una vella va sortir corrent al seu davant i va intentar barrar-li el pas, però ell la va empènyer enrere, i al cap d'un moment ja érem tots a l'escala. El senyor Munro va entrar precipitadament a la sala il·luminada de dalt de tot i vam entrar darrere seu.

Era un apartament ben moblat, amb dues espelmes enceses sobre la taula i dues sobre la lleixa de la llar de foc. En un racó, inclinat sobre una taula, hi havia el que semblava una nena petita. Quan vam entrar, tenia la cara girada, però vam veure que anava vestida amb un vestit vermell i que duia uns guants blancs llargs. Mentre es dirigia cap a nosaltres, vaig fer un crit de sorpresa i d'horror. La cara que es va girar cap a nosaltres era d'un to lívid molt estrany, i les faccions estaven absolutament desproveïdes de qualsevol expressió. Al cap d'un instant es va explicar el misteri. Holmes, amb una rialla, va passar la mà per darrere l'orella de la nena, una màscara que s'havia desprès del seu semblant, i hi havia una petita negror negra com el carbó, amb totes les seves dents blanques resplendint de diversió davant els nostres rostres sorpresos. Vaig esclafir a riure, per compassió amb la seva alegria; però Grant Munro es va quedar mirant, amb la mà agafada al coll.

- Déu meu! - va exclamar -. - quin significat pot tenir tot això?

- us en diré el significat - exclamà la dama, entrant a la cambra amb un posat orgullós -. - m'heu obligat, contra el meu propi criteri, a dir-vos-ho, i ara tots dos hem de treure'n el màxim profit. El meu marit va morir a Atlanta. El meu fill va sobreviure.

- el teu fill?

Es va treure un gran medalló de plata del pit. No l'has vist mai oberta.

- vaig entendre que no s'obria.

Va tocar un ressort i la part del davant es va fer enrere. A dins hi havia un retrat d'un home sorprenentment atractiu i d'aspecte intel·ligent, però amb senyals inconfusibles als trets del seu descens africà.

- aquest és John Hebron, d'Atlanta - digué la dama -, i un home més noble no ha trepitjat mai la terra. Em vaig separar de la meva raça per casar-me amb ell, però ni una sola vegada, mentre ell vivia, no me'n vaig penedir per un instant. Va ser la nostra desgràcia que el nostre únic fill s'assemblés més al seu poble que no pas al meu. Sovint és així en aquests llumins, i la petita Lucy és més fosca que mai. Però fosca o bella, és la meva estimada noieta, i la mascota de la seva mare. - la petita criatura va córrer cap a les paraules i es va arraulir contra el vestit de la dama. - quan la vaig deixar a Amèrica - va continuar -, va ser només perquè la seva salut era feble, i el canvi li podia haver fet mal. La van lliurar a la cura d'una fidel dona escocesa que havia estat la nostra serventa. Ni per un instant no vaig somiar a desposseir-la com a filla meva. Però quan l'atzar et va posar en el meu camí, Jack, i vaig aprendre a estimar-te, vaig tenir por de parlar-te del meu fill. Déu em perdoni, tenia por de perdre't, i no vaig tenir el valor de dir-t'ho. Vaig haver de triar entre vosaltres, i en la meva feblesa em vaig apartar de la meva nena. Durant tres anys he mantingut la seva existència en secret per part teva, però he tingut notícies de la infermera, i sabia que tot anava bé amb ella. Finalment, però, va sentir un desig aclaparador de tornar a veure el nen. M'hi vaig resistir, però en va. Tot i que coneixia el perill, vaig decidir tenir el nen a sobre, si no fos per unes quantes setmanes. Vaig enviar un bitllet de cent lliures a la infermera i li vaig donar instruccions sobre aquesta cabanya, per tal que ella pogués venir com a veïna, sense que jo semblés tenir cap relació amb ella. Vaig prendre les meves precaucions fins al punt d'ordenar-li que es quedés a casa durant el dia, i que li tapés la carona i les mans perquè ni tan sols els que la poguessin veure a la finestra no parlessin d'un nen negre del veïnat. Si hagués estat menys prudent potser hauria estat més prudent, però estava mig boig de por de saber la veritat.

- vas ser tu qui em va dir primer que la cabanya estava ocupada. Hauria d'haver esperat el matí, però no podia dormir per l'excitació, i per això, a la fi, em vaig escapolir, sabent com és de difícil despertar-te. Però tu em vas veure marxar, i això va ser el començament dels meus problemes. L'endemà tenies el meu secret a la teva mercè, però et vas abstenir noblement de perseguir el teu avantatge. Al cap de tres dies, però, la infermera i la nena tot just acabaven d'escapar-se de la porta del darrere quan vostè va entrar corrents al davant. I ara, a la nit, per fi ho saps tot, i et pregunto què serà de nosaltres, del meu fill i de mi? - va ajuntar les mans i va esperar una resposta -.

Van passar deu minuts llargs abans que Grant Munro trenqués el silenci, i quan va arribar la seva resposta va ser una de les quals m'encanta pensar. Va aixecar la nena, la va besar i després, encara amb ella, va allargar l'altra mà cap a la seva dona i es va girar cap a la porta.

- podem parlar-ne més còmodament a casa - va dir -. - no sóc gaire bon home, Effie, però crec que sóc millor del que tu m'has cregut.

Holmes i jo els vam seguir carrer avall, i el meu amic em va estirar la màniga mentre sortíem.

- crec - va dir ell - que a Londres serem més útils que a Norbury.

No va dir ni una paraula més del cas fins ben entrada la nit, quan es girava, amb l'espelma encesa, cap a la seva habitació.

- Watson - va dir ell -, si mai se t'acut que m'estic tornant una mica massa confiat en els meus poders, o que dono menys maldecaps a un cas del que es mereix, et xiuxiuejo amablement "Norbury" a cau d'orella, i t'estaré infinitament agraït.