The Adventure of the Cardboard Box By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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In choosing a few typical cases which illustrate the remarkable

mental qualities of my friend, Sherlock Holmes, I have

endeavoured, as far as possible, to select those which presented

the minimum of sensationalism, while offering a fair field for

his talents.  It is, however, unfortunately impossible entirely

to separate the sensational from the criminal, and a chronicler

is left in the dilemma that he must either sacrifice details

which are essential to his statement and so give a false

impression of the problem, or he must use matter which chance,

and not choice, has provided him with.  With this short preface I

shall turn to my notes of what proved to be a strange, though a

peculiarly terrible, chain of events.

It was a blazing hot day in August.  Baker Street was like an

oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of

the house across the road was painful to the eye.  It was hard to

believe that these were the same walls which loomed so gloomily

through the fogs of winter.  Our blinds were half-drawn, and

Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter

which he had received by the morning post.  For myself, my term

of service in India had trained me to stand heat better than

cold, and a thermometer at ninety was no hardship.  But the

morning paper was uninteresting.  Parliament had risen.

Everybody was out of town, and I yearned for the glades of the

New Forest or the shingle of Southsea.  A depleted bank account

had caused me to postpone my holiday, and as to my companion,

neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest

attraction to him.  He loved to lie in the very center of five

millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running

through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of

unsolved crime.  Appreciation of nature found no place among his

many gifts, and his only change was when he turned his mind from

the evil-doer of the town to track down his brother of the

country.

Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had

tossed side the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair I fell

into a brown study.  Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon

my thoughts:

“You are right, Watson,” said he.  “It does seem a most

preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

“Most preposterous!” I exclaimed, and then suddenly realizing how

he had echoed the inmost thought of my soul, I sat up in my chair

and stared at him in blank amazement.

“What is this, Holmes?” I cried.  “This is beyond anything which

I could have imagined.”

He laughed heartily at my perplexity.

“You remember,” said he, “that some little time ago when I read

you the passage in one of Poe’s sketches in which a close

reasoner follows the unspoken thoughts of his companion, you were

inclined to treat the matter as a mere tour-de-force of the

author.  On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of

doing the same thing you expressed incredulity.”

“Oh, no!”

“Perhaps not with your tongue, my dear Watson, but certainly with

your eyebrows.  So when I saw you throw down your paper and enter

upon a train of thought, I was very happy to have the opportunity

of reading it off, and eventually of breaking into it, as a proof

that I had been in rapport with you.”

But I was still far from satisfied.  “In the example which you

read to me,” said I, “the reasoner drew his conclusions from the

actions of the man whom he observed. If I remember right, he

stumbled over a heap of stones, looked up at the stars, and so

on.  But I have been seated quietly in my chair, and what clues

can I have given you?”

“You do yourself an injustice.  The features are given to man as

the means by which he shall express his emotions, and yours are

faithful servants.”

“Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my

features?”

“Your features and especially your eyes.  Perhaps you cannot

yourself recall how your reverie commenced?”

“No, I cannot.”

“Then I will tell you.  After throwing down your paper, which was

the action which drew my attention to you, you sat for half a

minute with a vacant expression.  Then your eyes fixed themselves

upon your newly framed picture of General Gordon, and I saw by

the alteration in your face that a train of thought had been

started.  But it did not lead very far.  Your eyes flashed across

to the unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher which stands upon

the top of your books.  Then you glanced up at the wall, and of

course your meaning was obvious.  You were thinking that if the

portrait were framed it would just cover that bare space and

correspond with Gordon’s picture there.”

“You have followed me wonderfully!” I exclaimed.

“So far I could hardly have gone astray.  But now your thoughts

went back to Beecher, and you looked hard across as if you were

studying the character in his features. Then your eyes ceased to

pucker, but you continued to look across, and your face was

thoughtful.  You were recalling the incidents of Beecher’s

career.  I was well aware that you could not do this without

thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North

at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your expressing your

passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the

more turbulent of our people.  You felt so strongly about it that

I knew you could not think of Beecher without thinking of that

also.  When a moment later I saw your eyes wander away from the

picture, I suspected that your mind had now turned to the Civil

War, and when I observed that your lips set, your eyes sparkled,

and your hands clenched I was positive that you were indeed

thinking of the gallantry which was shown by both sides in that

desperate struggle. But then, again, your face grew sadder, you

shook your head.  You were dwelling upon the sadness and horror

and useless waste of life.  Your hand stole towards your own old

wound and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the

ridiculous side of this method of settling international

questions had forced itself upon your mind. At this point I

agreed with you that it was preposterous and was glad to find

that all my deductions had been correct.”

