"The Case of the Imitation Thief"
It has been twenty full and rewarding years since my first encounter with the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, and during that extraordinary period of many hundreds of cases, I have found him to be both the natural ally and intractable rival of the official police force. In some dozen cases he was both simultaneously, and more than anything else I believe this peculiar aspect of that relationship made him unique among consulting detectives.
I have long wished to illustrate for the reader a more intimate look at this curious tête-à-tête. Yet in selecting a sufficiently illuminating episode I declare myself raggedly torn between the case of a most daring country squire and the singular narrative of a most remarkable thief. At issue in the first was a man of low breeding and lower morals whose impersonation of a Bishop placed in jeopardy the ecclesiastical stability of the entire northwest of England. In the second Holmes found himself both assisting and at odds with not just Scotland Yard, but also the "mad snatcher" of Gwaltney Park. The snatcher proved a less imposing threat to law-and-order, but in his way unparalleled in the annals of crime. I leave it to providence to decide whether I have made the better choice for the reader.
My notes remind me it was late August or early September in the signal year 1895 when I was abruptly drawn into the circumstances surrounding this affair. I had just come in from an early evening stroll when I met Holmes returning from an errand of his own, carrying beneath his arms a large package and a hat box. Climbing the stairs together we paused at the landing, and turning to me abruptly he asked, "Watson, what do you suppose would make a man risk prison to steal paste diamonds?"
"I confess," I replied in genuine surprise, "I cannot fathom why any man in his right mind would act so, or how a professional thief might make such an error."
"He may indeed be out of his wits or a rank amateur," said Holmes pausing thoughtfully in the doorway, "but you have not answered my question."
Once inside our familiar rooms he offered the slipper of tobacco and motioned me to sit, while he laid bare the details of a perplexing string of jewel robberies on the periphery of London. Inspector Lestrade, lately a recurrent figure in our parlor, had requested my friend's help and Holmes had obligingly been to see him this afternoon. That was the intent but in fact Lestrade had not been available ...
"Instead I have returned from Scotland Yard with this threadbare report of the trouble, kindly provided me by Sergeant Murphy. You know Murphy, Watson, a big red-faced fellow who broods over the front desk, game leg, prone to long pointless stories. This paper tells me only that a thief has lately been ambushing victims in the vicinity of Gwaltney Park [not its true name but the nick-name locals best know it by]. I have made some inquiries and learned it is a place where the pretentious and well-to-do promenade in their public finery, and he is after their jewels. The thief is apparently of the most elusive sort and I suspect that alone is why the locals called in Lestrade, who knowing my taste for the unusual has been good enough to invite me into the case."
"I cannot understand the difficulty," said I, "I am acquainted with the park and it is not such an expansive one that a thief could hope to long escape an alert force."
Holmes spread the report across his knee. "Before speaking to Murphy I was in complete agreement, Watson, and like you couldn't be more wrong. As it happens only one officer has been assigned to watch for the 'mad snatcher', which is what they have dubbed him, and only part-time."
"One part-time officer to catch a jewel snatcher? How so?"
"Because he is considered a mere nuisance," answered Holmes with a twinkle in his eye. "This thief, my dear fellow, steals only imitation jewelry."
The remark stunned me.
"Close your jaw, Watson, and listen closely if you wish to add a rather remarkable chapter to your casebook. It really is quite unlike anything I have come up against." And in the next several minutes Holmes shared what little the official force knew, then what they had deduced, some of which he nodded to in agreement and the rest merely voiced for the sake of thoroughness.
"And now I should be most grateful if you would join me in another stroll, Watson. We may be gone several hours," he warned. In truth I thought to retire early, but could not bring myself to disappoint him and dutifully accepted. "Excellent, Watson, excellent. The air will do us good and I have hopes we may catch a madman in the process!" This last remark lent an element of danger to the evening, so without another word I turned to my chambers to make ready. Trading my light cover for waistcoat, hat, and army revolver I felt fully prepared for whatever might come; I was mistaken.
Sherlock Holmes emerged from his own room fifteen minutes later in the exact form of an old woman. Bent over in a dress of dull satin, veiled hat and garish jewelry, the man whom criminals the world over had learned to fear and avoid was transformed into a bejeweled victim they would instead find irresistible. In a halting matronly voice he reproached me, "You're not going dressed like that?"
"I fail to see how my attire is more shocking than your own," I demurred.
"No no Watson, that will never do," returned the energetic timbre I knew best. "Did I not say we are looking for a jewel snatcher? If you are to be my escort you must look the part. I didn't explain? Well, my apologies! We must be richly attired to attract our ghostly prey. Do you put on something more formal." And but five minutes later, in flamboyant attire, I joined Holmes in what I remember to this day as one of our most curious adventures together.
Momentarily we found ourselves in a late carriage to the mentioned place, and in the yellow glare of passing lamps I could not help noticing what an unattractive woman my companion might make. Though I did not share this observation he immediately deduced it and chided loudly in that cracked womanly voice sufficient for the driver to hear, "Really dear, you should not have let me out with my hair so disarranged!" and giving a mischievous wink began brushing his wig. I sat uncomfortably silent the rest of the journey.
Gwaltney Park was a little green patch best known for its colorful immigrant caretaker, hence its nick-name. Boxed in by tall hedges to shut out the chaotic surroundings, it was once private grounds of a coal magnate, but had since matured into a secluded maze of softly lighted paths and ironwork benches. It was also a tempting roost for nocturnal vagrants of every description, and for that reason patrols were often close by, though none had caught so much as a glimpse of "the snatcher".
We arrived at seven o'clock to find the park unexpectedly crowded which at once pleased and irritated Sherlock Holmes. It pleased him as it must surely lure the snatcher from hiding, irritated in making detection of the criminal more difficult. Carefully stepping down Holmes took my arm, walking with painful slowness in keeping with our impersonation, and followed the other couples through an ironwork gate. I saw at once my companion was not the only one adorned with precious stones, real or otherwise, as he whispered in my ear, "The odds are longer than expected, Watson. We must see if we can shorten them."
We were to stroll many times along the paths that evening, such that I felt I had them fairly memorized, with Holmes stopping often beneath lamps allowing the jewels upon his person to catch their light and the eye of myriad passers-by. All the while he offered discreet remarks as pedestrians washed around us like the tide: "... not him, he is a German here for holiday I am sure of it. Nor could that be our man, Watson, he is late for an appointment. But wait, see that shadowy figure there ... no no he is expecting a romantic rendezvous."
For nearly two hours Holmes scrutinized all who approached us, laying bare for me in whispers and intonations these strangers' inmost secrets. The speed with which he deduced his facts was astonishing, belying those myriad mental computations by which he came to them. I have often remarked to medical colleagues that my illustrious friend could focus his mind with the precision of a scalpel, and on that evening he wielded his inexhaustible talents with the self-assurance and skill of a consummate surgeon.
This evening luck proved against us, however. Holmes' keen senses assumed several times the highest state of alertness, but for a moment only, whereupon he resumed his systematic reading of the crowd. Along towards nine o'clock we both felt of hunger and fatigue and thought to call it a night.
"Well perhaps to-morrow, eh, Watson? We have stayed the course before and usually conquered in the end."
"Then if you have no objection, Holmes, I should like to take a moment at one of the stalls. It is growing cold and a warm bite would be welcome."
"You astound me, Watson, for the same thought has just popped into my head! I don't think the ride will be any warmer going than coming and we have had no supper."
So saying we deigned to stop at the last of the open booths before they shut up for the night, afterwards following a darkened side lane through the park with Holmes limping tiredly. I was about to ask if he wished to rest when in a low tone he muttered, "You remarked a thief who steals paste jewelry could not be a professional. If this is the same man ten yards behind us I should say his stalking skills are equally befitting an amateur. Don't turn your head! He must follow us there," said Holmes pointing. "Be careful now, Watson, for he seems to have an accomplice in the shadows farther behind." Ahead I saw several more vendor stalls shut up for the night, little prison-like boxes aligned in two rows with an alley between. It was towards these we limped.
Though the criminal lure of an enfeebled couple is easily recognized, I confess it had not occurred to me till that moment what a perilous position we were in. My heart began to race as I felt again the reassuring weight of an Eley's No. 2 in my pocket. A quick turn between the stalls and we took up defensive positions and held our breath. We heard their approach on the stone walk ... then nothing. Ten seconds passed, twenty ... suddenly we detected a scuffle.
Lifting his skirts in most unladylike fashion Holmes rushed out onto the path, cane raised high and ready to strike. There we saw two men on the ground locked in a brawl, the two who had followed us, and the look on their faces I shall remember always as Holmes lifted one bodily off the other and hurled him savagely against the nearest tree. The second struggled to regain his feet only to be knocked flat by a satin-gloved fist! Both stared dazed and unmoving, and when they began to stir again I let them see my weapon while Holmes blew his police whistle.
In less than a minute a constable arrived and took in the scene of two fallen ruffians and the elderly couple who had subdued them. It was with misplaced admiration the officer took my name first, and when I had given it, which carried with it immediate recognition as the constant companion of Sherlock Holmes, so impenetrable was Holmes' disguise that the officer next asked, "And is this old woman your mother?"
