In the early part of May, 1884, the renowned African explorer, E. Woodforde Soames, had returned to England and become at once the most sought-after guest in London. He and his companion in adventure, Captain James Blake, had spent the previous six months exploring the upper reaches of the Zambezi River, and had several times come within an inch of their lives. Many stories of their adventures circulated at the time: of how their boat had sunk beneath them in a crocodile-infested river, of how a month’s provisions had been washed away in a matter of minutes, and of how Captain Blake had saved Woodforde Soames from a giant python at Zumbo. News of the hair-raising entertainment provided by these stories soon reached the ear of Sir George Kirkman, and as he himself had played a part in organizing the finance for their expedition and, it was said, looked for some return for the time and effort he had invested, an invitation to the two men to spend the weekend at Buckler’s Fold was duly dispatched. Among the other guests that weekend, as I learned from Friday’s Morning Post, was the rising young artist Mr Neville Whiting, whose engagement to the daughter of the Commander of the Solent Squadron had recently been announced. At the time I read it, his name meant nothing to me, and I could not have imagined then how soon the name would be upon everyone’s lips, nor what a significant part in his destiny would be played by my friend Sherlock Holmes.
The newspapers of Monday morning occasionally included a brief mention of the weekend’s events at Buckler’s Fold, and when the name caught my eye on that particular morning, I glanced idly at the accompanying report. In a moment, however, I had cried out in surprise.
Holmes turned from the window, where he was smoking his after-breakfast pipe and staring moodily into the sunny street below, and raised his eyebrow questioningly.
“‘A tragic accident has occurred’,” I read aloud, “‘at Buckler’s Fold, country home of Sir George Kirkman, in which one of his guests has been struck by an arrow and killed. An archery competition is a regular feature of parties at Buckler’s Fold, and it is thought that the victim was struck by a stray shaft from this event while walking nearby. No further information is available at present.’”
“The longbow is a dangerous toy,” remarked my companion. “Hazlitt declares in one of his essays that the bow has now ceased for ever to be a weapon of offence; but if so, it is a singular thing how frequently people still manage to inflict injury and death upon one another with it.” With a shake of the head, he returned to his contemplation of the street below.
Holmes had been professionally engaged almost continuously throughout the preceding weeks, but upon that particular morning was free from any immediate calls upon his time. It was a pleasant spring day, and after some effort I managed to prevail upon him to take a stroll with me in the fresh air. Up to St John’s Wood Church we walked, and across the northern part of Regent’s Park to the zoo. It was a cheery sight, after the long cold months of the early spring, to see the blossom upon the trees and the spring flowers tossing their heads in such gay profusion in the park. As ever on such occasions, my friend’s keen powers of observation ensured that even the tiniest detail of our surroundings seemed possessed of interest.
We were walking slowly home through the sunshine, our conversation as meandering as our stroll, when we passed a newspaper stand near Baker Street station. The early editions of the evening papers were on sale and, with great surprise, I read the following in large letters upon a placard: “Arrow Murder – Latest”.
“Murder?” I cried.
“It can only refer to the death at Buckler’s Fold,” remarked Holmes, a note of heightened interest in his voice. Quickly he took up a copy of every paper available. “Listen to this, Watson,” said he, reading from the first of his bundle as we walked along. “‘The death of E. Woodforde Soames, shot in the back with an arrow at Buckler’s Fold in Hampshire yesterday, and at first reported to be an accident, is now considered to be murder. The Hampshire Constabulary were notified soon after the death was discovered. Considering the circumstances to be of a suspicious nature, they at once requested a senior detective inspector from Scotland Yard. Arriving at Buckler’s Fold at six o’clock, he had completed his preliminary investigation by seven, and proceeded to arrest one of the guests, Mr Neville Whiting, who was heard to protest his innocence in the strongest terms.’ They must have considered it a very straightforward matter, if they were able to make an arrest so quickly,” Holmes remarked as we walked down Baker Street, “although why anyone should wish to murder Woodforde Soames, probably the most popular man in England at the moment, must be regarded as something of a puzzle!”
When we reached the house, we were informed that a young lady, a Miss Audrey Greville, had called for Sherlock Holmes, and was awaiting his return. As we entered our little sitting room, a pretty, dark-haired young woman of about two-and-twenty stood up from the chair by the hearth, an expression of great agitation upon her pale features.
“Mr Holmes?” said she, looking from one to the other of us.
“Miss Greville,” returned my friend, bowing. “Pray be seated. You are, I take it, the fiancée of Mr Neville Whiting, and have come here directly from Buckler’s Fold.”
“Yes,” said she, her eyes opening wide in surprise. “Did someone tell you I was coming?”
Holmes shook his head. “You are clearly in some distress, and on the table by your gloves I see a copy of the Pall Mall Gazette, which is open at an account of the Buckler’s Fold trage dy. Next to it is the return half of a railway ticket issued by the London and South Western, and upon your third finger is an attractive and new engagement ring. Now, what is the latest news of the matter, and how may we help you?”
“Neville – Mr Whiting – has been arrested,” said she, and bit her lip hard as she began to sob. I passed her a handkerchief and she dabbed her eyes. “Forgive me,” she continued after a moment, “but it has been such a great shock.”
“That is hardly surprising,” said Holmes in an encouraging tone. “What is the evidence against Mr Whiting?”
“We had had a quarrel, earlier in the day,” the young lady replied. “He accused me of flirting with other gentlemen.”
“With Woodforde Soames?”
“And were you?”
She bit her lip again. “He seemed such a grand figure,” said she at length, “and has had such exciting adventures. Perhaps I was paying him an excessive amount of attention, but if I was, it was no more than that. Neville became so jealous and unreasonable. He said that Soames’s opinion of himself was big enough already, without my making it even bigger.”
“What happened later?”
“The archery contest took place early in the afternoon. I had persuaded Neville to take part, although he said he was not interested and had never fired a longbow in his life. It was foolish of me.”
“He was not very successful?”
“He did not hit the target once. I did not think it would concern him, considering that he had said he was not interested, but perhaps I was wrong. There were seven or eight gentlemen taking part, and although one or two of the others did scarcely any better than Neville, that appeared to afford him little consolation. I think he felt humiliated. Mr Woodforde Soames was the eventual winner and, I must admit, I found myself cheering as he shot his last arrows. I looked round for Neville then, but found that he had already left the lawn. I asked if anyone had seen him, and was informed that he had gone off into the nearby woods and taken his bow and quiver with him.”
“When did you next see him?”
“About an hour and a half later. My mother and I were taking tea on the terrace when he returned. He appeared in a better humour and apologized for his earlier temper. I asked him where he had been and he said he had taken a long walk through the orchards and the woods and loosed off a few practice arrows at the trees there.”