from the lost files of Sir Arthur Donan Coyle
My notes show that it was a raw, foggy February morning in 1893 as I hurried to my old friend Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street in response to his urgent summons. The sun had given up the attempt to penetrate the sooty vapours that were choking the city, leaving it in a deep gloom despite the early hour, and the street lamps still burned. I was glad to reach my destination.
“Good morning, Holmes,” I said, as I made my way quickly to the welcoming fire in his room.
Holmes started, disturbed from a deep reverie. “Ah, Watson,” he said, “what do you make of this?”
I took the item from him and laughed. “Well, Holmes, a dozen red roses is not an unusual thing to see on February 14th, but I admit I am astounded that you should indulge in such a romantic gesture! May I enquire who is to be the lucky recipient?”
Holmes shook his head. “That, Watson, is the question! No, no, happily I am immune to the epidemic of love which plagues London at this time of year. These were brought to me by our old friend Lestrade. They were found earlier this morning in Piccadilly Circus, lying beside the body of a dead man. I have high hopes that Lestrade is finally developing some skill in detection.”
I looked at him enquiringly, and he continued:
“The obvious inference is that the roses belonged to either the victim or the murderer, but for once Lestrade has looked beyond the obvious! The signature on the card is “Richard” and a check of the victim’s pockets showed that his name was George Marshall, discounting him as the purchaser of the flowers. However, he was killed by an arrow and, with an astuteness I would not have expected, Lestrade realised that the murderer would therefore have been some distance from his victim, hence it would be improbable for him to have dropped the roses beside the body.”
“But, then, who…”
“Exactly, Watson. Who, indeed? If not the giver of the roses, then surely the recipient must have been present when the crime was committed. Come, Watson! An excellent day for a hunt! Cherchez la femme, my dear fellow, cherchez la femme!”
Stopping only to throw on his greatcoat and muffler, Holmes rushed from the house and hailed a passing hansom cab. We bundled in and the cabbie asked the question I too wished to have answered: “Where to, sir?”
“Mademoiselle Millie’s in Covent Garden,” Holmes replied, adding quietly to me “the florist whose name is on the card.”
The flower shop was an oasis of colour and scent in the dreary city and Mademoiselle Millie herself was the brightest bloom of all, her copper hair and sparkling green eyes giving a promise of spring after the long winter. She was able to tell us immediately who had bought the roses.
“Yes, sir, that would be Mr Richard Hillson, the young lawyer from the firm across the street. He’s a regular, sir – always roses, and always the same message ‘To my darling Jessica, whom I hope one day to call my wife. All my love, Richard.’ So romantic, sir!”
There was something about the way she blushed when she said romantic that made my heart beat a little faster. I was sorry when Holmes rushed me out of the shop, but I made a mental vow to purchase flowers for my surgery more often in future. The lawyer’s office was only a few steps away. We entered a bright and pleasant room and were greeted immediately by a polite, well-dressed young clerk. It was clear this business was flourishing. On enquiring after Mr Hillson, the clerk asked us to wait for a moment while he checked if the lawyer was free.
“Mr Hillson will see you now, gentlemen,” he said, and leading us along a panelled corridor, showed us in to a well-appointed office. As Mr Hillson rose to shake hands, two things were immediately apparent: firstly, that the young lawyer was an exceptionally handsome fellow and, secondly, that he was in a condition of some distress. Despite his best endeavours, he was unable to disguise the tremor in his hands nor the shocked expression in his eyes.
“I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my colleague, Dr Watson,” my companion said. “We have come to discuss the matter of the twelve red roses you bought this morning.”
He got no further. Hillson gave a great groan and buried his face in his hands. “I did it, Mr Holmes,” he said. “I killed him!”
Holmes frowned slightly and there was a short silence. Then he said: “Tell me the whole tale, young man. Who was this man to you? Why did you kill him? And how?”
The lawyer took a deep breath and stammered out his story as best he could. In short, George Marshall was the half-brother of Jessica, the woman Hillson had adored since they first met four years ago. On the death of their father, George had become Jessica’s legal guardian, and had refused outright to agree to allow the young couple to wed so that he could retain control of her inheritance. Hillson had waited patiently since under the terms of her father’s will, George’s guardianship would end on Jessica’s twenty-fifth birthday, still three years in the future. But, said Hillson, during a chance meeting in Piccadilly Circus, his patience had finally broken and in a moment of insanity, he had killed George.
“How?” asked Holmes again.
The young man looked up at Holmes’ stern face and for the first time seemed to hesitate. “Why… why… I stabbed him, Mr Holmes. In the chest.”
“With what?” Holmes’ demeanour remained unrelenting.
“With… with a pocket knife.”
