First published in Pearson's Magazine, Dec 1898
First book appearance in The Unknown Conan Doyle, 1929
SIR WILLIAM SPARTER was a man who had raised himself in the course of a
quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter
in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. The
little house in Lake Road, Landport, where he, an obscure mechanic, had first
conceived the idea of the boilers which are associated with his name, is still
pointed out to the curious. But now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in
Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with
the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.
As untiring and inflexible as one of his own engines, his life had been
directed to the one purpose of attaining the very best which the world had to
give. Square-headed and round-shouldered, with massive, clean-shaven face and
slow, deep-set eyes, he was the very embodiment of persistency and strength.
Never once from the beginning of his career had public failure of any sort
tarnished its brilliancy.
And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He
had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife. She was the daughter
of a surgeon, and the belle of a northern town when he married her. Even then
he was rich and powerful, which made her overlook the twenty years which
divided them. But he had come on a long way since then. His great Brazilian
contract, his conversion into a company, his baronetcy—all these had been
since his marriage. Only in the one thing he had never progressed. He could
frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength
and respect his consistency, he could mold her to his will in every other
direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.
But it was not for want of trying. With the unrelaxing patience which made
him great in business, he had striven, year in and year out, to win her
affection. But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had
made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing,
almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions
in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.
The hundred-pound check tossed across a breakfast lable is a much smaller thing
to a woman than the five-shilling charm which represents some thought and some
trouble upon the part of the giver.
Sparter failed to understand this. With his mind full of the affairs of his
firm, he had little time for the delicacies of life, and he endeavored to atone
by periodical munificence. At the end of five years he found that he had lost
rather than gained in the lady's affections. Then, at this unwonted sense of
failure, the evil side of the man's nature began to stir, and he became
dangerous. But he was more dangerous still when a letter of his wife's came,
through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she
was cold to him she had passion enough for another. His firm, his ironclads,
his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the
undoing of the man.
He had been cold and silent during dinner that evening, and she had wondered
vaguely what had occurred to change him. He had said nothing while they sat
together over their coffee in the drawing-room. Once or twice she had glanced
at him in surprise, and had found those deep-set gray eyes fixed upon her with
an expression that was new to her. Her mind had been full of some one else, but
gradually her husband's silence and the inscrutable expression of his face
forced themselves upon her attention.
"You don't seem yourself, to-night, William. What is the matter?" she asked.
"I hope there has been nothing to trouble you."
He was still silent and leaned back in his arm-chair, watching her beautiful
face, which had turned pale with the sense of some impending catastrophe.
"Can I do anything for you, William?"
"Yes, you can write a letter."
"What is the letter?"
"I will tell you presently."
The last murmur died away in the house, and they heard the discreet step of
Peterson, the butler, and the snick of the lock as he made all secure for the
night. Sir William Sparter sat listening for a while. Then he rose.
"Come into my study," said he.
The room was dark, but he switched on the green-shaded electric lamp which
stood upon the writing-table.
"Sit there at the table," said he. He closed the door and seated himself
beside her. "I only wanted to tell you, Jacky, that I know about Lambert."
She gasped and shivered, flinching away from him with her hands out as if
she feared a blow.
"Yes, I know everything," said he, and his quiet tone carried such
conviction with it that she could not question what he said. She made no reply,
but sat with her eyes fixed upon his grave, massive face. A clock ticked loudly
upon the mantelpiece, but everything else was silent in the house. She had
never noticed that ticking before, but now it was like the hammering of a nail
into her head. He rose and put a sheet of paper before her. Then he drew one
from his own pocket and flattened it out upon the corner of the table.
"I have a rough draft here of the letter which I wish you to copy," said he.
"I will read it to you if you like. 'My own dearest Cecil: I will be at No. 29
at half-past six, and I particularly wish you to come before you go down to the
opera. Don't fail me, for I have the very strongest reasons for wishing to see
you. Ever yours, Jacqueline.' Take up a pen and copy that letter."
"William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you,
I am so sorry—"
"Copy that letter!"
"But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at
"Copy that letter!"
"How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—"
"Copy that letter!"
"I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that
I have married."
"Copy that letter!"
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail
over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the
pen in her hand.
"You wouldn't harm him, William!"
"Copy that letter!"
"Will you promise to forgive me, if I do?"
"Copy that letter!"