One of the fallen aggressors at once warned, "You best not upset the old pigeon or you'll rightly be down here with us!" Only then did my friend amusedly identify himself.
As it turned out our intended attackers most certainly were not working in unison - rather when they recognized both were after the same quarry they fought over which was to have us, little suspecting they themselves would become the quarry. In the end it was decided neither was the snatcher, and it being late we made our way to the taxi stand for our chilly ride home.
Walking up our stairs at last Holmes turned to me, I thought contriving some ingenious new scheme, only to sneer in mock dismay, "Your mother indeed!"
It is often the case that criminal detection degenerates into a children's game of cat-and-mouse. One benefits greatly when an adversary slips up and exposes themselves, and nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in the events of the following day.
We woke to an early visit from Inspector Lestrade who was bursting with enthusiasm to tell us some news. "Good morning all! Sorry for waking you but I'd forgotten amateurs may sleep in while we at the force must be ready for our duties at dawn."
Seldom pleased at being disturbed before his planned hour my friend gathered his robe about him and chastised, "Shame on you Lestrade. You have just as surely been rousted from your own bed this morning!" Whereupon the Inspector, who had already seated himself, rose stiffly to check his attire for any tell-tale sign of disorder. "Tut tut, Lestrade. On the forty or more occasions I have been in your morning presence you have invariably worn that decrepit pinned-on tie only on days you were rushed into your clothes. You are also eyeing our coffee pot as if you have had none of your own this morning. Do I get it right?"
Lestrade gave up the bluff then, and confessed in a boisterous laugh, "You are one over me on that, Mr. Holmes. I was snug as you an hour ago, in my bed listening to the rainfall. But now I think you shall see I am one over you in another direction. You will find the Yard still offers something in the way of effectiveness. What would you say to an interview with the latest victim of the 'mad snatcher'?"
Holmes started. "What? I should say, 'Watson, your hat!'" I rose in obedient response.
Inspector Lestrade continued, beaming, "I thought you might appreciate such a chance. Here is a copy of her statement in my pocket and we are to meet with the witness herself. But I warn you she is a perfectly contemptuous old woman my officers tell me, and you may take her measure when I inform you she got a look at the snatcher's face by striking him to the ground with her cane and tearing off his mask! She is at the station now giving her questioners an impatient time of it so we'd best hurry before she walks out."
Thus we dressed with practiced haste as the boy went for a larger carriage. The rain had quit but its seats were still damp, and I counted myself fortunate to have carried down the paper with me; there being enough of it for two I offered Holmes a share, pretending not to notice the Inspector's uncomfortable movements.
"None for me, Dr. Watson? Ah, that's all right. I was wet some from before I suppose. The worst of it is this soggy ride may be entirely unnecessary as we are surely closing in on our man. I have discovered there is a little known asylum for disordered patients near the park, and as by many signs we have deduced this 'snatcher' is undoubtedly insane we are concentrating our efforts on the loonies recently released from there. Take my word for it, Doctor, when we are done with this you will find a madman at the bottom."
"I know that place," I remarked casually. "It is concealed from public knowledge to avoid a nervous disruption in the community, but it is called 'Rosemary Place' is it not?"
"Just so! I should have guessed you keep up with mental curiosities, Doctor," and so saying nodded with a smile in Holmes' direction. "All the same we have been keeping an eye on the park, the snatcher's favorite hunting ground lately, to put a stop to his long career once and for all."
At this Holmes interrupted, "What is this about a long career? Yesterday is the first I have heard of him."
"It is quite low-key as the police have done their best to keep it mum. We have not let the newspapers hear much of it because we were not prepared to meet their questions about why we could not stop him. His earlier victims have agreed to cooperate and help us in that direction. You see we are doing our humble best, Mr. Holmes, to catch the snatcher unawares, but it is most difficult as he never appears except to strike out of nowhere and retreat as suddenly. We have made no progress in the ten months since he's been at work, but are determined to stop him even if his crimes are a mere nuisance. We cannot have him making a mockery of Scotland Yard."
"Ten months of robbery you consider nuisance work?"
"He has hurt no one, Dr. Watson, and we cannot devote all our resources to finding a man who steals imitation broaches. He is either quite mad or the greatest bumbler of a jewel thief London has ever produced. In any case we will have him eventually, but you and Mr. Holmes are welcome to see us catch him if you are interested." This last remark immersed Holmes in a deeply contemplative mood.
We continued our journey in silence along London's puddled streets, the smells of the city reminding me of a wet dog just let into the house, when I curiously noted Lestrade eyeing Holmes up and down. There was a slight grin upon his face, and I at last inquired on my friend's behalf what was behind it.
"It is nothing," said he, "nothing except while the crime took place last night on one side of the park a constable reported seeing you and your companion on the other!" At this my friend winced. It was not that anyone could have better predicted the whimsies of a lunatic, but that the Inspector knew of the miscalculation.
"Oh there now, Mr. Holmes, it is not such a poor thing to have a slip now and then. Why I have made one or two myself." Holmes cleared his throat. "But the fact which I cannot get past is the constable's description of you. If he were not such an unimpeachable source I might inquire into his drinking habits." Here the Inspector smiled even more broadly, but it was plain to see my friend was not amused. Holmes ruefully held out his hand for the police report, which Lestrade gleefully handed over. It was another twenty minutes to reach the station.
As pre-supposed the lady in question was impatient with police proceedings, having as it turned out a considerably more vigorous nature than most at her stage in life. Even as we arrived she was verbally assaulting a Police Sergeant behind his desk, leaning over the top and shaking a finger at him in churlish derision, and it was plain to see he felt at an uncomfortable disadvantage. Her escort, an elderly manservant, stood to one side holding her purse and hat as she repeatedly struck the officer's desk with her walking stick, sending papers and pencils in every direction.
On our approach could be overheard a measure of pleading in the officer's voice, "Now miss, please do wait a trifle longer! A specialist is to arrive here any minute now and all will be well ... ah, here he is!" cried the much relieved officer rushing to greet us.
Leading us back to his desk he made but a single booming introduction: "Mrs. Dubney, this is Senior Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard!" These words brought a miraculous transformation in the gathered audience; there surfaced an unmistakable, almost military atmosphere which was absent from our familiar conduct at Baker Street. Clearly Scotland Yard commanded the attentions of the regular force, and I believe for the first time I witnessed a degree of respectful acquiescence in the face of my companion. Whatever shortcomings in technique we might reproach the official force, I was momentarily reminded they are the first line of defense against the criminal element as much as Holmes is the last.
As Inspector Lestrade swept into the circle now all others gave way. "Here now, officer, I hope this hasn't gotten out of hand? Is the poor woman willing to be questioned further?" asked he, standing with hands on hips squarely in front of the matron. She herself had detected the shifting balance of attentions and re-seated herself, and it was evident the public reputation of the Yard held sway even in her social strata.
"Everything is just as you might wish, Inspector. We had the witness, excuse me, Mrs. Dubney, jot down everything just as she remembered it last night. This morning we have invited her back and have standing by a note-taker for any fresh ideas she may offer."
"All very proper constable. Smartly done," then turning to the witness Lestrade said, "Now I should like to ask you some important questions of my own, Mrs. Dubney." However the Inspector had no opportunity to ask them.
Drawing a loud breath the witness began to relate her tale at a frantic pace!
"I am not accustomed to being accosted in my evening constitutional, I want you to know that! What are our taxes for if not to protect us from the very element which we have striven so long to rise above? There is scarcely a place in all of London safe without escort. My man Robert has had to obtain permission to carry a gun with him everywhere and he is never without it. Show them Robert!" Whereupon reaching gingerly into his waist pocket, her modest companion withdrew the butt of a small caliber pistol, only to let it slide back down.
"That is all very interesting, however ... " began Lestrade again, but again she prevailed.
"It is perfectly understandable why women are afraid to go out wearing their jewels in such criminal days! Where is our protection? I cannot fathom how the jails can be so filled and still more needed. In my day these things did not happen. It is this looseness with the law I tell you, that is entirely responsible! Robert, did you show them your gun?" We looked sympathetically in Robert's direction, and again he went through his timid ritual.
"Madam, I really must ask ... "
But a third time she drew a determined breath, unleashing a stream of indignation at the recent ratification of the taxation measure, and was beginning to dissect the deplorable affair of the Africana Steamship Company when a loud crack echoed through the room followed by an unmistakable smell of gunpowder. Silence fell like a shroud.
"Dear me," apologized Holmes after an awkward moment, "I was just admiring this officer's revolver when it discharged."
Despite his protestations of innocence, familiar as we were with Holmes' bedrock of practicality Inspector Lestrade and I understood at once he had achieved some purpose in this startling demonstration. At a signal the assemblage, which was becoming lively with conversation, hushed again, and my companion moved a chair in front of Mrs. Dubney. Holmes seated himself and looked her over at length without speaking, she eyeing him in return with some vague suspicion but refusing to bend before his penetrating gaze.
