From the day of our birth till we leave mortality behind us the hand of fate is weaving unseen threads into the pattern of our lives, binding together events in such a way that an episode in one life may unexpectedly influence the next. For most these tenuous links are of no more consequence than a chance meeting - but for one such as Sherlock Holmes, whose skein is wound tightly with the threads of so many remarkable events and people, every day brings with it the chance some invisible strand will pull him into the very heart of a surprising criminal affair. Never was this point made more clearly, more directly, than in that fateful autumn of 1894.
On one particular day my friend was inundated with work following his much publicized return from the grave, but for me it had been a lazy afternoon and promised to be one of those cool starry evenings about which much romantic literature is written. Beyond our open window clouds drifted into space as day stretched towards evening, and couples strode along Baker Street exchanging pleasantries as they passed on the walk below. I was myself beside our open window enjoying the refreshing breeze and a newspaper, thoroughly absorbed in an article on South American travel, when startled by a gunshot which nearly deafened me.
Convulsively I hurled my paper into the air! only to see between its fluttering pages the crouching figure of Holmes pulling at a string tied to a revolver, the weapon itself propped upon our table. He turned to me with a look of equal surprise.
"Sorry Watson, I didn't realize it was such a cannon. Did I disturb you? It is the load in these cartridges," and as I watched he emptied the cylinder to insert three fresh rounds.
Compensating now for his disturbance by way of explanation he continued. "I am attempting to discover how little force is needed to pull this trigger," whereupon he attached a small spring-scale to the cord and gave a gentle tug, discharging a second round into the stack of books he had arranged as target. A fresh cloud of pulverized material spewed forth and I noted with growing displeasure my old medical almanac among them.
"Could you not simply inquire of its maker?" I asked in growing heat.
"In ordinary circumstances yes, Watson, but these are not ordinary. This gun has been altered by filing down the release to make it a hair-trigger. Its owner was old and arthritic, and afraid he would be unable to use an ordinary weapon against intruders. Unfortunately his tampering has precipitated his own demise."
An accident I supposed, with only passing interest. Then just as I snatched up the last sheets of my paper a final blast startled me into scattering them once more; this time I let them lie. Holmes removed the weapon from its make-shift vice and balanced it on three fingers looking straight down the deadly barrel. "Some men are unforgivably careless with firearms, Watson. I am told by his housekeeper the victim was in the habit of keeping this on a lamp-stand with hammer cocked, and this morning at precisely two o'clock it was conveniently used by an intruder to blow his brains out. You yourself noted how loud it is. The blast woke his household and neighbors such that there can be no doubt about the time of death. And yet there was no immediate rush to investigate because of his other dangerous habit. His housekeeper explains field mice literally had the run of the house, a consequence of foolishly moving in next door to a cheese shop, and he sometimes practiced his aim upon the furry rodents."
"Shooting off revolvers in the house? How absurd!" I replied with a touch of sarcasm, but the irony was lost on Holmes.
"Indeed," he continued unaffected, "his official position shielded him from the expected legal retributions, but that noisome trait cost him three housekeepers. His latest is a more stalwart creature who simply ignored the habit. Still when he failed to come down for lunch inquiries were made. Finding his door locked she summoned the police who dutifully battered it down to find him lying in his bloody death bed, half his head missing. They in turn summoned Scotland Yard, and as it is not far from here, Lestrade invited me into it."
"And has there been some success resolving this ghastly affair?"
Holmes smiled cryptically. "The solutions have been more than ample, Watson. We have three to choose from."
"Mine, I'm afraid, is least popular at present, and I admit I cannot prove it.
"The police were quick to supply the first. As the windows were bolted and door locked they pronounced it a clear case of suicide, reminding us once again most suicides occur at such an early hour. I swear, Watson, that fact must be hammered into the heads of everyone on the official force, I grow so tired of hearing it. Any mysterious death before sunrise becomes instantly a suicide. When the police discovered this weapon flung behind a chair they presumed it the result of a convulsive gesture, much like yours with the newspaper." At this Holmes turned to me with querulous look, as if I should challenge him, but at my blank stare he shrugged and continued.
"Lestrade was of the far more sinister opinion this was a coldly calculated murder, and offered a surprisingly imaginative solution. When I arrived he was already leading two officers and the housekeeper about the room in grand fashion, showing them how the crime had occurred. I am able to appreciate a good performance and stayed out of his way as he explained ... 'It is obvious the man feared an intruder and for that reason kept a gun at his bedside with his room locked up tight. He also had protection by way of the stairs, as they creak like an old plank and no one could fail to detect an intruder climbing them at night. The murdered man was indeed safe in every direction Sergeant Hobbs, yet a killer entered unimpeded and was never in danger from this weapon. How is this possible, you ask? Why nothing is simpler. He himself invited the killer in.'
"Up till then, Watson, you may believe I was in complete agreement and nodded for him to go on. Thus emboldened, Lestrade proceeded to stretch his theory like a sheet of rubber ... 'Why should he do this, you ask? That is as obvious to me as this blood stain to you. The killer was a close acquaintance. More important it was someone who knew he used a revolver inside the house, and that neighbors were used to it and would not come running.' "
Holmes wet his lips in his enthusiasm. "Even as holes began to tear in Lestrade's fairy tale I could see the locals were impressed, so held my tongue as he prepared to deliver his coup-de-grace ... 'How do we know they were on intimate terms, you ask? That too is easy to prove, sergeant. The intruder had a spare key to this very bedroom. There was no other way for them to lock the door behind, you see, as the victim's keys are still on the bureau.'
