The Case of the Mutton-Bone
by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle
(So many of us were disappointed to discover that the weapon in The Mystery of the Yellow Room wasn’t a real mutton-bone that I felt the matter ought to be rectified. Fortunately I was able to track down this tale from our old friend Sir Arthur Donan Coyle…)
It was an early spring morning as I made my way to Baker Street in response to an urgent telegram from my old friend, Sherlock Holmes. The last wisps of fog were burning off in the pale sunshine and I felt a renewed strength of vigour as I inhaled the clean air that returns to the great city each year when winter recedes. My medical practice was also receding, however, as the annual round of winter coughs and wheezes gave way to simple summer sneezes. I was ready for an adventure and hoped that Holmes was about to provide one. Little did I know that I was soon to be plunged into a horror blacker than the darkest nightmare.
….“Ah, Watson, you’re here at last!” Holmes cried, as I was ushered into his room by the small maidservant employed by the landlady of the house, Mrs Hudson. This little scrap of humanity answered to the name of Agnes. Mrs Hudson had taken her from the orphanage where she had spent her first years. Her story was the age-old one – her mother, little more than a child herself, tempted into error by a worldly man and then abandoned when he proved unwilling to pay the price of his pleasure. Shunned by family and friends, the woman’s grasp on life became ever more tenuous until she gave her last remaining strength to this, her daughter, and died without revealing the name of the child’s only living relation, the cruel and unfeeling father. God forgive her, and all other simple, loving women who fall from grace under the blandishments of a careless seducer.
….“You have a case, Holmes?” I inquired.
….“On our very doorstep, Watson! Come! Inspector Gregory is below!”
….I followed in some astonishment as Holmes led the way down the back stairs of the house to the private quarters of Mrs Hudson. Passing swiftly through the kitchen, we proceeded through the rear door into the small backyard. There, Gregory awaited us with a pair of rather bored looking constables. As Gregory moved to one side, I suddenly saw, at the entrance to the coal bunker, a man lying sprawled on the ground, clearly dead!
….“My word, Holmes!” I cried. “What can this mean? Do you know this man?”
….“There is a certain familiarity about his features, but I do not think I have met him. Have you found anything to tell us his name, Gregory?”
….“Yes, Mr Holmes, there is a letter in his pocket, an old one from the looks of it, addressed to Mr Alfred Smith, in Fremantle in Western Australia. The contents are of little interest – here, see for yourself.”
….Holmes took the worn and yellowed leaf from his hand and passed it to me, requesting I read it aloud.
….“Dearest Alfie,” the letter began. “I have had no reply from you to my last letter, so am writing one last time in the hope that you will have a change of heart and not be so cold to the one you were once pleased to call your little coo-pigeon. If you were to send me the price of the crossing, I could join you and I know we would be happy. A little family to call your own, Alfie. Is not that what you told me you desired, when you took from me the most precious gift a woman has to offer – her innocence? Please, for the love we have shared and the sake of your soul, do this thing that I ask of you.” It was signed, “Your loving friend, and more than friend, Ada.”
….I wiped a surreptitious tear from my eye. “Why, the fellow is obviously a complete reprobate! One can’t but feel that his sordid end is a just reward!”….
Holmes was thoughtful over lunch – soup followed by pork chops. I was a little disappointed that the soup, though delicious, was vegetable: in the years when Holmes and I roomed together here, Mrs Hudson had always given us a hearty mutton broth on Thursdays. As we drank our coffee, Holmes lighted his pipe and lay back in his old wing-chair, eyes closed and fingertips pressed together. I knew better than to disturb him so caught up on the news in The Daily Telegraph – Moriarty’s Madam had won the 3.30 at Epsom, giving my bank balance a much-needed boost.
….Suddenly, “Come, Watson!” Holmes cried, striding purposefully from the room. I followed after him, rather wishing I had brought my trusty service revolver along. Down to the kitchen we went, and entered to find Mrs Hudson and young Agnes just sitting down to their own lunch. I sniffed – mutton broth? I was somewhat annoyed, but reminded myself we had serious business on hand.
….Holmes, taking in the scene in an instant, took two long strides to the table, dashed from her hand the spoon Agnes was raising to her lips, lifted her soup-plate and emptied it into the kitchen sink! Poor Agnes began to sob and I rushed over in case she should swoon. But then I noticed that Mrs Hudson had paled to a dull grayish colour and her whole body was trembling like one of her own blancmanges.
