Not only was I being accused of murder, the betrayal of everything that as a medical man I hold sacred, but the murder of Cynthia Travers, the very young woman I had sworn to protect. And Miss Travers had, to the best of my knowledge, still been alive when I had left Hernshire Hall earlier that morning.
“Miss Travers… Cynthia… is dead?” I asked.
“We responded to reports of screaming and cries of ‘murder’ coming from this house at about noon today. Upon entering, we found the body of a young woman, carrying about her person a handkerchief monogrammed with the letters C.T., and near her a handbag containing letters addressed to Cynthia Travers. We visited your lodgings, and your landlady informed us that you had not been seen since yesterday, and that when she had last seen you you had been in the company of a woman named Travers who matched the description of the deceased.”
I was horrified. The day before, I had sworn upon my honour to protect the life of this young lady, and now she was dead.
But more, I was confused. Cynthia Travers had been in Hernshire the previous evening. Only one passenger, a man, had boarded the earlier train back to London in the morning, and nobody had boarded the one on which I had travelled. Surely she could not have travelled by coach overnight, only to be murdered upon her arrival?
But this thought of trains made me aware of something.
“Inspector, I couldn’t possibly be the murderer.”
“You said the murder took place at noon?”
“Well, at noon I was in the middle of a train journey, and thankfully I still have the ticket to prove it.”
Having only had a chance to change my shirt and waistcoat before the door-knocking had commenced, I was still wearing the trousers in which I had been travelling. I pulled the ticket out and showed Lestrade.
“Well… I did think it most unlikely that you would kill someone, Doctor, but in barbarous times like these you can never tell. But do you have any idea why this young lady would have been in your house in the first place?”
So I explained the whole story to Lestrade, how Cynthia Travers had come to me for help after her sister’s disappearance, how I had allowed her to stay in my own house in order to help protect her, and how she had later appeared in Hernshire, disavowing any knowledge of me.
“A ghastly business indeed!” said Lestrade. “What does Mister Holmes think of it?”
“Holmes is unfortunately indisposed at present, with a very bad case of the influenza. We shall have to solve this problem without him, I fear.”
“A pity. Mister Holmes’ flashiness will never replace real police-work, of course, but for an amateur he’s quite good. I always think it a shame he never joined the force – we might have made a real detective of him.”
I nodded politely. My own opinion of Holmes is a great deal higher than that professed by Lestrade, but then I hold Lestrade in a rather higher esteem than does Holmes. I also suspect both men to have higher opinions of each other than they claim.
“Well, Doctor”, Lestrade continued, “since you’re here anyway, and the police surgeon hasn’t yet arrived, why don’t you examine the body?”
As we proceeded toward the bedroom, I thought back to the last time I had entered that room, several months before. That time, too, it had been to see the corpse of a young, beautiful woman who I had sworn to protect. I had been unable to save my wife, and now I had also been unable to save Miss Travers.
But while my wife’s killer had been consumption, against which all of us in the medical profession can only battle in vain, Miss Travers’ killer was a human being (loath though I am to apply the term to such an infernal wretch), and he could be arrested, tried and hanged. I determined that I should not rest until this consummation had been achieved.
I shall spare you any description of the horror I saw upon entering that room, but it remains engraved on my mind’s eye to this day. I am no stranger, of course, to violent death – as a battlefield surgeon it is a constant companion. But death on a battlefield, in honourable combat, in service of one’s country is, if not always glorious, always understood and expected. The soldier knows when he takes the Queen’s shilling that he is not taking a wage but a loan, and that the debt may be called in at any time in his own flesh and blood.
But the young girl lying there, in an indescribable state, had made no contracts and taken no money. She was the victim of a vicious, callous brute, of a ferocity I find unimaginable.
I bent down to examine the poor girl, who I noted was again wearing the apparel in which she had been clothed when she had visited my lodgings the previous day (even though I had seen her since, clad in different garb). That one who had so recently been so full of life was now an empty shell, her soul having departed, I still found hard to believe.
I loosened her clothing, looking for marks that might be of some use in identifying the killer. In order to look more closely at her neck, I loosened the veiled bonnet she was wearing, which was tied around her chin. The bonnet fell back, onto the floor.
And along with the bonnet fell a long black wig, revealing underneath, tied up to keep it out of sight, the young woman’s real hair.
It was tied into a tight bun, but they were plainly the tresses of a different woman from the one I had seen the previous evening. For they were a bright, shining, red.