“Absolutely!” said I.  “And now that you have explained it, I

confess that I am as amazed as before.”

“It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I assure you.  I should

not have intruded it upon your attention had you not shown some

incredulity the other day.  But I have in my hands here a little

problem which may prove to be more difficult of solution than my

small essay I thought reading.  Have you observed in the paper a

short paragraph referring to the remarkable contents of a packet

sent through the post to Miss Cushing, of Cross Street, Croydon?”

“No, I saw nothing.”

“Ah! then you must have overlooked it.  Just toss it over to me.

Here it is, under the financial column.  Perhaps you would be

good enough to read it aloud.”

I picked up the paper which he had thrown back to me and read the

paragraph indicated. It was headed, “A Gruesome Packet.”

“Miss Susan Cushing, living at Cross Street, Croydon, has been

made the victim of what must be regarded as a peculiarly

revolting practical joke unless some more sinister meaning should

prove to be attached to the incident.  At two o’clock yesterday

afternoon a small packet, wrapped in brown paper, was handed in

by the postman.  A cardboard box was inside, which was filled

with coarse salt. On emptying this, Miss Cushing was horrified to

find two human ears, apparently quite freshly severed.  The box

had been sent by parcel post from Belfast upon the morning

before.  There is no indication as to the sender, and the matter

is the more mysterious as Miss Cushing, who is a maiden lady of

fifty, has led a most retired life, and has so few acquaintances

or correspondents that it is a rare event for her to receive

anything through the post.  Some years ago, however, when she

resided at Penge, she let apartments in her house to three young

medical students, whom she was obliged to get rid of on account

of their noisy and irregular habits.  The police are of opinion

that this outrage may have been perpetrated upon Miss Cushing by

these youths, who owed her a grudge and who hoped to frighten her

by sending her these relics of the dissecting-rooms.  Some

probability is lent to the theory by the fact that one of these

students came from the north of Ireland, and, to the best of Miss

Cushing’s belief, from Belfast.  In the meantime, the matter is

being actively investigated, Mr. Lestrade, one of the very

smartest of our detective officers, being in charge of the case.”

“So much for the Daily Chronicle,” said Holmes as I finished

reading.  “Now for our friend Lestrade.  I had a note from him

this morning, in which he says:

“I think that this case is very much in your line.  We have every

hope of clearing the matter up, but we find a little difficulty

in getting anything to work upon.  We have, of course, wired to

the Belfast post-office, but a large number of parcels were

handed in upon that day, and they have no means of identifying

this particular one, or of remembering the sender.  The box is a

half-pound box of honeydew tobacco and does not help us in any

way.  The medical student theory still appears to me to be the

most feasible, but if you should have a few hours to spare I

should be very happy to see you out here.  I shall be either at

the house or in the police-station all day.

“What say you, Watson?  Can you rise superior to the heat and run

down to Croydon with me on the off chance of a case for your

annals?”

“I was longing for something to do.”

“You shall have it then.  Ring for our boots and tell them to

order a cab.  I’ll be back in a moment when I have changed my

dressing-gown and filled my cigar-case.”

A shower of rain fell while we were in the train, and the heat

was far less oppressive in Croydon than in town.  Holmes had sent

on a wire, so that Lestrade, as wiry, as dapper, and as ferret-

like as ever, was waiting for us at the station.  A walk of five

minutes took us to Cross Street, where Miss Cushing resided.

It was a very long street of two-story brick houses, neat and

prim, with whitened stone steps and little groups of aproned

women gossiping at the doors.  Halfway down, Lestrade stopped and

tapped at a door, which was opened by a small servant girl.  Miss

Cushing was sitting in the front room, into which we were

ushered.  She was a placid-faced woman, with large, gentle eyes,

and grizzled hair curving down over her temples on each side.  A

worked antimacassar lay upon her lap and a basket of coloured

silks stood upon a stool beside her.

“They are in the outhouse, those dreadful things,” said she as

Lestrade entered.  “I wish that you would take them away

altogether.”

“So I shall, Miss Cushing.  I only kept them here until my

friend, Mr. Holmes, should have seen them in your presence.”

“Why in my presence, sir?”

“In case he wished to ask any questions.”

“What is the use of asking me questions when I tell you I know

nothing whatever about it?”