Suddenly Holmes threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Come, come, Mr Hillson! It is as well you have taken to the legal profession and not to the stage. Though I suspect your career will be cut short if you will insist on confessing to crimes you did not commit! Now, tell me the truth – what happened this morning?”
“I cannot tell you more than I have,” said the young man with an air of quiet desperation. “I killed him and I will say so in court!”
“Then if you will not tell me, I must seek the truth elsewhere. Come, Watson! We must pay a visit to Miss Jessica Marshall.”
“There is no need, Mr Holmes – I am here.” A young woman had slipped quietly into the room unnoticed as we talked. Her lovely face showed signs of recent tears, but as she walked towards Holmes, her look and bearing were quietly resolute. “Richard is telling an untruth, but you must forgive him for he does it for my sake. I know you will understand the foolish things men sometimes do to protect those they… love.” She blushed prettily as she spoke the word, and glanced up at Holmes with a look of honest trust.
“Well, well, Miss Marshall. He shall be forgiven if, between you, you now manage to give a true account of this morning’s affair,” Holmes said kindly, leading the young woman to a chair by the small fireplace. Hillson sat next to her and clasped her little gloved hand in his. “You must say nothing, my dear,” he said. “You must trust entirely to me to know what is best in this matter.”
Miss Marshall smiled gently and patted his hand. “Oh, Richard. If you trusted me more, you would not have felt the need to lie. I didn’t kill George, and I know you didn’t either, so there is nothing to fear.” Then turning to Holmes, she began her statement.
Hillson had asked her to meet him at Piccadilly Circus early that morning – their usual rendezvous each Valentine’s Day, when the young lover would give her roses and they would remake the vows they had first given each other so long ago. But this year, George had followed her, and just as she arrived at the centre of the Circus where workmen were installing a new fountain, he had overtaken her, and insisted that she come home with him immediately. When she refused, he grasped her arm so tightly that she cried out in pain and one of the workmen approached to enquire if she needed assistance. At that, George released his grip and Miss Marshall took the opportunity to run into an alleyway and hide. Some minutes later, she crept back to see if Hillson was at the appointed place, and was horrified to see George lying on the ground with blood seeping from beneath his cloaked body.
Hillson took over the story at that point. Arriving just at that moment, he first saw George lying dead in the street, then, dropping the roses in his shock, he glanced up and saw Miss Marshall in the entrance to the alley. Making an entirely erroneous and, in less fraught circumstances, unforgivable assumption, he hissed at her to run away quickly and meet him later at his office and, shocked too, she complied. Hillson then saw that the workmen had begun to notice that something was amiss, so he fled too, and knew no more.
“You have both been foolish beyond words,” said Holmes, but then his sternness dissipated as he chuckled. “However, if there is one day in the year when lovers must be forgiven their folly, this is surely it. I promise you are safe from the law, and may I be the first to congratulate you? There is no longer a bar to your marriage, and that will cure your absurd romanticism as nothing else will!” We left them, seated with their hands clasped and heads close together, still stunned but with new joy budding in their hearts.
“But, Holmes,” I said rather peevishly, as we hailed a cab outside, “who killed George Marshall? And why?”
Telling the driver to take us to Piccadilly Circus, Holmes laughed. “I shall not tell you – I shall show you!” he replied.
The new fountain was to be a fine addition to the Circus. Atop the structure would stand wingèd Eros, God of Love, pointing his bow down Shaftesbury Avenue in honour of the old Earl.
When we arrived, we saw that the workmen had raised the statue onto the base and were in the process of making it secure. Holmes approached them and asked to speak to the man who had come to Miss Marshall’s assistance that morning. “That was me, sir,” said a middle-aged man with full whiskers which could not quite hide the anxiety on his face.
“So, my good man,” said Holmes, “tell me how Eros’ arrow found its way into the chest of the unfortunate George Marshall.”
The man gasped. “But how could you possibly know that, sir? It was an accident pure and simple. As our young apprentice was fixing it onto the statue, it just… slipped from his hand and flew through the air. Such a tragedy, and the boy so young. We all agreed to remove the arrow from the poor gentleman’s chest and say nothing – poor people like us don’t find much pity once the law becomes involved. Oh, sir, can’t you save him? We all know your reputation as a man who is kind to those who meant no harm.”
“Well, well, I daresay I’ll be able to come up with a story that will satisfy the police. But tell the lad to be more careful in future!”
“I will, sir, and thank’ee! Thank’ee!”
“So, Watson,” Holmes said as we began our walk back to Baker Street, “it may not be quite as tradition suggests, but once again Eros’ arrow has been the means of bringing together two young lovers. The Gods work in mysterious ways…” And he set off at a brisk pace, chuckling.