"At this the two officers nodded in wonderful admiration, but the housekeeper was beginning to realize the Inspector's poor aim. On drove Lestrade to the inevitably wrong conclusion, and turning to the old woman ended in a deadly flourish ... 'This leads to but one conclusion: you are the guilty party. You murdered your master, disposed of your spare key to conceal the fact you had one, summoned the police to break down the door, then filled their heads with this looney idea of a suicide.' "
Holmes slapped both knees in a fit of laughter. "Lestrade did not get the expected reaction, I daresay. The poor woman fainted dead away. All he caught on her way down was her wig!"
"And your theory, Holmes? The unpopular one?" I interrupted.
Recovering himself with effort Holmes placed his hand upon my shoulder, and in a voice tinged with mock gravity said to me, "Watson, I am very much afraid Harold Whitworth, of Chauncey Street, has been shot to death by a mouse."
The reader may believe from these chronicles I am prepared to accept without hesitation all the great detective deigns to share, but this last was too much and my expression clearly betrayed me. Holmes took note and pressed his case, "You may have your doubts but I have quite made up my mind. When the housekeeper revived I had my turn to look about the room and it did not take long to dismiss the idea of a human intruder altogether, and draw the more obvious conclusion."
"More obvious? That a mouse has committed amurder?"
"Certainly. A fat little rodent, possibly the very criminal in question, crossed my path while I was inspecting the walls. That the creature in all probability scampered up the bedding and across the lamp-stand to discharge this revolver is another consequence of Harold's poor judgment, as he kept a wedge of cheese there for late night hunger pangs."
"And yet the weapon was found behind a chair?"
"Really, Watson, have you never heard of recoil? Still I fear there will be two sad postscripts to this affair," he concluded with renewed levity. "I have carelessly allowed the criminal to escape, which will certainly go against me in your little histories. And should it ever go to trial we could never make a case for murder, as the court will certainly have it changed to accidental homicide." I looked up at this droll remark to see a broad grin spreading across his face. It may be said by those who knew him best Sherlock Holmes enjoyed his personal humor immensely, even about subjects the reader must consider immoderate. Certainly his humor was as distinctive as every other part of his makeup, but when it involved human suffering I did not share in that irreverence and said so.
"In any case," remarked he in some disappointment, "I have let them know my theory, and we shall see if Lestrade comes around or continues on his present course. He has already put the neighborhood police on the case and is now looking into the housekeeper's sordid past in the church choir. But for us, Watson, there is something more pressing than a deadly rodent."
"And that is?"
"Our supper! The breeze from downstairs tells me there is an excellent ham coming out of the oven." And so saying he rested the weapon gently upon the desk and led the way.
The tragedy indeed proved unequal to the banquet, during which our conversation abandoned the affair at Chauncey Street, and came around to the life we again shared after Holmes' long absence. This glad conversation continued upon the stairs. "Yes, Watson, we are surely in a finely feathered nest. I've a steady torrent of cases to welcome me home, thanks to your publicizing my modest talents. And our apartments, though marked by continual want of airing out for which your cigars are chiefly to blame, are quite comfortable."
I responded in much the same appreciative tone, "Your shag tobacco is no more suffocating then in years past, and I have my consults and you your associates."
"And the weather is rather excellent, so I am at a loss to explain it." At this Holmes stopped upon the stair. I too halted and turned with questioning look. His unsmiling face rose to meet mine, "To explain what drives you to gnash your teeth between the ham and pudding, to explain why you twice looked at me with anger behind your affectatious smile."
It was an awkward moment. Instinctively I masked my features and entered our rooms, but when I mutely stared at the street below his eyes followed. I withstood that penetrating gaze but a few interminable seconds before confronting my roommate, one of the few times I have ever done so. "See hereHolmes. You might have found some target besides my almanac for your experiments. You know I am attached to my library as much as you to yours. Why could you not have put holes in our old dictionary instead?!"
My guilty companion indicated the bookcase, "Because it is missing."
"Twaddle," I retorted crossing the room. "It fits on only one shelf and no other. It is here where it always ... ," but its niche stood empty. "Preposterous. It must be somewhere, it only requires an effort," at which point I began a most vigorous search determined to chastise Holmes with the dictionary for his wanton destruction of my medical almanac.
Yet even as I hunted the desk, careful in not disturbing the still-cocked revolver, what began as a trifling inconvenience grew to surprising proportions. From behind me Holmes remarked, "While you are looking see if you will find my volume on toxicology." I soon realized neither could be located, nor several others, and quit the hunt. Turning back to my chair I found it now piled with books ... Holmes standing beside with two more in his hand and as grave a countenance as I have ever seen upon his face. He looked at me, to the lock upon our door, and again to me before uttering at last, "Watson, I fear we have had a very unexpected and dangerous visitor."
So naively was Holmes at last introduced to a peril long overlooked in his life, an enemy unknowingly made years before, and an incomplete vengeance biding its time. In all its many dimensions it encompassed both an innocence and a menace rarely found in combination, a deadly human mixture of oil and water.
Holmes immediately summoned the household which responded to his questions with growing alarm. Yes, there had been a man in the house. He was checking the lines for leaks, he was checking the entire street. No, no one had seen anyone enter our locked rooms. These and many other questions were asked in the most deliberate manner, and it was painful to see how they distressed one and all. The entire household needed reassurance Holmes did not lay the blame for this intrusion at their feet, and Mrs. Hudson was actually red-faced in her fluster and unable to calm herself.
Following this Holmes proceeded with astonishing energy to examine our sitting room, asking me about various objects, when I last used certain books; questions which, to the best of my recollection, I answered. Satisfied at last he took his brightest lamp and largest magnifier with him into the hallway and studied the keyhole and knob upon our door, the stairs, and all below.
