Hallowe’en Frippery! The Case of the Haunted Widow

from the lost files of Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

“Watson, my dear fellow, I am at your disposal whenever you are ready to discuss the problem.”

I started, shaken out of the reverie into which I had fallen. “Good Lord, Holmes! It is true that I have been considering whether to consult you over something, but how did you know?”

Holmes smiled kindly. “You have been gazing into the fire all morning, only now and again glancing across at me, sometimes shaking your head, and sometimes nodding. It is clear that something troubles you, and that you are making up your mind as to whether to lay the matter before me. I assume it is connected to your visit to the Spiritualist meeting yesterday evening.”

“By Heavens, Holmes, this is sorcery! How could you possibly know about that?”

Holmes laughed. “You are too honest and open a fellow to ever keep a secret, Watson! Yesterday afternoon, you looked at the advertisement column in the evening newspaper at least three times, then made such a great to-do about going out to meet a friend that it was clear you were hiding something. I glanced at the section you had been perusing, and since I assumed you were interested in neither Dr Quick’s Liver Pills, nor Madame Fifi’s Corsetry Emporium, it was easy to deduce that you had gone to the meeting at the Marylebone Spiritualist Association. You have been unusually quiet ever since you returned, a clear sign that you are troubled in mind.”

“I am, Holmes, very troubled, but I know your scepticism regarding the subject of spiritualism, and am unsure you will be able to help. However, I admit it would be a great relief simply to discuss the matter with you, if you are willing.”

Holmes indicated that I should continue, so I began my story.

“Yesterday, as you may recall, was the second anniversary of the death of my beloved wife, Mary.” Holmes reached across and patted my knee gently. I continued: “It seemed, therefore, a sign, when I saw that the Marylebone Spiritualist Association had a meeting planned, with the design of helping the bereaved to communicate with those they had lost. I determined to attend.” I glanced at Holmes, half-expecting a scornful response, but he merely smiled sympathetically and gestured for me to go on.

“To keep the matter short, I shall say at once that I was not fortunate enough to contact my dear Mary.” I paused to blow my nose. “Next to me, there sat a woman, dressed all in black, and visibly shaking. The meeting wore on, with various audience members receiving messages via the medium from those who have passed before us to a better life. Then it seemed as if the medium slumped into an even deeper trance, and from her came a gruff voice, unmistakeably the voice of a man!

““Ruby!” the voice said. “Ruby! You have betrayed me, Ruby, and you shall pay with your life! Expect me this time tomorrow…”

“The woman next to me sprang to her feet with a terrible shriek, and fell to the floor in a dead faint. I had her carried to a quiet room and laid on a sofa, and after a brief time, I managed to revive her. But while I was examining her, I discovered that her pulse was faint and irregular, and her lips had the bluish tinge that comes with disease. I fear her heart is very weak, Holmes, and if she were to sustain another such shock, it may kill her.

“When she came round, she told me that the voice was that of her deceased first husband, Albert Simpson, who had been a well-respected lawyer. She has recently married again, to a Mr Josiah Engle, and came to the meeting to seek Albert’s approval. His accusation of betrayal has distressed her profoundly, and she is in terror of his promise that he will come to her later today. It seems he was a kindly husband to her in life, so his apparent cruelty now has been doubly upsetting.”

“A strange story indeed,” said my friend, as he reached for his pipe. We sat in silence for some time, he with the expression that told me he was thinking deeply, and I, comforted already by having shared my worry with him, and hopeful that somehow his great intellect would suggest a way to save this poor woman.

Finally Holmes knocked out his pipe and asked if I had Mrs Engle’s address. On my replying that I had, he leapt to his feet with that eager energy that indicates he is on the scent. “Come then, Watson, we have only a few hours – we must make haste!”

It was the last day of October, and the winter fog was already darkening the sky, while the damp air bit coldly. We walked the few streets to Mrs Engle’s home in one of the quiet little squares off the Marylebone Road. She seemed relieved to see me, though her state of nervous excitement was pitiable indeed. I gave her a tincture to calm her a little, and introduced my friend. Holmes’ reassuring manner quickly put her at her ease, and he then said gently “I have just two questions for you, madam, and then we shall leave you for a few hours, but I promise we shall both be here well before the appointed hour this evening You need have no fear – all will be well. Now, firstly, what was your maiden name?”

Mrs Engle looked surprised, but answered readily, “Gardner, sir. Ruby Ethel Gardner.”

“And what is Mr Engle’s profession?”

“Why,” she said, with a little hesitation, “why, he has no profession just at present. He… he… is looking out for a suitable opening.”

“Thank you. Come, Watson, we have no time to waste!”