"My dear Madam," he began at last, his voice filled with tenderness, "I am sorry for your recent and terrible loss. I suspect it was someone quite close to you. How are you getting on?" These unexpected words had a stunning effect upon her, and it was plain to see Holmes had found a weakness hidden in her armor.
"Oh I don't ... that is, I am distraught still. But how ... how did you know about Mr. Dubney?"
Holmes answered without hesitation, "It is my business to know. So it was your husband, was it? I feared as much, else he would be here with you now." All the while her eyes riveted upon her questioner, stricken with disbelief at how transparent was her situation.
"You have not made arrangements over the estate I suspect, yet it is surely a considerable one. Is there more trouble there?" It was another masterful and delicate touch. Every trace of suspicion slid instantly away as this poor creature suddenly threw herself upon the warm empathies of Sherlock Holmes. The audience forgot their irritations with this woman, Lestrade going so far as to send for tea to make her comfortable. Her manservant moved closer as she reached out a hand for reassurance.
"I never understood these matters of Stanley's. That's Mr. Dubney. We have a home that is in danger from the new tax, our stock has fallen, and every day there is some ungrateful relative at my door. There is no end to the trials. And last evening when we thought to take the night air, dear Robert and I, a man tried to take the necklace Stanley himself brought back from his African enterprise.
"And so undisciplined a thief. And so gauche! Yellow slippers with tassels, beneath his cloak something of bright red silk. I was so taken aback I hardly noticed the blade in his hand. Poor Robert had this once forgotten Mr. Dubney's old revolver. Oh I don't blame him for that, you see he has so much to think of with handling all my affairs. And Robert was so very sorrowful for having suggested I wear the necklace out of the house."
"Slippers with tassels? Red silk garments? You're certain?" She nodded in the affirmative. "That is most curious."
After a moment Holmes' face darkened, "You say it was Robert's idea to expose yourself to such risk?" Robert's face paled in response.
"I was in the wrong to suggest such a foolish thing I know it now, Sir! But Mrs. Dubney takes such comfort in her former pleasures as a way of remembering Mr. Dubney."
"That will do Robert," she defended. "If it was a foolish thing it was my own, I cannot fault you for remembering how I enjoyed those evening walks. I speak of them all the time." Turning back to Holmes she continued, "And the fault was hardly ours, it was that useless public miscreant's! When he found us alone the scoundrel threatened us against raising an alarm, then clutched my arm without permission and twisted me sharply 'round so the lamp shone on my necklace. He leaned back his head and turned my necklace all about in his stubby fingers ..."
"Leaned back?" repeated Holmes.
"Yes, then he made some incredible remark and tore it from my neck!"
Holmes had been exhibiting the deepest possible interest, but this last comment raised him to a state of decided agitation. "You say he made an incredible remark? That was not in the report!"
"It hardly seemed important."
"Madam, in my experience the more unusual a detail the more revealing it may be. Pray tell what did he say? His exact words now, if you can recall them."
Shifting in her chair she answered with enthusiasm, "That will not be difficult because they were so fantastic. He said in great excitement - and Robert heard it too because we afterwards tried to make sense of it - he said 'anthrax drives me to madness'."
"Anthrax," retorted Lestrade. "Surely he said ... well ... something other than 'anthrax'."
"ANTHRAX !" she repeated. "My hearing has not left me yet!" she cried aloud, smashing her cane viciously upon the floor. Holmes leaned forward to whisper something and the lady quieted and nodded her head. "Then he began uttering the most incredible gibberish. Not a word of it made sense. It was as if a man with but half-a-brain was trying to speak." At this she raised her cane at the ready and swept the room in a threatening stare, searching for visible signs of doubt. When most averted their eyes she lowered it again.
"It is certainly queer, Madam. And yet for all this trouble he did not take your necklace from you, despite its obvious worth. Can you explain that?"
"Why, that's the part I don't understand at all. He tried my jewels on a pocket mirror, and finding them to be real simply gave them back."
This last remark captured all our attentions. "You say he tested them with a mirror. How? By scratching the mirror? Then neither his vision nor his ignorance account, as I'd hoped, for his stealing imitations." Holmes' hand reached for his chin. "And now, Mrs. Dubney, perhaps you will be good enough to tell me about your taking his mask off him."
"Why it was the easiest business of the whole affair. When he turned to run off I struck him with my cane!" proclaimed the stalwart matron, waving it about like a trophy. "After he fell to the ground I let him keep feeling it too!"
"Mrs. Dubney stopped him proper she did," chimed in Robert showing his first sign of true animation.
"And you got his mask off?"
"I surely did," said she with warm enthusiasm. "It took some doing as it was one of those which covers the head from chin to crown and ties tightly behind, and me with my arthritic condition, but I will know who it is taking another thing from me whoever he may be." And as the vigor returned to her voice her companion sensed returning strength and stepped away again. "And I described his face to the police I have. They will catch him some day and when they do ..." she waved her cane menacingly then pounded the desk twice in a way which made her entire audience flinch.
"I have the description here," interrupted an officer, but Lestrade obligingly waved him back.
"You described him in Lestrade's report," continued Holmes, "as a man with a round face, thinning hair, no beard, and not uncommon features. That is not entirely helpful, Madam. Did he not have any singular features? Marks upon his face? Memorable teeth?"
She hesitated a moment to reflect ...
"Whatever is on your mind speak it. Trust me to judge its significance."
"The useless villain had pink marks upon the bridge of his nose, as if he wore Pince-Nez like my Stanley."
"You saw them quite clearly?" She nodded. "Indeed, that is useful."
"I would have him on the ground still except I was struck on the head and dazed."
"He struck you!" Holmes sat bolt upright. "That also was not in the report!"
"It certainly was not myself and the only other present was Robert. I still have the painful lump here," indicating a tender spot. At Holmes' suggestive nod I examined the place and was surprised by a noticeable swelling in the area of the parietal lobe, just above and behind the right ear. Though tender there was no obvious lasting injury, still I offered to prescribe a medication.
"I am all right sir! But he shall not be for long, striking a woman in her prime." The vanity of that remark brought a restrained titter from those assembled, but Holmes remained severely attentive, his face a mask of stone.
"I have but one last question for you Mrs. Dubney. In the Inspector's report you say you were startled by the sudden appearance of your attacker?"
"Yes. He was instantly upon us as we entered the park. We were there but two minutes before his villainous effrontery."
"Distraught as you have been, could he not have been following some distance and you not notice?"
She looked to her manservant, "That is not likely! When we are about I have Robert keep a sharp eye, as we are being accosted by ungrateful relatives at every turn."
The person mentioned stepped reluctantly forward. "It is just as Madam says, Sir. I am the lookout and I saw no one approach from any direction."
"You are certain he appeared out of thin air, yet I have never seen a ghost commit a crime," reflected Holmes, and so saying leaned his chair back against the desk, fingertips touching, eyes nearly closed. It is a measure of the commanding presence of Sherlock Holmes that although he remained silent for two interminable minutes, no one dared interrupt his reverie. Mrs. Dubney herself by now conferred so much respect upon him she too remained still, though her escort shifted about with marked impatience.
To all outward appearances Holmes was deeply pondering this wealth of information, yet I observed a trace of something more in his quiet demeanor. Studying his features as I have so many times before, I suddenly realized he was in turn discreetly observing the lady's manservant. I could not fathom the reason, yet each time this Robert shifted his stance Holmes' quick eye moved to capture the motion.
Finally Holmes rose from his chair and the sense of relief in the room was palpable. "Madam, I am going to investigate this matter further," said he, "and must thank you and your man for providing several very interesting insights. If I may be of material assistance to you in your current difficulties, you have only to ask," and handed her one of his cards. Only then did it become apparent Mrs. Dubney had no previous idea who was this man confronting her. He had not been introduced, but upon reading his name off the card she seemed filled with rekindled hope. She took his hand without a word, but the gesture spoke volumes.
When Mrs. Dubney's man led her away at last we watched them climb aboard their carriage from the front window, whence Holmes turned to remark ominously, "She is in deep waters, Lestrade, with far too much reliance on her manservant keeping her afloat."
The Inspector stopped mid-stride to reply, "Still I think you must admit, Mr. Holmes, this has been another point for me." We looked at the Inspector quizzically. "Well I have said all along the culprit is insane. No doubt you heard the thief admit he'd been driven to madness by anthrax!"
Sherlock Holmes was the most energetic of hounds on a scent, and was of a mind to ride immediately to the scene of last night's attack. With the two of us in tow we all crowded into a cab and were off to the park once more.
"I pray the police have been less effective than usual at obliterating clues," were Holmes' first words, "as I am most curious to discover whether he was following his victims at some distance, happened upon them, or was already lurking in ambush. The rain was light and may not have been too damaging of traces."
Inspector Lestrade was apparently pre-occupied with a far different curiosity. With a peculiar look he began, "Mr. Holmes, I don't know what to make of it ... it is entirely beyond me how you gave that witness such a fright with your pistol shot and in less time than it takes for tea had her complete confidence. I had it from the station's best men she would refuse to cooperate."
"I don't wonder, Lestrade. Your men saw her episode as inconsequential, but to me she was a queen losing her empire."