Countless times have I borne witness to these painstaking inspections. Approaching virgin terrain the hound's blood coursing his veins fiercely alert, quick darting eyes searching any trace of his quarry. Yet here were unforeseen impediments, foremost of these the overwhelming familiarity of every household detail. It seemed the scent of the hound's own kennel obscured all others, our daily lives leaving a pervasive imprint upon the mat and other common artifacts. Adding to these difficulties the house itself was restored to near daily perfection by the unbridled industry of our housekeeper and her helpers. It seemed to me impossible one might pick out a single unwelcome thread amongst the many.
And so it proved. Close to eleven o'clock Holmes at last set his glass upon the mantle. "Watson," said he with heavy sigh, "I confess I am lost in my own household. Certainly there are traces of strangers about but to find anything out of place in the downstairs is to pay poor Mrs. Hudson a disservice, for nothing remains long out of sorts in her tidy domain. As for our own territory, the intruder is clearly an expert, and except for one or two small indications I cannot tell whether things have been touched by our hands or his." With a tired wave he turned for his room.
"No thinking pipe tonight?" asked I in some surprise.
"Not tonight, Watson. There are not enough pieces of this puzzle to even guess its size." Resigned, I gazed once more at the lingering panorama of stars, drew in a last refreshing breath of night air, and shut our windows up tight for the evening. I would continue to do so for the next eleven nights.
As it turned out, dawn shed a new and confusing light into the mystery, and from an entirely unexpected direction.
Just as we finished dressing Mrs. Hudson rushed up the stairs. We could hear her quick heavy steps just seconds before she nearly beat down our door! Once inside she breathlessly thrust at Holmes an unfolded newspaper, saying "There are your missing books!" We took her side and searched the page till our eyes found this surprising entry:
Mrs. Hudson, having caught her breath, resumed her impassioned announcement. "I was removing the scraps and run into poor Mrs. Albaney next door, the one with the nice marigolds. She came to me sayin' what a noble man you was Mr. Holmes, for donating your own books like that, and who would have thought you would do such a generous thing? You know she is such a nuisance about your guns and odorous experiments and visitors at all hours. When I asked the wherefore she brought me back the paper and I knew I must inform you instantly."
"So a medical library is involved, eh Watson? Well I have dealt with one or two physicians gone bad. There may be some connection." And so our compass needle had found its mark, and swung unerringly towards Beaumont Street.
It was not a far walk but a half-hour passed before we discovered the mentioned place, it being not truly a library at all but a converted residence. The only identifying feature was a small placard beside an alley stair. Twice we passed it, though eventually coming back to its door, and ultimately surrounding the desk of a generously proportioned curator. Upon hearing our demand that portly gentleman rose from his creaking chair in protest, "But I don't understand. We have not had time to even examine them yet, and already you require them back? Had you a change of heart, sirs? Surely they are not valuable books - at best they have the merit of celebrity - still our holdings are modest and we should feel pain at their loss."
"Mr. Merryweather," replied my friend sharply, "the books were not donated but stolen and I expect your pain can hardly equal ours." At this sudden rebuke the curator gave an unpleasant look, huffed his way to the office door, and there summoned an aid. That young fellow peered in at us, mirrored the disagreeable expression, and disappeared down the hall, it not being long before he returned with a cartload of recently donated books. We went through them picking out our own.
"All here? Now Mr. Merryweather, do tell us about this Mr. Ekard. He is the one mentioned in the paper. Did he personally deliver these?"
"I'm afraid I don't know, sir. He never entered our building. They were left on the steps without so much as a note. We had no idea where they came from till your arrival."
"Never entered? No one saw him?" The proprietor nodded. "You are saying the notice in the paper was not put there by the library? Then it was placed by the thief for our benefit, Watson, to bring us here." Yet after some few queries into the establishment's history and staff, Holmes decided the library itself was not the raison d'être.
"It must be the books themselves," said he, and at this Holmes stooped to gather our cargo while the curator looked on in respectful acquiescence. The fact these were but aging references with loose stitching did not escape his notice, as the look he stabbed at Holmes did not escape mine, and by pain of conscience I laid the dictionary back upon his desk as a charitable compromise. Having paid for it by way of my almanac I felt it mine to give, but my companion looked on reproachfully, "Really Watson. If you are going to be giving away our property kindly see to it you choose only what we can do without. I have marked several pages with a fold and I beg you bring at least those." Apologetically then I opened the dictionary and tore those pages free, closing its covers without looking up and hurrying after Holmes.
The sun was already climbing, and in its bright beam Holmes now flipped through the rescued tomes on our walk back to Baker Street while I served as walking bookcase, a difficult task under their combined weight. Finally he again divided the load and continued in silence; another few steps, however, and Holmes piled all six in my arms and bolted back to the library! Recovering from my surprise I was too weighted down to easily follow so obliged a policeman to stand watch over them as I too turned back.
"Something else?" the exasperated curator was demanding as I entered, handing over our battered dictionary. "Will you now reclaim the 'N' words Mr. Holmes? You have a need for the 'Ps'? Have you spared us too much of the alphabet?"
"There is only this," came my friend's terse reply, and in astonishment we watched him violently shake from between its pages a single slip of paper. With a cry of satisfaction Holmes traded one for the other, and leaving behind a relieved curator returned to the sunlight. "It stood to reason, Watson, if the thief left that hint in the newspaper our next clue must lie in one of the books, else why be so anxious for us to recover them?" Out came the ever-present glass as he touched upon every physical detail of the note, before reading these ominous words upon its face:
You made a fool of me once. I must repay the favor.
"Some sort of childish vendetta," said Holmes reflecting. "Well, we shall see, Watson. We shall see."
Back at Baker Street we immediately set about restoring our bookcase. That is to say I began the task while Holmes unearthed his scrapbooks. And having stacked our rescued volumes upon the table I was shelving those in my chair when he broke the eerie stillness.
"It seems we have acquired a formidable enemy, Watson. He is surely a large man of considerable strength and daring, medically educated with knowledge of poisons, practiced with deception, talented lock-pick, and acquainted with the vicinity in which we live.