And off we went again into the deepening gloom of the afternoon. Holmes hailed a cab and shouted to the driver “The Strand, man, as quickly as you can. There’s a sovereign in it if you get us there by four of the clock!”

“Where are we going, Holmes?” I asked.

“To Somerset House,” he replied, and lying back against the cushions with his eyes closed, would say no more.

We got there ten minutes before the hour struck, and Holmes told me to stay in the cab while he entered the imposing building. I knew that Somerset House was where the records of all the births, marriages and deaths in England were stored, but I was at a loss to understand my friend’s reason for coming here. No more than twenty minutes passed before he emerged, jumping into the cab and shouting “Back to Marylebone, my good man!”

As he settled back against the cushions, he said, “Better than I hoped, Watson! It is a strange thing, my dear fellow, that so many people enter into marriage without taking the simplest precautions.” And not another word would he say on the matter until we reached our destination.

Mrs Engle was even more anxious than she had been earlier in the afternoon, and I feared she would become seriously ill if we could not find a way to relieve her fears quickly. I said as much to Holmes, and hinted that I hoped he would not allow his love for the dramatic flourish to delay any reassurance he could give. He assented gravely, and asked Mrs Engle when she expected her husband to return home. As he spoke, there was a loud knock on the door and Mrs Engle said “He is here!”

“Halloa, Ruby, my dear!” A florid-faced little man, dressed in a loud checked suit, bustled busily into the room. “Who are your friends?”

“I,” said Holmes, coldly, “am Sherlock Holmes, and you, sir, are a cad!”

Engle paled visibly, and blustered, “How dare you, sir! What do you mean by this outrage?”

“I mean by it, sir, that you are the same Josiah Engle who married Elizabeth Cooper in 1885… and that you are still her husband, and father to her seven children! And now, having married this poor woman bigamously, you have set out to frighten her into an early grave, leaving all her late husband’s wealth in your unscrupulous hands!”

I feared the effect of this astounding statement on poor Mrs Engle – or, as it would appear, once again Mrs Simpson – but when I turned to attend to her, I was astonished to see a look of dawning hope on her face.

“Oh, Mr Holmes, do you mean… do you really mean that I am not, that I have never been married to this dreadful little man? Oh, how can I ever thank you? You have freed me from the prospect of a life of misery and regret!” And she put her face in her hands and wept tears of joy.

Later, once Holmes had thrown Engle unceremoniously out of the house, commanding him never to return on peril of arrest on a charge of bigamy and perhaps even attempted murder, Mrs Simpson and I begged him to tell us how he had deduced Engle’s villainous plan.

“It was elementary,” he said. “Working on the premise that the spirit world rarely interferes with our own, it was immediately obvious that the medium was a fraud, delivering a false message. The assumption therefore was that she was in the pay of someone who wanted to frighten Mrs Simpson. Why would anyone wish to do such a thing? Mrs Simpson’s address told me that she was a woman of some wealth, and Dr Watson had informed me that a severe shock may be enough to kill her. The usual question is often the right one – who would benefit? In this case, her new husband. I admit I was fortunate in my visit to Somerset House, where I went to check the terms of Mr Simpson’s will, to discover that Engle’s marriage to Mrs Simpson was in fact bigamous. That simplified matters greatly, since he has no legal claim whatsoever over the lady or her property. If only people would carry out these simple checks prior to marrying, if marry they must.”

We left a grateful and relieved Mrs Simpson, happily writing to ask her spinster sister to come and share her home, so that she would never again be driven by loneliness into a rash act.

I was happy, of course, at the outcome for Mrs Simpson, and grateful to my friend for all he had done to save her. However, I couldn’t shake my sorrow that the medium had proven to be a fraud. Without a true intermediary, I feared I would have to accept that I would never be able to contact my dear Mary. It was with a heavy heart that I retired for the night, and I lay awake for some time remembering my lost happiness. Eventually, kind sleep began to call to me and I fell into that half-dozing state when we are most receptive to those influences that are too fragile to withstand the full glare and hubbub of the waking world. As the clock struck midnight, as if from afar I heard my Mary’s sweet voice…

“Don’t give up, dear John. The veil that parts us is thick indeed, but may yet be torn asunder by the faith and courage of a true and loving heart.”

I came full awake and found my face wet with tears. Were they my own, or a last gift of love from my darling? And then, like a fading echo, I seemed again to hear her: “Keep faith, my dear one. Keep faith.”

“Always,” I whispered huskily into the night. “Always.”

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN! 🎃

Friday Frippery! The Case of the Twelve Red Roses

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.

* * * * *

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

Friday Frippery: Something to chew on…

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!”

Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

….“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.

HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😀

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 3

Chapter 3

 

(If you missed Part 1 and want to catch up, click here. And for Part 2, click here.)

 

The Dancing Men (1984)

Lady McFan looked a little surprised at Houses’ request for chocolate cake but, with true Highland hospitality, she bustled off to the kitchen to speak to the cook.

“Chocolate cake, Houses?” I was baffled. “Are you peckish? Personally, after that meal of cullen skink, venison served with clapshot, and cranachan to finish, I can’t imagine being hungry again for a week!”

Houses merely smiled wolfishly and shook his head.

“You have all the same information as I, Witless. Surely you can see what’s happening here?”

“Well, Houses, applying your own famous precept that having eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, I do have a theory,” I said, rather proudly. “I suspect the culprits are the fairies at the bottom of the garden!”

cottingley fairies(The Cottingley Fairies)

Houses gazed at me for a long moment with what I could almost have mistaken for pity, and squeezed my shoulder gently.

“Well, you shall know all in time, my dear fellow. Meantime why not take a seat and write a description of the brilliance of my methods?”

I muttered indistinctly, fighting a sudden urge to use some improper language. Thank heavens my fine old English breeding stood me in good stead and enabled me to resist! I removed some books and a cat from an armchair and sat down. Not sharing my delicacy, the cat swore profusely.

Lady McFan returned bearing a huge chocolate cake on a silver salver. “Will this do, Mr Houses?” she inquired.

“Admirably, madam!”

Houses suddenly began to behave as if in the grip of madness. Had I not known he’d been staying clear of the opium dens for some weeks, I might even have suspected an onslaught of the midnight munchies. He took a slice of cake and began to chomp at it, while pacing furiously to and fro in front of the bookshelves. Back and forth he went, taking slice after slice and devouring them as if he were a fashion-plate model with bulimia! Crumbs sprayed disgustingly from his mouth and from the crumbling cake in his hands, leaving a trail over the room’s ancient tartan carpet. I was heartily ashamed of my friend and remonstrated severely, but he brushed me off with an incomprehensible and messy mumble. Lady McFan meantime contemplated the swift disappearance of her chocolate cake with a dismay that bordered on hysteria.

last slice

Finally, when the cake was almost gone, Houses ceased his restless pacing.

“Now, Effie, there is no more we can do this evening, so I suggest we lock this room and retire to our chambers for the night.”

“Don’t you want me to sit up with my trusty service revolver?” I asked, somewhat disappointedly.

“Would you really be willing to shoot a fairy?” responded Houses, with unanswerable logic and what I could almost have mistaken for a touch of sarcasm. We did as he said, checking that all three doors were securely fastened, and retired to bed.

We passed a quiet night, except for a brief period when the ghost of the Headless Lady began shrieking for her lost lover in the hallway. However, Tommy and Tuppence, the ferocious house cats, swiftly rounded her up and chased her into a corner, where they took turns in rolling her severed head around the floor until she promised to remain silent for the rest of the night.

The next morning, the three of us met in the hallway. Lady McFan unlocked the door of the drawing room and we entered. Her face paling, the Lady Laird gave a little scream and pointed to the side table. A brand new set of The Complete Works of Mark Twain lay there – surely the perpetrator of this madness had a streak of inhuman cruelty!

twain

Houses however paid no attention – he was busily peering at the carpet in front of the bookshelves. With a sudden cry, he leapt forward and pulled at a section of the shelving! It swung open, revealing a set of winding stairs leading up the floor above. He sprang up the steps, with Lady McFan and myself in swift pursuit. At the top of the stairs, there was a door. Houses flung it open and we entered the room. There was Wullie the Piper, with a pile of new books in his hand, about to head down the stairs to carry on with his nefarious scheme!

Houses and I wrestled with the bounder and felled him like a tree trunk being prepared for the caber-tossing competition.

Highland_Games_Caber_Toss

“You see, Effie,” Houses explained, once we had Wullie securely tied up and had set the cats to guard him, “I knew there must be another entrance to the room, so I spread some crumbs on the floor. As Wullie entered the room, the secret door in the bookshelves pushed the crumbs away, showing me where the door must be. As the illegitimate son of your father, Wullie hoped that he could drive you into an asylum or worse, and then come forward to claim the title and castle as his inheritance.”

Lady McFan looked shocked, so Houses suggested we return to the drawing room for a nice cup of tea. As we passed Wullie on the way to the stairs, Lady McFan accidentally kicked him hard on the shins, twice.