“Quite so, madam,” said Holmes in his soothing way.  “I have no

doubt that you have been annoyed more than enough already over

this business.”

“Indeed I have, sir. I am a quiet woman and live a retired life.

It is something new for me to see my name in the papers and to

find the police in my house.  I won’t have those things I here,

Mr. Lestrade.  If you wish to see them you must go to the

outhouse.”

It was a small shed in the narrow garden which ran behind the

house.  Lestrade went in and brought out a yellow cardboard box,

with a piece of brown paper and some string.  There was a bench

at the end of the path, and we all sat down while Homes examined

one by one, the articles which Lestrade had handed to him.

“The string is exceedingly interesting,” he remarked, holding it

up to the light and sniffing at it.  “What do you make of this

string, Lestrade?”

“It has been tarred.”

“Precisely.  It is a piece of tarred twine.  You have also, no

doubt, remarked that Miss Cushing has cut the cord with a

scissors, as can be seen by the double fray on each side.  This

is of importance.”

“I cannot see the importance,” said Lestrade.

“The importance lies in the fact that the knot is left intact,

and that this knot is of a peculiar character.”

“It is very neatly tied.  I had already made a note of that

effect,” said Lestrade complacently.

“So much for the string, then,” said Holmes, smiling, “now for

the box wrapper. Brown paper, with a distinct smell of coffee.

What, did you not observe it?  I think there can be no doubt of

it.  Address printed in rather straggling characters:  ‘Miss S.

Cushing, Cross Street, Croydon.’  Done with a broad-pointed pen,

probably a J, and with very inferior ink.  The word ‘Croydon’ has

been originally spelled with an ‘i’, which has been changed to

‘y’.  The parcel was directed, then, by a man–the printing is

distinctly masculine–of limited education and unacquainted with

the town of Croydon.  So far, so good!  The box is a yellow,

half-pound honeydew box, with nothing distinctive save two thumb

marks at the left bottom corner.  It is filled with rough salt of

the quality used for preserving hides and other of the coarser

commercial purposes.  And embedded in it are these very singular

enclosures.”

He took out the two ears as he spoke, and laying a board across

his knee he examined them minutely, while Lestrade and I, bending

forward on each side of him, glanced alternately at these

dreadful relics and at the thoughtful, eager face of our

companion.  Finally he returned them to the box once more and sat

for a while in deep meditation.

“You have observed, of course,” said he at last, “that the ears

are not a pair.”

“Yes, I have noticed that.  But if this were the practical joke

of some students from the dissecting-rooms, it would be as easy

for them to send two odd ears as a pair.”

“Precisely.  But this is not a practical joke.”

“You are sure of it?”

“The presumption is strongly against it.  Bodies in the

dissecting-rooms are injected with preservative fluid.  These

ears bear no signs of this.  They are fresh, too.  They have been

cut off with a blunt instrument, which would hardly happen if a

student had done it.  Again, carbolic or rectified spirits would

be the preservatives which would suggest themselves to the

medical mind, certainly not rough salt.  I repeat that there is

no practical joke here, but that we are investigating a serious

crime.”

A vague thrill ran through me as I listened to my companion’s

words and saw the stern gravity which had hardened his features.

This brutal preliminary seemed to shadow forth some strange and

inexplicable horror in the background. Lestrade, however, shook

his head like a man who is only half convinced.

“There are objections to the joke theory, no doubt,” said he,

“but there are much stronger reasons against the other.  We know

that this woman has led a most quiet and respectable life at

Penge and here for the last twenty years.  She has hardly been

away from her home for a day during that time.  Why on earth,

then, should any criminal send her the proofs of his guilt,

especially as, unless she is a most consummate actress, she

understands quite as little of the matter as we do?”

“That is the problem which we have to solve,” Holmes answered,

“and for my part I shall set about it by presuming that my

reasoning is correct, and that a double murder has been

committed.  One of these ears is a woman’s, small, finely formed,

and pierced for an earring.  The other is a man’s, sun-burned,

discoloured, and also pierced for an earring.  These two people

are presumably dead, or we should have heard their story before

now.  To-day is Friday.  The packet was posted on Thursday

morning.  The tragedy, then, occurred on Wednesday or Tuesday, or

earlier.  If the two people were murdered, who but their murderer

would have sent this sign of his work to Miss Cushing?  We may

take it that the sender of the packet is the man whom we want.