"Ah yes, your familiar blank stare, so let us begin with his height. The intruder carelessly left behind several distinct marks in the dust atop the bookcase, always four fingers close together, in the manner of one holding onto a ledge. They are certainly his, Watson, not yours or mine. I expect he was clinging to that top shelf as he leaned over our bookcase, searching out whichever volumes would suit his purpose, and judging by the length of his fingers he could hardly have been less than six feet.
"Returning here you and I shared the load of books, yet he surely carried them down the steps and some ways down the street unaided. The unabridged is no slight volume, nor are four others he took. There you have obvious strength to match his size. What else? His use of deception? Mrs. Hudson said the workman seemed quite authentic when questioned about his business and you know how careful she is for our sakes. As for his skill with locks, we have an excellent one on our door, yet he got past it and slipped inside our rooms before anyone noticed him on the stair."
"And his knowledge of medicine, poison, our vicinity?" I asked, still emptying my chair.
"Those are hardly in question. The Downey Library is an obscure one known apparently only to medical students, and only local ones. You saw it is not a thing one easily stumbles across. And he surely recognized my margin notes in 'Veneno Remedium' for antidotes, he admitted as much in his newspaper hint. He also knew the library's nature without ever entering the building. For all these reasons I'll wager a medical education. Surely you will admit your world is filled with those who take a jaded view of death, Watson. There was Dr. Roylott though he has gone to join his victims; the reclusive Miss Strickland with her hungry menagerie; and that dreadful Culverton Smith who knew more about coolie diseases than any man alive, though by now he must be equally up on iron bars and masonry walls. Whoever this may be, we must be on guard. We cannot trust the strangers we meet, the safety of our familiar back-alleyways, or even the lock upon our door."
"That is hardly encouraging, Holmes."
"Never fear, Watson. We do have experience on our side. Still, if this is an old foe as it appears from his note I hoped to find him in my scrapbooks, yet there is nothing under Ekard except the American strangler. And yet I feel there is ... something ... a memory so dim it yet remains shrouded in gloom. This is perhaps not the time for close inspection, Watson, but for long reflection."
Just by chance then, I had sorted our rescued volumes in the order they too would return to their proper shelves - Neiland's Pharmacology, the English Dictionary and Thesaurus, Veneno Remedium and the rest - when I noticed a curious effect. If you arranged the binders in a neat stack the titles spelled out the name "NEVILLE". Amusedly I turned to draw Holmes' attention to this queer detail, but as he was again absorbed in scrapbooks I let it pass.
Finally I recovered my unfortunate almanac from the tabletop, mortally wounded in its first several chapters. Admitting to myself it too was perhaps old and arthritic, like the revolver's previous victim, I reluctantly laid it to one side till such time as I could salvage my margin notes. All the rest of that day I attended a locksmith summoned to reinforce the ground floor entrances. I was determined the locksmith, at least, would have no possible opportunity for mischief.
Not till supper did Holmes finally descend. When he did his tired look revealed even his voluminous closet files failed to yield a suspect, whereupon I suggested the curiosity of the book titles. At this Holmes eyed me as though I'd intentionally concealed such knowledge, and turning away from his meal went immediately back up-stairs to search anew. Mrs. Hudson dutifully followed with sandwich and drink.
This whole strange affair could not have materialized at a worse time. My friend was everywhere in demand with little energy for distractions, there being a murder and forgery requiring his most urgent attentions. Still it was plain to see which case struck closest to home in every sense of those words.
Over the next several days the unwelcome specter from Holmes' past haunted him increasingly, appearing in news and agony columns on a daily basis, purposely taunting him from just beyond reach.
The culprit took great care in covering his tracks. Scripts for the agony column were plainly printed and delivered to its publisher in envelopes of undistinguished origin. Other newspaper mentions of Bryan Ekard were passing events: an opinion letter to the editor, a brief oration on a street corner, even a charitable public donation. Following each public appearance our mysterious adversary retreated again into the shadows, and all that could be reliably determined from eye witnesses was his general description as a tall man with split beard, bright vest, and educated speech. Holmes had not the time to investigate the matter himself, and depended upon a friend at the Yard to gather even this much information.
I need perhaps mention our tormentor's infernal notices in the agony columns were always in boldest print and first among the page listings. One I recall vividly abused the great detective's reputation saying "he seems to suffer of late from mental rheumatism". If I could have lain my hands upon the author Holmes' torment might have ended there, but the enemy continued to mock with impunity in both morning and evening editions. There was of course no one but myself to blame for all London knowing Holmes' passion over the agony columns. Usually he read them voraciously, though lately with less appetite.
On one occasion we actually witnessed the audacious scoundrel lurking outside our door! He threw a pebble at our window and we gave immediate chase, but he slipped momentarily from sight and was only noticed again a long way off, with no hope of being overtaken. Our quarry was indeed tall and energetic, fleet of foot, an athlete of the first order.
Most irritating of all this peculiar charade was beginning to catch the public eye. Mrs. Hudson fended off rude comments by her neighbor, and passers-by would doff their hat and wish Holmes good luck, a thing he found positively annoying.
Even Inspector Lestrade offered help capturing the one responsible, though on that occasion we heard more about the difficulties in his own case.
"You may tease if you like, Mr. Holmes," said Lestrade enjoying our cigars, "but when I am through you will find one less murderer in our city. The housekeeper turns out to be innocent as you and I expected all along, but you did not know Mr. Whitworth had enemies among his neighbors, did you? He was to one and all a mean-tempered man who trusted no one, disliked by his own relatives. He has finally paid the price and it was murder pure and simple. I have staked my reputation on that fact, and this morning gave an interview with the papers. You shall see results soon enough." At this Holmes eyed the Inspector stonily, then looked down and away. Indecision seemed to cloud his face as Lestrade took leave.
