Sherlock Holmes & Young Winston Series:
1. The Deadwood Stage
An Incident in the Park
I was examining the breakfast coffee pot on a blustery morning in the Queen’s Jubilee summer of 1887 in the hope of obtaining a last half-cupful, when my friend Sherlock Holmes made what was for him a startling suggestion.
“It has the makings of a charming, breezy day, Watson,” he remarked as he gazed out of our open sitting-room window at the busy street below. “It is a perfect day for a stroll in the Park.”
I was pleased to accommodate Holmes, not only because after a succession of harsh, baking days, the weather was agreeably fresh, but also because of my concern for my friend’s health.
A nervous prostration, brought on by Holmes’ recent exertions in the immensely convoluted Baron Maupertuis fraud, had struck him down at the Hotel Dulong in Lyons a few weeks previously. I had instantly hastened to his side, and on examining him in company with a French colleague, I found my friend physically weak, his nerves strung taut and his mood dark and melancholic.
My fear was that the breakdown had left Holmes’ remarkably supple mental faculties dulled and brittle, and I did my utmost, in France and on our return to England, to mitigate the effects of his mental overexertion with calming draughts, and to restore his customary vigour with cheerful bonhomie. A saunter through Hyde Park with summer flowers in full bloom, a gentle breeze stirring the leaves and the waterfowl squabbling on the lake was just what this doctor would have ordered.
Our stroll was not the relaxing experience I had expected. Holmes set a brisk pace as he threaded through the pre-luncheon crowd circling the Serpentine. He tipped his hat or waved his cane to acquaintances in his easy, informal manner, and his angular figure parted the throng of strollers like the cutwater of a twenty-knot armoured cruiser.
As we reached the bridge, I was stung into remonstrance. “Holmes, you suggested a walk in the Park, not a footrace.”
“Eh?” Holmes stopped, turned back and offered me a rueful smile. “My dear fellow, forgive me. You are puffing like a grampus. How is your leg? Come, we can take a rest here on this convenient bench while you catch your breath. We can smoke a quiet pipe or two out of the crowd.”
Holmes sat on the wrought-iron bench, and, ignoring a twinge from my war wound, I settled gratefully beside him. I turned up my coat collar against the chill breeze that ruffled the surface of the lake and rustled the foliage and I fumbled for my pipe and lit it with a match in my cupped hands.
We sat in comfortable, companionable silence for a while before he turned to me with a sly smile on his lips.
I sighed. “Holmes, you are going to guess what I’m thinking again. It is poor conversation and irksome in the extreme.”
My friend pouted and blinked at me with a reproachful countenance.
“Oh, very well,” I said. “Do your worst. What am I thinking?”
“No, no, I am no stage mesmerist,” Holmes answered offhandedly. “I do not guess. But I agree with you that in the Elizabeth Cass case—”
“Miss Cass! You have deduced my thoughts. How the devil did you read my mind?”
Holmes shrugged in his most irritating Continental manner. “It is a simple enough chain of reasoning. When I explain it, you will sniff and make some remark about how elementary the matter was.”
I remained silent, as I knew my companion could not be, and soon he leaned back, took a pull on his pipe, and smiled again. “We sat, and as you filled your pipe an attractive young woman passed our bench. She wore a dark-blue shawl over a green, paisley-patterned dress. She was unchaperoned. Your eyes followed her—–”
“I say, old man,” I said reddening.
“—and your face took on a considering expression as you recalled the facts, widely reported in the sensationalist Press, of the latest cause celebre, the arrest of Miss Elizabeth Cass for soliciting—”
“Holmes, there are ladies within earshot!”
“—for soliciting for the purpose of prostitution on Regent Street, or perhaps Oxford Street. Newspaper accounts differ, suggesting that witnesses testified to various locations for the arrest.” Holmes wagged his pipe stem at me. “Untrained observers, Watson, untrained observers. Even the police constables involved gave conflicting testimony. It is a matter of weighty judicial concern that we rely so heavily on witness statements when it is an oft-proven fact that only a trained observer, such as myself, can offer accurate and reliable evidence.”
“Miss Cass is a respectable woman, Holmes. She is a frock-maker with an established firm.”
“That thought crossed your mind as you lit your pipe,” Holmes said. “Then your eyes narrowed and you frowned as you wondered what a respectable young woman was doing out in Regent (or Oxford) Street at nine in the evening.”
“The constable was adamant,” I said, releasing a stream of tobacco smoke that was instantly whipped away by the breeze. “He testified that he had seen Miss Cass twice or thrice before, talking freely with men. She denies it. What motive would he have for lying?”
Holmes sniffed. “A pertinent question, and one—”
The sound of a splash came from the direction of the lake, followed by a cry, a high-pitched screech and a shout of, “Stop, thief!”
“—on which the case may - what’s the hullabaloo?” Holmes frowned towards the sound.
A burly man in a flat cap raced along the path towards us chased by a park attendant and several strollers took up the view holloa, pointing at him. Holmes and I leapt to our feet. Holmes positioned himself in the centre of the footpath, adopting a peculiar stance, one foot forward, knee bent, and the other twisted sideways behind him. He waved his arms like a magician casting a spell. “Stand aside, Watson,” he murmured. “I have the fellow.” He stiffened his posture and emitted a strange keening sound interrupted by a succession of high-pitched yelps.
The man thundered towards us and crashed full pelt into Holmes, knocking him off his feet and over the park bench. The fugitive stumbled past me and I brought him down with a rugby tackle.
“I say, are you all right, old chap?” I asked, helping Holmes to his feet.
“Yes, yes,” my friend answered groggily. “Is he down?”
“Our miscreant is out cold. He knocked his head on a ‘Kindly Keep off the Grass’ sign. He is still out for the count. He was holding this.” I held up a gold pocket watch on a heavy chain.
I brushed the detritus of leaves, grass cuttings and soil from Holmes’ coat and replaced his top hat on his head. He stood over the unconscious felon and smiled triumphantly. “You will have recognised the Shinden Fudo Ryu technique of Ninjutsu, the ancient martial art of Japan. It uses one’s opponent’s own vital energy against him. You saw how effective it was?”
“I did indeed,” I answered with a smile. I did not mention how useful my training with the Blackheath Rugby Club had been.
“Beast!” A young, fair-haired boy pushed through the ring of spectators that had gathered around the body on the grass. He wore a cutaway Eton jacket and black trousers soaked from the knees down. “That fellow pulled my watch from my pocket and pushed me into the lake.” The boy shook his fist at the prostrate felon. “Beast,” he cried again, betraying a slight lisp.
The thief began to stir, and I helped him to his feet. He stood, swaying slightly and blinking down at the pugnacious boy.
“You are a mean fellow to play such a trick,” the boy said, poking his finger into the man’s chest. “You should give up this shameful activity and take up gainful employment. My father says that they are crying out for men in the building trades.”
“Why, you are Bonner,” Holmes said to the thief, “Bruiser Bonner. What are you doing up West, Bonner? Your pitch is Bethnal Green, is it not?”
Holmes turned to me. “Bruiser is one of the foremost bare-knuckle boxers in London. He downed Sketty George after three hours and forty-one minutes of bloody tumult in the backyard of the Horn of Plenty public house at Spitalfields. He is a consummate sportsman.”
“He attacked me from behind, sir,” the boy said fiercely. “I was feeding the under-duck. That was hardly sporting.”
“I never meant no harm to the young gentleman,” Bonner said, “I just tea-leafed his watch, like.”
“My dear fellow, look at your hands,” Holmes said. Bonner held out two bruised and mangled hands with knuckles awry and evidence of several badly mended fingers.
“Are these the hands of a pocket-picker?” Holmes asked mildly, and Bonner hung his head.
“I don’t know, sir, I’m sure.”
Holmes turned to the boy. “I see a constable approaching. Do you wish to press charges against this man?”
I handed the boy his watch, and he examined it carefully, opening the cover and checking the mechanism before he looked up. “Not if he will pledge to end his evil ways and search for honest employment.”
“I will pledge, sir. And sorry for the trouble.”
“Very well,” said Holmes. “Be off with you.”
Bonner picked up his cap, saluted and was about to turn away when Holmes took him by the shoulder and slipped a coin into his hand. “I hope I didn’t hurt you, Bruiser. I employed the Ninjutsu.”
“Very kind of you I am sure, Mr Holmes,” Bonner said, frowning. “And thank’ee for the shilling.” He hurried away.
“You should get home as soon as possible and dry out, young man,” I advised the boy. “There is an unseasonably chill wind in the air today.”
The boy slipped his watch into a pocket of his jacket. “I am late for a luncheon appointment with Mama. Thank you, gentlemen, for your help. The watch is dear to me.”
He solemnly shook our hands.
“Here,” said Holmes, holding out a half-crown. “Under the circumstances you might like to take a cab.”
“Thank you, sir. I have sufficient funds.” The boy made to turn away.
“One question,” said Holmes. “You mentioned that you were feeding the ‘under-duck’ when you were attacked. The duck– singular?”
The boy nodded. “A mallard chick is backward and does not get its share of the bread. I am training it to stand up for itself and claim its rights. I call it the under-duck.”
“I see,” said Holmes. “Thank you.”
The boy bowed a farewell and ran off. Holmes took my arm, and we sauntered along the path towards the gates. “What an odd child,” he said. “I would have thought that even the most discerning youth could find use for a half-crown. With income tax at eight pence in the pound, it is no mean sum.”
“Well, Watson? Come along, out with it,” Holmes said as we left Hyde Park at the Piccadilly end.
“You know my views on the Law, Holmes,” I replied. “We should have given your man Bonner in charge of the constable.”
“Come, come, my dear fellow, Bruiser is not a bad chap. He succumbed to overwhelming temptation. I expect the boy fairly swung the watch in his face. And I would bet a sovereign to a ha’penny that Bruiser has several wives and a dozen or more children to support.”
I laughed. “Very well.”
“Let's take a stroll along Piccadilly,” Holmes suggested. “The work at the Shaftesbury Avenue side of the Circus is almost complete. The boy was correct about the builders; they are turning London into a gigantic construction site.”
We braved the heavy traffic at the Circus, slipping among the cabs, vans and omnibuses until we gained the north side of the street.
Piccadilly, our nearest approach in London to the Parisian boulevard, was thronged with carriages of every description: the fine barouches of rank, the broughams of beauty, the mail-phaetons of the ensign of cavalry, the hansom cabs of the gentleman and the packed omnibuses of the frugal. I nudged Holmes and indicated a fine young lady in a glittering mulberry and green equipage pulled by a sleek pair of matched greys. She noticed my gesture and glared at me, twirling her parasol in a pretty way.
“I say, Holmes,” I exclaimed, smoothing my moustache.
Holmes sniffed. “She with the umbrella?” He lifted his hat in greeting, and I hastily raised mine. The lady nodded distantly.
“You know her, Holmes?”
“An infamous poisonatrix, now on her second marquess.”
“Oh.” I glanced back at the girl just as she lifted her parasol, looked over her shoulder and favoured me with a brilliant smile before her carriage turned at the Circus and was lost in a jam of traffic.
I was utterly taken aback. What message had the pretty girl intended to convey? Hers was an arch look and a smile with the slightest hint of a pout, and I was sure that she had fluttered at least one set of eyelashes at me, if not both.
No matter, I thought, tipping my bowler to a jaunty angle. An angelic face, a playful look and a dazzling smile had uplifted the heart of an ignoble and unattached doctor of medicine. Holmes nodded to me as if to confirm my conclusion, before he took my arm, and we walked together down Piccadilly.
Sherlock Holmes & Young Winston Series:
The Jubilee Plot
Camberwell for Tuppence
“On blistering days like this,” I said languidly, “I miss my punkah wallahs.”
Sherlock Holmes made no reply.
“I said I miss the fans on the veranda of my bungalow in the regimental lines at Kandahar. Perhaps we could rig a punkah on the ceiling and employ street Arabs to operate it. What do you think?”
“My dear Watson, I cannot think,” Holmes said from the depths of the sofa where he lay enveloped in his old blue dressing gown. “It is far too hot for cogitation. I am dozing fitfully and dreaming of Kathmandu in a swirling, blinding snowstorm.”
I mopped my brow with my handkerchief and looked out of the open window of our sitting room at the yellow, sun-baked facades of the houses on the opposite side of Baker Street. Some were tight-shuttered, attempting to beat the scorching summer heat and blinding sunlight with darkness and shadow. Others, like ours, were catching what faint airs and wisps of wind there were with windows and doors flung wide in the Continental style.
“You are not asleep,” I said. “You are trying to avoid my monthly recital of your misdeeds as you successfully did three months ago—”
“By almost dying,” Holmes said in a drowsy tone, “at the Hotel Dulong in Lyon.”
“And the month after that.”
“The Reigate affair,” he sighed.
“And last month you played sea shanties on your infernal violin each time I brought up the subject of our accounts. I am still partially deaf in my starboard ear.”
Holmes gave me a suspicious look. “Where is my violin? I have not seen it this age.”
I smiled and indicated the receipts, bank records and final demand notes spread across our breakfast table. “I have hidden it until we resolve our first-quarter accounts. I have a preposterous invoice here from the Chemin de Fer du Nord in France for a train spécial from Paris to Lille.”
Holmes unfolded himself from the sofa, stretched before our empty fireplace, took a slim cigar from my packet on the mantel and lit it with a match. “I was chasing Baron Maupertuis, the pan-national swindler,” he said with a languorous shrug. “He engaged a special train, and I was obliged to follow.”
He blew a stream of smoke across the room. “You have hidden my violin. It is not downstairs as you would not have left it vulnerable to our maid’s notion of polishing everything shiny with a damp rag coated with beeswax. The instrument cannot be in your room; you would not countenance the slightest whiff of felony theft. It is a long pattern Stradivarius and rather valuable.”
I waved my friend’s remarks away and tapped my account book. “Cab fares alone come to a monstrous sum, Holmes. The Metropolitan Line of the Underground Railway is at our door, yet you insist on hansoms. And the omnibus would take us to, well, Camberwell for example, for tuppence.”
“I do not intend to go to ‘well, Camberwell for example, for tuppence’. I have no business pending in Camberwell for tuppence or any other sum. It is a dull suburb.”
“I suggest Camberwell merely as a … good grief, Holmes, what is this bill from Jamrach’s Menagerie: ‘One giraffe rental for three days at two guineas a day’?”
“I was on the trail of the Giant Rat of Sumatra; I needed to pose as a collector of rare creatures. Two guineas a day is a perfectly reasonable fee for a giraffe; the rate for a mere ostrich is four.” Holmes sniffed. “You may own your own giraffe for a paltry forty pounds, cash down or over six months at five percent, and Jamrach offers price reductions when the beasts are in season.”
He wagged an admonitory finger at me. “I cannot recommend the purchase. I have discovered that responsibility for even a moderately sized giraffe entails considerable additional expense above the rental. Giraffes are not easily ridden, and they do not care to walk the streets of London even on a long leash. I was obliged to hire a Thames barge and crew at double carriage rates to convey the beast to Chelsea. The first half-dozen bargemen refused to accept the fare despite clear Thames Conservancy Board regulations on the matter. I have written strong notes to the responsible agencies.”
Holmes took a long pull on his cigar. “In addition, giraffes do not seem to possess the common sense I had expected of the species. I presumed it would bob, as it must do under low branches when navigating its native heath. My beast was nearly decapitated by London Bridge. You might have hidden the violin in my room, but again that goes against the delicacy with which you refrain from entering without invitation. No, it is not there.”
Holmes glared at me, and I tried to keep my eyes on the accounts. My friend was in a tetchy mood that morning, as I had informed him over breakfast that our literary agent, Doctor Conan Doyle, had concluded a deal with the publishers Ward, Lock and Co. whereby we had accepted the sum of twenty-five pounds for the rights to A Study in Scarlet, an account of a spectacular American case Holmes had resolved in the year before our acquaintance began.
In my manuscript, I had prefaced the narrative of the case with a description of my first meeting with Holmes and with a character study of my fellow lodger as I first knew him in the early days of our acquaintance. Holmes had seen the proofs many times as I wrote and edited through the winter and spring, but beyond providing me with the facts of the Mormon case and some details of the Utah Territory, he had expressed little interest in the project.
However, with the news of probable publication, Holmes began to voice doubts as to the advisability of putting the story before the public. He was unhappy with the lurid title and the length and structure of the narrative. He was concerned that the publication of our address in Baker Street might result in vendetta attacks from villains he had bested. I reminded my fellow lodger that we lived in the City of Westminster, not Palermo or Dodge.
I judged that Holmes’ unease was not for our safety, nor yet related to the literary merit of the story. It was clear to me that his objection was to the style of my narrative.
Although Holmes wanted neither to be lionised at the dinner tables of the nobility, nor to have his exploits written of in the penny dreadful newspapers read by the servant classes, he was content to accept – indeed secretly revel in – the acclaim accorded him by persons of intelligence and distinction. He was averse to becoming a public figure in the sense of being known to the common populace, like Chevalier Blondin the tightrope walker or Chang the Chinese Giant, but he knew the success of his practice depended on word of his formidable powers reaching the ears of those who required his help. He therefore tolerated my taking notes of his cases for publication.
His objection to my work was based on his insistence that the case summaries should comprise a handbook of detection, a master class in the science of deduction. He demanded I eschew sensationalism and sentimentality and concentrate on the chain of cold, clear reasoning by which each mystery was solved.
Coming from someone who absorbed flattery like a desiccated sponge, that was so much stuff and nonsense. An anaemic style might sell well in German translation, I supposed, but red-blooded British readers required stronger fare. Any report of the Cass mistaken identity case Holmes had recently unravelled would be inadequate if it took no account of the victim’s beauty, vivacity and charm. The conclusion of the case of the missing American boy and related murders would be absurdly mundane without a description of our chase through London on the Deadwood Stage with Colonel Cody’s column of rough riders and Indian braves.
I therefore kept to my expenses book. I knew it would be fatal for me to look up, for Holmes would inevitably renew our discussion and, in the dreadful heat, we might find ourselves not in disagreement but at loggerheads.
I had yet to inform Holmes that the publishers had not thought A Study in Scarlet suitable for their more serious literary or political journals; they were considering publication in the lightweight Beeton’s Christmas Annual. I decided to leave that news for a cooler, less oppressive month.
“They are building a preposterous opening bridge near the Tower,” I said. “The proposed ‘Tower Bridge’ is as ugly as it is expensive. It will be no adornment to the city, but it will be a boon for giraffe owners. Ah, yes, I have the barge entry. What is this miscellaneous seven and sixpence?”
“Fodder. I have determined that my violin is in this room. I sweep the sitting room with an unwavering, analytical gaze, ha! I see the violin case leaning against my laboratory table exactly where I put it after my last recital. I therefore conclude that you have hidden the instrument in plain sight by returning it to its case! Voila!” He flung the case open: it was empty.
I looked up and cackled. “Ha, ha, Holmes. Giraffe, barge and fodder on the Giant Rat account then. The violin is downstairs in our waiting room being restrung by the man from the music shop. One of the strings popped in the heat. If you stopped talking and listened for a moment you would hear the plinks.”
Holmes flopped onto the sofa. “It is too stifling listen to plinks. I overloaded the delicately balanced mechanism of my penetralia mentis following the trail of Baron Maupertuis from his lair in Geneva to the dull Edam lands of Holland. I unravelled every element of that colossal fraud at great cost to my cerebral ether.”
He waved a languid hand. “I am almost glad it is such a fiery summer: it is too sultry for crime, too oppressive for detection. No respectable felon will stir in such arduous conditions. Internationally famous consulting detectives and the superior levels of the criminal fraternity need to rest their precious faculties in the summer to prepare for the season of equinoctial murder and mayhem in the autumn. Your costermonger may bash his mother with impunity as far as I am concerned. Did someone shout ‘ice’?”
We leapt to the window. A pair of outsized horses plodded down the street, pulling a heavily loaded, tarpaulin-covered wagon. A huge sign on the side proclaimed that pure American lake ice was for sale. A steady stream of water splashed from the back and sides of the cart, and a pack of street urchins gambolled behind, screeching and splashing each other.
We turned to the door, shouting “Billy!” in unison.
An answering cry came from below and our pageboy appeared from behind the cart dragging a hand trolley loaded with a slab of sawdust-covered ice. We watched as our maid and he heaved the block across the pavement and into the house. We listened, following the block’s progress as it was manhandled along the hall and out to the back scullery.
“Glasses,” Holmes cried urgently. “Whisky.”