….“Oh, Mrs Hudson, no,” Holmes said, shaking his head sorrowfully. “The first was excusable but this latter is unworthy of you. Send the girl to her room so we may talk freely.”
….Baffled, I waited till the girl had left the room and then demanded to know what Holmes had meant by it.
….“Shall I tell the story, Mrs Hudson? You must set me right if I err in any particular.” He led the old lady kindly to her accustomed chair and waited until she was settled. “A little brandy for Mrs Hudson, I think, Watson, and perhaps for us too. I fear the tale I have to tell may shock you.” I complied and finally, the three of us settled, Holmes began…
….“When I examined the dead man’s wound, I noticed small flecks of raw meat had attached themselves to his hair. A closer examination by dint of my keen olfactory sense allowed me to determine the type of meat: mutton. The wound itself could only have been caused by a blow from a heavy but blunt instrument – you know I have written a short monograph on the subject of head injuries caused by various implements and the signs were clear. I had already begun to suspect that the murderer – or perhaps I should say killer, since I believe her actions were fully justified – was none other than our own dear Mrs Hudson. And when today – Thursday, you note – we were served with vegetable soup rather than the usual mutton broth, my suspicions became a certainty.”
….I gasped and took a quick drink of brandy to steady my nerves. “But Holmes, how? And in God’s name, man, why?” Mrs Hudson had buried her head in her hands and was sobbing piteously. Holmes gently patted her knee. “Hush, Mrs Hudson, leave it to me and all will yet be well,” he said kindly.
….Turning to me, he continued. “You see, Watson, some years ago as we shared a Christmas sherry, Mrs Hudson told me that she was not a widow as we had always believed. In fact, she never married. This – reprobate, I think you called him, and a fine word it is to describe him – once told her he loved her, and with the innocence of youth Mrs Hudson – Ada – gave him all a woman has to give: her love and her trust. Having ruined her, this heartless brute then deserted her and went off to Australia. Poor Ada gave birth to their child, but it was a sickly little thing, and soon left this world for a better one.
….“Now I shall speculate as to what happened late last night. Smith had returned to England, and heard from some mutual acquaintance that Ada had got on in the world, earning back her respectability among people who knew nothing of her tragic story. To a man like him, her little property and the small wealth she has accumulated were enough of a temptation. He turned up here and demanded that Mrs Hudson give him her little all or he would reveal her past to the world, thrusting her back into shame. She refused, and he took violent hold of her, threatening to beat the money out of her if necessary. In the extreme fear and turmoil of emotions he had aroused in her, Mrs Hudson for one instant lost herself and, snatching up the nearest object – the mutton-bone for today’s broth – struck him as hard as she could on the temple. A lucky blow for her, though not for him. It killed him instantly with less pain than he deserved. And so Mrs Hudson dragged his corpse out to the yard, hoping that no-one would discover her connection to him.”
….“That’s just how it was, Mr Holmes,” Mrs Hudson said through her tears. “It’s as if you had been there and seen the whole thing! Do what you must, sir – the law can never punish me more harshly than my own conscience.”
….“Pshaw, Mrs Hudson! We shall find some way to send Inspector Gregory off on a wild goose chase, never fear. The man was a scoundrel and a blackmailer – neither the law nor your conscience should waste another moment on him. He will now face judgement from a higher power than we. But you must promise me to look after the child, Agnes. Her poor mother did not have your strength.”
….“And my poor daughter did not have hers. It shall be as you say, sir – she will be well looked after while I live and provided for on my death. God bless you, Mr Holmes, sir!”
….“But, Holmes,” I asked rather plaintively, once we were again alone in his study. “Why did you throw out young Agnes’ broth?”
….“My dear fellow, it’s elementary! Mrs Hudson had to get rid of the mutton-bone; it was the only evidence against her. Making broth with it was clever enough. But I cannot feel it was right to allow the young girl to eat it.”
….I shuddered, and felt thankful after all that we had been served the vegetable soup. “As always, Holmes, you have tempered justice with mercy.” As I raised my brandy to him in salute, I contemplated my good fortune at being able to call this great man my friend.