"Lestrade, it is nothing against you, for you cannot help wearing your official blinders. You must deal in the degree of law, while I am free to deal in the degree of consequences."
"It was a scurrilous attack upon Mrs. Dubney, if that is what you mean Mr. Holmes, but she lost nothing by it and the blow was not seriously damaging," protested he in his own defense.
My friend shifted about and looked along the avenue. "Well there is bliss in ignorance, as they say. I begin to see why your thief has lasted so long. He is merely a nuisance in your book, Lestrade, for you believe a small robbery a small matter and a great one a large villainy. But I view a jewel lost by a prince a mere trifle, and the loss of an intangible thing like one's sense of safety a catastrophe."
"We are well aware of your reputation for turning down Dukes for poultry farmers, Mr. Holmes! And it makes you infuriatingly unreliable, if I may say so, in police matters. But unless I am much mistaken there was more than your high principles in the balance back there at the station."
My friend responded with a sly expression, "Yes, it is all cast into the balance, Lestrade. The universe is wonderfully balanced, you may count on that. It is a simple formula that says 'respect begets respect', and as I had a royal affluence of it for the hard-bitten Mrs. Dubney, she recognized that and returned it to me."
I saw a lingering hesitation on the Inspector's pursed lips, followed by sudden understanding. It was plain to him then, if it had never been before, that Sherlock Holmes required no official title. He drew his respect from the far deeper well of human trust and empathy.
As the weather was pleasant and our mare a strong specimen it was not long before the ironwork sign above the park came into view once more. Just minutes later found Holmes pacing around the scene of the attack, which was by now badly trampled from police traffic.
"Blast their clumsiness!" Taking a lens from his pocket he examined the clearing for any clues which had escaped destruction. Discovering several branches broken close to the ground he examined these at length, crawling in and out of the shrubbery, but there was little else to see as the muddied tracks of Lestrade's men were all about, obscuring any faint marks left by a madman in slippers. For his part Holmes remained on all fours while I walked alongside holding back branches whose shadows hid the ground from view, the Inspector strutting patiently beside smiling in amusement, offering now and then to hold back branches on the other side.
"Were your men just trampling at random or were they following someone's tracks?" questioned Holmes sarcastically over his shoulder.
"As a matter of fact they did note a footprint or two in the softer soil, Mr. Holmes. You'll see in this case not much has gotten by us. There is a new man at the Yard who is taking after you in some ways and he remarked upon the prints. I can show you where they emerge if you care to save your trousers some muddy wear." Holmes harrumphed and continued crawling as the Inspector followed with a shrug.
If we wanted further proof of the snatcher's irrational nature we had it now; the faint trail seemed to twist back and forth through the undergrowth as if made by a man who had lost his way ... or more likely his wits. There was also found some of his queer apparel. At one point Holmes doubled back, thrust his hand deep into the underbrush, and withdrew a most bizarre slipper. It was a yellow material and resembled a wide flat banana with a tassel dangling from the toe. Plainly Inspector Lestrade was surprised his men had missed it but made light of the matter: "What use is that to us, Mr. Holmes? We already had its description, and unless the snatcher is still in it I cannot see that it solves anything." Holmes continued on without comment.
Altogether we traversed twenty yards looking for the trail's end point, which came as Lestrade had foretold at the edge of the park close to a taxi stand. From here Holmes strode up and down the avenue noting the tiny corner pub, boot repair, book shop, and other establishments providing local employment. It was apparent he was memorizing the street but disappointed no alternative routes of escape presented themselves, the only small alley being blocked by a fence piled with rubbish. This left only the taxi stand for the snatcher's escape, and at his discouraged look the Inspector placed a conciliatory hand on Holmes' shoulder and remarked with sweeping magnanimity, "Don't feel badly, no harm done. Some very clever detective work goes sometimes unrewarded, Mr. Holmes! Believe me it is nothing to anyone your trail has come to an end, as we are already making eager inquiries into anyone picked up here last night dressed in wild clothes, and I am sorry if we have been a step ahead of you again."
"And what did your men make of the evidence we have seen? For it has been quite conclusive in one regard," retaliated Holmes.
"Yes, conclusive that he entered the park and escaped it by way of the taxi stand, which explains why he has not been found. Anyone could say as much. If there is really nothing more you can add, Mr. Holmes, I should say it is also conclusive in another way: that Scotland Yard will be the one to bring this villain to justice ahead of you for a change. As you have said to me many times it is important to see things in your own way, and this time it appears our way has turned out best!"
It was painful to witness the Inspector proclaiming his advantage in so uncompromising a fashion, yet to my surprise Holmes responded not in his usual petulant manner but warmly congratulating him. Indeed it was an unexpected moment of triumph for Lestrade and the Yard, one long denied them, and Holmes acceded in good grace.
"One more thing Inspector," said Holmes as we parted company, "Do look into this Africana Steamship Company to see whether someone local has been trading its stock lately. Also whatever can be found on this Robert and how he came into the lady's employ. He knows nothing about our snatcher, but knows a great many other things he is not telling."
Inspector Lestrade was as startled as I by these dire words, but warmed by a spontaneous generosity in his triumph over my friend answered, "If you believe it important I will see to it personally, Mr. Holmes."
And so once more we found ourselves empty-handed, and as Holmes was never one to dissipate his energies on a case others might competently handle, I supposed he would turn immediately to others awaiting him. For the second time in as many days I was mistaken.
The great detective was unwilling to give up on the case, and radically pleased with the progress of the official force. He took from his coat a pocket lunch from the day before and began to devour it as we rode. "Well Watson, we seem to be overrun with villains in this case. We have already found three if you count those from last night, and have at least one more to go."
I looked on with rekindled interest.
"I little wonder the inspector hasn't read the same guilty story I did in nature's book. It is exquisitely obvious to anyone with eyes and imagination, but that is not the sort of fellow drawn to the official force. From the trail of broken branches the role of Mrs. Dubney's manservant was clearly an evil one and he must be stopped, but that may wait. He is not the central figure in this sordid little drama."
"I fail to see the connection between Mrs. Dubney's man and a mentally afflicted criminal," said I. "As for evil doings, Robert impressed me as the weakest sort of man, Holmes, faulty in courage and conviction."
"Do not be deceived, Watson. The meekest of men are capable of great evil. It is their unwillingness to confront rivals directly which turns them to less conspicuous methods, to manipulation and deceit. The evidence at the park was quite irrefutable. Before we left the station I already suspected Robert's true nature, and by the time we finished at the park I was sure of it."
But I still did not see and said so. "I admit I am rather obtuse, Holmes, but what were these suspicions? I saw nothing untoward."
"So conspicuous were the clues I supposed them to be apparent to everyone, though of course they were not. There was the mask for one. No one has bothered to ask what has become of it. If it was torn loose at the scene, yet not found by the police, where is it?"
And so the first loose thread was revealed in the skein, and I at once found myself responding, "It must have been taken by the snatcher."
"I fear not, Watson. I would wager my pipe the manservant has it. It would prove an admirable red herring to divert police from his crimes, perhaps the robbery of his employer, or I daresay her murder."
"Good Heavens Holmes! You consider that likely?"
"Well, murder would be a remote thing for such as he, but a robbery might fall well within his character. All suspicions would fall away from the manservant and onto the lunatic snatcher with that mask left upon the scene, now that Mrs. Dubney has described it to the police. Then there was the manservant striking Mrs. Dubney from behind."
I almost stood up in alarm!
"Oh I don't say I am positive but the evidence is very strong. The thief could not likely do it - any man unfortunate enough to be on the ground beneath her pummeling cane would certainly be shielding himself with both arms." At this suggestion I half-raised my arms to picture it and was forced to agree. "The snatcher would have virtually no chance to strike her behind her right ear, and since only the three were present that leaves Robert to inflict the blow."
"But for what possible reason?"
"I can immediately offer several. He might have been shamed watching Mrs. Dubney battle her attacker alone, found his courage at last and struck at the assailant, only to have her come between. For another he might have aided the thief's escape so he could himself pocket her jewels while she lay stunned. The thief would naturally be blamed. For another, if she perished in the robbery he could likely do what he will with her estate; surely you heard it is not settled after her husband's death and he is handling her affairs." The facts did seem to allow for such distasteful possibilities.
"But in my mind his failing to draw his gun was most damning."
I reminded Holmes that Robert had forgotten his weapon that night.
"Nonsense! You saw his timid nature, Watson. Would such a man travel about unarmed if responsible for the safety of his employer and her jewelry? It is inconceivable. He was armed I am sure of it, and yet chose not to defend her. Still all I had was conjecture. Other explanations might have cleared him from even these dark shadows, and I admit I had nothing conclusive till we searched the park."
"But the evidence at the park was a disappointment."
Holmes turned to me smiling. "And so it will prove ... for Lestrade. Did you not see the branches broken near the ground?" I nodded. "It was the path the snatcher took in crawling away."
"At least for several yards. The branches were broken only close to the ground forming a tunnel; proof that he crawled. That the trail was made by the snatcher there can be no doubt. They were freshly broken in a direction away from the scene, and I observed blood stains underneath several leaves where the rain did not touch. This could only be from wounds inflicted at the hands of the unflappable Mrs. Dubney.