“Soda,” I said, reaching for the gasogene.
Steps sounded on the stairs, and we stared at the open door. I licked my dry lips as a figure appeared in the doorway.
“On the table, Billy, quick now,” said Holmes.
“Good afternoon,” said the prime minister.
Sherlock Holmes & Young Winston Series:
The Giant Moles
The Mystery of Paradol Hall
“Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock Holmes said, looking up from his chair in front of a crackling, aromatic fire in our sitting room. “You are very much underfoot.”
“I have been trying to get these decorations up this age,” she answered with a fierce glare, “and you have shooed me out again and again. Christmas Day is in less than a week, and I will have the holly across the mantel today, will you, or won’t you, Mr Holmes. Have you no shame if people peek through the windows and think this a heathen household with no regard for Christian decency?”
“Do what you must do, but quietly, I implore you,” said Holmes. “I am trying to concentrate.”
“A new case, Holmes?” I enquired, peering over my Times. “You are undertaking some research?”
He showed me the title of the book he was engrossed in, The Illustrated Poems of Edward Lear, given to us by one of Holmes’ satisfied clients earlier in the year. I recalled Miss Elizabeth Cass with affection. She was a seamstress and frock designer, a delightful and alluring young lady who had been falsely accused of a monstrous crime.
I glanced up, saw my friend regarding me benignly over his book, and I coloured and hid behind my newspaper. Holmes’ habit of following my train of thought from my facial expressions was undignified and unseemly, as I had often represented to him, but he was incorrigible.
“I see we have received a card from Miss Cass,” he said with a smile.
I stood and hunted among the cards on the mantel.
“Where would you like your Christmas tree, gentlemen?” Mrs Hudson asked. “Shall we put it up in here by the window, or would you prefer it downstairs in the waiting room for visitors to admire?”
“In here,” I said.
“In the backyard,” said Holmes.
I found the card pinned to the mantel by the blade of a clasp knife with a bunch of others. “I say, old man, there are rips right through all the greeting cards.” I smiled as I read the message from Miss Cass. “She sends best wishes to all at 221b. How kind.”
Mrs Hudson placed a holly wreath under the mirror that hung above the fireplace, and she stood back to admire the decorations.
“Good Lord, Holmes,” I said. “This top card is from the Emperor of Austria-Hungary! And you have spiked it to the mantelpiece with your knife.”
He shrugged. “The card contained a cheque. It was torn, but Hoares accepted it.”
"Mr Holmes!” Mrs Hudson exclaimed.
“I bank with Hoares and Co., in Fleet Street,” Holmes said coldly.
I stifled my amusement, settled back down in my chair [A1] and picked up my Times. “What are the French up to? Do you see that they have begun construction of this ludicrous tower of Monsieur Eiffel’s? Literary and artistic France is up in arms: Alexandre Dumas, Gounod and de Maupassant have written against it. Mark my words, there can only be one purpose for such a design: military reconnaissance. They plan to spy on our coast and count the masts of our Fleet at Dover.”
Holmes gave me a sceptical look. “Why should they bother with a tower? Dover is riddled with French waiters.”
“I was going to hang the cards from a pretty twist of green ribbon, but look at them,” Mrs Hudson said in a reproving tone. “All ripped up. And have you gentlemen replied to the good wishes for the season from your correspondents as is the genteel thing to do? It’s not just this dozen on the mantel, Doctor. There are a hundred more letters and cards in that box Mr Holmes hides under his desk. You will miss the post if you do not make a shift. You must not throw the cards into any old box and hope they will go away.”
“I try to keep things tidy,” Holmes said in stiff tone from behind his book. “I thought we might employ Master Churchill to write the sentiment, then Watson and I can sign alternate cards. The boy’s parents are about to leave on a tour of Russia, and he and his brother will be alone in the house in Connaught Place with their nurse. He’ll be happy to take the commission.”
Holmes sighed, threw down his book and jumped up from his chair. “Good God, Watson! Are all the criminals in London nibbling walnuts and sipping rum punch with bitter lemon in front of a merry fire? Is Professor Moriarty choosing a plump goose at the market before he skips home to scribble Christmas good wishes to his band of thugs and brigands? Do the dangerous classes not know the festive season is the best time for muggery in the streets? People are tripping along our metropolitan thoroughfares carrying money and goods worth a king’s ransom; they flaunt their purchases with wrappings and ribbons, yet they go unmolested.”
He hunted through the piles of newspapers on the floor around his chair. “Lady Sutherland had a Christmas rout at her mansion in Park Lane last Tuesday, and the street was thronged with ladies and gentlemen just begging to be relieved of their jewels, watches, furs and pocketbooks – and what happened? I will tell you.” Holmes snatched up a copy of the Police Gazette. “I quote, ‘Street sweeper Emily Duff was arrested outside the house of Lady Sutherland on Tuesday night accused of deliberately casting mud onto the dress of Miss A Roberts, daughter of General R V Roberts, Royal Engineers, as she alighted from her carriage. Duff was cautioned and released.’ Great grief, Watson!”
“Tut, tut,” said Mrs Hudson.
Holmes muttered something that sounded like “Diabolical liberty” and slumped into his chair as Billy appeared in the open doorway. “Telegram, sirs.”
“Aha!” Holmes cried, reaching for it.
“For the doctor,” said Billy.
I took the envelope and slit it. “I say Holmes,” I said, “this is from young Stamford. He was a dresser under me at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He brought us together when we were both looking for lodgings in ’81. Do you remember? Why, I have not seen him these five or six years. He’s coming here.”
“Then I shall leave you to your reminiscences,” Holmes said, standing. “I’ll visit Gamages emporium and buy your Christmas gift. Would you prefer another tartan scarf or another rosewood pipe?”
“But he wants to see you, Holmes. Listen: ‘Imperative meet your friend Holmes reference matter of life or death. James Stamford ex-Barts. Will call at eleven.’ He is due at any moment.”
I handed Holmes the telegram, and he peered at it. “He could have saved at least five words. Stamford always was a loquacious and free-spending young man. Pass me the newspaper, Watson. I will put off my purchases to the afternoon. I thought of getting Churchill a magnifying glass, what do you think?”
The doorbell rang, and a few moments later our door opened, and the pageboy showed in my old friend Stamford on the arm of young Winston Churchill.
“This gentleman was leaning against the wall next to the street door, Doctor,” Churchill said. “He looked unwell.”
I took Stamford’s overcoat and hat. A wide band of black crêpe was sewn around the right sleeve of the coat, and his top hat was trimmed with a similar band of material. I handed both to Billy.
Stamford wore a dusty black suit, a little tight at the waistband as he had filled out since I had last seen him. I was saddened to note that, although my friend could not have been more than thirty, the ruddy complexion and bright smiles of youth had been replaced by a pale and despondent mien, and his once glossy red hair had faded to brown with traces of grey amid the auburn.
We shook hands, and I settled him on the sofa. “I say, old man, have you been boxing? Your right eye is inflamed and your brow bruised and blackened. Would you like me to have a look?”
Stamford placed a bulging leather despatch case on the cushion beside him. “It is nothing, Watson, just an elbow in the face in the scrum.”
I made no answer, although Stamford’s stooped posture and paunch suggested a sedentary existence in which field sports played no part.
“Should you like a restorative?” I asked. He smiled, and I unlocked the spirits tantalus, poured a glass of whisky and added soda.
“You mentioned a matter of life and death,” Holmes said, raising his eyebrows. “Your badges of mourning suggest that you have suffered a recent bereavement.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, my dear fellow,” I said, handing him the glass.
“Thank you, Watson.”
“Very well,” Holmes said, folding himself into his armchair. “The boy is Winston Churchill, a supernumerary member of our establishment.” Holmes set his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers, adopting his customary posture for attentive listening.
“I don’t know where to begin,” Stamford said, shaking his head.
Holmes sighed. “Then let us see what we can surmise. You travelled up to Town on the last train from Gloucester yesterday evening. You had your hair trimmed and whiskers removed at the barbershop in Paddington Station, and you put up at Benson’s private hotel in Marylebone. You checked in incognito, of course.”
Holmes sprang out of his chair and grabbed my pack of cigars from the mantel. He shook the empty pack, crushed it and threw it into the fire, before giving me a cold look and subsiding back into his chair with a sigh.
He glared at Stamford. “This morning, you visited your bankers, Coutts and Co. in the Strand, where you examined the contents of a safety-deposit box and removed certain items. You sent a telegraph to Doctor Watson, stopped at the Coal Hole public house to have breakfast while you mulled over your problem, and then you took a cab here.”
Stamford blinked at Holmes open-mouthed.
“You have a puppy dog, a terrier breed I would suggest,” Holmes continued. “It must be a comfort to you, now that your wife has left you. Perhaps she was exasperated by your arboreal exertions or your excessive drinking.”
“I say, Holmes,” I expostulated.
Holmes sniffed. “You have recently come into money, and you count photography and bicycling among your hobbies.” He leaned back in his chair. “I can say no more at present except that you are in fear of your life.”
Stamford blinked at Holmes in amazement.
I was certain that Holmes was showing off for our old acquaintance. Brag and bounce, I thought, with an inward smile. I had no doubt that Stamford would be able to refute such nonsense.
Stamford shook his head. “How the devil do you know all that? I remember from years ago at Barts you could guess things.”
“I do not guess, Stamford, I deduce.” Holmes waved a languid wrist at Churchill.
“The dog is clear from marks on your trouser cuffs, sir,” Churchill said. He set his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers in an irritatingly Holmes-like gesture. “And from your bootlaces, which you have allowed the dog to worry. You value the dog’s company over the damage to your trousers, which may suggest that you do not have a wife to scold you. The bicycling is obvious from the marks of the clips on your trouser legs and the wear on the front of your shoes. Your suit is dusty, with small tears in the fabric, and there are particles of what might be soil on the sleeves of your jacket, suggesting recent outdoor activity.”
Stamford looked blankly at Churchill, and I gave my friend a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
Holmes took his briar pipe from the rack and reached for the Persian slipper in which we kept our tobacco. He felt the empty toe, gave me another cold look, threw his pipe into the coal scuttle and turned back to Stamford. “You arrived at your home in Gloucester last evening. You were wounded and in a highly nervous state. You paused only to put iodine on your cuts and bruises and develop photographs. The iodine stain is still clear on your hands, as is the lingering dye of photographic chemicals. You did not visit a doctor; that argues urgency, sensitivity or both. You left the dog with a friend – it is a puppy, a handful; the friend must be a close one.
“You bought a copy of the local newspaper in Gloucester –yesterday’s final edition is sticking out of the left pocket of your overcoat, together with the late edition of the London Evening News with an advertisement for Benson’s Hotel ringed in black ink.
“You travelled up to Town on the last train. On your arrival at Paddington, you bought an evening paper and visited the barbershop, open at that hour and convenient. There are pale patches where whiskers used to adorn your visage. You looked through the paper and ringed an advertisement for Benson’s private hotel, which is odd, because your lapel pin is evidence of your membership of an organisation of property agents.”
Stamford fingered a silver badge pinned to his lapel. “It’s the National Association—”
“Quite so. You could have stayed at a more comfortable hotel than Benson’s at the professional rate. You chose Benson’s because it is unlikely to be frequented by your colleagues in the business. You booked in to the hotel under the name of—”
Holmes paused and raised his eyebrows.
“Mr Bonny,” said Stamford. “It is the name of my bull terrier pup.”
“It is obvious from your unhealthy look,” Holmes continued, “that you spent a restless night. You had not yet made up your mind what to do. The matter related to the contents of your safety-deposit box at Coutts.”
“The key,” I exclaimed.
Stamford fingered a small key hanging from the end of his watch chain near the fob.
“It is a deposit box key, stamped with the bank’s name,” Holmes said as he stood and checked the pockets of his frock coat, hanging from a hook on the back of his bedroom door. “You attached the key to your watch chain to keep it safe during the journey from Gloucester, and you were at the door of the bank when it opened at ten. You now have with you a bulging satchel containing something from the box. It is important and sensitive, as you declined to entrust it to your bank in Gloucester, preferring the anonymity of a London firm. You considered your options over a glass of whisky; the Coal Hole is just along the Strand from the bank.”
“The scent is still upon you, sir. You sent your wire from the telegraph office two doors from the public house.” Holmes smiled. “Despite the hour, Stamford could do with some further fortification.”
I mixed another whisky and soda.
“Churchill,” said Holmes, “kindly pop downstairs and ask Billy for a cigarette; he will deny that he smokes and claim he has none, but you must persist. The ash on his lapels and sleeves are proof positive he smokes Wild Woodbine.”
Churchill stood, but I waved him down and passed Holmes my cigar case.
“Now, Stanford,” Holmes said as he took my last cigar and lit it with a spill from the fire, “from the beginning, if you please.”
Stamford gulped whisky and looked up at me. “You may know, gentlemen,” he began, twisting his hands in his lap in his nervous agitation. “You may recall that my father insisted that I cut short my medical studies. He persuaded me I was unsuited to the practice of medicine.” He shook his head. “Although I was bitterly disappointed at the time, I dare say he was right. I joined his firm of property agents in my hometown, Gloucester. The business prospered and I with it. I took over the running of the company on my father’s death.”
He pressed his face into his hands and groaned.
“I say, old man,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “Steady the Buffs.”
Stamford nodded and continued. “I have spent the weeks since his death going through those aspects of the business that were my father’s personal prerogative. All seemed normal until I came to one file. Here it is.” He took a thick file from his case, opened it and handed several sheets of paper to me. The first was an advertisement for a country house.
“Paradol Hall,” I read. “A neat and desirable property, part seventeenth century, part modern, three miles north of Hereford. The house, built on gravel, has twelve bedrooms, with reception rooms, ballroom and the usual offices. The lease includes extensive grounds and a lake with all rights. Viewing by appointment.”
A photograph attached to one of the sheets showed a pleasant, old-fashioned-looking house with mullioned windows and tall brick chimneys. A stone staircase led from a terrace to an extensive lawn bordered by a low wall, and a tall tree stood to the left of a set of iron gates. I passed it to Holmes.
“Here is a two-year lease contract dated December 1886,” I continued. “It is signed by a Colonel Morgan, and I presume by your father, Stamford senior.”
“That is his signature.”
“And what is singular about the transaction?” Holmes asked.
Stamford leaned forward. “I can find no evidence whatsoever of payment. That in itself is strange. My father was a methodical man, and his records are impeccable. This is the only file in any way incomplete. I took it from my father’s office where other eyes might see it and kept it in my deposit box in London. I had, and still have, a strong feeling that there is something untoward, even dangerous about the Paradol Hall transaction.”
Holmes raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“The lack of payment records is not all, Mr Holmes. You will see that there is a map of the property in the envelope. The land is divided into sections radiating from the house. Each section is numbered, some in a hand like my father’s, some in another’s. I cannot conceive of a reason for this division.”
Holmes yawned. “Many landowners map their grounds.”
“I am aware of that, sir; you forget, property is my profession,” Stamford replied stiffly. “But I think you will agree that these divisions are singular.”
Holmes snapped his fingers at me, and I handed him the map. He examined it languidly as Stamford continued his tale.
“I wrote to the occupier, Colonel Morgan, late of the Indian Army, requesting particulars of payments made. I received no reply. I was in some anxiety as my father had seemed nervous and preoccupied in the months before his death.
“On several occasions I had asked him what the matter was, but he did not choose to confide in me. He took to going up to London on Friday and not returning until Monday or Tuesday, and then pale-faced and anxious. I thought Paradol Hall might yield an answer to the question of my father’s disquiet. I therefore sent one of my agents, a bright and steadfast lad, to visit the property.
“He says it is made up like a fortress. The walls surrounding the grounds have been raised to over twelve feet and the tops iron-spiked. All openings but the main entrance are bricked in, and that has tall metal gates, spiked and chain-locked with Chubb patent padlocks.”
Holmes leaned forward, flicked his cigar ash into the fire and made a languid motion for Stamford to continue.
“My man was not to be put off. He waited until night, then he tackled the wall by swinging from an overhanging branch and dropping to the grass on the other side. He did not fall onto grass. He found himself on a mound of dirt piled to within a few feet of the top of the wall; next to it was a huge hole. He said that if the tree branch had stuck out a little more to the left, he’d have dropped thirty feet and would be dead as mutton, or at least badly injured.”
“A lively fellow, your agent,” Holmes said, chuckling.
“Indeed,” Stamford said warmly. “He scouted the lawn in irregular shafts of bright moonlight. Around him were a dozen huge holes like the first, with earth piled beside them.”
“Was the house inhabited?” Holmes asked.
“Gas and candle lights burned in several rooms. The candles moved as they were carried from room to room.”
“Very well; go on.”
“As my man ventured across the pitted lawn, he heard a shout and the sound of a metal gate slamming open. There was a bloodcurdling howl, followed by another, and fierce snarling and growling.”
“Dogs,” I said.
Holmes put his finger to his lips.
“Yes, Watson,” said Stamford. “He ran for his life, pounding up the mound, slipping and slithering in the soft earth; he jumped onto the overhanging branch just as a pair of savage curs scrabbled up and leapt at him. He clambered along the branch, down the tree trunk and made off.”
“A lucky escape,” said Holmes. “The earth mound was providential. Pray tell, how did you plan to get back over the wall once you had dropped from the tree? You did not know of the mound at that point.”
Stamford jumped up and stared at Holmes.
“Oh, come, sir,” Holmes said brusquely. “Let us dispense with your fictional ‘bright lad’ and have the rest of the story in its proper form.”
Stamford slumped down with his head in his hands.
The Scottish Question
Cause for Grievance
I came down from my bedroom to the sitting room of our lodgings at 221b Baker Street and found my friend Sherlock Holmes already at the breakfast table clad in his threadbare, mouse-coloured dressing gown. Our pageboy stood on a stool by the fireplace in his Sunday best clothes under a white apron changing the old gas mantles for new ones.
“Well, Watson, I fear we are entering the season of equinoctial gales,” said Holmes.
“Good morning, Holmes, and to you, Billy.” I went to the window, opened it wide and peered out. “Why so? We are barely past the ides of July, and the weather is beautiful,with not a cloud in the sky. I imagine that we are in for another stifling day.”
“Local portends suggest stormy weather,” Holmes replied, tapping his nose with his finger. “Note the new lace curtains.”
I joined him at the breakfast table, helped myself to toast and leafed without enthusiasm through the morning newspapers. Billy’s Police Gazette lay on the arm of the sofa with his box of Sugg’s gas mantles, and I snatched it, chuckling at the lurid headlines. “More airship sightings in America, ha, ha.”
“Pass the coffee, old man.” Holmes snapped his Times and turned the page.
I slid the coffee pot across the table. “Did you see the droll story last year from California in which seven-foot beings emerged from an airship and attempted to abduct a colonel (of a branch of the United States military I cannot recall) together with his female companion and his horse and buggy. He fought them off.”
Holmes sniffed from behind his newspaper.
“Repeated from the St Louis Post-Dispatch is a story that one W H Hopkins of Springfield, Missouri encountered a grounded airship twenty feet in length and eight feet in diameter. The vehicle was propelled by three large propellers and crewed by a woman and a bearded man, both, ahem, unclothed. Mr Hopkins tried to communicate with the crew to ascertain their origins, and eventually understanding what Hopkins was asking of them, they pointed to the sky and said ‘Mars’.
I turned the page. “And here is a more sinister account from three months ago. A story published in the Table Rock Argus claims a group of ‘anonymous but reliable’ witnesses saw an airship sailing overhead. The craft had many passengers. The witnesses report that among these passengers was a woman tied to a chair, a servant attending her and a man with a pistol guarding the prisoner. Before the witnesses thought to contact the authorities, the airship was gone.”
I laughed aloud, threw Billy’s paper back onto the sofa and wiped my eyes with my handkerchief. “Oh, dear, what drivel people may be hoodwinked into believing.”
Holmes flipped down a corner of his newspaper. “Hmmm?”
“Anything in the post?” I asked.
Holmes smiled. “An intriguing summons by messenger.”
Mrs Hudson bustled in with a tray. “Here’s your breakfast, Doctor.” She laid a bowl of steaming grey gruel in front of me. “Mrs Campbell at number ninety-seven had a sack of fine oats sent from Clackmannan just yesterday. She gave me a pound, and I made a braw porridge.” She wagged her finger at me. “Simple Scots oats boiled with a pinch of salt and served hot as you’d like with cold milk on the side and none of your honey or syrup nonsense.” She turned to Holmes. “Have you finished yours, Mr Holmes?”