Help notwithstanding, after a week of petty torments my exasperated friend finally dismissed them as inconsequential, saying to me of an evening, "I have begun to think he is having a harmless game with us, Watson. Perhaps we should simply lock our doors and forget about him." And so we may have, but the phantom did not remain harmless for long.
Holmes woke me with the next morning's paper.
"Our little contest has taken a decidedly evil turn, Watson! A tall thief with split beard and bright vest forced his way into the till at Montgomerey's market yesterday. He would be in prison now but was exceptionally fast and managed to slip from sight. When pursuers seemed to corner him at last they found they had actually mistaken their quarry! Ha! The man they surrounded looked identical to the culprit but held an unbreakable alibi, as he'd been seen elsewhere arguing with a shop owner at the time of the robbery. So similar were the men in appearance pursuers could not believe they had erred, but the man's public tirade had attracted a large audience of unimpeachable witnesses. To conclude the matter, the man captured did not have the money on him, so had to be let go. By then of course the real thief was long gone. Now what do you think of that?"
"The thief was most fortunate," said I, rubbing sleep from my eyes.
"Not fortunate, Watson, cunning! It is called 'the switch' when one purse snatcher hands his prize to another during the chase, but it is a clever twist to hand off the entire pursuit to a look-a-like. And it happened not just yesterday but has been going on for days, always in a different part of the city where the locals have not yet caught on to the trick. Think of it, Watson. Eight places robbed and the thief allowed to escape each time, because the man caught was never the proper one.
"You know what this means, of course? Split beard, bright vest; this is our tormentor and he is no longer alone. He has recruited a partner close to him in stature, disguised one to look like the other, and they work as a pair. One draws public attention while the other goes about thieving in the shadows. An effective ruse, Watson, I daresay it was played on us. When we ran like fools down Baker Street the real quarry ducked from sight while his disguised partner showed himself fifty yards away. Well if all goes according to plan I shall have my murderer in handcuffs by tomorrow and my forger the day after. Then I will deal more directly with this pest from my past."
Alas, "the best laid plans ...", it was not meant to be.
In less than the forty-eight hours, on the Saturday crowned by Holmes' brilliant arrest of the notorious dockside killer Darby, our mysterious foe was to alter the timetable. We woke that night to the tinkle of broken glass, and joined forces in the sitting room to see our window framed in fire! Whoever threw the combustive canister struck the edge of the pane, breaking the glass but bursting against the outside, and with quick action we managed to douse the fire. During our frantic defense it seemed a tall figure watched from down the street but of this we could neither of us be certain.
With the fire just extinguished Holmes turned to me with a new plan in mind. "There can be no more delay, Watson. We must confront this menace more directly, else poor Mrs. Hudson is in danger of losing her home and us our very lives."
"And how will you stop someone who cannot be found?" I asked with equal concern.
Holmes peered back with something of a scowl. "Really, Watson, have you been paying no attention at all? Every street goes two ways. By our Sunday supper I hope to know what the villains look like under their false beards, their true names, and where to locate them. For the moment I will send the boy to summon a police patrol; till then we must take turns watching in case our Mr. Ekard is as determined as he is dangerous." And at that Holmes woke the boy and dashed off a note, but just as Jimmy was about to leave called him back for another, then rushed him off ahead of the sun. And so when the morning paper arrived I turned reluctantly to the agony columns to read our adversary's latest taunt, and there directly beneath it was surprised by the following:
Behind me Holmes read over my shoulder. "That should do. There is not a man alive who does not check the notice he paid to put in the paper, and he will surely see my name in bold print beneath his own. He will be suspicious to be sure, Watson, but equally curious. If his gang has more mischief planned he must make certain I am at my appointed place for fear I have some trick up my sleeve. I will naturally have some business with our Mr. Ekard, but should be delighted to meet you there at half-past four." So it was I arranged to visit old friends in that vicinity that afternoon, and went straight-away from there to Holmes' appointed place, a full hour before my expected time.
Pawnbroker's Row, as I was to discover, is little more than a pock-marked avenue stretching like dun carpet before a row of run-down shops. There the dregs of society mill about freely; immigrants, common street ruffians, and others supplying the pawn shops of east London with what likely as not is someone else's property. I wondered at once why Holmes chose such squalor for his business and how to abide the time. Walking the thoroughfare barely avoided the reek of alleyways, and I was sorely tempted to hail a cab.
I recall too pausing in front of one shop when my eyes lit upon an exceedingly repugnant statue. It was an impossible animal with mandibles of an ape yet ears of a dog, human torso but widely distended vertebra. To me it represented an entire year of anatomical study in one grotesque specimen. Though it possessed the charm of curiosity it hardly did credit to the inspired talents of my fellow Briton, and I could scarcely decide if it was art, kneeling to decipher its inscription plate when a sudden touch made me start violently.
"Holmes!" I shouted, only to realize the stranger who acted so familiar was not my friend at all, but an indigent I had earlier passed come limping after me. Holmes, I recalled then, would not arrive for half-an-hour.
"Beggin' pardon guv," began he in full cockney. "I thought as you were so int'risted in this 'ere work of art you might make an offer."
"To you?" asked I, stepping back from the scent of liquor and letting my doubt show.
"Michael's me name," came his next words upon a deadly breeze. This scant introduction he followed with a storm of praise for the statue, laced with offers of selling it to me, each more generously imbued with the language and aroma of a brewery. Fortunately I'd dealt with gadabouts and knew their only discouragement was brashness, so took my time examining the thing more closely then finally turned with resolution, "It is utter trash," said I, "the work of some wretched artist ... I would not give my oldest hat for it."