"Now consider, Watson, if the thief was so well trounced he must crawl away on hands and knees he would surely abandon his mask, which Robert therefore picked up." When laid before me these many overlooked details did indeed place the servant's character in serious jeopardy, and I wondered that I had not myself recognized it.
"You make it clear this Robert is a scoundrel in his own right, Holmes, but does this bring us any closer to catching the mad snatcher?"
Holmes considered it did not.
"There lie the deeper waters, Watson, whose depths we have yet to plumb."
Back at Baker Street, Holmes immediately approached the case from a surprising new direction, asking the particulars of the disease anthrax and its maleficent effects upon a human host. I was vaguely familiar of course with the malignant carbuncle which aided its diagnosis, but knew nothing of its mental severities or their daily progression. When asked what value lay in a schedule for the criminal's mental deterioration Holmes' answer was swift and sure: he needed a timetable to work within.
"Think, Watson, think! Every quarry has its unique scent; for the snatcher it is clearly his remarkable behavior. Whatever drives him to dress in costumes and choose paste gems over the mineral variety will influence him to the very end. If I can discover that underlying factor before his sanity is too far eroded, I will have something solid to latch onto and follow wherever he may go."
"Surely you don't expect predictable behavior as the disease progresses?"
"You would not? I say again he will never abandon his baser motivations, Watson. As a species we are incapable of it. How soon you forget your smuggler with the touch of brain fever! You yourself suggested behind his habitual craving for lemons might be a fear of scurvy, leading us straight to the seafarer Beauchamp. By the same token if I can learn to recognize the snatcher's 'mental scent' in time, I'll be able to follow him to the very gates of Bedlam."
I was inclined to further object but faltered. That Sherlock Holmes was a formidable adversary for the criminal genius was already sufficiently proven. I now realized in amazement when he stretched his powers to their absolute limit, they extended equally far into the realm of the criminal madman.
And so for the remainder of that day and all the next I prevailed upon my medical brethren for help in finding the elusive snatcher. There was immediate hope my investigations might lead us nearer the hideout of the madman, when I confirmed anthrax is contracted exclusively through the handling of infected animals, but my hopes were dashed upon discovering it had no known impact upon human reason. Besides, its symptoms included difficulty breathing and fever, obvious afflictions which did not appear to hamper the snatcher. It seemed anthrax was not the true source of his madness, so what then?
I broadened my search to finding a reasonable alternative, inquiring of any disease similar to anthrax in name or symptoms. All these efforts proved fruitless, however, and I resigned myself to returning empty-handed for the third time.
Along about seven o'clock, somber with the knowledge I would disappoint my friend, I took the long route home, actually passing it by twice before my conscience forced me to our door. It was with some relief I discovered our rooms empty, and fatigued by worry on top of a long day, I prepared for bed and settled down with a book to await Holmes' return.
It was nine o'clock when I heard the front door slam and hurried steps upon the stair. Before I could even rise from my chair Holmes came crashing into our rooms with Inspector Lestrade on his heels. "Thank the stars you're here, Watson! Your sensibility is sorely needed. Are you able to talk?" I nodded as he found his pipe under the cushion and paced furiously.
"In the last fourteen hours, Watson, I have interviewed dozens of doctors and patients across no less than three sanitariums! During this mad safari I have identified one man who lost his memory, exposed a woman who pilfers drugs from the pharmacy, and found an escaped lunatic hidden for two days between the furnace and coal chute. But I have for myself succeeded only in learning our jewelry collector is not now and likely never has been a patient at any of the three. I have earned this trivial knowledge by wading through such degrading cesspools of mental necrosis that I beg you, should I ever lose grasp of my own sensibilities, take me to a pasture and turn me loose to live among the bees and the flowers. I pray you have some better news to offer."
It was with helpless consternation I now faced him, and not a little shame at the look he gave back, for he guessed my predicament in an instant. Partly due to my own failure we were again at an impasse. In utter dissolution then Holmes dropped exhausted into a chair, head in hands, the strain of the day furrowing his thin brow. I was about to offer some encouragement when he sat up sharply and let loose a dreadful laugh I thought him incapable of! Inspector Lestrade and I exchanged fearful glances, worried Holmes' exceptionally balanced mind had become unsettled by that deadly atmosphere of the insane wards. The wards are sometimes populated, we could neither of us forget, by genius stretched too far. Only when Holmes finally caught his breath and sat back with a sigh did our fears begin to subside.
"Rest easy, Watson, I am sure you did your best. And yet separately we have again come to a dead-end, so let us rejoin forces and progress from here. I will explain what has happened then give me your thoughts." And so in great relief I settled into the chair and prepared to hear all that had recently transpired.
"I'll start by explaining Lestrade invited me back into the case when he too struck an insurmountable wall, then together we searched the asylums nearest the park for our snatcher, an idea born entirely of desperation. We have now concluded it impossible that anyone from there is our criminal. Also that every barred window is secure, every door kept locked, and none there can tell a true gem from a glass bead!" At this he removed from his finger a large and perfect emerald, reward from an earlier success, and placed it on the mantle.
"Scotland Yard is not discouraged, however. Lestrade has assigned men to check every other asylum and hospital within miles for patients matching the snatcher's description, and expects every hour to hear the search has ended. For my part, hard as I try, I cannot make up my mind about our mad criminal. Is he insane or isn't he? In some ways his methods are so ordinary, even preferring fake jewels over real might be explained as some idee fixee as you call it. But it is hard to stretch his thin cover of sanity over such a clownish costume, harder still to ignore his own remark about madness. Is the insanity of anthrax only temporary?"
"It cannot be anthrax, Holmes," I answered gravely, "I have it upon the word of several specialists the disease has no effect upon the mind."
Holmes looked momentarily stunned, then recovered himself, "And so snaps the final thread. If he does indeed suffer some disease, Doctor, not anthrax but some disease he has mistaken for it, we cannot guess how it will affect him. What option does this leave us?"
At this Inspector Lestrade spoke up. "Perhaps there is a disease which sounds very much like 'anthrax' but is something else? I don't have a personal physician to do my research but I can handle a dictionary all right." So saying he took down the volume from our shelf. I was of a mind to tell him I had already searched professional medical journals in vain with that self-same goal, but he would surely see the futility soon enough. Holmes and I watched passively as the Inspector turned the pages, when we caught in his expression a look of utter disbelief.
"Well, this is something new to consider," he commented. "But it is not helpful to us. In fact I cannot imagine anything more destructive to our cause. Here is our whole case for insanity crushed by a single word, for it appears the snatcher was not talking about any disease but about the jewelry after all. Did you gentlemen know that 'anthrax' is another name for 'garnet'?"
"Garnet?" I shot back.
Holmes crossed the room in a single leap, snatching the book from Lestrade's loose grasp. "It states here it was the Greek word through 200 A.D., which might mean our lunatic instantly becomes ... well, not a lunatic after all," said Holmes eyeing us eagerly.
"And so we are back at square one again, Mr. Holmes. Well this is a puzzler. If he's not a madman I must doubly apologize for inviting you to interview those loonies. I feel guiltier now than before."
Holmes placed a consoling hand upon Lestrade's shoulder, exactly mimicking the Inspector's condescending manner of the day before saying, "Oh don't feel badly, Lestrade. No harm done. Some very clever detective work goes sometimes unrewarded." Struck by the familiarity of these words I turned just in time to see Holmes' impish grin.
"Now let us get some rest, Lestrade, and start fresh in the morning, for surely this will change things considerably," said he as he led the Inspector out. Holmes returned but an instant later to watch the Inspector's form disappear into the dark street below, then whirled to face me.
"What is it, Holmes?"
"Our friend has just cast the brightest possible light into the gloom. It is positively blinding, Watson. And it proves once again the great lesson to trust your instincts. Fool I was to doubt them. You know I have had the greatest difficulty deciding on the matter of the snatcher's sanity, but if our quarry is indeed rational much stands explained.
"You have hope?" I queried.
"Worlds of it. First and foremost it confirms that he never arrived or escaped by cab, or from a sanitarium, but by the simple act of crossing the street. I have always felt so but had refused to accept it, simply because a madman could not be so near the park every day and not be noticed.
"Now the piece fits neatly into the puzzle. By appearing and disappearing only when his victim enters the park, we can surmise he keeps a constant eye on at least one entrance, and since one cannot malinger in the street without exciting unwanted attention our thief must in fact be watching from inside one of the shops near the gates. There are no apartments near enough.
"If we take it one step further, we immediately confront the fact no ordinary customer could spend every day in those shops watching for victims, so our snatcher is most probably one of the permanent establishment. Another small step forward and we realize if he can pursue his victims at a moment's notice without arousing suspicion, he is probably the only person in the shop, likely the proprietor. You see how quickly we get from an outsider in a cab to a local shop-owner?"
"Could he not as likely frequent the park? Someone in the food stalls or a taxi driver?"