“I have,” Holmes said, passing her his empty bowl. “And I am in an excellent mood for eggs and bacon, if that could be managed?”
Mrs Hudson beamed at him. “The porridge will set you up for the day.”
She left us, and I stared doubtfully at my bowl. “You say you finished yours, Holmes?”
He sniffed. “Not quite. I do not feel any need to be set up on such a bright day.” He coughed softly and signalled to Billy. The boy stepped down from his stool, brought a retort from Holmes’ laboratory bench to the breakfast table and opened the lid to disclose a heaving grey mass. Billy raised his eyebrows, I nodded, and he scraped the contents of my bowl into the retort and returned it to the bench.
I buttered my toast as I glanced at my Telegraph. “Not much of interest this morning. I see the Queen is going to Balmoral earlier this year than is her usual practice. I expect she is looking forward to a change of scene after the exertions of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.”
“I could wish for a trip to Scotland, Holmes: the scented heather, lofty bens, trickling becks and noble lochs. Do you not yearn for the fresh, clean air and romantic vistas of the Highlands?”
“I do not,” he answered.
“Balmoral is a fine building, by all accounts,” I said. “It is on the River Dee.”
Holmes flicked down a corner of his newspaper again. “A baronial Scots mansion adorned with the necessary turrets, battlements and crow-stepped gables, but with touches of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha from the drawing board of Prince Albert. A curious hybrid of Celt and Teuton, much like the sovereigns of these British islands.”
“Who rule a significant portion of the earth,” I reminded him.
Holmes smiled. “Hybrids are often hardier than their progenitors.”
Billy whistled an annoying music-hall tune as he moved his stool to the gas jets on the far wall. I gave him a sharp look, and he desisted.
“You mentioned a summons, Holmes?” I asked.
“The dean of Westminster Abbey requires my presence at the West Door of the Abbey at noon precisely. He wishes to consult me on a matter of some delicacy.”
I chuckled. “Have you been up to anything indelicate, Holmes? You’ve not denied the Trinity or disallowed the forty-nine articles, I trust.”
Holmes ignored my gibe. “If you are as intrigued as I am, you might like to accompany me. It will be good for our souls, slightly spotted as they are this morning, to confess our sins.”
“I do not indulge in the practice of confession,” I said stiffly.
“Weel, all may,” said Holmes in a faux Scots accent, “none must, and some should, as the saying goes.”
We finished our breakfast and smoked our morning pipes in companionable silence until the mantel clock struck ten, when we dressed, went downstairs and collected our hats and canes from the stand in the lobby. Billy followed us with the retort.
I sniffed as I caught a whiff of carbolic soap in the air. It came from Billy. “Where’s your uniform?” I asked him.
“On the line in the back yard, Doctor,” he said, looking down at his toes. “Which, Mrs H took my suit of buttons apart and scrubbed it. She sewed it back up again, and it’s being aired.”
“That retort needs cleaning, Billy,” Holmes said loudly enough to be heard in the kitchen. “At the drain in the backyard, I suggest, as the contents are toxic.”
Holmes snapped his fingers. “Lend me thruppence, will you?”
I handed Holmes the coin, and he flicked it to Billy and tapped his finger to his lips. “Hush.”
The day had already grown hot, and bright sunlight glinted off the metalwork and glass of the carts and carriages pressing around our cab as we threaded through heavy traffic towards central London. I shielded my eyes from the glare with the rim of my bowler.
Billows of dust rose from the rumbling carriage wheels, and the city smells – smoke, horse dung and rotting rubbish – were augmented by the sharp tang of hot leather and horse sweat.
After a weary journey, our cab dropped us at the West Door of Westminster Abbey where a young man in clerical garb met us and introduced himself as Canon Isaac Blood. He ushered us through the Nave and Choir of the church, and I appreciated the cool and tranquil atmosphere that prevailed in the Abbey after the dust, oppressive heat and jangling noise outside.
I gazed in awe at the vaulted ceiling high overhead. It seemed astonishing that such a magnificent structure had been built by manual labour without the aid of steam engines and cranes. I wondered whether, with all our inventiveness and skill, modern man could create a monument that would stand as a testimony to faith and the human spirit for as many hundreds of years as this edifice. I feared that as we neared the end of the nineteenth century, the focus of our scientists and inventors was more on destruction than on construction, on more efficient means of defeating our enemies rather than soaring towers of faith that exalt our spirit.
“Are you related to General Binden Blood of the Malakand Field Force?” I asked the canon. “I read of his exploits in the Telegraph.”
“Distantly,” Canon Blood replied in a soft voice tinged with a Scots burr. “Binden Blood’s is the cadet branch of the family, mine the Irish-Scots.”
He stopped at the chapel of Edward the Confessor, screened by a black curtain. “We have closed this section of the Abbey to visitors, gentlemen. If you step behind the cloth, you will see why.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“A matter of sacrilege, Doctor,” Canon Blood said, lifting the curtain. “And burglary.”
I followed Holmes through the curtain and found myself in the chapel of Edward the Confessor, who I recalled from childhood history lessons was a ‘good’ king and the last of our native Anglo-Saxon monarchs.
I looked about me. Standing on a dais was a tall, high-backed, ornate wooden throne constructed in the Gothic style with carved and gilded lion feet. The sides and front of the chair were painted with what looked like images of animals, but the images were so faded that it was difficult to make them out.
An elderly cleric stood beside the chair wringing his hands in agitation. He introduced himself as George Bradley, Dean of Westminster Abbey. With his white side-whiskers and benevolent expression, he was the very image of the aged clergyman that Holmes had imitated on many occasions, with varying degrees of success.
“In your note you mention a matter of delicacy,” said Holmes.
The dean sighed. “The Coronation Chair before you, gentlemen, otherwise known as King Edward’s Chair, dates from exactly six hundred years ago. All anointed sovereigns of England have been crowned on it since 1308 (save for Mary the Second who used a replica while her husband William occupied the original). And all sovereigns of Great Britain since the Union have sat on it. Queen Victoria was crowned on this chair.”
“It looks rather battered,” I suggested.
“And the Stone of Scone is missing from its place under the seat,” said Holmes.
The dean saw my puzzled look, and he turned to Canon Blood and gestured for him to explain.
“Known also as the Stone of Destiny, Doctor,” the canon said in his soft Scots accent. “It was the coronation seat of the Dál Riata Gaels brought with them from Ireland when they settled in Scotland. Scots kings were crowned on the Stone from at least the ninth century until it was seized by King Edward the First of England as a spoil of war in 1296. It was then placed on a shelf below this chair.”
Holmes whipped out his magnifying glass and pounced on the Coronation Chair. I watched complacently and the dean and canon gaped wide-eyed as Holmes crawled around and under the chair, peering at the battered wood and the flagstone floor. He stood. “Pray describe the missing item.”
“It is a block of sandstone,” said Canon Blood. He gestured with his hands. “It measures about twenty-six inches by seventeen by ten or so, and its weight is three hundred pounds, or twenty-odd stone. The top bears chisel-marks. At each end of the stone is an iron ring.”
“You say it was taken by Edward the Confessor?” I asked.
“No, Doctor, by King Edward the First, two hundred years after the Confessor,” said Canon Blood. “He was otherwise known as Malleus Scotorum, or the Hammer of the Scots. The English and Scots were at war on and off for centuries. When the English took Dunbar Castle in April 1296, King John Balliol of Scotland was forced to abdicate and Edward seized the Honours of Scotland: the kings’ crown, sword and sceptre, and (so it is said) the Stone of Destiny.”
“Well,” I said mildly, “spoils of war as you say, Dean Bradley. It was the custom at the time. I understand that the Scots were not averse to a little cattle raiding across the border, ha ha.”
My attempt at humour fell on stony ground, and I endured two cold stares.
“Coming back to the present,” said Holmes. “When was the stone last seen?”
“Yesterday evening after Evensong,” the dean answered, “by a choirboy, James Elwood. I caught him carving his initials into the back of the throne, and I thrashed him. I was too scandalised by his behaviour (though it is common enough, I’m afraid, with tourists and with servitors) to notice whether the Stone was in its usual place. The boy swears that it was. He was bent over at the time, you see, so he had a good view.”
“Could the Stone have been removed and carried out of the Abbey in daylight?” Holmes asked.
“Impossible,” said Canon Blood. “Abbey officials are everywhere during the day, and the exits have lay attendants posted nearby to assist visitors. The Stone is large and heavy. Someone would have noticed.”
Holmes nodded. “Are any repairs being carried out in the building? Are there workmen in the Abbey?”
“Thankfully no,” said the dean. “There usually are, of course; we are constantly repairing and restoring.”
“When did you realise that the Stone was missing?” I asked.
“Early this morning,” Canon Blood replied.
“It was taken last night, then,” I suggested.
Canon Blood nodded and turned to Holmes. “And there is something else.”
“Come, come, Isaac,” Dean Bradley said testily. “That is unrelated; a triviality. Mr Holmes should concentrate his efforts on the Stone.”
Holmes smiled. “I thrive on trivialities, Dean Bradley; they are catnip to consulting detectives.”
We said our goodbyes to the dean, and Holmes accompanied Canon Blood through the curtain. I was about to follow them when Dean Bradley put his hand on my arm. “Is that really Sherlock Holmes, Doctor? I had thought him a character in your admirable detective fictions. I had no idea he was an actual person until the Home Office official this morning directed that we consult him. It is rather like that French detective from Mr Edgar Poe’s Murder on the Rue Morgue coming suddenly to life.”
“You refer to le Chevalier Auguste Dupin? I had coffee with him on the Champs-Élysées in, let me see, June or July of last year.” I bowed, slipped through the curtains and chuckled to myself as I hurried after the canon and Holmes. They stopped at the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots. A fresh-faced boy wearing a black cassock stood by the marble effigy of the queen with a wreath of thistle flowers tied with a blue and white silk bow at his feet.
“James Elwood, I presume?” Holmes asked the boy.
“Aye, sir,” the boy answered in a soft Scots accent. He smiled a warm smile as he looked from Canon Blood to me and back to Holmes.
“I am a Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective,” Holmes said sternly. “I know everything, Master Elwood; the other fellows will have confessed. You meant it as a jape, and if you tell me where you put the Stone, I shall plead for you with the dean.”
The boy gasped and blinked at Holmes. “I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Come, come, Elwood, you were beaten by Dean Bradley yesterday evening and in revenge, but just as a prank, you and the others removed the Stone of Scone and hid it, intending to return it in a few hours. But now the matter has become serious, and I am here and you are afraid, and rightly so.”
Holmes loomed over the boy. “Take me to the stone this instant.” He waved his hand over the Elwood’s head. “And ego te absolve: you are absolved.”
“I say, Holmes!” I exclaimed.
The boy turned to Canon Blood. “I did not steal the Stone of Destiny.”
I took the boy’s chin in my hand, turned his face to mine and looked into his eyes. “Master Elwood is telling the truth, Holmes.” I took a packet of peppermints from my pocket and handed it to the boy.
Holmes sniffed dismissively and knelt to examine the wreath through his glass. Elwood offered peppermints to Canon Blood and to me.
“The thistle wreath was noticed early this morning, Mr Holmes,” said Canon Blood.
Holmes stood. “By whom?”
“I found the wreath as I did my morning rounds at dawn,” the canon answered. “I saw the Gaelic inscriptions on the silk ribbon and I decided to check the Coronation Chair. I was not thinking of theft or damage, but of some further expression of nationalist sentiment.”
“You can read the texts?” Holmes asked.
Canon Blood nodded. “There are three, two in Scots Gaelic and one in English. The first is from Ossian, the third-century Scottish Homer.” He picked up the wreath of thistle and unwound the silk bow to reveal a line of writing. “The first is in Gaelic,
‘I have seen the household of Finn.
No men were they of coward race.’
And the second in English,
‘Unless the Fates be faithless found,
And prophet’s voice be vain,
Where’er this monument be found,
The Scottish race shall reign.’
“I believe the source of the verse is an ancient Latin epigram; the translation is by Sir Walter Scott.”
“Finn? Was he not an Irish hero of legend?” I asked.
“He was and is, Doctor, but the lays of Ossian were brought to Scotland by the Tara kings with the original Stone of Destiny, and so his exploits are part of Scotland’s heroic past as well as Ireland’s.”
“The last inscription?” asked Holmes.
“That is also in Gaelic, but I do not know its origin. It says,
‘The Crown of Gold shall be returned,
And Hibernia’s Glory
A modern stanza,” the canon said. “Or so I suspect by the metre, but I am no expert.”
I frowned. “Hibernia, the Roman name for Scotland. What is the connection between the poems and Mary, Queen of Scots?”
Canon Blood glanced at the marble grave effigy that adorned the tomb of the queen. “There are Scots who bear a grudge against the English for the execution of Mary by Queen Elizabeth. For many of us, the nobility of the death of the Queen of Scots atoned for her many faults.”
“Yes, yes,” Holmes said. “I assume the police have been summoned.”
Canon Blood turned to the boy. “Run along now, Hamish, and have your luncheon. And not a word to the other boys, mind.”
Elwood bowed to us and left.
“I notified the dean when I saw that the stone was missing,” Canon Blood continued. “He and I formed the same conclusion as you, Mr Holmes. We woke Elwood and asked him where he’d hidden it. Like you, we expected that he was in a conspiracy with his friends (the stone is heavy) and that it was a prank.
“He convinced us of his innocence, under oath, as he did Doctor Watson. We therefore swore him to secrecy and put him here to guard the wreath while Dean Bradley communicated with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. As a royal peculiar, the Abbey is not under the archbishop’s control, but the dean thought it wise to solicit the advice of His Grace. It was decided at the highest level that the matter was too delicate for the police to be involved. A gentleman from the Home Office expressed the view that Scotland Yard was hand-in-glove with the gutter press and that the story would inevitably be leaked, with unpredictable consequences. I understand that there is a violent precedent: after their defeat by the Scots in 1327, the English promised to return the Stone to Scotland, but rioting Londoners prevented its removal from the Abbey.”
I raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“You decided to consult me,” Holmes said.
“The dean, archbishop and the representative of the Home Office met here this morning,” the canon said. “I was not party to their discussions, but I understand that your name was mentioned.”
Holmes bowed. “Very well.”
“The Home Office, not the Scottish Office?” I asked.
“The view was taken that the Stone is the property of the Crown and in the custody of the English Government,” Canon Blood replied. “Its theft is therefore a domestic matter.”
I frowned. That attitude seemed high-handed. Morally the Stone was the property of the people of Scotland, and it was mean-spirited and short-sighted not to inform their representative in London of the theft. I glanced at Holmes, but he was deep in thought.
The canon bowed. “If there is nothing more?”
“You have been most helpful, Canon Blood,” Holmes said, looking up. “I wonder if you would be good enough to copy the Gaelic inscriptions and your translations into Doctor Watson’s notebook, and then, if you will lead me, I will examine all the entrance doors at this end of the Abbey.”
I handed the canon my notebook and pencil and waited as he transcribed the poems and made translations.
“Young Elwood strikes me as a bright boy,” I said.
“Indeed, but he has a delicate constitution,” Canon Blood replied. “I advised the family that he should not follow his brothers to Eton.”
“Are there any anniversaries or important days coming up that might appeal to the Scots and fire their nationalist sentiments?” Holmes asked.
Canon Blood returned my notebook and considered. “The hundred and first anniversary of the death of the Scots poet Robert Burns on the twenty-first of this month will be commemorated by some Scots, but it is his birth date in January that is celebrated most commonly.”
Canon Blood led us to the entrances on the south, or river side of the Abbey. Holmes stopped at each door we passed and examined the locks and the stone floor. At the door that led to the cloisters, he scrutinised the floor inside and the ground outside the door and scraped some material from the flagstones.
“Can you conceive of any connection between the wreath and the missing Stone?” I asked as Canon Blood saw us out of the Abbey and into the bright sunshine and oppressive heat of the Broad Sanctuary.
“None,” the canon answered, “other than the obvious fact that the Stone and the bard Ossian are icons of Scotland. The placing of the wreath at the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots may have significance, but it is deeper than I can fathom.”
I thanked him, and Holmes and I shook his hand. I hailed a passing cab and climbed aboard, and Holmes was about to follow me when Canon Blood stayed him with a hand on his arm. “I should make it clear Mr Holmes that the stone until recently in our possession may not be the true Stone of Destiny. A body of opinion suggests that the Stone was hidden by the canny Scots, and King Edward was fobbed off with a drain cover.”
The canon smiled. “Nor stone nor iron makes us who we are; it is blood we must stand true to, is it not, gentlemen?"
Sherlock Holmes 1888: Year of Blood
The Thames Torso Murders in the Year of the Ripper
I am a Doctor
Tuesday, 7th August 1888,
I mopped my brow with my handkerchief and exchanged a troubled look with Nurse Levine.
The bed on which my patient lay took up most of the space in her narrow room on the top floor of an East End tenement block. The table under the skylight was strewn with the reels of cotton, odd ends of Brussels lace and offcuts of silk she used in her work as a hat and ribbon finisher for a local haberdashery. Tight in one corner was a marble-topped washstand on which a bright oil lamp stood with a water jug and a brass pot in which joss sticks burned.
Richly coloured Indian wraps, silks and scarves hung from nails in the walls and were draped across every surface, gleaming scarlet and gold in the lamplight. The air was scented with patchouli.
The nurse-midwife I had engaged to second me in the case had summoned me from the rooms I shared with Sherlock Holmes with an urgent message. She informed me that our patient, Mrs Murray, had been febrile all day, and in the early evening the stomach disorders that had plagued the poor girl for the last month or more had become acute. She suffered a succession of cramps and a spate of vomiting that resulted in a dangerous loss of fluids.
I hurried to her lodging house off the Whitechapel Road and found my patient more comfortable than I had expected. Her paroxysms had been subdued by regular doses of laudanum, and Nurse Levine had persuaded her to accept a few ounces of chicken broth.
I examined the girl thoroughly, but I could find no physical cause for her symptoms. She did not appear to be suffering from any obvious ailment (I had suspected food poisoning, and I feared cholera or dysentery), certainly nothing related to her condition. The opium had dulled her liquid, almond eyes, and she was confused and anxious, as she had every right to be, but her tongue looked healthy, and her and her baby’s heartbeats were strong and regular. I knew my most effective course of action would be to let her sleep.
Mrs Murray laid her head on the pillow, her matted hair and pale face attesting to the struggle she had undergone, and fell into an exhausted slumber.
I sat on the edge of the bed thinking back eight or so years to my service in Afghanistan as an assistant surgeon attached to the 66th Foot, the Berkshire Regiment.
Private Murray, my soldier-servant, was a young man of Irish descent who spoke with the chirpy accent of Lambeth in South London. I owed him my life.
In July of 1880, an army of rebels overwhelmed a British force in a great battle at Maiwand in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan. They assailed the regimental aid post where I was stationed, and I was wounded by a jezail bullet.
Murray carried me on his back from the chaos of defeat, commandeered a pack horse and led me through hostile territory to the safety of our lines.
I recuperated from my wound and a later attack of enteric fever before taking ship home to England and settling in Baker Street.
Murray and I kept in touch, exchanging news and small gifts, and early in the previous year I congratulated him on his promotion to sergeant and on his marriage to a comely Anglo-Indian girl, Amla.
Some months later, when Amla was with child, Murray used his savings and the extra allowances that came with his new rank to send his wife to London by mail steamer, hoping to avoid the terrible rate of attrition of young mothers and their offspring in our cantonments in India.
I naturally offered to attend the birth, and I engaged Miss Levine, a district nurse and midwife who lived nearby and on whose professional ability I knew I could rely, to minister to her.
Mrs Murray arrived in London in the early summer. I met her at the dock and settled her in lodgings in a tenement building in Whitechapel managed by a relative of her husband.
My immediate impression was that she was too young and too slight to bear a child. She was not wiry like the common stock of her race and caste. And as I had predicted, her confinement had been tortured.
Her current symptoms were a puzzle. “Bad water?” I mused aloud as I completed my notes. “I shall send samples of her evacuations for analysis.”
“I live a hundred yards from here, in Old Montague Street,” Nurse Levine said. “I bring water from my home, piped by the company, not obtained from a local well. Amla’s food is prepared by our family cook and is the same as that eaten by me and by my parents. We are healthy.”
“Could she be taking native medicine? Something she brought with her from India or purchased from one of the chandlers at the docks?”
