When I look at the three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for the year 1894, I confess that it is very difficult for me, out of such a wealth of material, to select the cases which are most interesting in themselves, and at the same time most conducive to a display of those peculiar powers for which my friend was famous. As I turn over the pages, I see my notes upon the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker. Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy, and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow. The famous Smith-Mortimer succession case comes also within this period, and so does the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin — an exploit which won for Holmes an autograph letter of thanks from the French President and the Order of the Legion of Honour. Each of these would furnish a narrative, but on the whole I am of opinion that none of them unites so many singular points of interest as the episode of Yoxley Old Place, which includes not only the lamentable death of young Willoughby Smith, but also those subsequent developments which threw so curious a light upon the causes of the crime.
It was a wild, tempestuous night, towards the close of November. Holmes and I sat together in silence all the evening, he engaged with a powerful lens deciphering the remains of the original inscription upon a palimpsest, I deep in a recent treatise upon surgery. Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows. It was strange there, in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields. I walked to the window, and looked out on the deserted street. The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement. A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end.
“Well, Watson, it’s as well we have not to turn out tonight,” said Holmes, laying aside his lens and rolling up the palimpsest. “I’ve done enough for one sitting. It is trying work for the eyes. So far as I can make out, it is nothing more exciting than an Abbey’s accounts dating from the second half of the fifteenth century. Halloa! halloa! halloa! What’s this?”
Amid the droning of the wind there had come the stamping of a horse’s hoofs, and the long grind of a wheel as it rasped against the curb. The cab which I had seen had pulled up at our door.
“What can he want?” I ejaculated, as a man stepped out of it.
“Want? He wants us. And we, my poor Watson, want overcoats and cravats and goloshes, and every aid that man ever invented to fight the weather. Wait a bit, though! There’s the cab off again! There’s hope yet. He’d have kept it if he had wanted us to come. Run down, my dear fellow, and open the door, for all virtuous folk have been long in bed.”
When the light of the hall lamp fell upon our midnight visitor, I had no difficulty in recognizing him. It was young Stanley Hopkins, a promising detective, in whose career Holmes had several times shown a very practical interest.
“Is he in?” he asked, eagerly.
“Come up, my dear sir,” said Holmes’s voice from above. “I hope you have no designs upon us such a night as this.”
The detective mounted the stairs, and our lamp gleamed upon his shining waterproof. I helped him out of it, while Holmes knocked a blaze out of the logs in the grate.
“Now, my dear Hopkins, draw up and warm your toes,” said he. “Here’s a cigar, and the doctor has a prescription containing hot water and a lemon, which is good medicine on a night like this. It must be something important which has brought you out in such a gale.”
“It is indeed, Mr. Holmes. I’ve had a bustling afternoon, I promise you. Did you see anything of the Yoxley case in the latest editions?”
“I’ve seen nothing later than the fifteenth century today.”
“Well, it was only a paragraph, and all wrong at that, so you have not missed anything. I haven’t let the grass grow under my feet. It’s down in Kent, seven miles from Chatham and three from the railway line. I was wired for at 3:15, reached Yoxley Old Place at 5, conducted my investigation, was back at Charing Cross by the last train, and straight to you by cab.”
“Which means, I suppose, that you are not quite clear about your case?”
“It means that I can make neither head nor tail of it. So far as I can see, it is just as tangled a business as ever I handled, and yet at first it seemed so simple that one couldn’t go wrong. There’s no motive, Mr. Holmes. That’s what bothers me — I can’t put my hand on a motive. Here’s a man dead — there’s no denying that — but, so far as I can see, no reason on earth why anyone should wish him harm.”