Holmes looked at me admiringly. "You are quite coming along, Doctor, but no. All the park regulars were accounted for after the latest crime and we can eliminate drivers because the park gates are invisible from the taxi stand, they would not see a likely victim enter. Regardless of where I turn only a shop owner fits the facts. I suspect the moment he sees a prospect the snatcher closes up shop, races ahead of them, springs his trap, and returns to the safety of his establishment. From intent to commission of the crime and return would take all of ten minutes. Any proprietor may close up his shop that long without drawing attention."
"Then all we need do," said I, "is watch the shops surrounding the park till he strikes again."
"Oh, I don't think that necessary, Watson. We should have him in our hands this time tomorrow. We already had his description. The moment Lestrade opened the dictionary we gained his occupation and address."
As his near-constant companion I had seen and heard virtually all Holmes had in this unfolding drama, and in that harvest of information must lie all the essential ingredients to the mystery, but I found myself unable to separate the wheat from the chaff.
"Think, Watson! What did the dictionary tell us about 'anthrax'?"
"That it is another name for garnet."
"No! That it WAS another name for garnet, more than a thousand years ago. That obscure fact is so out of the public knowledge it shocked three educated men in this very room. Now what further does that tell us about our thief?"
"He is a student of history?"
"You astound me, Watson! But of course! One magical word has transformed our man from an irrational and unpredictable nuisance to an educated man whose unknown purpose drives him, or limits him, to the pursuit of imitation jewels. And I tell you in confidence my search of police records paints a much broader picture of this crime spree than Lestrade has seen, for within a mile there have been this year at least thirty robberies of glass jewelry and gilt coins in the streets outside the park."
"It has been such a phenomenon some locals have left bait at their doorsteps in hopes of catching a glimpse of him. Still no one has seen more than a fleeting shadow. He is reportedly very quick on his feet."
"I had no idea! Does Lestrade know of this?" Holmes' spiteful look told me no.
"I cannot be responsible for Lestrade reading the Yard's own crime reports. We've our own work to do. We must now build up our man by adding pieces to what we have. Mrs. Dubney supplied several useful parts from spotting the marks of his Pince-Nez. We know by that he is far-sighted for which he wears reading glasses, and that these are crimes of opportunity not planned in advance."
"That is a lot from a mark upon the nose. Could he not, for instance, have near-vision and require his lenses for distance?"
"Mrs. Dubney distinctly remembered him leaning back to look at her jewels, unmistakable evidence our man is far-sighted. And if there remained any doubt these are crimes of opportunity she has laid that to rest as well. The marks from his glasses were still fresh, yet they would fade within minutes after taking them off. He must have been wearing them when he spotted her entering the park, removed them, tied on his mask, and set up his ambush. Does this theory stand scrutiny?"
I nodded it was plausible.
"We can be just as certain our man has been a local inhabitant for some time, perhaps years."
"And what is there to tell us that?"
"Nothing else explains the mask Mrs. Dubney described. One which covers the entire head obscures both vision and hearing, hardly conducive to the work of a night thief, which is why the typical stranger finds a rag below the eyes sufficient. The snatcher's all-concealing mask could be for but one purpose: to completely disguise a face which is intimately familiar to those who frequent the area.
"His being a student of history and man of some education adds yet another sheaf to our harvest. Let us think again of a man who is well-read, works alone in a small shop, near-sighted and wears his reading glasses at his work ... do these clues suggest anything?
"A book dealer!" I exclaimed.
"Exactly! And it just happens there is a small book shop across from the park gate. Get your rest, Watson. Tomorrow we settle this."
The kindly Mrs. Hudson woke me next morning to deliver breakfast and a note, one of which I greedily consumed and the other which I anxiously read. In Holmes' precise hand was written: "Barley's near the park. Seven o'clock tonight. Bring your poor mother a hand mirror."
As I knew the pointlessness of arriving ahead of time, and had one or two matters to attend, I easily passed the day on my own. But at the appointed hour three of us rendezvoused, including Holmes, myself, and to my surprise Inspector Lestrade. Holmes was already seated at a cafe table dressed as he had been three nights before, and to deter curiosity we each made ourselves busy according to our apparent nature, I ordering a coffee, Holmes examining himself in the mirror I'd brought, and the Inspector opening our conversation with a question, "Tell me, Mr. Holmes, what was it tipped you off our mad stranger was a simple local? Was it some pencil shaving, some piece of paper curiously folded, the position of moon and stars?"
In a voice quieter still Holmes replied, "It was several things, none of them visible in the night sky. But they did not come together in a cohesive form until I saw the trail in the park."
"What, those prints we examined together? I told you we saw those ourselves, and my best man reported to me the assailant had simply come into the park, had his melee, and gone out again in a great hurry."
"And what did you take that to mean Lestrade?" asked Holmes in a condescending tone.
"Why it's plain as the powder on your face, Mr. Holmes. That he had been lurking in the bushes till a victim presented themselves, assaulted them, and run off. Are you telling me there is something we did not see?"
"There are certainly things you missed seeing, but more importantly there are things you missed hearing."
The Inspector was taken aback at this accusation. "Now see here, Mr. Holmes," said he in excited whisper, "I don't mind your occasional jokes at my expense because you have our interests at heart, but I am the one to say what my man told me. What have you to say against my hearing?"
"Well, perhaps nothing against your hearing, Lestrade, but your listening is certainly faulty. Your man told you exactly what I told Watson, that the thief had gone into the park, done his business, and gone out again in a great hurry. The thing you failed to appreciate is that it was all in a hurry. Judging by the few clear prints we found he had been running at top speed in both directions."
"Both directions? Whatever for?"
"In entering the park, to get ahead of his victim, and in leaving it, to escape. I tell you he saw his prey pass by his shop on the boulevard, raced to intercept them, then ran home again."
Lestrade squared his shoulders, "That's a very tidy theory, Mr. Holmes, but who is this queer creature who waits like a spider for his victims to pass by? Can you tell us that?"
"Better yet I will show you. In half-an-hour or less, with any luck, you shall meet him."
Upon hearing this Inspector Lestrade felt for his weapon and handcuffs, whereupon Holmes remarked curiously, "You will require neither one, Inspector, though I do hope Watson has brought along his usual smelling salts. They may prove useful."
The park was but two blocks from the cafe, and as we walked towards it now Holmes let us know what was to be expected. Adjusting his matronly garb but this time sans cane - which he feared might discourage the thief from approaching - he walked some distance ahead of us. He stopped only once to adjust his necklace and peer inconspicuously behind him into one of the shops by use of the hand mirror.
Eventually Holmes made his way on into the park when, as if on queue, a stealthy figure emerged from one of the shops along the avenue. From our vantage point we could not identify which door opened, but the sidewalk brightened briefly then darkened again as we heard a door close sharply. Lestrade held me back while the tiny figure hurried up the street at incredible speed and lunged into the hedgerow about the park. At that very instant we left our concealment to pursue this stranger who had set himself upon Holmes' trail like a shark in bloodied waters.
We were barely ourselves in time to play the role assigned, for just as we neared the wall of hedges we heard Holmes' shrill call! and forcing our way through the brush, closed in upon the clearing with widespread arms to catch the mad snatcher in our net. I saw immediately Holmes' had predicted everything with unerring accuracy, for without so much as a struggle our quarry flew into a panic and collapsed upon the ground.
The man spread in the grass before me was child-like in stature but round with age, and I wondered how indeed one such as he came to be involved in this nefarious business. At once I found his thready pulse, then removed his mask and revived him with smelling salts. There could be no doubt of his identity, for I saw there the receding hair, cherub face, mark of glasses pinching his nose, everything as described by Mrs. Dubney. There too was a long thin bruise, no doubt a reminder of his fateful encounter. When he was again animate the Inspector approached with handcuffs but Holmes waved him back saying, "I told you those will not be necessary, Lestrade. You will cooperate, won't you Mr. Lydecker?"
The little man, whose voice squeaked in fear, meekly scrambled to his feet and stuttered at last, "How - how - how do you know me? Who are you? What are you?" He watched in dread the old woman with the man's voice.
Rising to his full height such that he towered above the prisoner, Holmes stepped nearer. The little man, too frightened to attempt an escape, had actually to lean back to look up at him, whereupon my friend said in a booming intimidating voice, "My name is Sherlock Holmes, and I know a great many things about you Basil Lydecker, for I have taken much of today to find it out. I know that you are owner of the little book shop we have just passed, almost never leaving it except when some bejeweled pedestrian crosses in front of your windows. I know whenever that happens you wait to see which direction they take, and if they head into the park you run to your little hiding spots all about here, of which I have found three already, to ambush them. I know you take only imitation jewels for some inexplicable reason, which we will determine shortly, and I know if you value your freedom you will put an end to this preposterous behavoir!"
Holmes' intimate knowledge of these affairs stunned the tiny man, and caused him to sit back down upon the ground and put his head into his hands.
"Come now, that will not do! I must know what is behind all this and you are the only one who can make it clear." Still the puppet of a man was unresponsive.
"Very well, I shall have to give you over to Inspector Lestrade here, who will likely take you to Scotland Yard and keep you from ever seeing your little book shop again." That last remark woke the snatcher and with frightened eyes he climbed to his unsteady feet once more.