We arrived in the drawing room to find it occupied by a tall woman, whose general appearance of ethereal beauty was only a little marred by the chocolate cake crumbs on her chin. Lady McFan hastily introduced her to us as her dear cousin, Lady Fancyboots.

Lady Fancyboots walked over and embraced her cousin, saying “Happy Birthday, dear Effie! Had you forgotten?”

She handed over a parcel, which Lady McFan hastened to open. The Complete Works of Tolstoy! Poor Lady McFan was so overcome with gratitude she swooned quite away…

swooning

The End!

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 2

Chapter 2

 

(If you missed part 1 and want to catch up click here.)

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

“Welcome to my ancestral home, Mr Houses, and you, Dr Witless! I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you are finally here. Things have got worse since I wrote you – I’m at my wit’s end!”

We didn’t mention that we were equally relieved to discover that the Lady Laird spoke perfect English, but with a pleasant lilt that revealed her Highland origins. Ah, the benefits of a fine English education – even the most savage of peoples can be given a veneer of civilisation!

Having had supper, we were now settled in the grand drawing room of the castle, a large room with doors on three sides. Despite the generous size of the room, it was crowded – books covered every shelf and lay in tottering piles on every surface, and in heaps around the floor. It looked as if some effort had been made at an earlier period to organise them, but it was clear that the attempt had now been abandoned. Big books, little books, old books, new books, even some strange device that, on pressing a button, sprang to life and showed the page of a book on a glass slide! Some mysterious kind of telescopic instrument, I surmised.

Piles-of-books

Houses said “I deduce you are an avid reader, Lady McFan.”

“Please call me Effie, Mr Houses. Yes, indeed, I always have been since a young child.”

“Good Lord, Houses!” I cried in astonishment. “How in heaven’s name did you deduce that?”

Houses preened a little. “Oh, Witless, surely by now you know my methods. Effie here has the refined, glowing complexion and shining, intelligent eyes that only the true reader ever possesses. That, plus the piles of books.”

“How absurdly simple!” I cried, and for some reason a grimace crossed my friend’s face.

“Quite.” He turned to our client. “Now, Effie, please explain why you have asked us to come here. Very simply, if you don’t mind, since Dr Witless will be listening.”

“It’s the books, Mr Houses! The books!” And she proceeded to tell us her story. For many years, Lady McFan had been adding gradually to the collection of books she had inherited from her ancestors. She would acquire half a dozen or so, read them and add them to her shelves. But suddenly, several months ago, she noticed that the little pile of unread books seemed to be growing larger. And larger. And larger. It soon became impossible for her to read them quickly enough to shelve them before another pile would appear. Every night, she would count the books and every morning she would discover there were three or four more than the night before.

piles of books

“I don’t order them, Mr Houses, I’m sure I don’t! They just… appear! Oh, please help me! Every cupboard is full of books; I’ve had to put the horses up in a hotel so I could turn the stables into extra library space; the ghost of the Headless Lady has had to move out of the attic to make room for books, and is now wandering the Castle moaning and groaning day and night, and being downright depressing! I’ve even taken to locking all three doors to this room overnight, but still they arrive, always placed just here, on this side table. Am I mad, Mr Houses? Or can you find an explanation and put a stop to this horror?”

She sent a glance of such piteous pleading from her fine blue eyes that even the hardened heart of Houses must surely have been touched. If I weren’t a happily married man, I may well have proposed on the spot.

Houses sat back, closed his eyes and steepled his fingers. Lady McFan and I sat in breathless silence, waiting for that great brain to work its magic. Houses snored gently. I tactfully kicked his ankle. His gimlet eyes opened and pierced me like… well, like a gimlet.

Holmes

“Is there anyone else in the house overnight, Effie?” he inquired incisively.

“Only the servants, but they’ve all been with my family for generations and are members of the Clan. I trust them with my life. And Lady Fancyboots, my cousin and oldest friend, has been staying here for some months, having spent all her little inheritance on fine chocolate, and being now quite destitute, were it not for my exceeding generosity.”

“Your cousin, you say?”

“Yes, we’re the two last remaining members of the family, so have always been close, even though I inherited fabulous wealth and she only got £100 and Grannie McFan’s recipe for black bun. Some people may have been resentful, but not Lady Fancyboots! She has remained a staunch friend.”

“That portrait,” Houses indicated a full-length picture that hung above the mantel, of a fine-looking old gentleman in what I was beginning to realise must be the traditional dress for the savage natives of these wild regions.

Sean-Connery

“He is your father?”

Lady McFan assented.

“He bears a striking resemblance to Wullie the Piper, wouldn’t you agree, Witless?” remarked Houses.

Lady McFan blushed gently.