But he must have some strong reason for sending Miss Cushing this

packet.  What reason then?  It must have been to tell her that

the deed was done! or to pain her, perhaps.  But in that case she

knows who it is.  Does she know?  I doubt it.  If she knew, why

should she call the police in?  She might have buried the ears,

and no one would have been the wiser. That is what she would have

done if she had wished to shield the criminal.  But if she does

not wish to shield him she would give his name.  There is a

tangle here which needs straightening to.”  He had been talking

in a high, quick voice, staring blankly up over the garden fence,

but now he sprang briskly to his feet and walked towards the

house.

“I have a few questions to ask Miss Cushing,” said he.

“In that case I may leave you here,” said Lestrade, “for I have

another small business on hand.  I think that I have nothing

further to learn from Miss Cushing.  You will find me at the

police-station.”

“We shall look in on our way to the train,” answered Holmes.  A

moment later he and I were back in the front room, where the

impassive lady was still quietly working away at her

antimacassar.  She put it down on her lap as we entered and

looked at us with her frank, searching blue eyes.

“I am convinced, sir,” she said, “that this matter is a mistake,

and that the parcel was never meant for me at all.  I have said

this several times to the gentlemen from Scotland Yard, but he

simply laughs at me.  I have not an enemy in the world, as far as

I know, so why should anyone play me such a trick?”

“I am coming to be of the same opinion, Miss Cushing,” said

Holmes, taking a seat beside her.  “I think that it is more than

probable–” He paused, and I was surprised, on glancing round to

see that he was staring with singular intentness at the lady’s

profile.  Surprise and satisfaction were both for an instant to

be read upon his eager face, though when she glanced round to

find out the cause of his silence he had become as demure as

ever.  I stared hard myself at her flat, grizzled hair, her trim

cap, her little gilt earrings, her placid features; but I could

see nothing which could account for my companion’s evident

excitement.

“There were one or two questions–“

“Oh, I am weary of questions!” cried Miss Cushing impatiently.

“You have two sisters, I believe.”

“How could you know that?”

“I observed the very instant that I entered the room that you

have a portrait group of three ladies upon the mantelpiece, one

of whom is undoubtedly yourself, while the others are so

exceedingly like you that there could be no doubt of the

relationship.”

“Yes, you are quite right.  Those are my sisters, Sarah and

Mary.”

“And here at my elbow is another portrait, taken at Liverpool, of

your younger sister, in the company of a man who appears to be a

steward by his uniform.  I observe that she was unmarried at the

time.”

“You are very quick at observing.”

“That is my trade.”

“Well, you are quite right.  But she was married to Mr. Browner a

few days afterwards.  He was on the South American line when that

was taken, but he was so fond of her that he couldn’t abide to

leave her for so long, and he got into the Liverpool and London

boats.”

“Ah, the Conqueror, perhaps?”

“No, the May Day, when last I heard.  Jim came down here to see

me once.  That was before he broke the pledge; but afterwards he

would always take drink when he was ashore, and a little drink

would send him stark, staring mad.  Ah! it was a bad day that

ever he took a glass in his hand again.  First he dropped me,

then he quarrelled with Sarah, and now that Mary has stopped

writing we don’t know how things are going with them.”

It was evident that Miss Cushing had come upon a subject on which

she felt very deeply.  Like most people who lead a lonely life,

she was shy at first, but ended by becoming extremely

communicative.  She told us many details about her brother-in-law

the steward, and then wandering off on the subject of her former

lodgers, the medical students, she gave us a long account of

their delinquencies, with their names and those of their

hospitals.  Holmes listened attentively to everything, throwing

in a question from time to time.

“About your second sister, Sarah,” said he.  “I wonder, since you

are both maiden ladies, that you do not keep house together.”

“Ah! you don’t know Sarah’s temper or you would wonder no more.

I tried it when I came to Croydon, and we kept on until about two

months ago, when we had to part.  I don’t want to say a word

against my own sister, but she was always meddlesome and hard to

please, was Sarah.”

“You say that she quarrelled with your Liverpool relations.”

“Yes, and they were the best of friends at one time.  Why, she

went up there to live in order to be near them.  And now she has

no word hard enough for Jim Browner.  The last six months that

she was here she would speak of nothing but his drinking and his

ways.  He had caught her meddling, I suspect, and given her a bit

of his mind, and that was the start of it.”

“Thank you, Miss Cushing,” said Holmes, rising and bowing.  “Your

sister Sarah lives, I think you said, at New Street, Wallington?

Good-bye, and I am very sorry that you should have been troubled

over a case with which, as you say, you have nothing whatever to

do.”

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