"Wait! You know me well enough all right. I have been up to snatching little things, but no harm done! They were all imitation, every one." He wiped spittle from his mouth and continued earnestly, "I'm having my dream is what I am, but a modest one, a dainty little harmless dream," and then after a moment asked hopefully, "Would you gentlemen wish to see it?"
"What, your dream?" cried the Inspector in surprise.
"Certainly. I'll show you. I'll show you all. Then will you understand!"
It was but a few minute's walk back to the avenue, and remembering his incredible swiftness Lestrade stayed so close beside him one would think them tied together. At the front of the little windowed shop we halted while he dug out keys and held open the door. The musty aroma of stale books greeted us, and filling his tiny foyer we looked about at a clean but dreary place lined with the expected shelves of texts.
Once inside the prisoner amazingly forgot his predicament and led us with reckless abandon to a back room sputtering, "Come see. It really is a pretty thing!" Enthusiastically turning lamps up full and uncovering brightly polished mirrors all around to intensify the light, he dragged from beneath his desk a large heavy object. In appearance it resembled a captain's chest, but so weather-beaten was it that one was unavoidably reminded of a pirate's treasure ...
... and so it turned out to be. When the lock was undone and lid thrown back we were bathed in the rainbow glitter of jeweled necklaces, rings, shimmering tiaras, polished bracelets, broaches and pins, cascades of golden coins. The value might have been millions!
Lestrade whistled appreciatively as Holmes plucked out a handful. "These are paste, Lestrade. See for yourself. My guess is that none of it is real." But in the glistening eyes of the shopkeep it plainly was real, a cornucopia of untold riches. The little man's eyes burned with inner fire as he imagined before him the wealth of ancient dynasties, the coffers of an Arabian Prince. It was Holmes who finally broke the spell. "But why, Lydecker? You are a man hardly suited to so dangerous an occupation as robbery. What is this dream and where is the profit in it?"
Never tearing his gaze from his delusional riches, and in a voice at first faint as though far away then swelling to fill the cloistered space, Basil Lydecker began for us a most remarkable narrative: "You fine and fancy gentlemen know those Persian tales 'Hazar Afsanah', today called 'A Thousand Legends'. Everyone does. But know you they have been chatted about in Persian and Arabian coffee houses from behind 900 A.D.?
"I have them all in writing I do, every one! On the shelves way over my head but not so far above yours, safe from dust and damp sit all sixteen volumes of the Calcutta text completed seven years ago. I had a subscription for that one I did. And on that shelf above the lamp a copy of some 1704 manuscript by this fascinating gentleman named Antoine Galland, who had it from other manuscripts way back in century the fourteenth. I have put the Lane edition beside it there I did, see the gold stitching? Though it is suitable only for children it is one of my favorites still."
We looked to the top shelves all about us. Dark leather with ostentatious bindings lined the ceiling in every direction, with here and there a scroll bound in bright ribbon. A fragile ladder stood nearby for access.
After a wistful pause he began again, "Well you may guess, you may, if a legend so thoroughly covers this corner of the globe so many centuries after, it was of course familiar to every swaddling child in that day. To them the miraculous Djinn was real indeed, to the faithful a world of magic and wonder ..." said he in fading voice. Lestrade cleared his throat to remind the shopkeep of our presence.
"I came to know these tales years ago I did, and was instantly taken by them gentlemen, truly seized upon! Every day since I have thought of them, I have, and when I saw passing outside my window a lady or gentleman wearing some trinket upon their person, some remindful piece of that legend, I was enraptured. Crimson rubies, a lustrous diamond, every one caught sunlight or lamplight just so. I even had them brighten the lamp outside my door under pretense of my poor vision! And every bright bauble kindled my yearning for a treasure of my own." At this we exchanged glances. In Holmes' features I could see his mind racing ahead, though we were just beginning to comprehend.
"I found an old sea chest at a shop on the docks, I did, and determined to fill it ... and as my little pile grew I sat beside it nights here in my little shop, shut out from the world. Many times I would close up business and dress the part, I would. I found costumes in the discard at local theaters. And when Morpheus came to claim me each night, I stirred my dainty treasures and held them to the light before climbing the stairs, and there is where I profited, gentlemen, my dreams were richer for it."
"But imitations can be had for very little money," volunteered Lestrade at this. "Could you not buy your own instead of taking them from others?"
The question was directed at the snatcher but it was Holmes who answered, "On the contrary, Lestrade, imitations of this quality cannot be easily had. Many of these are of the Crippen shops, who specialize in copies of valuable gems. It is exactly the sort of thing aristocrats wear in public when the danger of loss prohibits wearing the originals. I have had one or two dealings with such forgeries."
I noticed Mr. Lydecker drifting cautiously nearer Holmes now. Gone entirely was the man of madness, I saw, and in his place stood a child of a man, delighted to share his fantastic dreams of ethereal wealth. I realized it was impossible this modest soul had struck Mrs. Dubney or might bring harm to anyone, and saw my companions recognized it too. His lively manner and narrative had produced a curious effect upon Holmes and the Inspector, who stood one upon either side at a loss which direction to proceed, until the snatcher himself supplied one.
"Still have I a far greater treasure. I will show you!" and quick as a wink he disappeared behind a drapery. The startled Inspector gasped and leapt through the curtain after him with us right behind. But we need not have worried; there was no escape from that room, it being the shop's innermost sanctum.
The implausible stalker of gems crept to a corner, reached behind a bookcase, and we saw in surprise a dark space appear. From inside this secret hollow he withdrew three flat objects draped in black cloth, and with a look remarkable for its tenderness laid them carefully side-by-side upon a table.
"You have missed one monstrous thing about me, you have," he said with obvious glee. Then leaning forward as if fearing others might hear, spoke in low tones, "Night curator of the Upton Foundation library - that was me. Seven long years of drafty winters, and me caring for books everyone treated better than this poor old curator who dusted them, oiled the leather, and protected them from vermin. Till one night my stars fell right in line they did. Behind a bookcase was an old pamphlet, yellow with age it was and I thought to discard it, but something told me read it first. It was a handout for visitors, it was, and said books hold hidden treasure between their covers. Of course referring to their pretty words, but reminding me the rumor curators sometimes find things in the lining of books. I decided to find out."
Holmes instantly pieced it all together. "Of course! The criminal Dupier smuggled hand-written edicts from France by concealing them inside book covers. I thought that unusually clever for him. So he was not the first to think of it?"
The book dealer shook his head with gusto, thin white hair flying about in all directions, "It is an old trick for I found several dozen documents hidden in this way. When I took them home the library knew nothing of or missed them, so it was hardly stealing was it? They still had the book they paid for, and lost nothing by my gain. Is that not so?" Plainly the idea gave Holmes pause, but Lestrade grimaced at this loose interpretation of the legal moralities.
"Each day at closing I would examine the cellar books and storerooms. It was weeks before I found my first little surprise, an old cooking recipe of all unlikely things, but not knowing the language I kept it as purest gold thinking I had something. Imagine my surprise when I had it translated and learned my treasure map called for apples and cinnamon!" At this he began to chuckle wildly such that even Inspector Lestrade began to smile. "Still it much encouraged me, it did. If I could find a recipe I might find something more. Some months would bring nothing for all my troubles, and me having a schedule to keep from A to Z, but other months I would reach in and pull out several pages."
As it became clear what was being described, the methodical plunder of the prestigious Upton Library, Holmes and Lestrade were alternately captivated and dismayed by this man's sensational pilfering. That it had been conducted over the course of years made my friend ponder the possible enormity of the crime, while Lestrade was perhaps realizing this discovery might earn him a promotion.
In whispers the little man continued, "Shall I tell you my favorites? 'Twere the love letters stitched inside dainty maiden novels, letters safely locked away forever in their books and hearts from everyone but me. I have read them all so often I may fairly recite them," said he snickering unashamedly.
Inspector Lestrade grew at last impatient and shook the man roughly. "Now see here, enough of this! What is the point to it all?"
Patting down his shirt the little man drew a breath and drove to his finale. "But there is no more to tell. When the library let me go I kept some of the papers and sold the rest to have funds for my little book shop. Excepting the ancient love letters, which no one living has any claim to, all I have left are these three pages." Our eyes turned again upon the curious black squares.
"My best luck was in books from the ancient countries. There were just a many smugglers in those places, and thick leather book bindings always raised my hopes they did. I found inside two of them thin plates of silver and in one a sheet of gold! And then, just the month before I was turned out, I heard one of Galland's books was coming to London.
"I knew instantly I must have Mr. Upton divert that book for a tour at our place. I knew the rumor Galland found himself manuscripts no one else ever saw, a second volume of the 'Kitab Hadith Alf Layla', original in kind and the source of my very favorite Arabian stories. 'The Ebony Horse' was one story that came from nowhere except Mr. Galland and his secret manuscript source." Here the little book seller literally vibrated with emotion. We sensed he was approaching a climactic moment, when he began to pant and with trembling fingers reached for the black cloths.
"Mr. Galland's manuscripts were rumored to come from a lost Syrian volume ..." and here at last Lydecker peeled back the cloths to expose three cracked parchments of the most delicate sort, pressed between plates of glass. "I tell you for nearly two-hundred years no eyes have seen these pages but my very own, gentlemen. Not a pair. They were thought lost forever when Galland died for he had no heirs, but I have found them again. Gentlemen, here are the missing tales of the Arabian Nights!"