Nurse Levine shook her head. “Amla will have no truck with quacksalvers, Doctor. She trusts to you.” The nurse smiled at my wry expression and laid her hand on my arm. “As do I, Doctor Watson. We do what we can, and we keep faith in God.”
“It must be late,” I said returning her smile with a wan smile of my own. “You should be getting home. I’ll see you to your door.”
Nurse Levine looked up at the bright, rain-streaked window let into the roof above our heads. “It’s well past dawn: I should wait for Mrs Riordan.”
I checked my watch: it was five-thirty in the morning.
I heard a tread on the steps outside, then a soft knock, and Nurse Levine admitted Sergeant Murray’s aunt, who had agreed to look in on Mrs Murray when we were absent. Mrs Riordan was given a summary of the night’s events and questioned on any food, liquids or patent medicines our patient might have taken. I was assured once more that the girl would take nothing unless authorised by me.
With a troubled heart I put on my silk hat, took up my medical bag and stick and escorted Nurse Levine downstairs and outside onto the damp and greasy pavement. The intermittent drizzle had paused, but the morning sky was leaden, as it had been for several weeks. July had been a month of dull skies, rain and thunderstorms, and August thus far had offered no better weather.
We walked the short distance to Old Montague Street. The city had woken with the dawn, and the smoke from a hundred-thousand kitchen fires hung over the streets in the still air.
A procession of heavy-laden carts and vans filed along both sides of the roadway, churning the rainwater, mud and horse dung between the cobblestones into a pungent, paste-like consistency. The muck splattered across the dank pavements, staining the boots of the throng of men and women of the working class marching towards factories, warehouses, butcher’s, chandler’s and the infamous sweatshops that clustered along and behind the Whitechapel Road.
After ten minutes’ walk, we stopped before a four-storey brick building, Huguenot in style and soot-blackened, but, unlike its neighbours, with a cared-for look. The shining windows were net-curtained, the well-scrubbed steps over the fenced area had been mopped and flogged dry, and the solid-looking front door and brass lion’s-head knocker gleamed.
I turned to my companion. “Get some rest, my dear.”
“And you, Doctor.” Nurse Levine mounted the steps and, with a wave, opened the door and disappeared inside.
I looked about me. The road was clogged with vans, carts and waggons, with not a cab in sight. I knew I had little hope of finding a hansom in the narrow backstreets, and I decided that that the quickest way to my ‘bus stop in Whitechapel Road was to continue past the workhouse and take the next right: a busy alley, as the unfrequented lanes were rife with beggars and other nuisances, and even daylight robbery was not unknown.
I considered my options in Mrs Murray’s case as I was drawn on by the flow of pedestrians. I had thought of offering to pay for my patient’s accommodation in a more salubrious part of town, but I was loath to put her husband in an awkward position of dependence, and the girl’s poor state of health meant that having Nurse Levine just at hand was an important consideration. The London Hospital was nearby but I could not think what advantage being in a ward there offered over skilled home nursing.
I looked up; the sky had darkened, thunder rumbled in the distance and, despite having been soaked by heavy rain the evening before, I had again left my umbrella at my lodgings.
I turned to a commotion behind me and I was jostled aside and pressed against a splintered wooden fence as people on the crowded pavement made way for an ambulance cart, silent on its rubber bicycle wheels, pushed by a constable. It was preceded by a burly, spade-bearded sergeant and followed by a youngish man in a frock coat and top hat carrying a medical bag.
The black concertina hood of the ambulance was closed, indicating a corpse, and the men around me took off their caps and bowed their heads as it passed. A soft elbow in the ribs from a wizened old man holding his cloth cap to his chest reminded me of my manners, and I removed my hat.
The pressure eased as my fellow pedestrians resumed their march. I had a sudden anxious feeling, and I touched my breast pocket to check that my wallet was safe. Reassured, I walked with the crowd for a hundred paces or so until our forward movement again slowed to a halt. I stood on my toes and saw a set of bright-green gates a few yards ahead of me, open but guarded by the two policemen who had passed me.
People gathered at the gates, murmuring. An instinct I hope was a wish to help and not idle curiosity impelled me to push through the throng.
“Make way, I am a doctor.”
The crowd let me through to the sergeant, who examined me narrow-eyed before he saluted.
“Good morning, Doctor,” he said, noting my medical bag. “Are you here for—” he jerked his thumb towards the gateway.
I looked past the policeman into a small cobbled yard in which the gentleman who had trailed the ambulance cart leaned against a bollard, smoking a cigar.
“Good morning, Doctor,” I called.
“It is morning, Doctor,” the gentleman replied in a faint Irish brogue. He blew a stream of cigar smoke across the yard. “I will give you that much and not a jot more. There’s nothing good about this morning so far.”
I joined him, held out my hand and introduced myself. “Watson.”
“Killeen. My practice is in Brick Lane, God help me. Earlier today I was called out to a murder, a terrible—well, I suppose all murders are terrible, but this one was brutal. A woman has been most cruelly used; I have never seen the like in my eight years of practice.”
Doctor Killeen held out a leather-covered case. “Cigar?”
“Thank you.” I took one, and Doctor Killeen regarded me closely as he lit it with a match. “Colleague, come and see.”
He escorted me to a tin-roofed shed with a single window high in the front wall. The ambulance handcart stood outside the open door, its hood folded back revealing a bloodied plywood shell coffin.
“Welcome to the Whitechapel mortuary,” Doctor Killeen said as he ushered me into a cramped room lit by the window and a hanging gas jet. A dusty shelf ran around two sides of the shed, with bottles, bowls and a tray of instruments ranged along it. A body covered with a soiled and bloodstained sheet lay on a wooden table.
Doctor Killeen took off his hat and coat and hung them on nails hammered at random into the wall.
“This sorry establishment was the mortuary of the Whitechapel workhouse, but it now serves the whole borough. As you can see, we have no facilities for a proper post-mortem, just a couple of knives, precious few chemicals and a set of broken scales. The authorities provide nothing. They expect my neighbours to perish from want, or neglect, or drink themselves into oblivion so we doctors have no need to pry into their innards.”
He smiled a grim smile. “They are right of course, most East-enders die of malnutrition and disease rather than violence. Murders are rare. Or perhaps few killings are recognised; in this privy one could not accurately determine heart failure from an axe-hacking. God help us and save us if we have an epidemic.”
Doctor Killeen rapped his knuckle against the wall for luck, then indicated the body on the table.
“A copper knocked me up at six this morning and showed me this lady in situ on a landing in George Yard Buildings. Do you know the place?”
I shook my head.
“A lodging house by Wentworth Street. Not as bad as some, but not Windsor Castle. There are fifty people or a hundred living there, cheek by jowl. The police are going door-to-door to get an identity and find a witness.”
Doctor Killeen strode to the table and gently pulled off the sheet to disclose a naked woman, in her forties perhaps and plump. I gasped. Her body from the neck down was a mass of stab wounds, and in her lower region were more.
“I’d say she died three or four hours ago,” Doctor Killeen said. “You see why I needed a quiet smoke before I started the post-mortem.”
“My God,” I said softly.
“At least thirty wounds; there are twenty strikes or more in her chest alone,” Doctor Killeen said. “What do you make of them? Any notion of a weapon?”
I leaned over the corpse. “A small knife—a kitchen knife or penknife would do the work.”
Doctor Killeen pointed wordlessly to a wound in the sternum.
“A punch through the breastbone,” I said. “No ordinary pocket knife could do that. A dagger or a bayonet? A sword bayonet, I mean, not the spiked kind.”
Doctor Killeen smiled, and a question hung in the air.
“I served with the Berkshires in Afghanistan,” I explained.
“Maiwand?” he asked in a soft tone. “I had a cousin with the horse artillery.”
I nodded and turned back to the body. “Who could do such a horrible thing? This was done in a frenzy.” I examined the victim’s hands.
“A spurned lover,” I suggested. “There are no defensive wounds. The lady did not fight her assailant.”
“More likely a spat over the bill.” Doctor Killeen’s eyes flicked to my bag. “You are out early.”
“A patient, a pregnant woman who went into convulsions. She is still feverish, but calm.”
“Alive, but I am not sanguine as to the outcome; the girl is frail. Perhaps you know her, Amla Murray, an Anglo-Indian married to a soldier serving in India. She lodges in Wentworth Street behind the Toynbee Hall.”
Doctor Killeen shook his head. “There’s no dealing with them once their mind is made up. Orientals, I mean. They give themselves up to fate, kismet as they call it; it is part of their heathen religion. They believe when their time is done that’s that: like Calvinists.”
“You do not know the victim’s identity?” I asked, having no opinion to offer on predestination.
“I do not; no one in the tenement block, including the caretaker, has admitted to knowing her.” Doctor Killeen tapped his cigar ash to the floor. “She has no friends in the building, so what was her business there?”
He shrugged. “No, I am not so naïve as to question what she was up to, but why there? People are in and out at all hours – cab drivers, dockworkers, car men, cat’s meat vendors, drunken layabouts – there is not a private nook in the place. And who was she with?” He gestured to the wound in her sternum. “A soldier?”
There was a rap at the door, and a man entered carrying a large wooden case. A stocky boy behind him hefted a tripod and other gear.
“Emlyn Hughes, Doctors, official photographer, H Division of the Metropolitan Police,” the man said. “Inspector Reid wants photographs of the lady distributed in the neighbourhood as an aid to identification.”
Doctor Killeen nodded, and Mr Hughes and the boy opened the case and set up their camera. They did not appear disturbed by the body; I imagined that it was all in a day’s work for a police photographer.
“No expense spared, I see,” Doctor Killeen said, smiling at me. “Keen fellow, our local inspector.” He took a pull on his cigar. “According to the newspapers, he exhibits a keen air of professional competence.”
Mr Hughes exposed several plates, his boy holding the flash-stick high and renewing the powder after each ignition. They packed their equipment and left, the boy whistling a music hall tune.
Doctor Killeen carefully placed his cigar on the edge of a shelf and put on a grubby apron. “I must get on.” He picked up a scalpel.
“If I can be of assistance?” I offered.
Doctor Killeen smiled again. “I hope you will accept an impertinent medical opinion, Doctor, in the spirit in which it is advanced: you look all in. I prescribe at least four hours of bed rest, then a mutton chop for luncheon smothered in onion sauce and a restorative glass or two of stout (or Claret, if your taste inclines that way).”
I heaved an inward sigh of relief and picked up my bag and stick.
“Where did you say your practice is, Doctor?” Doctor Killeen asked as he made the first long incision into the breast of the victim.
“I am not in practice, although I have a notion to return to general work at some point – I thought Paddington might suit.”
Doctor Killeen made a second cut. “Paddington, is it? Oh, yes, you’ll have a respectable class of persons up West. I expect you’ll find things are well-ordered there, unlike in our poor East End.”
“It is a borough I am familiar with,” I answered stiffly, surprised by Doctor Killeen’s aggressive tone. “I must wish you, ah, if not a good day, then a better one than you have had.”
I bowed and made for the door of the shed.
“Oh, Doctor Watson?” Doctor Killeen called. “You might leave your card with the sergeant at the gate.”
He waved goodbye with his scalpel. “Just a formality.”
Sherlock Holmes: The Skull of Kohada Koiji
Murder on the Impulsive
Sherlock Holmes flipped down a corner of his Times and regarded me across it. “What’s amiss?”
I gave a guilty start as I realised that I had been staring at my friend, or at least at the newspaper he had held up before him. “Nothing I would bother you with, Holmes, nothing at all, except that—”
Holmes lit his after-breakfast pipe and lifted an eyebrow.
“It’s just,” I continued hesitantly, “I received a note this morning from a chap who was on my team at the Club, the Blackheath Rugby Club. We both studied at Bart’s, but I joined the Army and he gave up Medicine, changed his degree to Theology and joined the Navy as a chaplain.”
“Poor chap.” Holmes turned the page of his Times and again flicked down a corner. “And?”
“He has a billet on a ship that’s berthed somewhere near Plymouth. He invited me to visit several times, but, I don’t know, I never found the time.”
“Or, judging by your tone, the inclination,” said Holmes, flicking his paper up again with a languid gesture.
I hung my head. “My reluctance had to do with my erstwhile friend. I last met Hesketh (for that is his name) two years ago, and we did not find common ground. I (and he too I suspect) endured a painful evening in a coffee public house in Putney close to where he was attending a convocation of naval clergy.”
“He was no longer the young man you had scrummed with at Blackheath,” Holmes suggested from behind his newspaper.
“I am sure that there is no such word as ‘scrummed’, Holmes, but I take your meaning. I could not find a subject on which we could converse: not sport, not literature, not public affairs, not even the latest Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, which he had not seen.”
Holmes dropped his paper to the floor, tamped his pipe with his thumb and smiled. “Not God?”
“I say, Holmes, have a care! The thing is, his ship is now anchored in the Thames, and Hesketh is coming here.”
Holmes stood and felt the toe of the Persian slipper in which he kept his tobacco. “Then I shall leave you to your reminiscences. I have one or two things to do. You are out of tobacco. I shall pass by your tobacconist in the Strand and make an order on your account. And your birthday is in a certain number of months, so I must make my semi-annual pilgrimage to Gamages emporium for a suitable scarf. And then I have a list of references to look up at the British Museum.”
“It is you that Reverend Hesketh wants to see, Holmes, not me.” I held out the note, but Holmes waved it away. “He wants to consult you on a matter of grave urgency and delicacy,” I insisted. “It is a problem of—”
The doorbell rang. I looked at my watch, stood and opened our sitting-room door. “That will be Hesketh; he is exact to his time.”
Holmes folded himself into his chair with a sniff.
“Come in, my dear Hesketh,” I said to a familiar figure in the black frock coat, waistcoat and white collar of a Church-of-England vicar. “Let me take your hat,” I offered. “And may I introduce my friend Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective?”
Hesketh gave me his flat-crowned clerical hat and shook hands. Holmes waved a greeting with his pipe in his casual manner as I ushered our guest to our sofa and took my place in an armchair opposite him.
Hesketh’s thin, reddish hair was sparser than when I had last seen him, and he looked not only as corpulent and pasty-faced as he had on that occasion, but worn and anxious.
“My ship is a first-class battleship, HMS Inflexible,” he began in his shrill voice even before he had settled himself on the sofa. “We usually anchor in the Hamoaze at Plymouth, but a few days ago we were ordered to steam at full speed to the Thames. We arrived this morning, instantly disassembling our flying bridge, unstepping our masts and lowering our funnels before we were towed under the bridges of London to our berth near the Houses of Parliament.” He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and mopped his brow. “I come to you in all confidence–oh dear. I hardly know where to begin.”
Holmes gestured for me to pass him Hesketh’s note, and he read it and raised his eyebrows. “Your vessel is infested with vampires, Reverend Hesketh,” Holmes said with a cold smile. “An uncommon state of affairs aboard one of Her Majesty’s battleships.”
Hesketh frowned and looked down at his shoes. “I would not say infested, Mr Holmes, but we have more than our acting captain, Commander May, is comfortable with. I took the initiative to contact you (with the very reluctant acquiescence of the commander) after a crew member was attacked and injured as he lay in his cot in the sickbay.”
“Vampires,” Holmes mused. “Watson, would you kindly check our Index?”
I stood and hunted along Holmes’ bookshelves for the V - Z volume of his collection of scrapbooks. I pulled the thick book down and balanced it across my knees. “Victor, Voyage, Vittoria, Vanderbilt and the Yeggman, Vipers, no, we do not have an entry for vampires.”
I considered. “I seem to recall that the beasts are of Hungarian extraction. They feed on blood, travel at night disguised as bats, crows or other creatures of darkness and infect innocent people (comely maidens for choice) who are thus forced to join their fraternity. The preferred method for exterminating a vampire is to drive a wooden stake through the creature’s heart while it sleeps in its coffin. Lord Byron’s personal physician wrote a treatise—”
“Arrant poppycock,” said Holmes. “Stakes through the heart, bat disguises and comely Hungarians; ineffable twaddle. We live in the nineteenth century, not the tenth, and in England not Hungary (or Scotland, Wales, Cornwall or on the moors for that matter. Such things are less easily dismissed north of Gretna Green and west of Swindon). Vampires on the Thames, ha!”
“I hope you will visit the ship and assess the situation for yourself,” Hesketh said, mopping his brow again with his large white handkerchief. “If I make any attempt at a description of the incident, you will think me quite mad.”
He stood. “I must return to my ship. Might I have the temerity to request your presence on the Westminster Steps at the luncheon hour, gentlemen? I am at my wits’ end.”
We arranged the meeting, and I saw Hesketh to the front door and waved as he set off in a cab.
I returned upstairs to our sitting room and found Holmes chuckling to himself. “Inflexible vampires, Watson – a not unamusing correlation of ideas.”
“Hesketh is not amused.”
He chuckled even more. “I wonder under which of the Thirty-Nine Articles vampires are regulated.”
The journey from Baker Street to Westminster in a four-wheeler was slow and tiresome. The recent heavy rains had flooded several streets and forced traffic to jostle through side streets. Our bony nag took a deal of persuading to move at all, and the cab driver seemed content to sit on his box exchanging news with his fellows or reading his sporting paper. We inched forward, scraping the pavement and locking wheels with other carriages, until we reached Westminster.
Holmes waited in Parliament Square while I haggled over the fare and chastised the driver for his lack of attention to his duty.
“A penny a minute, Watson and no tip,” Holmes said, “his cab windows are thick with grime.”
I opened my umbrella as rain began again, and we walked arm-in-arm under its protection down the steps to the ferry wharf beside Westminster Bridge.
HMS Inflexible was berthed in the centre of the fairway. Even viewed through what was becoming heavy rain, the ship was huge, with two tall, brown masts and two squat funnels painted in the same colour. The black hull was high at the sharp prow and rounded stern, but much lower along the sides. Two massive circular turrets or casements occupied the main deck the ship, placed en echelon so that the guns could fire forward, backward and to a limited extent on the broadside. Each turret housed two wide-mouthed cannon. A vast white awning covered the deck.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a teenaged midshipman behind me.
“Mr Holmes and party?” he asked, saluting and shedding rain from his cap peak. “Midshipman Roke, sirs.” He shepherded Holmes and me to a naval cutter, and we settled ourselves in the stern.
Roke glanced at his pocket watch and gave us a disapproving look before he ordered the crew to pull to the battleship. We weaved through a crowd of small craft with the young officer urging the rowers on.
“Inflexible is a fine vessel,” I said.
“Sixteen-inch guns, sir, biggest in the Fleet,” Roke said, recovering his good humour with youthful vivacity. “And fast –fourteen and a half knots.”
“She seems broad on the beam.”
“For stability, sir, and to make a steady gun platform. Inflexible has four sixteen-inch cannon, and 24 inches of armour along the main belt. If the French start their capers again, we’ll show them what for.”
We came alongside the ship, and I folded my umbrella and followed Holmes up a steep hanging staircase and on to the snowy wooden deck.
Rain drummed on the awning above us as the midshipman conducted us past the gleaming white superstructure and huge turrets, among a forest of wide-mouthed ventilators, and down a staircase into the bowels of the ship. He hurried us along steel-walled, empty corridors towards the stern of the vessel, until we stopped at a solid wooden door with a shining brass handle.
The midshipman straightened his cap, I brushed at my damp clothes with my hands, and Holmes hummed the ‘Ruler of the Queen’s Navee’ air from HMS Pinafore.
“The wardroom,” Roke said, in a reproving tone. He opened the door and ushered us into a carpeted room with chintz-covered armchairs set between occasional tables and clusters of aspidistra pots. Nautical scenes and portraits of naval worthies in heavy gilt frames lined the walls. Stoves warmed the room and bright oil lamps lit it. There was a pleasant smell of beeswax and Navy blend tobacco.
The half-dozen officers who stood in a group around one stove turned as we entered, and Reverend Hesketh detached himself from his colleagues and hurried across the room looking flustered.
“I am terribly sorry, gentlemen, I did not apprise you of the fact that the Navy takes luncheon earlier than other mortals. It a question of a half-hour or an hour at most, but in some matters, we are punctilious to the threshold of procrusteanism.”
Hesketh introduced us to the senior officer, Commander May, a florid-faced, elderly man who glanced at the clock on the wall before he nodded a greeting. The other officers were introduced in a similarly perfunctory manner as we filed into the dining room.
We clustered at one end of a long dining table laid with fine china, and white-uniformed stewards served Mulligatawny soup from silver tureens.