Unshaken the vagrant staggered closer, "I'm the wretched artist I am."
On the heels of this sudden embarrassment the shop proprietor appeared. "Michael! Here now, what have I told you about bothering my customers?! Forgive 'im, sir, he's always a bother to people this way. It's the drink."
Transformed by a fit of nervousness the man changed his composure entirely, "Eh, why good-day Mister 'erbert. Bother the gen'lman? No not a'tall sir. I was jus' sayin' what a loovely statue 'e found wasn't I?" looking at me with pleading eyes.
"I hope he hasn't disturbed you, sir?" pressed the shopkeep, wiping spattered hands upon his shirt-tail. "If this statue is not to your liking we have many more of equal artistry inside," at which point he attempted to draw me into his cluttered hovel with bony hand upon my wrist.
At this I stepped determinedly away, and as I did so the indigent made a vindictive turnabout. "The gen'lman won't touch your trash, Mister 'erbert! The gen'lman says it's not worthy of his oldest hat!" Under this new humiliation I gazed uncomfortably from one to another, and it was a small blessing when the proprietor again reproached the swindler, embroiling them in loud exchange which left me free to edge out of the fray. If not for my promise to Holmes I would have deserted entirely.
Peering anxiously now for Holmes I fancied him in the distance, yet he was in fact nowhere to be seen. To make matters worse the dreadful pest again approached. "So the statue what I put me heart into is no good, is it?" At this I scoured him with a menacing stare expecting his withdrawal at the last. Heedless he drew ever closer and my hand instinctively covered my coin pocket. "But it really is a loovely piece," said he almost on top of me now, "provided you favor monstrosities." And all at once the voice softened, the stiff figure loosened, and I was face-to-face with my old friend.
A grin positively lit Holmes' face as he winked beneath the shabby cap, "Come now, Watson," said he in whispers, "admit you did not know. You are perhaps fortunate the real Michael is not here or that artless travesty would adorn our parlor this very evening, I have no doubt of it. Michael can be very persuasive in his way."
"Really Holmes, you presume I would buy such a thing? I am not so easily beguiled by the common swindler."
"But Michael is no ordinary swindler. Around here his silver tongue is legendary and his victims dot the map from Trafalgar Square to Middlesex. He preys upon trusting souls, Watson, and I've no doubt he would be drawn to you like moth to flame. It is because he is so familiar a figure and confidence man in this part of London I borrow his identity from time to time. His reputation and physical build suit my needs perfectly."
"How do you know he will not even now appear to ruin your deception?"
At this Holmes held up a pound note. "This is how I know. There is no fraud so tempting he will not stay in bed all day for one of these. Now if our Mr. Ekard shows up in disguise he shall find me able to play that game as well; and after all, Watson, I did promise the public a demonstration of my powers," said he with generous bow. Glancing about now he suddenly stiffened and pulled back down his tattered cap. "Pray act indignant and be loud about it, then wait for me near the window in that café if you please."
Reacting instantly I stepped back and roundly chastised "Michael" his impudence and hurried into the café, there taking up the vantage point suggested. It was only then I observed a tall man approaching in solid boots and heavy pants, brightly colored vest and the subdued collar in vogue in some centers of fashion. His gold watch chain shone brilliantly in the sunlight.
The man crossed to our side of the street to observe the theater entrance when Holmes, shielded beneath his veneer of dirt and disrepute, began to circle like a shark. It was a curious ballet I watched from my table. Several times Holmes approached the man, once carelessly knocking off his hat, repeatedly plucking at his vest, and at one point engaging in animated discussion over the statue. I could not fathom the meaning behind this strange tableau, but realized the stranger could not move far from that spot if he was watching for Holmes' presumed arrival at the theater entrance.
I was myself prepared to do whatever the situation called for. When the man pulled something bulky from his vest and appeared to threaten Holmes I rose immediately, only to see Holmes push the object forcefully aside. Eventually the two withdrew into a nearby alley, returning soon after only to drift apart. The bearded man then took up a new place at the street corner, looking around once or twice as though afraid to turn his back. Holmes meanwhile passed first to his left, then his right, and when the suspicious stranger spun fully around my friend turned away to scrutinize a large dressing mirror in the pawnbroker's window.
Finally our quarry tired of the game, and seeing no apparent sign of Holmes hailed a cab which carried him swiftly from our presence. I saw my friend watch him disappear in the distance, then look towards me smiling and flipping a coin. At last he rejoined me.
At the table Holmes put his finger to his lips in a gesture of silence and signaled the waiter, "Watson, this is Degeneres, for whom I once did a small service. In return he is the most tight-lipped waiter in all of London. Also the most attentive; he does not bring bad food nor leave you with an empty glass. Now what will you have?"
"You mean we are to dine here?"
"Most certainly. Why do you think you were invited? When I pose as Michael this is my supper spot and I have often wanted you to try the hash."
I at once shot back in dismay, "I thought you had need of me!"
"Nonsense, Watson," and seeing it's effect on me added, "though you were excellent practice."
"And what has been the result of all this?" asked I, hardly pleased to have been used for the practice dummy, and that at my discomfort.
"Mixed success. I doubt it was he who tried to burn us out. But I have learned this Bryan Ekard, for that is the name on his pocket card and in his wallet, favors his left hand from the way he kept using it to push me away. Also he is not in disguise but as nature made him. He is not wearing shoe lifts so is six-foot-three. When I knocked off his hat and placed it back upon his head I saw the roots of his hair matched the tips, so that is his true color. His dangerous partner must therefore be the one in disguise, Watson, which will certainly make him more difficult to corner. Furthermore this one's accent is that of educated North London and he is indeed medically inclined, for when I boasted of the anatomical complexities of that horrid statue he instinctively followed my description with his eyes."
This was indeed a wealth of new knowledge, but knowing Holmes' thoroughness I waited for more.