Instantly Holmes produced his lens and examined them minutely, verifying their incredible age. We were dumbstruck.
As the diminutive man wiped a smudge off one of the plates, Sherlock Holmes was taken with an inspiration and I saw him pull Inspector Lestrade aside. Though they spoke in muffled tones it was evident Lestrade was reluctant to listen, till I overheard from Holmes the words: "Much like that Chauncey Street affair." This reminder had a compelling effect upon Lestrade, who hung his head a moment and relented.
Taking a hold of the little man's crisp white collar now the Inspector spoke with unequivocal conviction, "Mr. Lydecker, it seems I have but one action open to me," and glancing over his shoulder to see Holmes nodding, continued. "In this curious business of the jewel robberies you have apparently taken nothing of grand value, though you have made a nuisance of yourself and are in line for theft and assault charges just the same. As for these documents it seems, as you say, they were in the library's possession by the merest accident and never part of what the library paid for." Lestrade cleared his throat after this last reluctant observation. "From what I can see we might have a most difficult time making serious criminal charges stick against you, Mr. Lydecker, if we cannot find any heirs to this Galland fellow and you have already disposed of all the other finds.
"Still I have my principles, and one of them urges me to report what you have done in order that a magistrate may decide whether you have committed a felony." The remark struck like a thunderbolt, awakening our pathetic prisoner at last to the danger of losing his treasures forever. His eyes began to water and his lips to quiver.
"Now none of that! You are more fortunate than you expect," and glancing again at Holmes emphasized, "Far more fortunate! For we have come to realize that recovery of these documents might prove quite a coup for Scotland Yard. As you were their finder it will perhaps also make you something of a national figure. It would not do to put our national figures behind bars.
"So in return for your putting an end to your queer little criminal rampage, and promise to hand over these three pages to a suitable British museum, I think it may be expected that the Crown would overlook your indiscretions in its gratitude. But here now, no false promises, it must be an ironclad agreement as Scotland Yard and Mr. Holmes will be keeping their eye on you!" Holmes nodded in conspiratorial confirmation.
It was indeed a generous offer of immunity from prosecution, but still the tiny man was in a quandary till Holmes added for his consideration, "A museum where the manuscripts would be forever kept safe, and you might view them any time you wished. You would be their discoverer Lydecker, a respected celebrity, with a brisk trade in consequence here at your little book shop." Holmes let this sink in a moment. "The alternative, I'm afraid, is public disgrace and prison, for despite his newfound compassion you should know Inspector Lestrade has considerable practice at hiding men from the sunlight for years at a time."
"And my other things? I would keep my treasures and little shop?" Holmes and Lestrade nodded simultaneously, Holmes betraying no emotion, Lestrade clearly discomforted but assuredly outmaneuvered.
Matters were swiftly arranged, leaving the fortunate book dealer in possession of both his freedom and fanciful treasure, and Inspector Lestrade in possession of the historical documents, with further guarantee the robberies had come to an end. Scotland Yard was the clear victor when we emerged into the cool night air, and with a feeling of near complete satisfaction we arranged ourselves side-by-side and began the trek homeward.
As we slowly distanced ourselves from the magical world of Basil Lydecker, I looked back one final time to inquire, "What will become of him, Inspector?"
"Whatever he makes become of him," was the reply. "If he sticks to our arrangement he will sit quietly in his little shop and emerge from it only for innocent purposes. When next he snatches so much as a moonbeam it will land him in the docket and he knows it! Now you tell me," said Inspector Lestrade turning to Holmes, "why so much trouble to accommodate this little man? Some of what he did might be hard to prove as criminal but it was surely not right."
My friend paused only a moment before replying.
"Lestrade, there are many times the law is unclear, and in those situations we must ask ourselves how best to interpret it. While it is true Lydecker took what was not his to begin with, in a way he made it his by right of discovery. The purloined documents were certainly not the clear property of the library, which never knew it had them and did not pay for them in the first place."
"You are mincing words you are, Mr. Holmes."
"Am I? I wonder how many would side with the Upton Foundation if others came forward to reclaim all those rediscovered documents?" This turnabout perspective had the effect of loosening the Inspector's faith in the library's position. It was a fatal mistake, one always learned, to argue against Holmes on the grounds of logic.
"This was a man's dream, Lestrade. Had we a right to rob him of that? Who would be the victim then? Oh, I do not say Lydecker was altogether proper in his conduct, but he caused very little harm, and uncovered a literary treasure he is now donating to the world at large. Is he not entitled to the least measure of compassion?"
"You are quick to forget your poor Mrs. Dubney when it suits you Mr. Holmes."
My friend managed a smile. "Oh, I think she has meted out justice sure enough. I doubt even Scotland Yard could improve upon her work."
The discussion went on some little time as we three strolled together beneath England's starry Heavens and breathed its crisp night air. Each time the inspector raised an objection the detective turned it easily aside. The moral questions were not ultimately decided, but had been plumbed to their depths by the time we bade Inspector Lestrade a good-night.
We were then so near Baker Street we planned to complete the journey on foot, when a kindly young gentleman offered to accompany myself and my mother to a nearby taxi and help her aboard. Holmes seemed perplexed a moment, then rocked the air with mannish laughter when he remembered his appearance, and while this frightened off our prospective escort it gave us a new topic to occupy the rest of our journey home.
Unlike most criminal cases, the chain of events set in motion by Basil Lydecker did not end with stopping his troublesome escapades. Two incidental events followed, both coming to a head the following week.
The first of these was the arrest by Inspector Lestrade of a second curator, for the theft of two rare documents. This led, as the reader may recall, to a slight scandal at libraries across London, and a new policy of examining the covers of all rare books for other historic finds.
Upon reading of the arrest Holmes immediately surmised the Inspector capitalized on his knowledge of the Lydecker affair and had set about to determine how widespread was the criminal practice. For such astute detective work the Inspector was publicly praised, placing Lestrade again in the headlines, such that Holmes tossed the paper aside with the sardonic remark, "The usual, Watson." However I detected a degree less acrimony than in times past, and felt in a grudging way my friend was for once impressed by Lestrade's initiative and dutiful efforts. He so much as composed a brief congratulatory telegram, though I later observed it crumpled in the fireplace.
For Holmes the more satisfying incident came in the form of an early-morning visitor the following day. On that particular morning I woke to the sound of guests in our sitting area, emerging from my room minutes later only to find it empty. Peering out the window then I thought I saw Inspector Lestrade and Holmes helping the beleaguered Mrs. Dubney aboard a carriage. Her identity was uncertain till she began striking the carriage with her parasol, which made the fact indisuptable.
When he re-entered Holmes carried with him a most thoroughly damaged walking stick, the body split a foot from one end and hanging limply. My inquisitive look stirred him to speak. "Watson, I fancy you recognize this stick. It is none other than that so frequently abused by Mrs. Dubney. It is in fact a gift from her, for it seems at my prodding Lestrade has uncovered an old history of this nefarious vagabond Robert linking him to several earlier widows, from whom he bilked a not inconsiderable sum of money. The arrest has just taken place."
"How industrious of the Inspector," said I, "Yesterday a curator, and today a manservant. But the cane seems a rather impractical gift in its condition."
Holmes waved it nonchalantly in the air, watching the dangling end sway back and forth. "It is one I shall treasure nonetheless. As for how it came to be in this condition, immediately after Lestrade alerted her to her manservant's past she called Robert into their presence and, without arousing his suspicion, asked him to help her with her broken boot lace. I have it from her own mouth there was nothing wrong with her boot lace, but she wished to have presented to her an opportunity equal to that which Robert himself had taken earlier advantage of."
"Meaning?" I asked.
"I have it on the highest possible authority that this fracture in the stick corresponds exactly with one on top of her manservant's head."
"She struck him?"
Holmes smiled back, "From the look of this stick I should say several times before Lestrade managed to stay her avenging energies. Lestrade then searched the servant's quarters uncovering some 18,000 shares of Africana Steamship stock left by Stanley Dubney to Clara. It seems Lestrade did more than his share of police work this week." And with that Holmes propped the stick in a corner behind some boxes and an umbrella. To my knowledge it stands there still.
I must ultimately conclude this narrative of the modest thief who stole only imitation jewelry, and the cunning which finally ended the affair, with a postscript.
It may be said Sherlock Holmes considered the Scotland Yard breed of detectives to be men of modest talent at best, yet recognized among them a handful of devoted public servants; and much as the great detective decried the former, it was perhaps inevitable he must one day acknowledge the latter. That day finally arrived when Inspector Lestrade rescued the endangered fortunes of Mrs. Dubney, causing a resurgence in Holmes' congratulatory spirits of the previous day.
Some weeks after he crumpled it in the fireplace, I was exceedingly surprised to see Holmes' telegram smoothed out and hanging under glass at Scotland Yard. With plaintive simplicity it read:
To those who knew and honored those enigmatic initials, it signified Scotland Yard had at last earned its ultimate endorsement.