She looked at him with the intention of defying him, but those masterful
gray eyes dominated her. She was like a half-hypnotized creature, resentful,
and yet obedient.
"There, will that satisfy you?"
He took the note from her hand and placed it in an envelope.
"Now address it to him!"
She wrote "Cecil Lambert, Esq., 138B, Half Moon street, W." in a straggling,
agitated hand. Her husband very deliberately blotted it and placed it carefully
in his pocket-book.
"I hope that you are satisfied now." said she with weak petulance.
"Quite," said he gravely. "You can go to your room. Mrs. McKay has my orders
to sleep with you, and to see that you write no letters."
"Mrs. McKay! Do you expose me to the humiliation of being watched by my own
"Go to your room!"
"If you imagine that I am going to be under the orders of the
"Go to your room!"
"Oh. William, who would have thought in the old days that you could ever
have treated me like this? If my mother had ever dreamed—"
He took her by the arm, and led her to the door.
"Go to your room!" said he, and she passed out into the darkened hall. He
closed the door and returned to the writing table. Out of a drawer he took two
things which he had purchased that day, the one a paper and the other a book.
The former was a recent number of the "Musical Record," and it contained a
biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice
had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture
was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a
full eye, a curling mustache and a bull neck. The biography explained that he
was only in his twenty-seventh year, that his career had been one continued
triumph, that he was devoted to his art, and that his voice was worth to him,
at a very moderate computation, some twenty thousand pounds a year. All this
Sir William Sparter read very carefully, with his great brows drawn down, and a
furrow like a gash between them, as his way was when his attention was
concentrated. Then he folded the paper up again, and he opened the book.
It was a curious work for such a man to select for his reading—a
technical treatise upon the organs of speech and voice-production. There were
numerous colored illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of
them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords
shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William
Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over
these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were
* * * * *
Dr. Manifold Ormonde, the famous throat specialist, of Cavendish square, was
surprised next morning when his butler brought the card of Sir William Sparter
into his consulting-room. He had met him at dinner at the table of Lord Marvin
a few nights before, and it struck him at that time that he had seldom seen a
man who looked such a type of rude, physical health. So he thought again, as
the square, thick-set figure of the shipbuilder was ushered in to him.
"Glad to see you again. Sir William," said the specialist. "I hope there is
nothing wrong with your health."
"Nothing, thank you."
He sat down in the chair which the doctor had indicated, and he ran his eyes
slowly and deliberately round the room. Dr. Ormonde watched him with some
curiosity, for he had the air of a man who looks for something which he had
expected to see.
"No, I didn't come about my health." said he at last. "I came for
"Whatever I can give you is entirely at your disposal."
"I have been studying the throat a little of late. I read Mclntyre's book
about it. I suppose that is all right."
"An elementary treatise, but accurate as far as it goes."
"I had an idea that you would be likely to have a model or something of that
For answer the doctor unclasped the lid of a yellow, shining box upon his
consulting-room table, and turned it back upon the hinge. Within was a complete
model of the human vocal organs.
"You are right, you see," said he.
Sir William Sparter stood up, and bent over the model.
"It's a neat little bit of work," said he, looking at it with the critical
eyes of an engineer. "This is the glottis, is it not? And here is the
"Precisely. And here are the cords."
"What would happen if you cut them?"
"These things—the vocal cords."
"But you could not cut them. They are out of the reach of accident."
"But if such a thing did happen?"
"There is no such case upon record, but, of course, the person would become
dumb—for a time, at any rate."
"You have a large practice among singers, have you not?"
"The largest in London."
"I suppose you agree with what this man Mclntyre says, that a fine voice
depends partly upon the cords."
"The volume of sound would depend upon the lung capacity, but the clearness
of the note would correspond with the complete control which the singer
exercised over the cords.
"Any roughness or notching of the cords would ruin the voice?"
"For singing purposes, undoubtedly—but your researches seem to be
taking a very curious direction."
"Yes," said Sir William, as he picked up his hat, and laid a fee upon the
corner of the table. "They are a little out of the common, are they not?"