"I see I can get nothing past you," he continued with a smile. "Ekard may be the gang's decoy but is surely not a professional thief. He does not recognize even the most amateur deceptions of the common street shark. I picked his pocket twice and returned the property undetected. Also he has a slight limp and could hardly be the runner we saw sprint from our sight. On the morrow I shall make inquiries of Taxi 782, which carried him away, and find the rest of his gang. Oh, and one other important result."
Holmes proudly held up a half-Sovereign. "He has bought that horrid sculpture to be rid of me and paid for our supper. Now let us eat."
For the first time in days Holmes felt he was evening the score with his tormentor, and we enjoyed what would indeed prove to be an excellent hash.
It was a little before the next sun-up when I woke with a start. Holmes was again at my bedside, holding a lantern. "This time it's deadly, Watson."
Still waking I asked, "Where are you going?"
"It is not far. A man has been attacked a few minutes' walk from here and the police have called upon us."
"You mean of course called upon you," said I rolling over in my warm bed.
"I mean what I said, Watson. We are both summoned."
In four minutes' time I had clothes upon my back and medical bag in hand. By the front door waited an Officer Causey to lead the way. The chill night mist veiled street lamps in ghostly circles as I shivered under my cloak, and I vaguely wished criminals would do their business in the daylight. Holmes, I could see, shared the sentiment.
Ten minutes more and we also met Officer Hinkley, a veteran of night beats, and in this unworldly gloom his cheery welcome seemed much out of place. The dank alleyway he led us down, a popular shortcut between Wyndham and Knox, seemed more traveled than most but surprisingly clean. Both ends were now blocked off by the industrious officers to preserve the site for Holmes' inspection.
"G'morning Mr. Holmes. Doctor. Sorry for the earliness of the call but knowing your wish to be first upon any scene which directly concerns you I felt it devilishly important," said he, conducting us to the side of a prone body. "Surely the victim has been here some time judging by the blood dried on the back of his head and no pulse, so I am sorry for bringing you out too Dr. Watson. It was just you were so convenient living with Mr. Holmes and my first thought was to send for you both." The officers gave one another admiring looks for their quick thinking.
"And how does this concern me directly?" asked Holmes behind a yawn, peering down at the victim.
"Why the address he was clutching," and so saying handed over a small scrap of paper. Over his coat sleeve I read in a hasty scrawl "221B Baker."
My friend then held it to the light. "Torn from a larger sheet, a man's writing, blunt pencil probably the only thing at hand to write with, done in haste, no water markings of course. Not very helpful. You have the other piece of this note?"
The officers looked to each other then to us.
"The piece he was to deliver!"
"Begging pardon, but that was the only note we found, Mr. Holmes. He had no other."
Holmes gave his most exasperated look. "Colossal ignorance. Of course he had another. An ordinary dustman is not plucked from the curb to deliver urgent messages from memory. It must be here, everyone look about," yet after thorough search none was to be found. Holmes turned instead to the victim, clearly a simple laborer murdered while crossing the alley, sprawled flat on his chest between outstretched arms. Holmes' deft fingers now moved with mechanical precision verifying the absence of a pulse, blood caked in the hair, and searching for other signs of injury. He next emptied the contents of the man's pockets and set them aside.
Eventually the victim was rolled over and the face examined for muscular contortion, a sign he struggled at the end, but there was none. Undoubtedly he'd been struck down by a single deadly blow from behind. The face itself was damaged by the fall, unshaven but kind in nature, and had the look of simple British nobility, of hard work and family devotion. Though pale in the lamp light, in life he might have been a ruddy robust man.
Holmes finished with the corpse and turned next to those objects upon the ground, immediately picking up a crisp bank note. "Here is what he gave his life for! A man in his station would never carry such a sum. If he owned one it would be old and tattered before descending to his level. His hands and clothes mark him as a dustman: callused, impenetrable dirt beneath the nails, scratches about the hands, and his clothes and boots verify it. He was doubtless on his way to making rounds when spotted by the man who sent him to us, the payment and notes thrust into his hand before he could object. Whoever is responsible must reside somewhere between where this man lives and where his rounds begin.
"Watson, this man was bringing us a warning, I am sure of it. Nothing else will explain the impulsive note and choice of messengers. Also I fear the note's author was observed by whoever killed this poor fellow, someone who knew it to be an act of betrayal, else the dustman would not be chased down and the note taken away. We had best find our mysterious benefactor or his life too may be forfeit."
The officers fell back at this sudden deluge of information. "If you are sure of his occupation, Mr. Holmes, and that he lives hereabouts, we can identify him from that. You're most positive he is a dustman?"
"Quite. If he had not bathed for church yesterday you would surely smell his occupation and expect him to be a grimy brown, instead of sallow pink."
My ears perked up at that. "Pink? Did they not say he's been here for some time?"
"My stars Watson!" cried Holmes as he instantly deduced my meaning and again examined the face. "Cool from the night air but not cold; I felt no arterial pulse but there's capillary flow when I press my thumb against him. Still alive Watson. Good show!"
And indeed he was alive, just barely. The detective moved aside now as talents of the physician were called upon.
The breathing was too shallow to leave even a trace upon my mirror so we opened his shirt, and shushing the inquisitive constables I pressed my stethoscope and held my breath to detect the barest tremor of a sluggish heart. The patient was hovering at death's very door in what would be my only professional encounter with "fictus sopor", a false coma, that rarest condition of serious head trauma. Knowing he might expire any moment I determined instantly what must be done, but the victim had only my long acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes to thank for what came next; for in placing himself in frequent peril the great detective has learned to guard against every weakness save one.