“All the clan are related to one another, Mr House. Furthermore, my father was…,” she cleared her throat delicately, “fond of Wullie’s mother, a maidservant here for many years before her death.”

A gleam had come into Houses’ eyes during this conversation, and he now rubbed his hands, chuckling. “Well, I have high hopes that we may be able to get to the root of your little trouble,” he said. “And now, could I trouble you for some chocolate cake?”

* * * * * * *

To be continued… (only one more, I promise!)

Meantime…

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

Chapter 1

.

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

Dense, black, billowing fog was swirling around Baker Street when I arrived in response to an urgent request from my old friend, Sherlock Houses. The great detective had clearly had considerably more than his customary three pipes. I hastily opened a window and inquired as to the cause of my summons.

“Elementary, my dear Witless. The game’s afoot! Kindly reach down the Bradshaw and look up the time of the next train to Kirkintilloch.”

“I’m afraid there is no train to Kirkintilloch. However, there’s a canal boat service. If we leave now, we should get there by next Thursday or thereabouts.”

“Then make haste, Witless! There’s not a moment to be lost!”

Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)
Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)

Houses refused to say another word about the reason for our journey, declaring we should have the full story on our arrival from our client herself. Stopping only to send a brief telegram to my long-suffering wife, (a gentle, understanding woman who always did her best to appear as if she thoroughly enjoyed my frequent absences, often going so far as to telegraph Houses to ask if he needed me for anything), I packed my trusty service revolver, rubbed some embrocation into the old war wound in my leg – or was it my shoulder? Strange how I could never remember – and we hastily set off on our journey to the wilds of North England, which some of the natives still insisted on calling Scotland.

* * * * * * *

A week later, we stumbled weakly off the canal boat at our destination. It had been a long and tiring journey, during which Houses had enlivened the atmosphere with impromptu, unsolicited violin concerts, fascinating monologues on how to identify 600 different kinds of tobacco ash (which unfortunately, since the canal boat was a No Smoking zone, sent several of the passengers into a tooth-gnashing frenzy) and a little target practice with his revolver, inadvertently causing the boat to leak heavily and list to starboard. As always, Houses had made himself extremely popular, and the passengers and crew raised a hearty and prolonged cheer as we disembarked.

Kirkintilloch was a quaint old town built near the site of a Roman fort and looking as if it hadn’t changed much over the intervening centuries. The street names had a poetic ring that conjured up visions of rural loveliness – Cowgate, Industry Street, Gallowhill Road.

Cowgate, Kirkintilloch
Cowgate, Kirkintilloch

Our client lived outside the town, so we hailed a cab and Houses told the driver to make all speed to Culcreuch Castle, the home of our client.

“Lives may depend on it, man! Don’t spare the horse!”

“Och, hoots, dinna ye fash yersel’, sir! The castle’s been there sin’ the days that the auld chieftain o’ the Clan McFan caught the first haggis, an’ it’ll still be staunin’ when we’re a’ deid! Ay, it’s a sorry place noo, tho’, ye ken. They say that strange things happen there in the nicht – gey strange! An’ the puir Lady Laird is at her wit’s end wi’ it a’. Happen ye’ll be the gents she’s sent for frae doon Lunnon way?”

“I have no idea what you’re attempting to say, my good fellow. Drive on!”

We had a long winding journey of it, uphill most of the way, and dusk was falling over the rolling Campsie hills when we finally caught sight of the castle, nestling amongst the trees by the side of a picturesque lake. It was a beautiful setting, its air of peace and tranquillity belying the horror that was beginning to clutch at my heart.

Culcreuch Castle - once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan...
Culcreuch Castle – once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan…

We came to a halt at the massive oaken doors, held open by an elderly man in a rather strange looking multi-coloured skirt. Perhaps there was to be a fancy dress-ball that evening, I speculated.

A horrible wailing, screeching sound suddenly caused us to clutch each other in momentary terror. Quickly recovering our stiff upper lips and manly demeanours, Houses and I pulled out our revolvers and prepared to deal with supernatural hounds, or possibly ghoulies and ghosties and lang-leggedy beasties, which the indispensable Bradshaw had informed us frequented these heathen parts.

“’Tis only Wullie the Piper, sir, tae let us ken that supper is ready,” the elderly man cried incomprehensibly.

wullie the piper

Another skirted man appeared round the side of the castle, wrestling with a horrible 5-legged beast, from which the ghastly sounds were emanating. At that moment, with a final scream of mournful agony, the creature seemed to breathe its last. It was a chilling start to our adventure…

 

* * * * * * *

To be continued… maybe…

(This story was suggested by my old mate, Lady Fancifull. So blame her!)