“Well, Mr Holmes,” Commander May said as our wineglasses were filled. “Welcome to HMS Inflexible. I understand from our vicar that you are a detective.”
“Consulting detective, if I may correct you, Commander.”
Commander May stiffened, clearly unused to being corrected.
“Could you tell us, Mr Holmes, of your recent cases?” A lieutenant, whose name I could not recall asked as our soup plates were speedily removed, and the fish course served.
Holmes considered. “As I am sure you will appreciate, discretion prevents me from commenting on most of my cases, at least until the principals are no longer occupied in the matter. I can mention one recent affair in which I acted for the Lord Nelson.”
“A descendant of our hero, I make no doubt?” the lieutenant suggested with what I can only characterise as a simper.
“The Lord Nelson public house in Brighton. They were troubled by spectral apparitions of its famous namesake. As one might have expected, a disgruntled potboy was behind the haunting.”
The officer blinked in astonishment, and the commander’s face reddened. I caught Holmes’ eye and gave him a warning look, but he was not in an accommodating mood. He sniffed and gave his attention to his salmon.
I turned to Hesketh, my right-hand neighbour, and gestured at the long rows of empty chairs on either side of the table. “Many of the ship’s officers are not joining us for luncheon. Are they performing a manoeuvre upstairs under the command of the captain?”
“Captain Meredith is unwell; he is recuperating on his estates in Cumberland.”
“And the other officers?”
“I cannot divulge—”
“According to yesterday’s Pall Mall Gazette,” Holmes said, looking up from his plate, “HMS Inflexible is on the river to provide a floating reserve against the Whitechapel or Lambeth mobs should they move against Westminster and the West End. You will recall that last year rioters broke the windows of clubs in St James’s and looted shops. The article stated that most of your crew are at the Tower being drilled in infantry tactics and the use of Gatling guns.”
“Damme, sir,” Commander May cried, banging his fist on the table, “that is a military secret.”
Holmes shrugged. “I doubt that the inhabitants of the Whitechapel rookeries take the Pall Mall Gazette; it is far too radical for them. If your secret information appears in the Penny Pictorial, you have more reason for concern.”
Holmes’ remark was greeted with a cold silence that was maintained until the cloth was drawn and we were offered cigars and brandy.
Holmes cut his cigar and lit it with a match. “What of vampires, gentlemen?” he asked.
There was a long pause as each of the officers glanced at the others.
“The affair is preposterous,” Commander May said at last. “I attribute the man’s wounds to rats. They are ever present, even in iron ships. On Inconstant, I caught one with my bare hands as it scampered across my breast. I presented it to Prince Louis of Battenberg, who christened it the Tsar. I strangled the beast and had its head mounted above the desk in my cabin.”
“Which ports has the ship recently visited?” I asked after another long silence.
“We were in Plymouth from January and in the Med’ most of last year,” Commander May said.
“Not Hungary?” I received blank looks from most of the officers. Mr Roke and two other midshipmen at the far end of our group stifled giggles.
“I do not believe Hungary proper is blessed with a coastline, Watson,” Holmes said. “The Danube is navigable of course.”
“I meant via the Danube, Holmes,” I said stiffly.
T he midshipmen heaved with barely suppressed laughter, and the older officers grinned.
Holmes stood. “If you gentlemen will excuse us, Doctor Watson and I will visit your invalid and begin our investigations. I understand that the attack took place in the sickbay. Perhaps Reverend Hesketh could conduct us there?”
Hesketh requested and received permission to leave the table, and he and Midshipman Roke led us to the door.
“Rats, Mr Holmes,” the commander called after us, cackling and banging the table with the flat of his hand. His fellow officers joined him in unseemly hoots of laughter.
“Fiddle faddle,” Holmes muttered under his breath. “And folderol.”
Sherlock Holmes: Murder at the Savoy
and Other Stories
Sherlock Holmes and I sat in front of a merry fire in the living room at our home in Baker Street on a dismal, cold and cloudy morning a few days before Christmas.
He read a volume of poetry while I flicked through the latest Lancet and intermittently dozed. Neither of us had many friends to whom we owed season’s greetings, and Holmes’s practice as a detective and mine as a doctor were, a few weeks after the start of our acquaintance, still in the bud rather than in bloom, and Holmes’ regular trickle of visitors from all classes and walks of life had almost dried up before the holiday.
I was not yet recovered from the effects of my wound and its debilitating aftermath. I was therefore of a sedentary disposition, and, if truth be told, rather tetchy on cold days when my injury bothered me.
My nerves were so on edge that I had jumped out of my chair with an expletive the evening before when one of the globes of our gasogene burst in its wire cage and splattered soda water over the sideboard.
Holmes and I were at a loose end (criminals and patients having taken time off for the festivities), and we greeted a long ring at the doorbell of 221b with expectant smiles.
“A woman,” said Holmes. “A vehement ring. Unless she is on death’s door, she is mine, rather than yours.”
We heard a heavy tread on the stairs and Billy, our newly acquired pageboy, opened the sitting-room door wide to reveal a strange, even alarming figure. Despite Holmes’ prediction, in the doorway was a tall man in a wide-brimmed floppy hat, his face pale under an unruly mop of long hair.
He wore a long, black, silk-lined cape, trimmed with astrakhan over a crushed velvet tunic, satin knee breeches, beribboned silk hose and pump shoes. A white lily adorned his buttonhole.
He struck a theatrical pose, stepped into the room and assumed an even more dramatic posture as he regarded our humble sitting room with evident distaste.
He turned to me. “Mr Sherlock Holmes?”
“That’s me,” Holmes replied in his casual manner, waving from his chair.
The man pulled off one of his gleaming leather gloves and flung it to the floor at Holmes’ feet. “My friend will contact you in due course,” he said in a tight tone.
Holmes peered at the glove over the top of his book and looked up again. “Would you care for tea?”
The man glared at him, turned, marched past our pageboy and stomped down the stairs.
Holmes picked up the glove and examined it. “Dents of Worcester,” he said, showing me the label. He tossed the glove to Billy. “Give that back to the gentleman and inform him he failed to leave a visiting card.”
Billy scampered downstairs.
“Extraordinary behaviour,” I exclaimed. I went to the window and looked down on Baker Street. Our visitor was standing by the lamppost, whistling for a cab. I saw Billy run up to him, pluck at his sleeve and offer him his glove. He seemed taken aback, but he pocketed the glove, took a card from his waistcoat pocket and handed it to the boy. The man looked up at our window as Billy ran back inside, and when he saw me (I can only think of one word to describe his action), he flounced away. “Extraordinary behaviour,” I repeated. “What dashed impudence. The fellow must be mad.”
“Agitated, certainly,” said Holmes, “or he would have left his card with the page and arranged for his cab to wait. He will have trouble getting a hansom. I can smell fog in the air.”
There was a thunder on the stairs, and Billy appeared in the doorway wearing a wide grin and holding up a visiting card.
I sighed. “As I have told you several times, young man, you must ascend the stairs in a seemly manner and letters and cards are presented on the brass tray laid on the hall table by the front door.”
Billy’s grin died, and he looked down at his shoes. “Which, the tray is with Missus getting polished. I’ll fetch it.” He grinned again and disappeared, thundering downstairs.
“Missus?” asked Holmes.
“Mrs Hudson, I assume. Holmes, the boy will not do. He is graceless, too young, too—”
Holmes waved away my concerns, stood and filled his pipe from my pack of Ship’s on the mantel. “What of our visitor?”
“We’ll know when Billy brings the card.”
Holmes smiled. “What can we tell from the gentleman’s appearance and manner?” he asked, lighting his pipe from the fire with a spill.
I sighed. In the few weeks I had known my fellow lodger, I had learned that, like my bulldog pup, Gordon, he would never let go once he’d sunk his teeth into something. Holmes squeezed and drained each fact and circumstance of every drop of data before he indulged in the peculiar style of wild speculation he called deductive reasoning.
“He was a flamboyant figure,” I answered after a moment’s thought. “He wore an astrakhan-trimmed cape with dancing pumps! Ha! An actor perhaps, or a foreigner, or perhaps a foreign actor! He sneered at our poor sitting room with the hauteur of a European nobleman. Yes, that’s it. He is a Bohemian aristocrat. From his flamboyant hair, I’d say an archduke at the least.”
Holmes smiled. “Would you say his dress and demeanour were aesthetical at all?”
“Like the fellows in that Sullivan and Gilbert frivolity, Patience, earlier in the year?” I answered. “Like that writer fellow one reads about everywhere, Swinburne, is it?”
I considered. “Whatever his artistic inclinations, he did not seem impressed by our little nest.” I looked around the sitting room that Holmes and I had recently come to share. Stacks of books and piles of papers covered Holmes’ desk and my own, uncleared breakfast dishes adorned our dining table, a clasp knife secured Holmes’ correspondence to the mantel and a reeking lab bench stood in a corner of the room cluttered with the vials and instruments with which Holmes performed his chemical experiments. While not shabby, our rooms already, after only a couple of months of habitation, looked well-worn.
“Lived in,” Holmes said with a grin.
I sniffed and opened a fresh page in one of the notebooks in which I had taken to recording the singular occurrences that my fellow lodger seemed to engender even in our quiet corner of London. When I had first arrived in the city, I had hoped to find a quiet nook in which to recover from my wounds and repair my nerves, shattered by my experiences in the Afghan War. In fact, I had found that living with Mr Holmes was by no stretch of the imagination a rest cure.
Billy crept up the stairs, slipped into the room and held out our half-polished salver with a single card on it. I snatched it. “Oscar Wilde, One, Tite Street, Chelsea,” I read. I handed the card to Holmes. “I’ve never heard of the fellow.”
Holmes glanced at the card and tossed it onto the mantel. “He writes for the illustrated newspapers, and he is known for strolling in the West End in a similar attire to the one in which he presented himself to us today, but with a large sunflower as a boutonnière.”
“What can you have done to offend the fellow, Holmes? I know you move in diverse social circles, but I had not thought aestheticism was in your line at all.”
Holmes shrugged. “Wilde is Irish. The Celts call each other out for the most trivial of reasons. Perhaps I bumped into him in the Strand, or stepped ahead of him in the queue at the newsagent’s.”
I took my pipe from the rack. “Take care, he may be a Parnellite, a Home Rule for Ireland fanatic and a Fenian Dynamitard of the worst hue.”
“How do you know I am not?” Holmes asked. He passed me my packet of tobacco from the mantel.
I laughed and then frowned at him. “I mean, you’re not. Are you?”
“I have no opinion on the matter of Irish sovereignty, other than that our stewardship of that benighted island has been incompetent and at times, beastly. If I were Irish, I believe I would be a passionate revolutionary. As it is, I shall leave that to the professionals.”
Holmes stood. “There is one authority whose expertise I must employ. He will know more of our enigmatic visitor, or at least know where the key to our riddle might be found. You have full-dress rig, I imagine. Dust it off, and we shall accept the Lady Audrey Percival’s invitation to her Christmas rout this evening.” Holmes hunted along the mantel and found a large cream-coloured invitation pinned to the mantelpiece by his clasp knife. He removed the card and flattened it on the table. “It is smudged and ripped but it will do.”
“Reception. Lady Audrey’s rout cake is much appreciated by connoisseurs. Wear your pumps, there may be dancing.”
“Oh, my dear fellow,” Holmes said, grasping my arm. “I apologise. I saw you moving about much more freely than before, and I assumed that your wounds were troubling you less. Sit you down, and I’ll get you a blanket.”
I shrugged off Holmes’ attentions. “I am perfectly fine, within limits. I shall accompany you to Lady Audrey’s, but I cannot promise dancing.”
Holmes smiled. “Never say die, old man, you may yet
—trip it as ye go,
On the light fantastick toe.”
Sherlock Holmes: Murder on the Brighton Line and Other Stories
I joined my friend for a late luncheon in the restaurant overlooking the forecourt of the central station in Brighton.
“I trust the dismemberment met your expectations, Holmes.”
He looked up from the menu and smiled. “In every respect, my dear fellow. The murders are an intriguing little series. A new torso was discovered recently, and if we take the murderer’s modus as our guide, a limb or two will soon appear in the street or on a public building, but we will not find a head. As with the earlier case, the police are at a stand. Let me show you the post-mortem photographs.”
He pulled an envelope from the carpetbag at his side and slid it across the table. A waiter laid a plate of bread and a dish of butter on the table and stood, pencil poised.
I put my hand on Holmes’ arm. “We might view the photographs later, old man, in the privacy of our carriage.”
“Eh? Oh, very well.” He addressed the waiter. “The cod with boiled potatoes and peas.”
“With white sauce?” I suggested.
Holmes grimaced and turned back to the waiter. “No sauce, but you may bring a pot of sharp horseradish and a bottle of the ‘83 Chablis.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Watson?”
“I’ll have the same, with the white sauce, but on the side.”
The waiter bowed and left, and I examined the sweet trolley. “They have rhubarb crumble, served with custard or fresh cream.”
Holmes leaned across the table. “I believe our first murder occurred in France; at least that is the first that has come to my attention. A torso with a left arm and hand was found outside Montrouge church in Paris last year sans right arm, legs and head. Our Brighton dismemberer leaves body parts outside churches, public houses and schools, he does not stray far from the sea and he avoids landmarks like the Pavilion and the piers.”
“He does not like crowds,” I suggested.
“In all,” Holmes continued, “the Brighton police have accumulated three torsos and almost enough limbs to assemble a pair of young women.” He tapped his carpet bag. “They were kind enough to lend me a severed hand.”
I shook my head. “What manner of fiend could kill these women in cold blood and then mutilate their remains? It passes all human understanding. The most hardened Burmese bandit or Thuggee strangler would baulk at such a foul deed. The murderer is beyond the pale of human reason; he is a devil.”
Holmes frowned. “No, no, Watson, we must not succumb to airy notions of religiosity or Romanticism. The killer has his reasons; he acts with purpose. His motivations may be alien to us, but they are human, not satanic. Pass the bread.”
Holmes helped himself to bread from the basket. “The killer’s purposes may be fathomed by another human mind, if that intellect is so constructed that its processes depend on cold reason and logical analysis undiluted by anger, revenge or moral outrage. I was invited to Brighton by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway Company to give their police and the county constabulary my considered opinion on the case, not to share their impotent rage.”
Holmes looked across at me and lifted his eyebrows. “I dare say I have put them on the right track. The right track, Watson.”
I blinked back at Holmes, and he sighed. “The county constabulary and the railway police have plain clothed and uniformed officers at every likely dumping spot. They have orders to stop men with bags and cases (especially foreigners) and to investigate the contents.”
He smiled. “Our murderer is too fly to be caught in that net, but the increased police presence makes a show and reassures the public. Pass the butter.”
I did so, and Holmes examined the butter dish, muttering under his breath, before he flicked aside a sprig of parsley and buttered his bread.
“I had a pleasant day,” I said. “After overcast skies this morning, the sun peeked through the clouds at lunchtime, and I left my overcoat at the hotel and ambled along the Promenade enjoying the bracing sea breeze and taking deep draughts of air unpolluted by our London filth. The sea is tranquil for the time of year, but I did not bathe.”
“No damsels in distress? No mermaids enticing you into the briny depths?”
I helped myself to bread and butter. “Few people were out and about, and the town centre and promenade were deserted. The torso murders have not been extensively covered by the national newspapers, but the Sussex papers have spread enough lurid rumours of dark deeds to stay people at home.”
The waiter arrived with our main course. “I would have ordered a turbot,” Holmes mused, peering down his long nose at his plate, “that noblest of pisces, but like gutter journalists he is a bottom feeder, and there have been a number of shipwrecks along the coast recently with considerable loss of life.”
He tapped the envelope of post-mortem photographs. “And our friend is possibly disposing of body parts in the sea, so I thought it unwise to – what?”
The waiter backed away wide-eyed.
“Nothing, Holmes,” I said. “Enjoy your meal.”
Another waiter brought our wine in a cooler and filled our glasses.
“How did the police react to your theories,” I asked.
Holmes sipped his wine as he considered. “Intense interest, bewilderment or hostility, depending on intellect and age: no, on intellect, age and imagination. An overly moustached sergeant was particularly stolid.”
“You shared your speculations on—”
“I stated my deductions,” Holmes said stiffly. “I do not speculate.”
I bowed. “The police have been reticent with the newspapers. They do not want sensational headlines that might provoke a mass panic.”
Holmes sniffed. “In Madrid, Paris, or Rome perhaps, but a mass panic in Brighton? I hardly think so. You traduce the phlegmatic character of the inhabitants of the County of Sussex. The police are reserved because we are coming to the summer season and news of dismemberments would dismay potential visitors.”
I thought Holmes’ remarks cynical, but I did not take the bait. Holmes had been fractious, out-of-sorts and thin-skinned of late, and I welcomed the invitation of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway police to consult on the torso murders as a chance to escape the unhealthy atmosphere of London and enjoy a relaxing change of scenery, if only for a day.
Holmes looked up. “Pass the white sauce.”
I showed Holmes the empty jug.
“Our man is circumspect,” Holmes said as he finished his luncheon and sat back. “The bodies are sectioned but they display no wounds. The murderer kills his victims with a blow to the head or he slashes their throats.” He mimed a vicious cut across his throat with his fish knife. “He masks the wound by the removal of the head at the neck.”
The waiter took our empty plates with quivering hands. I indicated the sweet trolley. “I’ll have the rhubarb crumble and custard, if you please. And you may serve coffee.”
Holmes waved him away. “Our man does not show any interest in the sexual organs of his victims—”
I put my finger to my lips. “Ssshh, Holmes. Remember the fuss last week? People who pop into an elegant patisserie in Piccadilly for an apfelstrudel with crème fraîche, or those who come to the station restaurant in Brighton for a seafood luncheon, do not wish to be regaled with—”
I lowered my voice as the waiter laid my pudding in front of me and filled our coffee cups, “with intimate details of female reproductive anatomy.”
“Then they should not listen to other people’s conversations.” Holmes said primly. He held up his coffee spoon. “Let me try your custard, Watson, it looks rather good.”
After our excellent luncheon, Holmes picked up his carpet bag, I collected my case and umbrella and we crossed the station concourse towards the newspaper kiosk arm-in-arm. The sun was low, shadows long, and the lamplighters were already at work.
There was a chill in the air and I turned up the collar of my frock coat. I thought of unpacking my overcoat, but as we would soon be in the shelter of our railway compartment, I could not find in my postprandial self the energy to bother.
I looked forward to our journey home. The LB&SCR had booked us a private first-class compartment on the Pullman Limited in which Holmes could read the afternoon papers and peruse his reports in peace as we sped back to London. I intended to delve into a promising looking book on abnormal states of mind I had purchased from a second-hand stall in the market. A chapter on the work being done in France looked most interesting.
Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot was doing ground-breaking work on neuro-pathology at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, earning the sobriquet, ‘the Napoleon of neurology’. He had developed metallo-mesmeric treatments for monomania and that most enigmatic of all nervous diseases, hysteria. I knew of Charcot from his masterly description of the lesions on the bones and joints which characterised tabes dorsalis patients. I therefore hoped—
A running boy lurched into me, raced across the concourse, bumped into a gentleman walking ahead of me and slipped into a crowd by the down platform. I groped for my wallet and breathed a sigh of relief when found it safe in an inside pocket.
The crowd into which the boy had disappeared clustered at the ticket barrier gaping at a small knot of policemen who stood by the first carriage of the newly arrived train from London.
They craned over the shoulders of a young constable with a thin moustache guarding the ticket barrier.
Holmes steered us across the concourse, and I accosted the police officer over the hats of the crowd. “What’s the to-do, constable?”
“Nothing to worry about, gentlemen.” He waved us back. “Move along now please, everyone please move along.”
Holmes sniffed. “I am Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective—”
The young policeman ignored Holmes and looked away. I reached my umbrella across the heads of the people in front of me and tapped his arm.
He turned back with a face like thunder. “I told you, gentlemen—”
He stopped, gave Holmes an appraising look, pushed through the crowd to us and addressed him. “May I see what’s in your bag, sir?”
“Certainly, officer.” Holmes opened his carpet bag and displayed the contents. “An envelope containing post-mortem photographs of the latest dismembered corpse, two mismatched femurs, one jar containing a human hand preserved in spirits of wine (from a young female, as you might infer from the manicured nails and soft finger tips) and a banana for the journey.”
The policeman stared wide-eyed at Holmes for a second, then he blanched, stepped back and reached for his truncheon.