* * * * *
Warburton street is one of the network of thoroughfares which connects
Chelsea with Kensington, and it is chiefly remarkable for the number of studios
it contains. Signor Lambert, the famous tenor, owned an apartment here, and his
neat little dark-green brougham might have been seen several times a week
waiting at the head of the long passage which led down to the chambers in
When Sir William Sparter, muffled in his overcoat, and carrying a small
black leather bag in his hand, turned the corner, he saw the lamps of the
carriage against the curb, and knew that the man whom he had come to see was
already in the place of assignation. He passed the empty brougham, and walked
up the tile-paved passage with the yellow gas lamp shining at the far end of
The door was open, and led into a large empty hall, laid down with coconut
matting and stained with many footmarks. The place was a rabbit warren by
daylight, but now, when the working hours were over, it was deserted. A
housekeeper in the basement was the only permanent resident. Sir William
paused, but everything was silent, and everything was dark save for one door
which was outlined in thin yellow slashes. He pushed it open and entered. Then
he locked it upon the inside and put the key in his pocket.
It was a large room, scantily furnished, and lit by a single oil lamp upon a
center-table. On a chair at the farther side of the table a man had been
sitting, who had sprung to his feet with an exclamation of joy, which had
changed into one of surprise, and culminated in an oath.
"What the devil do you mean by locking that door? Unlock it again, sir, this
Sir William did not even answer him. He advanced to the table, opened the
bag, and began to take out all sorts of things—a green bottle, a
dentist's gag, an inhaler, a forceps, a curved bistoury, a curious pair of
scissors. Signor Lambert stood staring at him in a paralysis of rage and
"You infernal scoundrel—who are you, and what do you want?"
Sir William had emptied his bag, and now he took off his overcoat and laid
it over the back of a chair. Then for the first time he turned his eyes upon
the singer. He was a taller man than himself, but far slighter and weaker. The
engineer, though short, was exceedingly powerful, with muscles which had been
toughened by hard physical work. His broad shoulders, arching chest and great
gnarled hands gave him the outline of a gorilla. Lambert shrunk away from him,
frightened by his sinister figure and by his cold, inexorable eyes.
"Have you come to rob me?" he gasped.
"I have come to speak to you. My name is Sparter."
Lambert tried to retain his grasp upon the self-possession which was rapidly
slipping away from him.
"Sparter!" said he. with an attempt at jauntiness. "Sir William Sparter, I
presume? I have had the pleasure of meeting Lady Sparter, and I have heard her
mention you. May I ask the object of this visit?" He buttoned up his coat with
twitching fingers, and tried to look rierce over his collar.
"I've come," said Sparter. jerking some fluid from the green bottle into the
inhaler, "to change your voice."
"To change my voice?"
"You are a madman! What do you mean?"
"Kindly lie back upon the settee."
"You are raving! I see it all. You wish to bully me. You have some motive in
this. You imagine that there are relations between Lady Sparter and me. I do
assure you that your wife—"
"My wife has nothing to do with the matter either now or hereafter. Her name
does not appear at all. My motives are musical—purely musical, you
understand. I don't like your voice. It wants treatment. Lie back upon the
"Sir William, I give you my word of honor—"
"You're choking me! It's chloroform! Help, help, help! You brute! Let me go!
Let me go, I say! Oh, please! Lemme—Lemme—Lem—!" His head had
fallen back, and he muttered into the inhaler. Sir William pulled up the table
which held the lamp and the instrument.
It was some minutes after the gentleman with the overcoat and the bag had
emerged that the coachman outside heard a voice shouting, and shouting very
hoarsely and angrily, within the building. Presently came the sounds of
unsteady steps, and his master, crimson with rage, stumbled out into the yellow
circle thrown by the carriage lamps.
"You, Holden!" he cried, "you leave my service to-night. Did you not hear me
calling? Why did you not come?"
The man looked at him in bewilderment, and shuddered at the color of his
"Yes. sir, I heard some one calling," he answered, "but it wasn't you, sir.
It was a voice that I had never heard before."
* * * * *
"Considerable disappointment was caused at the opera last week," said one of
the best-informed musical critics, "by the fact that Signor Cecil Lambert was
unable to appear in the various roles which had been announced. On Tuesday
night it was only, at the very last instant that the management learned of the
grave indisposition which had overtaken him, and had it not been for the
presence of Jean Caravatti. who had understudied the part, the piece must have
been abandoned. Since then we regret to hear that Signor Lambert's seizure was
even more severe than was originally thought, and that it consists of an acute
form of laryngitis, spreading to the vocal cords, and involving changes which
may permanently affect the quality of his voice. All lovers of music will hope
that these reports may prove to be pessimistic, and that we may soon be charmed
once more by the finest tenor which we have heard for many a year upon the
London operatic stage."