“Alright, Blake,” said a voice of authority. A tall, spade-bearded police sergeant was at the constable’s side. The young man stiffened to attention and glared fiercely at Holmes. “Pursuant to orders, Sergeant, I asked this gentleman to open his bag, and, and—”
The sergeant ignored him and shook Holmes’ and my hands. “Sergeant Reeve, London, Brighton & South Coast Railway Constabulary. Pleased to see you again, Mr Holmes. I was at your lecture at the Town Hall police station this morning. I came in on my day off, and I got caught for extra duty here in case chummy decides to plant body parts on the forecourt, but worth it, sir. A fine lecture, if I may say so, though it gave me the collywobbles.”
Holmes smiled as he absorbed the compliment. “This is my friend and colleague, Doctor Watson.”
“What’s the to-do?” I asked again.
Sergeant Reeve jerked his thumb towards the stationary train. “The Pullman from London just arrived with a body in a private compartment; there’s blood all over. The gentleman is dead as a doornail, sirs, but since you’re here, Doctor—”
“Of course,” I answered, a little reluctantly. I showed him our complimentary train tickets. “We are on the Pullman Limited to Victoria Station in, let me see, thirty-three minutes.”
I turned to confer with Holmes, but he was already on the move along the platform with the young constable in tow.
Sergeant Reeve looked down at me over his huge beard, his eyes twinkling. “Might be a delay, Doctor Watson. Come and see.”
The sergeant and I followed Holmes and the constable past a hissing, steaming locomotive in a most ornate and distinctive livery of golden yellow trimmed with green and lined with black, red and white.
We stopped beside a mahogany and gilt carriage guarded by a pair of policemen, a standard first-class coach with separate saloons unconnected by a corridor. One compartment had private notices pasted on its closely curtained windows.
A similar coach was attached behind and the rest of the train consisted of new electric-lit Pullman carriages with open saloons, a shop, buffet and smoking car. An electrical accumulator wagon and a luggage van formed the rear of the train.
Holmes passed his bag to the policeman, opened the compartment door and climbed inside.
“We’ve sent for detectives and for the coroner, Doctor,” Sergeant Reeve said. “I don’t suppose there’s any need to remind Mr Holmes not to touch or move anything?”
“No, no,” I answered doubtfully. “No need at all.”
The sergeant turned to Constable Blake.
“Mr Holmes asked me to drop your bags at the cloakroom, Doctor,” the constable said. He took my case, opened the compartment door and helped me up.
I closed the door behind me and gasped for breath at the reek of strong Cologne and pungent cigar smoke that assailed me. I groped in my pocket for my handkerchief, failed to find it and put hand over my nose and mouth as I peered around me.
The compartment was a familiar, heavily upholstered six-seater, lit by clerestory skylights and a pair of dim oil lamps rather than the brighter and more modern gas jets. An enormously fat gentleman in a black frock coat lay face down, half-on, half-off the far seat to my right. The man’s top hat, cane and luggage, a black leather valise and a matching fishing rod case, lay on the opposite seat.
Holmes sat on the left side with his elbows on his knees and his hands steepled under his chin. I slipped past him, bent and reached to test the victim’s neck for a pulse. I stopped when I saw that the left side of his skull was split open and crushed, and blood and brain matter had spilled across the carriage floor. There was no possibility that the man was alive.
I examined his extremities and saw that his right wrist was at an unnatural angle. “Battered to death, Holmes, and his right arm is broken, ulna and radius.”
“Mmmm? Just lean across and open the curtains, would you?”
“Sergeant Reeve is concerned—”
Holmes waved his magnifying glass at me. “I must have light, Watson,” he said in a reproving tone, “if only the feeble glow of the station lampposts. Would you have me examine the scene in chiaroscuro?”
I leaned over the body, pulled back the thick curtains and uncovered the trackside windows. Dust motes floated in the grey, late-afternoon light streaming into the compartment.
Holmes gestured to the seat on his right. “Lay your handkerchief down as I have; there is a great deal of blood.”
I again checked my pockets and sleeves for my handkerchief but did not find it. I bent and examined the seat next to Holmes; it was unstained, and I gingerly lowered myself onto it.
“According to the young constable,” Holmes said, “the train stopped, and a porter tried to open the platform-side door of the carriage from the outside. He found it locked. He was curious – he’d been tipped off by the guard that a well-heeled gent in the front first-class carriage had his heavy baggage deposited in the van.”
Holmes held up a brass bracket. “I found this on the seat. It is a patent railway door lock; it attaches to the compartment door and window strap to fix the lock in the closed position. The device became popular in various forms after the panic that followed the first railway compartment murder in the ‘60s. The porter found the lock attached to the platform-side door, stopping the door from being opened.”
He passed the lock to me. “Aside from the porter, that implement was last handled by the murderer as he locked the door behind him to prevent interruption. What can it tell us of him?”
I held it to the light. “There is a greasy black stain and what might be a grimy thumbprint on the brass. This instrument might tell us a great deal if we had the right tools. I read an article in Nature, oh, years ago, which suggested the possibility of identifying criminals by the imprints left by the ridges and swirls on their fingers.”
Holmes nodded. “The system is used in India, but our police deride it and refuse to set up a library of prints. They rely on the interminable measurements and card indices of Monsieur Bertillon and his système anthropométrique.”
He took the lock and fitted it to the platform-side door. “The porter found the door locked, thus. He went around the train, opened the unlocked trackside door, found the body and opened the opposite door.”
He stood. “Weapon?”
I considered. “I should have to examine the wounds more closely, but as a working hypothesis I should say a hammer. However, there is a penetrating wound behind the left ear that suggests something with a point.”
Holmes smiled and indicated the carriage roof and clerestory above my head. I stood and examined the ceiling. “Good Lord, Holmes, deep dents and sprays of blood. Two panes of the skylight are cracked.”
Holmes stood over the corpse and swung his stick in an arc behind him, striking the ceiling. “There is also a splintered hole in the woodwork above the platform-side door. That was the first strike, I fancy.”
I considered. “A hammer, then. But not a heavy hammer or the skull would be flattened after so many terrible blows.”
Holmes looked up. “The dents in the ceiling are deep and sharp edged. We may safely say the hammer head, if hammer it is, is circular and about a half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. We might take a cast.” He frowned. “That is the back end of the weapon. The front is conical and pointed like a spike. No other shape could make that penetrating wound.”
“A mediaeval bludgeon or a spiked mace perhaps: a fearsome weapon in either case.”
Holmes nodded absently. “The victim stood with his back half-turned to his assailant, and the first blow struck his right temple. The backswing made the hole above the door.
“The victim twisted away, slumped onto the seat and slid to the floor. The attack was then directed at the left side of the man’s head, crushing it.”
I peered at the marks in the ceiling and clerestory roof and the splintered indentation above the door. “That blow to the temple was savage, Holmes. I believe it killed the victim; the other blows were superfluous.”
“But indicative of intention to make a sure kill and perhaps evidence of a passionate motive. Let us move on to identity – have a look at that rod case and valise, would you?”
I hesitated. “Brighton detectives and the coroner have been summoned, Holmes. Perhaps we should wait—”
Holmes did not respond; he was busy searching the corpse. I picked up the valise and hefted it. It was secured by two straps and locks. “Not too heavy, locked.”
I frowned. “I say, Holmes, there is a slash in the lid, no, a deep puncture.”
“Try the rod case.”
I put the valise on the seat beside me and reached for the leather rod case. It too was light, nothing rattled inside, and it was locked.
“Canny fellow,” Holmes said as he sat back in his seat. “Or so he thought. Our victim trusted to locks for the door and his luggage. His pocketbook, watch and cufflinks are missing, but his diamond tiepin is still in place, as was this.” He held up a flat purse on a long leather strap.
“A money belt,” I exclaimed. “Perhaps he carried that in lieu of a notecase?”
“No, no. The material of the left inside pocket of his frock coat is puckered and worn shiny by the regular removal and return of a thick wallet. The same is true of the watch pocket in his waistcoat and its buttonhole. His pocket watch was large and heavy. It is missing.”
Holmes unbuttoned the money belt and displayed a wad of Bank of England five-pound notes. “Either robbery was not the motive, or the thief is an incompetent. No London thug could look his colleagues in the face after missing this haul.” He smiled. “But we must remember that we are in Sussex.”
“The murderer was disturbed by the porter’s knock, Holmes.”
“You are thinking of the Scottish play, Watson.” Holmes took a thin leather case from his pocket, opened it and removed a needle-like steel instrument. “Pass the valise.”
I most reluctantly handed the valise to Holmes, and I watched as he fiddled with the lock. “Time of death?” he asked.
I considered. “Within the last hour, possibly less than a half-hour; the corpse is still warm, and the blood is uncongealed.”
Holmes glanced at his watch. “That doesn’t help us much. The train takes about an hour and twenty minutes from London, with a stop at Horsham. It arrived twenty-seven minutes ago. The victim could have been killed at Victoria Station, but that is unlikely. The murderer did not simply close the door and saunter away: the platform-side door was locked from the inside with the patent lock, and he must have been blood splattered.”
“Perhaps he stayed in the carriage, riffled the body and set down at Horsham,” I suggested. “Or he may have entered the carriage at Horsham and got off here.” I frowned. “Or he boarded the carriage here, did the deed and escaped.”
“Those are the possibilities.”
I heard a soft click as Holmes unlocked the valise. “We will start with the last and simplest premise, that the murder was done here in Brighton, and see where it takes us. However, I will suggest that the police telegraph to Horsham and Victoria for any pertinent information or witnesses. The weapon was conspicuous – ah, what have we here?”
Holmes delved into the valise and took out a pale-blue leather case. He opened it and smiled as I gasped. A magnificent diamond-studded tiara, scintillating even in the dim light of the carriage, lay on a bed of blue velvet. A long, white-leather case revealed a necklace of lustrous rubies and another a single ruby of great size and beauty set in a gold brooch. Last was a varnished wooden box containing an exquisite silver mantel clock with an engraved plate under the face.
“There is an inscription, ‘To JM from his devoted friends’.”
Holmes performed his felonious magic with the rod case. He pulled off the cap and frowned as he peered inside, then his face cleared as he gently slipped out a rolled canvas and spread it across his knees. It was an oil painting, to a degree aged, showing a reclining nude.
“Just so,” Holmes said, smiling at me. “It is one of the Danaë by—”
A heavy thumping shook the compartment window and the platform-side door lock rattled. Holmes leaned across and removed the patent lock, and the door sprang open.
A walrus-moustached figure in a heavily frogged, dark-blue overcoat and uniform cap filled the doorway. “I’ll thank you gentlemen to leave the carriage,” the man said in a stern tone.
Holmes sniffed. “You are?”
“Sergeant Tate, Sussex Constabulary, Mr Holmes. And you and your companion have no official business here. Kindly put that case down where you found it and come out.”
Holmes nodded. “Very well, we leave you to it, Sergeant.” He stood, leaned across the corpse, opened the trackside door and leapt out. I gaped in astonishment.
Holmes’ head and shoulders appeared in the doorway. “Come along, my dear fellow. Do keep up.”
Sherlock Holmes: Tragedy at Hutton Hall
and Other Stories
My Position had become Intolerable
It was almost ten on a dismal morning. Sullen, grey clouds hid the weak December sun, and gusts of bitter wind slapped rain against the already streaming window panes of the comfortable sitting room that Holmes and I shared at our digs in Baker Street. I heaved myself from my chair by the fireside, lit the gas lamps above the mantelpiece and trimmed and lit the oil lamp on our breakfast table.
“I say, old man,” I said, blowing out my match and flicking it into the grate.
Holmes stirred in his chair before the fireplace and peered at me over his Times. “Mmmm?”
“I must insist that you refrain from putting the Yule branches from our mantelpiece onto the fire. I remind you that the festive branches are Christmas decorations, not kindling.”
“The pine smell is superb, the flames crackle in a pleasing manner and radiated heat is considerably amplified.”
“That’s all very well, but I have been obliged to pay Mrs Hudson fourpence for replacement decorations, plus a penny for delivery from Whiteleys.” I returned to our table and filled my cup with the dregs of our breakfast coffee. “And you owe Billy an apology.”
“Mrs Hudson blamed our page boy for the desecration of her Christmas decorations. Of course, he is the obvious choice for the perpetrator of any mischief in the house, but I happen to know that he was acting under your orders; you are the criminal mastermind behind the outrage.”
Holmes blinked at me with interest. He dropped his newspaper to the floor and raised a languid hand towards the tobacco pouch pinned to the mantel. “On what evidence?”
“Deductive reasoning, my dear fellow,” I tapped my finger against my nose. “The only Scrooge inhabiting 221b Baker Street this Christmas season is Sherlock Holmes, therefore Sherlock Holmes committed the desecration of putting our yule branch decorations on the fire.”
Holmes yawned as he filled his pipe with tobacco.
“I know Christmas is a trial for you, Holmes,” I continued in a conciliatory tone, “but if you can endure just two more days of brotherly love, generosity and caring for others with something approaching equanimity, you will have a quiet week until the New Year and the start of another twelvemonth of murder and mayhem in which you may wallow once again in brutality and blood. I know things have been quiet over the last few months, but the penny papers suggest that we are about to experience an influx of Eastern European nihilists and Dynamitards determined to return us to the Dark Ages. You will be inundated with cases.”
Holmes smiled a complacent smile. “Talking of brutality and blood,” he said. “I am expecting a client.”
“Surely not,” I exclaimed. “Not on Christmas Eve.”
Holmes tossed me a telegraph form, and I put on my reading spectacles and held it to the light of the lamp. “May I visit you at ten am today regarding delicate matter, question mark. I have no one to turn to.” I sniffed. “A woman, of course. I’ll wager you sixpence that the delicate matter is romantic rather than criminal and that no blood and brutality are involved.”
Our doorbell rang on cue, and Holmes laid his unlit pipe on the grate as Billy showed a bright-eyed and ruddy-faced young lady into our sitting room. She wore a grey overcoat, crepe-trimmed in half-mourning, and a matching fur hat; a leather satchel hung by a strap from her shoulder. She introduced herself as Miss Angelica Fairchild. I did the honours for myself and Holmes, welcoming Miss Fairchild to our lodgings and wishing her the compliments of the season. I helped her off with her overcoat and watched benignly as she unclipped a large cameo hat pin and removed her hat.
“Miss Fairchild, pray take a seat.” Holmes waived airily towards the fireplace.
I conducted our visitor to the sofa, where she sat, hands folded demurely in her lap and her leather satchel beside her.
“With your permission,” Holmes continued, “our page will move your bicycle into the back yard where it will be safe from opportunist thievery.”
"That is very kind of you, sir.”
I instructed Billy to take care of the bicycle, and I took my seat beside Holmes.
He sat back in his chair, his fingers steepled. “You wish to consult me on a matter of delicacy,” he said. “I can assure you that whatever you say will be held in confidence by me and by my friend and colleague Doctor Watson.”
“I have no qualms whatsoever in confiding in you, and in Doctor Watson,” Miss Fairchild answered, drawing a magazine from her satchel and showing it to me. “I reread your excellent story of the Mormon conspiracy in Beeton’s Christmas magazine on my train ride from Guildford to Waterloo this morning.”
I smiled and glanced at Holmes, who sniffed and addressed Miss Fairchild. “Perhaps we might come to the quick? I would not wish to keep you from your holiday celebrations.”
Miss Fairchild replaced the magazine in her bag. “I must apologise to you both for disturbing your festivities with my concerns, but I have no one else to whom I could turn.” She took a lace handkerchief from her bag and dabbed at her eyes.
“Not at all, my dear lady,” I said. “We are a pair of crusty unsociables who take little notice of the Christmas season.” I ignored another grumpy sniff from Holmes. “I can assure you that Mr Holmes and I are entirely at your disposal.” I stood. “Let me order some refreshments.” I called down to Billy, ordered tea and took my place by the fire.
Miss Fairchild folded her hands once more in her lap and began her story. “You should know, gentlemen, that I am twenty-four years of age, unattached and alone in the world apart from some distant relatives in America with whom I am not in contact. After the sudden death of my father two years ago, my mother having passed some years earlier, I found myself in possession of our small family villa in Brentwood and the recipient of a modest sum of money.”
“How modest?” Holmes asked, nodding for me to open my notebook.
“Two hundred pounds from my father’s life insurance.” Miss Fairchild’s voice faltered. “He was an architect with a City firm specialising in industrial projects.”
I made a note of the amount as Miss Fairchild recovered her composure and continued. “I had thought to place my name on the books of Mrs Lefevre’s employment agency in the Strand as a typist (I completed a course at the Institute), but I saw an advertisement in The Lady magazine requiring a governess who could teach French and music to a small boy at a family’s country residence in Guildford. I am a competent, although not accomplished pianist, I speak a little French and I am good with children, so I wrote a reply to the advertisement. I was interviewed by Lord Arthur and Lady Margaret Bellisle at their London home, and His Lordship was generous enough to offer me a position in his household as governess to his five-year-old son at an excellent salary.”
Holmes raised his eyebrows.
“One hundred pounds a year, with board and lodgings and a half-day a week holiday.”
“Very decent terms,” I said, noting the amount in my book.
“Indeed so, Doctor, but conditional upon my willingness to immediately adopt half, not full mourning. His lordship gave me to understand that his son was a sensitive boy, and he did not wish him to be made anxious by being in the charge of a lady in full mourning black.
“My father had died only two months previously, so I was naturally uncomfortable changing to half mourning so precipitately, but with Lord Arthur’s kind offer, my immediate future seemed to be secured, and after much reflection and prayer, I came to the conclusion that my father would have approved of the agreement, and I accepted a position in Lord Arthur’s employ. I sold my family house and invested my little nest egg in government stocks, increasing my income by fifteen to seventeen pounds a year.
“Two years and two months ago, I settled in a pleasant corner room in Hutton Hall, His lordship’s country home near Guildford.”
“Describe the house,” Holmes instructed.
“A rambling three-storey manor house of great antiquity, Elizabethan I am told, set in a hundred and fifty acres of land, with a stream passing through a lovely wood. One wing houses the Library, Billiard Room and four bedrooms, the other the Dining Room, Reception Room and more bedrooms. The main part of the house is composed of a central hall on the ground floor, with various small rooms off it and kitchens and offices to the rear. Lord Arthur and his wife Lady Margaret have sitting rooms and bedrooms on the first floor. The Nursery is on the top floor, with my bedroom and a cosy study across the corridor. I am blessed with a bright window, so that in daylight I can see to read or sew.”
“Other members of the household?” Holmes asked.
“Stephen, Lord Arthur and Lady Margaret’s son, is now almost seven, a fine boy who causes no trouble. He is schooled, eats and sleeps in the Nursery.”
“When I joined the household, there was a full staff, most of whom transferred from Surrey to London to serve at Lord Arthur’s house in Mayfair during the Season. However, at the beginning of this year, the butler and most inside staff were given notice, and the Library wing of Hutton Hall and all the public rooms were closed and shuttered. His Lordship no longer keeps a table or dines with his neighbours.
“The only servant who sleeps in the house is Lady Margaret’s nurse, Martha, who has a room next to Her Ladyship’s on the first floor. The housekeeper, Mrs Jevers, lives in the gatehouse at the end of the drive with her husband, who tends to the grounds and drives Lord Arthur to the station in the trap. Mrs Bambridge, our cook, a young maid-of-all-work and a boy come daily from the village of Hutton, which is situated a half-mile or so from the gates of the Hall. They are our full complement of staff.”
“Your position sounds well enough,” I suggested. “I imagine that you would be envied by many young girls at Mrs Lefevre’s agency.”
Miss Fairchild bowed. “Indeed so, Doctor. I have been in Lord Arthur’s employ for two happy years. In my first year, the family spent the Season at their Mayfair residence in London, and Lady Margaret was much taken up with charitable matters in the city. She was the secretary of the Mayfair branch of the Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Suppressing Mendicity. I stayed at Hutton Hall with Stephen, teaching him his manners and his prayers, with a little French and music.”
She seemed to shiver, and I darted up. “Are you quite warm enough, Miss Fairchild? If you are not quite comfortable, I could put some fir boughs on the fire —”
Holmes took the poker from its rack, jabbed it violently several times into the coals, replaced it and nodded to Miss Fairchild. “Do go on, my dear.”
“At the end of the London Season, in August of my first year of employment, Lord and Lady Bellisle returned to their country estate,” Miss Fairchild said.
“I was treated with great condescension at the Hall, not at all as a servant or even as an employée. At that time Lord Arthur entertained several nights in a month, and I joined the company for dinner and was included in invitations to other houses in the neighbourhood of Guildford.”
Miss Fairchild hesitated again but continued. “As I have said, early this year Lord Arthur surprised the staff by directing that the London house would not be opened in the spring, the family would stay at Hutton Hall all year and that the household would be drastically reduced.
“Since then, although His Lordship still visits London regularly, travelling up by train every Friday and returning on Monday, Lady Margaret and the few staff that are still with us remain at the Hall.”
Holmes nodded. “You mentioned a nurse.”
“Martha, an Irishwoman who was Lady Margaret’s nanny; she is devoted to her mistress, who has been a semi-invalid for many years; Her Ladyship’s heart is not strong, but until just after Christmas of last year, she was able to get around quite well, and she looked forward to her sojourn in Town.
“Recently, however, she has kept to her room, seldom coming down before dinner, and for the last two months she has taken all her meals in her room and not come down at all. Her indisposition and need for peace and quiet is the reason Lord Arthur gave that the family would not spend the Season in London, and why the public rooms of the house are shuttered, and the staff reduced.”
“What is the nature of Lady Margaret’s indisposition?” I asked.
“I do not know. Her physician, Sir Roland Whittaker, comes down from London once a month to attend to Her Ladyship and give instructions to her nurse.”
“And her illness is getting worse?” Holmes asked.
“Her health is much poorer now than it was at the beginning of the year.”
“Can you describe her symptoms?” I asked.
“Her Ladyship is very tired, sleeping most of the time, and when awake she is in considerable pain, which she alleviates with Doctor Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne. She has difficulty walking, staggering from side to side as if dizzy and —” Miss Fairchild faltered.
“You may be perfectly frank with us,” I promised. “Not a whisper will leave this room.”
She nodded. “Lady Margaret is now veiled when I visit her chamber with Stephen, and he is no longer allowed to touch her, or even approach her bed.”
I turned to Holmes and raised my eyebrows.
“Continue,” he requested.
Miss Fairchild pursed her lips. “When his wife could not join us, Lord Arthur took his meals in his study, until six weeks ago, that is.”
Holmes rubbed his palms together. “We come to the nub, I fancy.”
Our sitting-room door opened, and Mrs Hudson and Bessie brought in trays of tea and cake. Holmes threw up his hands, sprang to his feet and leaned against the fireplace, his fingers drumming on the mantel as Mrs Hudson laid the table. I was pleased to see that she had set out one of the rich fruit cakes I had ordered from Fortnum’s for our Christmas celebrations.
“What an artistic display of yule boughs you have on your mantel,” Miss Fairchild said as Mrs Hudson handed her tea. “It quite decorates the room.”
Mrs Hudson beamed at our visitor, gave Holmes an admonishing look and offered us cake. Holmes waved away tea and cake, grabbed his churchwarden pipe from the fender and slumped into his chair, tapping the stem against his chin. He glared at me, Mrs Hudson and Bessie in turn.
Miss Fairchild spooned sugar and stirred her tea. “Do smoke, if you wish to, gentlemen. I find the scent of pipe smoke rather soothing.”
“Continue,” Holmes snapped as the door closed behind Mrs Hudson.
Miss Fairchild resumed her narrative. “One afternoon, about a month ago, Lord Arthur visited the Nursery while Stephen and I were having our tea. I used to take a cooked tea with Stephen in the Nursery at four, and then have a bite of bread and cheese or cold sliced beef left for me in the larder by Cook for supper.”
“Was that a common occurrence? Lord Arthur visiting his son?” I asked.
“It was the first occasion he had done so during my employment. I had previously brought Stephen to the drawing room at five-fifteen, where we would wait while Lord Arthur and Lady Margaret finished their afternoon tea. Lord Arthur would then quiz Stephen on his sums or French conjugations for a few minutes before the boy kissed his parents goodnight, and I put him to bed.”
“But on this occasion Lord Arthur visited the Nursery,” Holmes said, narrowing his eyes.
“Stephen was naturally excited to see his papa,” Miss Fairchild said, “a little over-excited in fact, and I had to dose him with Lady Margaret’s Chlorodyne to settle him.”
“A small dose, I hope,” I interjected. “For a small child, fifteen minims or less —”
“And the purpose of your employer’s visitation?” Holmes asked impatiently, filling his pipe and lighting it with a spill from the fire.
“Lord Arthur told me that his wife was concerned about my health,” Miss Fairchild said. “On my daily visits to her sickbed with Stephen, she had formed the impression that I was looking pale and peaky. Lady Margaret had asked Cook whether I was eating properly, and she had discovered that for the last two months, since Her Ladyship had been unable to take dinner with her husband and with me, my main meal of the day had been nursery tea with Stephen — generally a soup, an egg salad or a ragout of meat followed by fruit. According to Lord Arthur, Her Ladyship insisted that I resume taking my main meal in the dining room at the dinner hour, with a glass of fortifying wine and a dessert.”
Miss Fairchild took a sip of tea. “I have dined with Lord Arthur from that day, in the dining room at the usual hour. It is an irregular arrangement, but I was always led to believe that Lady Margaret might join us, and that, if she did not, it was her wish that I dine in her place. His Lordship dresses for dinner of course, and he insists that the table be fully laid, with candelabra and decorations, much to the annoyance of the boy, who has to polish the silverware as well as serve us.
“A place is always laid for Lady Margaret, but, as I have said, recently she has been too unwell to come down for dinner.” Miss Fairchild looked down into her teacup. “For the last six weeks I have dined tête-à-tête with his Lordship in a most uncomfortable intimacy, my situation made more bearable by the antics of the boy, who has adopted the airs and graces of a footman. His Lordship and I are often amused by his pretentions.”
I offered Miss Fairchild a slice of our Christmas Dundee cake, but she demurred with an elegant gesture. I helped myself, glancing across the room at Holmes. His face was unreadable, half hidden in a cloud of tobacco smoke.
“Lord Arthur was a charming host at first,” Miss Fairchild continued. “He enquired about the little doings of his son and his progress with his letters and music, and about my plans when Stephen goes to his preparatory school in the autumn, and I leave the household. My anxieties were thus to some degree allayed.”
Miss Fairchild frowned. “However, a week or so after I began dining with His Lordship, Lady Margaret sent me two of her formal dresses, insisting that I alter them and wear them during dinner.”
She paused in her narration, seeming lost in thought, and Holmes gestured with his pipe stem for her to continue.
“She also sent some small items of her jewellery,” Miss Fairchild said softly. “I had to agree. I had been embarrassed by my very limited wardrobe, but, as you may imagine, my disquiet was considerably augmented.” Miss Fairchild’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. “His Lordship also invited me to join him on his afternoon walks. I accepted, but when I took Stephen with me, I could see that His lordship was not best pleased.”
Miss Fairchild folded her hands in her lap and looked down at them. “This month’s rain and snow kept us indoors, and Lord Arthur visited the Nursery daily, at first playing toy soldiers with his son, which filled Stephen with joy, but then ignoring the boy, or requiring him to play quietly while he chatted with me.”
“On what subjects?” Holmes asked.
“Stephen’s progress with his schooling, what I or Lord Arthur might be reading. We are both avid readers.” Miss Fairchild took her handkerchief from her satchel. “Lord Arthur is very proficient at small talk.” She buried her face in her palms.
“There, there, my dear,” I said, “everything will be all right.”
Miss Fairchild looked up, her face drained of colour. “His Lordship’s attentions have now become oppressive. He follows me from room to room. He stares at me during dinner in a most inappropriate and persistent manner. Occasionally, I suspect that he is in drink even before we dine.”
“The scoundrel,” I interjected.
Holmes glanced at me and put his finger to his lips.
“My position had become intolerable,” Miss Fairchild continued between sobs, “but by such small, seemingly inconsequential increments that it was only when I dressed for dinner and looked at myself in the bedroom mirror wearing Lady Margaret’s gown and jewellery that I came to the conclusion that I must act.”
“And,” Holmes asked, his eyes gleaming.
“And?” Miss Fairchild looked down at the clasped hands in her lap for a moment, and she seemed to gather resolution. “I found this on my dressing table this morning,” she said, reaching into her satchel and passing a small package and an envelope to me.
“It is a bottle of perfume,” I said, peering into the box. “And a note from Lord Arthur.”
Holmes leaned forward in his seat. “Please be so good as to read it.”
On a nod from Miss Fairchild, I opened the envelope and read. “Dear Miss Fairchild, as you are aware, Lady Margaret’s condition has worsened of late, and in the circumstances, it would be impossible to hold any Christmas festivities at the Hall. However, a children’s party is being got up by the Angel Inn in Guildford on Christmas Day. It is my and Lady Margaret’s wish that Stephen join that party. The children will be given a Christmas luncheon in the sitting room and entertained with games in the hall, and parents are invited to take their Christmas luncheon in the dining room while their children play. Lady Margaret would be very grateful if Miss Fairchild would accompany me and Stephen in her place.”
I looked up. “The note is signed by Lord Arthur, with a postscript. ‘I do hope that you will agree — it will be good for the boy to get out of our sad house for a day. I also have a particular matter that I wish to discuss with you.’ Initialled by Lord Arthur Bellisle.”
I passed the perfume and note to Holmes. “Perfume! The hound. He is a married man, Holmes, and Miss Fairchild is in a position of subordination in his household. This is a most improper communication.”
Hamlet & Me
London, October 1963
Nineteen priests came to my granny’s wake, five more than buried Colm’s Aunt Molly that was knocked down by a distillery cart on her way to early mass at St. George’s Cathedral.
“Eight of them don’t count,” Colm said as we walked back home after Scouts. “They’re only novices.”
“A priest’s a priest,” I said, taking my hands out of my pockets, and after the tussle we ended up with the novices counting a half and the granny still clear by ten clergy or more.
Gran was a cheerful old soul, but so ancient and stricken with the arthritis she’d bent over double like a pothook, and she only came down from her bedroom once a year when she attended Midnight Mass. The rest of the time Canon Bogan visited our house on Sundays to give her communion upstairs in her bed.
“Your Reverence,” my father called to the Canon one damp Sunday as he saw him in the hall shaking his umbrella before going up to Gran’s room. “Why don’t you do all the Clearys while you are here and save us a wet walk to church on a day would destroy us with double pneumonia?”
He winked at me, but I looked away, playing the neutral party.
The Canon stopped in his tracks. “John Patrick Cleary,” he said, stabbing his words at my father with his wet umbrella. “If you can reel twice a day to Mooney’s Bar, you can walk to St. Dominic’s on God’s holy day to save your immortal soul. The Catholic Church does not peddle salvation door to door like a gypsy clothes peg.”
The Canon and my dad squared off, one in his scarlet cassock and billowing black raincoat and the other in his Sunday double-breasted suit with a silky, stripy tie, a double-pointed hanky in the top pocket and his medal ribbon from the War on his breast – two big, red-faced, beefy men with wild hair and podge bellies on them, glaring at each other like that Hitler fellah and Mr Churchill, God bless him.
But it was all for show, for when Canon Bogan had given Gran communion, my mam would usher His Reverence into the parlour with tea and chocolate digestives, and before you could say Jack Robinson he and Dad would be debating the issues of the day like the Brains Trust on the radio.
When my Mam went up to see to Gran, my father would give the Canon a secret wink and get me to pull a half-bottle from one of his hiding places to spike their tea and fortify them for the exertions of the afternoon.
The Canon’s exertions led to kippers for Sunday tea at St. George’s presbytery, and my dad’s led to Mooney’s Bar.
My father was not a huge drinker, at least by the measure of his cronies at Mooney’s, but hardened he had to be to touch a drop with my mam and her sisters staunch for the Ladies’ Temperance League, and my granny praying every night for him to take the Pledge.
When Dad got a big carpentry job with the local brewery, Mam brought in our neighbour Mrs Hennessy for an emergency consultation.
“A brewery!” Mrs Hennessy cried, rattling the windows. “You’ll have to take precautions. You can’t let Jack loose in a brewery without taking precautions!”
Mrs Hennessy was a heavy set, red-faced woman in a black dress and cardigan in part-mourning for her husband and with a net over her frizzy grey hair. She had a voice that could stop clocks. I’d to move our budgie, Joey, a sensitive soul, to a safe distance whenever she visited.
She’s popped in a week or two before my nan died, and I’d watched from the kitchen doorway as she showed Mam an object wrapped in a shawl like a baby and reverently unwrapped it.
“This is the genuine article, Teresa, none of your over-the-counter local rubbish. This is your guaranteed Lourdes Water, blessed in the bottle and brought home from France by a Redemptorist nun so spotless with holy grace she could cure haemorrhoids with a single glare.”
“In a Guinness bottle?” Mam asked with a doubtful look.
“It came in a plastic Virgin Mary bottle,” Mrs Hennessy replied with a frown, “but I lost the top. I emptied the Holy Water into a Guinness bottle and capped it up firm. Take it from me, this stuff would shrivel the horns on the devil himself. I had it brought over special when Hennessy got the athlete’s foot swimming in the public baths.”
Mrs Hennessy folded her arms across her chest, and her voice rose to its usual budgie-deafening volume.
“I told him there’s half the riffraff of the city widdling in the public pool, but Hennessy would do his lengths. He got the athlete’s foot on his middle and it spread like mould on a cowpat. Holy Water it had to be,” Mrs Hennessy cried, “rubbed over twice a day and twice more on Sundays and saints’ days.”
A strangled squawk came from the parlour, and a dog howled several streets away.
“And did it work?” Mam asked.
“The rash went, thank the Lord, but he died a week later of the lung cancer.”
Mrs Hennessy and my mam blessed themselves.
“Mr Russell said he’d never seen a corpse in better condition, for his age and illness,” Mrs Hennessy continued. “My Hennessy had skin like a piglet.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Mam said, “I don’t want to do Jack a mischief.”
“Holy Water?” Mrs Hennessy said, her eyebrows raised, “How could that do any harm? It’ll bring out the natural goodness in him.”
Mam considered. “I’d be happy if he cut down a bit. He has his tipsy Friday nights, but he’s not a stagger-home-and-give-us-a-swipe boozer.”
“That’s how Dr Crippen started!” Mrs Hennessy shrieked, and a pigeon passing the kitchen window flopped senseless into the back yard.
I edged out the door, my ears ringing as she continued. “Just the one or two little murders at the weekend till he got the taste, and soon there’s whole streets missing and him winning prizes for his rhubarb.”
That tipped the scales.
“Well, let’s give it a try,” said Mam.
“That’s the spirit! We’ll water down his whisky, gradual like, and he’ll never notice a thing.” Mrs Hennessy opened the Guinness bottle, and Mam grimaced. “It’s got a niff to it.”
“Ten years old,” Mrs Hennessy replied, “the year of the coronation. It’s bound to be brisk.”
"And the brown colour?”
Mrs Hennessy frowned. “Maybe I didn’t wash out all the beer. Still, they say that’s good for you too, in moderation. Fetch the whiskey bottles, Teresa, and we’ll do God’s work.”
“Should we not say a prayer while we’re at it?” Mam suggested.
“That’s an idea. To the Blessed Virgin, is it?”
“No,” Mam said firmly, “to St. Jude.”
Mrs Hennessy nodded. “The patron saint of Hopeless Cases.”
I had almost slipped out when my mam nailed me to the wall with a look. “Mikey, fetch out your dad’s bottles from where they’re hid. Every one of them mind, no holding back.”
“Mam,” I cried. “He’ll kill me!”
Mam narrowed her eyes, Mrs H gave me a wart-curdling glare, and I fetched the bottles.
We were all up at dawn on the day of the wake.
My dad said he’d get me out of early Mass if I helped him with the wreaths, so we hid in the back-yard pretending to fix the broken swing until Mam and the aunts had left.
Dad took the Canon’s wreath with the black-bordered mourning notice outside and held it up to the front door.
‘Mrs Mary Catherine Cleary (née O’Donnell), formerly of 12 Dean’s Park Road, Dublin, passed softly into the bosom of the Lord at 4 am on October 3rd 1963. RIP.’
“Pass me the hammer, Mikey.” Dad stood on a chair in his shirt and braces, measured down from the door lintel with his open hand and banged in a nail.
“Dad,” I asked, “Why is it we don’t have granddads, only grandmas?”
“The wear and tear on the Brodie men is notorious, son. Them on your mam’s side died years ago. And how the Brody clan can produce more priests than the Kennedys and still fertilise the family tree is one of the mysteries of Nature.”
“What about your side, Dad?”
He paused for a moment and considered. “We Clearys are short on male relations too. Cleary men are more in the roving, devil-may-care sort of line: not family men at all. Your great, great, granddad went to America to make his fortune and was ambushed by Mormons on the Salt Lake in America, and ate, beard and all.”
He tested the nail for firmness. “My granddad died young too, fussed to death by his wife and her sisters. And didn’t his fancy woman come to the funeral and get spat at and her fur collar ruined by my grandma, when she had her health?”
He gave the nail another whack with the hammer. “My own da, bless his soul, went down to the corner shop for a pack of Wild Woodbine ciggies and a Sporting Life in 1928 and there’s never been hide nor hair since, except a picture postcard from Blackpool with no stamp and tuppence to pay. No, the Cleary men do not buckle down easily to family life.” He hung up the wreath.
“You’re a family man, Dad.”
“I was ambushed by your mam. She wouldn’t let me use a – well, let’s just say you’re lucky we didn’t christen you ‘Oops’.”
We went back inside and into the parlour. Joey chirped a reproachful tweet from his cage, and I whistled a reply, but he ignored me and turned his back. The poor bird was still deafened.
Dad slumped into an armchair by the fireplace. “Fetch me the bottle from the shelf behind poor Saint Francis, son. It’s a heathen disrespect to your granny not to have a wee glass in her memory.”
“I’ll get into trouble with Mam.”
“You’re in trouble already for missing Mass. We’re a troubled family.”
I stood on the pouf and got down the bottle, and Dad poured himself a large whiskey. I fetched the soda siphon from the sideboard.
“What’s your excuse for missing Mass?” Dad asked. “Better make it convincing, not one of your usual ‘I dropped me dinner money down a drain’ numbers.”
I sloshed soda from the siphon and drowned his drink. “But you said you’d square it with Mam! You promised!”
Dad wagged his finger at me. “One thing you’ve got to learn about women, Mikey, is they’re like the circle; they cannot be squared. That’s why we men are in a constant state of being in the wrong and why priests don’t marry, apart from the obvious.”
There was a great bustle in the house after Mass. Colm’s mam came to help with the arrangements, the men from Russell’s brought in the coffin at the back and the aunts sliced bread and slapped on turkey or fish paste.
My mam and the Canon were in conference in the kitchen when they spotted Colm and me. “Will the boys?” my mam asked in a hushed voice.
“I don’t see the need, Mrs Cleary,” the Canon murmured. “Only twelve is it? No, no. Young minds scarred for life in published cases.
“Bless them,” he said in his altar voice, patting Colm and me on the head. “Their infant minds should be filled with the Joy of Jesus.”
“I’ve never seen a corpse,” popped up Colm, who had no sense at all.
“What Colm Mcfee means, Your Reverence,” I said quick, “is that we’d dearly love to pay our last respects to the mortal remains of my sainted granny.”
But it was no use, so when we got away, Colm and I made up the plan for later that night while the mourners would be at the whiskey punch and savouries.
The early arrivals turned up at about five-thirty, and we were kept busy with the coats and hats up to the back bedroom with slips of paper inside the priests’ birettas to tell them apart.
Canon Bogan came straight from six o’clock mass with a musty incense taint on him, different from the carbolic, soapy smell of the novices. He walked through the parlour dispensing blessings to all there and sat down heavily on the settee reserved for important guests and principal mourners.
My mam followed him up with a dark whiskey-punch that he took with a great show of reluctance and sipped as if the taste was new to him. He settled back in his seat looking around the room at the knots of clergy and laity all glaring daggers at my dad and his pals huddled by the fireplace.
“She was a good woman, right enough,” my father said to Tommy Dolan as he stubbed out the remains of his cigar in the fireplace.
“That she was,” said Tommy.
I offered a plate of sausage rolls, and my father waved them away. “Not an easy life you understand.”
“Indeed not!” Tommy said quickly. He hooked a couple of sausage rolls and reverently shook his head. “No, I didn’t think that at all.”
Dad refilled his companions’ glasses from the bottle on the mantel and shook another cigar from the packet beside it.
“Ninety was it, Jack?” Patrick asked.
“Ninety-one last Thursday was a week,” my dad intoned between lighting another cigar and puffing smoke across the room. “Ninety-one years of unsur-unsurpassed piety and good works.”
“Ninety-one,” Tommy Dolan repeated in wonder.
“Aye,” sighed Patrick.
“Glory be to God,” said Dad.
I fetched another plate of sausage rolls from the kitchen and edged through the mourners to the chairs by the window.
“He was her cross,” Mrs Hennessy confided to a pair of fresh-faced, freckly young novices in a whisper that made the window panes shake.
“But the other son, Michael Joseph?” asked one, taking a sausage roll.
“A clerk with the Post Office in Dublin and doing well,” Mrs Hennessy said with a tight smile. “No, Jack is the black sheep of the Clearys. He’d lick whiskey off a corpse, saving your cloth, fathers.”
“Is it strong waters then?” the other novice asked, glancing sideways at my father across the room.
“It is, Father,” Mrs Hennessy whispered, as paint flakes floated down from the pelmet above and earthquake warning sirens wailed in Tokyo. “You could bottle his blood. Look at him now, swilling it down like a tinker; he that promised his poor dying mother only two days since that not another drop would pass his lips.”
“And how was it at the Last, Jack?” Tommy Dolan asked his best pal.
My father, always a man for the dramatics, stood slowly upright from leaning against the mantle and turned close in to his cronies.
“Ma looked at me with the light of the Holy Spirit aglow in her eyes,” he murmured, a catch in his voice. ‘John, my son,’ says she with her last dying breath, taking my hand in hers in a fearful grip. ‘John Patrick Aloysius Cleary, promise me one dying wish before I give myself up to my Maker’.”
Dad wiped a tear from his eye, drained his glass with a sorrowful gesture and waited for it to be refilled.
“I was in mortal fear,” he continued. “I knew what I’d to promise. I’d be barred from Mooney’s: ruined. But, ‘I’ll promise,’ I said, never letting on.”
“It breaks your heart,” Tommy said with a half-sob. “And Jack with a top job promised at the brewery making the new lorry ramps.”
“She took my head in her hands,” Dad said, miming the gesture, “and she whispered, ‘son, give it up. Give up the drink for your Dying Ma’.”
Dad took a long pull on his cigar.
“What did you say to that, Jack?” Tommy asked in a hushed tone.
“What could I say, with the water running down my cheeks like a wet Monday and my lips parched with dry expectation?”
Dad held up his glass to the light, swirled the whiskey and sighed. “I was about to make the pledge would see me follow her into the dust within the year, but when I raised my eyes to her poor face, I saw she’d gone over without another word.”
“She’d gone?” Tommy asked.
“That was a sign, Jack,” Tommy said, “a fearful sign.”
“Fill my glass, now Tommy,” my father said. “I get hard looks and sermons if I open so much as a ginger pop before the clergy.”
By eight o’clock, almost all the guests had arrived and visited the Dead Room before joining the wake below, and Canon Bogan stood and gave a speech about my granny’s famous pieties and great service to the Church. Thinking to make my father smart, he continued.
“And a woman who, as every one of you well knows, let no strong liquor or alcoholic beverage of any kind pass her lips since she put on the proud pin of the Ladies Temperance League seventy long years ago!”
He paused and darted a look at my dad. “A glorious example to those members of her family with sense and religion enough to follow it.”
There was a deal of solid clapping from the aunts, and a battery of sharp looks from the mourners towards where my father was stirring the ashes in the grate with a poker.
“Well, Jack,” the canon called over in the silence. “There’s much to be said for temperance.”
“Indeed, Your Reverence,” my dad replied in a silky voice that would charm a Protestant, “I’m told it’s a grand thing.”
He replaced the poker and turned to the Canon with a smile. “Can I refill your glass, Your Reverence? I see you’re not drinking your usual plural quantities? It’s Liberty Hall at the Cleary’s as Your Reverence well knows. Don’t you mind the old women.”
In stepped Mam quick to say she was sure Gran upstairs wouldn’t grudge us a song, so the record player was set up in the back room, and the fiddler from Mooney’s was due any minute.
Colm and I judged the time was right for our plan, so we slipped unnoticed through the parlour door and crept up the dark stairs, careful to miss the creak on the second step. We felt along the wall past my bedroom to my granny’s room, the Dead Room.
A muffled chatter came from the parlour below, and a Peggy Lee song from the record player in the back room where the Mulcahys were organising the dancing. It was unnaturally hushed on the landing, and my heartbeat thumped loud in my ears as we stopped outside my granny’s door.
“You first,” I said hoarsely.
“She’s your granny,” Colm whispered. And then when I didn’t move. “Shall we go on down again to the wake?”
“We w-will not,” I said, and I groped about in the dark for the door handle and gripped it, cool against my damp palm.
The knocker banged against the street door and we jumped back. The clamour below swelled as the parlour door opened, then the light came on in the hall and my mam shouted she’d get it.
Colm and I froze in the shadows against the wall as Mam gave the fiddler late from Mooney’s a flea in his ear, then told off Great Uncle Malachi who’d locked himself out on a call of nature.
It quieted once more, the lights were turned off downstairs and I felt for the handle again and slowly inched open the door of the Dead Room. I felt a soft resistance for a moment, and I almost panicked when I could see nothing, before I realised that a thick, black cloth had been fixed across the doorway. I pulled it aside and put my head through.
The room was fusty with the taint of candles. Two big church candles stood at the head of the bed and a half-dozen or so smaller nine-penny ones were on my granny’s altar shelf in the corner next to the black-curtained window.
Shadows darted over the ceiling as the candles flickered in the draught from the door, and the brass work on the coffin placed across two chairs at the foot of the bed shimmered in the wavering light.
My granny lay in bed, her features illuminated by the soft glow of the two big candles. She looked very peaceful.
I tiptoed straight in, Colm behind me, and we stood by the end of the bed at a respectful distance from Granny and the coffin.
“Doesn’t she look small?” Colm whispered.
“It’s because she’s lying right down,” I said. “I’ve never seen her lie right down before. She’s always propped up with pillows for her poor crooked back.”
There was a moment of silence while Colm considered, then, “Is it a lily she’s holding?”
She had on a lacy, frilled nightdress buttoned up at the neck and sleeves, and her thin arms lying on the quilt were the same colour as the flower she held between her praying palms.
“I think so,” I replied, and there was another pause.
“Is she stiff yet do you think?” Colm whispered.
“Will you stop asking daft questions in front of her?” I hissed back.
“She must be for the flower to hold.”
I blinked at Granny’s pale face and her waxen hands, the flowers and candles and the large unfamiliar cross they’d stuck over the bed head.
“Will you touch her Mikey?” Colm said at last.
“I will,” I said, for no reason at all. I walked to the side of the bed with Colm beside me and leaned over deliberately to kiss my granny’s forehead. It felt cool, much as it always did.
“Quick Mikey, there’s someone!”
Colm and I scrambled under the bed as the door swung open, and the curtain was pulled aside.
“In here is it, Jack?” said my Uncle Tommy’s voice.
“Why not? My old mam is past minding,” my dad replied.
“Ah, I’m not sure—”
“Give me the bottle then, you squeamish man, and I’ll drink by myself.”
I watched from under the bed as two pairs of boots trod unsteadily across the floor, and I heard a dull creak as Dad and Tommy Dolan sat on the closed coffin. There was a clink of bottles and glasses.
“I’m melting with the heat,” Tommy said. “It’s them hordes of candles and the windows tight shut. It should be cold air in a Dead Room, stands to reason.”
“It’s a sight better than being squinted at sideways by pimply priests and daft old women in the room below,” my father replied.
“Secret drinkers!” Tommy said.
“The communion wine,” my father paused as he searched for the phrase. “The communion wine flows like water down a drain.”
“They’re all hippo – hippo – what in the name of God is the word, Jack?”
“Pharisees,” my father said firmly.
“That’s right,” Tommy said. “That’s right enough. There’s not one of them wouldn’t strut past a dead dog in the gutter.” Another chink of bottles and glasses. “Saving your loss, Jack.”
“Don’t upset yourself, Tommy,” my dad replied airily, “I take no offence.”
I stared up at the dusty bed springs above my head and prayed to Saint Jude that we’d not be spotted.
Colm nudged me in the ribs and pointed at a thickish rope that stretched from side to side across the underside of the bed and then at another towards the foot. I frowned back at him and shrugged.
A bottle came down on the coffin lid with a loud plonk. “I’ll tell you a thing,” Tommy said in a confidential undertone, “Listen to me a minute here.”
There was a pause.
“Do you say so?” my father asked.
“I do,” Tommy said, “Lame Duck!”
Another clink of glasses, and Tommy continued. “I had it off a man was talking to the stable lad’s brother after late Mass last Sunday at St. Dom’s. It’s a dead cert.”
“It’ll have me last quid,” my dad said firmly.
“You’re a wise man,” Tommy replied in a pleased tone.
Colm nudged me again. “I have it,” he whispered, “It’s to keep your granny down. It’s to flatten the kink in her back!”
I frowned at him. “She got stiffened sitting up?”
He nodded, and we looked up at the taught-strung ropes above our heads that kept the bent old body flat. Then we both had the same idea.
“Jesus,” Colm whispered. “You can’t do it!”
“It’s a mortal sin at the least,” I said as I fished in my pockets for my scout knife with the seven guaranteed Sheffield blades.
“Fair play now,” said Dad. “That fiddler from Mooney’s is a decent soul for all he’d drink Guinness from a policeman’s boot and shout for more.”
“Aye,” Tommy said. “And he’s not shy of the loan of a few bob for a body in need. There’s good in all men, irrespectable of – even Proddies.”
“Ah, that’s true, Tommy. That’s a beautiful thought.”
I heard a gurgle as Dad refilled his glass and his friend’s.
“Is she insured at all, Jack?”
“Is she hell,” my dad replied. “Even the radiogram was hers she left to the Little Sisters of St. Paul. She’d not insurance enough to pay for the lid of the coffin beneath you.”
“A mortal blow.”
“Thirty pound or more,” Dad said.
“As much as that?”
“Economy model at Russell’s, and the Lord knows he’s the cheapest for forty miles.”
“God bless us,” said Tommy. “Can you trust nobody these days?”
They drank deeply and vehemently.
I had the upper rope almost cut through, and Colm sawed at the lower.
“I’ll tell you what, Jack. This whiskey has a kick to it today.”
“Aye, it’s good stuff, I’m almost after feeling the effects already. And there’s a sort of a funny aftertaste—”
“What was that, Jack?”
“A pop, or a – Mother of God!”
I peeked out as Dad looked up sharp at his pal and followed his thunderstruck gaze to the bed, where, rising like an amateur stage Venus, with infinite slow twangs of bedsprings and classical droops of drapery, Granny sat up in bed.
“Holy God!” Dad dropped his whiskey bottle with a crash and slipped onto his knees at the foot of the bed. Deprived of his weight, the coffin tipped off the chairs and pitched a paralysed Uncle Tommy onto the floor under the altar.
Twin plaster statuettes of the Little Child of Prague and Our Blessed Lady fell on his head with a horrible double thud, and the altar candles dropped with them and went out, leaving the flickering church candles as the only illumination of the ghastly scene.
“Merciful God!” Dad sobbed as the corpse creaked upright. “Ma, God help us and save us, "Ma—”
His voice dropped to a husky whisper under the dark stare of the hooded eyes that transfixed him from the shadowed face.
“Look Ma!” He flung the bottle he’d reserved in an innermost pocket of his jacket into the far corner of the room, where it smashed and drenched the altar and Tommy.
The reek of whiskey wafted across the room.
“I swear I’ll never touch another drop so help me God!” Dad cried. “Ma! Forgive me!” he sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks as he quivered before the spectacle of his raised ma.
Colm had the lower rope cut now, and Granny faltered, reached the point of balance and began a slow decline back towards the horizontal. At the same time, like a poorly lubricated beam engine, her girder-stiff legs started a hesitant climb under the quilt.
Inch by inch, under my father’s horrified gaze, the corpse lay back and stuck its legs in the air.
“Jesus, Mary, and Holy Saint Joseph!” he shrieked, and he fled on his hands and knees to cower sobbing and trembling in the dark beneath the washstand.
Colm and I slipped out from under the bed, out the door and along the dark landing to my bedroom.
Canon Bogan was the first on the scene when he went up to pay his last respects to Granny before leaving.
As he later told the story, “It was out of Dante’s Inferno or the Marx Brothers, I don’t know which. The poor pious, wee widow woman jacked up under the quilt like a performing acrobat, one irreverent sot out cold in the heap of the coffin and the other cringing in the corner awaiting the Last Trump.”
A corps of clergy under my Great Uncle Joseph, a ‘16 man and sapper through two world wars, stretched Granny to rights, while Mam and the aunts put Dad’s feet in the fridge to sober him up.
Colm and I hid in the wardrobe in my room. “Was it a mortal sin, Mikey?” he whispered. “Are we going to Hell?”
I considered for a moment. “Yes,” I said, “it’s up there with graven images and worshipping thy neighbour’s ass. It’s definitely mortal.”
“But lookit, Colm,” I said. “There’s confession on Saturday, so if Dad doesn’t murder us before then, we’ll be right as rain.”
The Canon found us soon enough, and although we could understand the stripes from the hairbrush, the two-bob coins he gave us were a mystery to Colm and to me.
He could have saved his money, for my dad got paralytic drunk as soon as he’d recovered strength enough to hold a glass. He told the company it was a mercy to God that he’d not been struck dead on the spot, and that any man who could turn away a dram after the sight of his risen mam should stand up front and centre so that my father could knock him down again for the heartless un-Christian heathen he was.
Not even the Reverend Canon took him up on the offer.
The Capitol, Washington, DC.
The inauguration of the forty-seventh president of the United States was due to take place on the steps of the Capitol at exactly eleven on the morning of the third of January, two months after the removal of President Trump and six weeks or so after the midterm elections.
Snow and icy winds had forced a change of venue, and the leader of the Senate, Elias (Genghis) Caan, stood frowning at his cell phone beside the newly-refurbished Ohio Clock in the hallway just outside the Senate Chamber.
Senator Caan, massively built, elegantly gray-suited and holding his trademark Stetson, ignored the gaggle of congressmen and staffers surrounding him. Among the onlookers was Jack Gould, the sole Democrat representative in a crush of Republicans.
Jack looked up at the clock. The antique and much-revered timepiece was, at eleven feet, even taller than Genghis, at least with his hat doffed. The dial showed eleven-forty. The officiating officer, Chief Justice Manston Gould, Jack’s father, was running late.
After a long and stormy dispute with his vice president and the dwindling remnants of his Cabinet, President Trump had been judged incompetent by a two-thirds majority of Congress and dragged kicking and screaming from the Oval Office. The vice president had taken over but exhausted by the rancorous process of extracting Trump from the White House, struggling vainly to form a credible administration, beset by international and domestic crises and stumbling between congressional and grand jury investigations, President Pence had been wracked with existential doubts: he was jittery and insomniac.
On New Year’s night, however, President Pence had not only slept the sleep of the Just, he had experienced a deliciously prophetic dream. Another vivid portent the following night convinced him that with the ouster of Trump, the Fifth Trumpet of Revelation had sounded, heralding the End Time. Earthly matters were no longer of consequence, and President Pence instantly resigned, focusing on preparing himself and his family for their upcoming rapturous journey to the Promised Land.
The Constitution of the United States is a robust, if convoluted, instrument of government, and its Twenty-fifth Amendment provides not only the means for ridding the White House of a dangerous buffoon, but also the mechanism for choosing his successor.
After the painful extraction of Trump and the resignation of President Pence the mantle of authority should have fallen to the vice-president. With that position vacant, the next up for leader of the free world was the House Speaker, but, as a naturalized citizen, she was ineligible for the highest office. That left the President pro tempore of the Senate, Senator Caan. But the clock was ticking.
After their spanking in the midterms, the Republicans were to officially lose control of the House the day after Pence’s resignation, at midday on January third. On that deadline, the Democrats, now the majority party, would appoint a new Speaker, who, in the absence of a president and vice president, would be upgraded to the Oval Office.
Jack glanced again at the clock. President Pence’s resignation letter had been received by the outgoing Senate leader at eleven that morning, either accidentally or deliberately offering Senator Caan, third in the line of succession, a one-hour window of opportunity to claim the presidency and serve out Trump’s tenure.
Jack shook his head. Almost all his congressional colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, were aghast at the prospect of more presidential shenanigans, and many Republicans, exhausted and disheartened by the Trump debacle, were content to let the Democrats take a turn at the presidential plate, confidently expecting serial screw-ups on their watch. Even at this late hour, senior Republicans were clustered in front of the clock trying to persuade Senator Caan to see sense.
Genghis regarded his timid colleagues with contemptuous disdain as he settled his Stetson on his head and frowned down at his phone, tapping out a message with one finger.
A young man in a sharp suit pushed through the crowd, held up a cell-phone camera and confronted Genghis. “Paul Mason, London Independent. Sources close to Pence suggest that the timing of his resignation was accidental, and he had no intention—”
Genghis, still frowning at his phone, waved the reporter away. A Capitol policeman grabbed him by the arm and frog-marched him back to a rope-line farther along the corridor.
“That’s President Pence to you,” Jack growled as Mason was dragged past him. “Show some respect.” The young man grinned, and Jack turned, sniffed and surveyed the crowd in the hall.
He stiffened. Representative Ron Carling, the Democrat’s choice to take over as House Speaker, leaned against the door jamb at the entrance to the Senate Chamber, viewing the packed hallway with a wry smile. He nodded to Jack.
Genghis’ finger hovered over the call button as he blinked at the text he’d just composed, but before he pressed send, the phone trilled.
“Hi Genghis,” Jack heard the tinny voice of his father say. “Sorry I’m late. I’m stuck in traffic over by the Ellipse. Listen, I’m having a rethink. Maybe we should add an indemnity clause to the inauguration rites and put a couple of hundred billion dollars in escrow.” He chuckled. “Just in case things go Mar a Lago again?”
Genghis dropped his cell phone to the marble floor and stomped on it. Reporters barked into their microphones and cameras zoomed in on the debris.
Genghis was about to toss his hat to the ground by the remains of his phone, when the British reporter called from behind the rope, “Nine minutes to go, Mr. President.” Mason indicated the Ohio Clock.
Genghis stopped in mid fling. “Someone the heck fetch me a Bible,” he cried.
An aide loped to the door of the Senate Chamber and pushed past Carling.
“And a Supreme Court Justice,” Genghis called after him. “Or any kind of a goddamned justice.” He glowered at the clock case behind him in which, rumor had it, legislators had stashed their booze during Prohibition. “And a goddamn drink,” he added under his breath.
The Senate Bible was unaccountably missing, and a replacement, together with a justice of the peace borrowed from an obscure legal section of the House located in a dank basement office, arrived in the corridor, breathless, just as the Ohio Clock chimed the last of twelve chimes.
Jack pushed through the crowd and held his hand out to Ron Carling. “Congratulations, Mr. Speaker.” He grinned. “I mean, Mr. President.”
President Carling shook Jack’s hand. “And to you, Mr Speaker.” He sniffed and looked over his long nose at the crowd of legislators milling in the corridor. “I’m not officially in the Oval till I take the Oath.” He checked his watch, and then the Ohio Clock. “That piece of junk is two minutes’ fast. Genghis could’ve done it.” He chuckled. “And he’d have been deep fried in his own fat. Woulda made the Clinton pecker thing look like a picnic on the Potomac.”
President Carling gave Jack a narrow-eyed look. “God knows, this is not an honor I’ve hankered after, but as it is, I’m gonna need a vice president.”
Jack beamed. “I serve at your pleasure, Mr President.”
“I guess that’s what Trump’s appointees assured him before they shafted him with the grand jury.”
President Carling looked over Jack’s shoulder. “Here’s your father. I don’t see a Bible, but unlike Genghis, I came prepared.” He held up a leather bag. “I borrowed the Senate Bible from under the vice president’s desk.”
Chief Justice Gould sauntered along the corridor and held out his hand to Genghis. After a slight hesitation recorded by the pool TV camera, Genghis shook it.
“No hard feelings, I hope,” Chief Justice Gould said, smiling. “It’s a question of muffin, Genghis. In the parlous state of the country right now, there’s only so much muffin we can get down our throats without we choke.”