It is a weakness I have ever been reluctantly prepared to meet head-on. To the surprise of all present I hastily spread out my cloak and emptied my medical bag, reaching deep inside to pry up a hidden flap and draw out a thin roll of cloth. This I untied and laid flat in the wide beam of a lantern to reveal a small tin, candle, matches, a syringe, and a vial of the purest white powder.
In the lamplight I could see curiosity in Holmes' face as he crouched beside me, and then recognition. His eyes turned to mine and I heard the barely whispered words "dear Watson" before he crept back to give me room.
By divine grace the very substance which had proven to be Holmes' most enduring nemesis was also a powerful stimulant, the most potent known to medicine. I had carried it in fresh supply these many years for an emergency entirely unlike the one which now faced us, and though its healthsome effects were largely speculative I administered it without hesitation. Even as I prepared to light the candle Holmes pried open the lantern saying, "You will find this flame quicker, Watson." And so tipping the powder into the tin and holding it by hemostat I immersed it in the fiery tongue.
Drawing the resultant liquid into the syringe I gave but one injection, and with three lanterns now fully trained on my patient we saw in thirty seconds the cheek regain a slight blush, even as my stethoscope found growing strength within. Soon after the eyes fluttered above soundless lips. Our dustman might be incoherent for some time still, but signs of restoring vitality were evident and I thanked providence I had been so wonderfully prepared. Holmes himself offered a congratulatory nod.
"Of course he will need the attentions of a hospital," said I, and at this an officer was immediately dispatched. It was nearly twenty minutes before his return with a carriage and I was by that time ready to move the patient. Soon after we reached the clinic at Beaumont, served by the very library which had earlier laid unwelcome claim to our books.
The modern London hospital is assuredly a testament to our high regard for human life, standing at the forefront of a never-ending battle for medical enlightenment, but such work demanded tireless patience. When the injured man muttered inconsequential nonsense for over an hour it proved too much for Holmes, and pacing the room he remained with me only till eight o'clock, then took his leave.
Our dustman finally did regain his sensibilities about mid-morning, recalling a bearded gentleman handing him something out a window, and more importantly where. The note's writer had seemed in a dreadful hurry and quite fearful, so I understood at once Holmes was right about the element of danger, sending urgent word to Baker Street and Scotland Yard before hurrying on alone to the mentioned address.
Everywhere along the way I sought a policeman without success; they seem to be on every corner till one is required! Still I knew the destination to be in a public part of the city, not far, and remained confident I might handle any situation until help arrived. As it turned out the avenue had only one building of the indicated color and once inside the foyer I easily determined which room commanded the ground floor window, summoned the landlord, and bringing him along knocked resoundingly upon its door.
To my shock a gentle voice on the other side inquired of my business, to which I answered, "I know you have a man there who is in danger, and demand you give him up without delay!" This sent ripples through the apartment and muffled talk with quick movement could be heard on the other side of the door. I realized all at once my haste had placed me in a precarious position, but as the door opened I remembered too a life may hang in the balance, and counting on my natural abilities felt no alternative but to enter.
It was there in that room reeking of tobacco I saw up close the man Holmes had encountered in front of the pawnbroker's, his broad whiskers, long face, and soft hands he extended to shake mine. With the surprising demeanor of a lamb he apologized for hesitating and welcomed us to look about, whereupon I charged swiftly past the water closet to a second door and determinedly into the private chamber. It stood empty but for two cots, bureau, and one large valise in the corner. Nothing there.
Suddenly, a cry of alarm from the room I had just quitted! Turning back I felt an arm clamp about my shoulders as the smell of chloroform filled my nostrils. It had been a hastily laid trap but an effective one and I was caught in it. My next dull memory was of the landlord tied beside me on the floor of the bedchamber, the valise gone now, and my head resting upon an old scarf. I don't know how long we lain unconscious but an officer was loosening our bonds and telling me Holmes was on his way. In ten minutes more he too was at our side.
"I see you have been getting yourself into mischief, Watson. Are you hurt?"
I indicated I was not.
"You certainly give me a fright whenever you fancy yourself a detective. For your own good I may someday have to teach you the necessary skills, though I fear it is a lost cause. You will permit me to remind you of one basic tenet, however: when dealing with a gang always keep an eye out for other members as their chief will seldom be found alone. Also permit me to point out your unwanted interference has not only risked your life but this man's, and your actions have put the criminals to flight when someone wiser would have waited for the police to corner them. This was pure and dangerous meddling, Watson. Unforgivably so. Whatever possessed you to try your soft skills against such a hard gang?"
When I failed to answer his tone softened then, from criminal agent to friend. He could hardly so soon forget recent revelations. "Forgive me, Watson. Your skills may be muddy but your intentions always pure. You are truly all right? Then tell me instead what you observed here. How many, their undisguised appearance, property scattered about? Anything you recall, now."
Sadly my few moments of consciousness yielded little beyond the fact one had great strength, as Holmes had already deduced, and carried chloroform, more evidence of a medical trade. Disappointed Holmes next questioned the landlord. At last the familiar ritual began anew; unlike Baker Street, however, there were no distractions here. The shutters were thrown back wide to let in bright light of day, and from every corner the apartment began to yield its many secrets, reliably recorded in scratches, odors, fibers and ashes. The great detective paused at length beside bizarre marks along the walls and door frames, moved the sitting chair in front of the window to examine it thoroughly, and many other activities which drew inquiring looks from the officer and landlord. He did not at once divulge all these signs might portend, but clearly there were clues to the occupants' identity and intent upon every surface in a language Holmes alone had mastered.
Finally he reached for the scarf found beneath my head. "This was not intended to fall into our hands so soon, Watson. According to the landlord the occupants were expected to be here a few more days, but your discovering their camp rearranged their plans. Likely this is our next clue; they would not leave it behind if we were not meant to find it.
"The landlord has only seen one but of course two men shared these rooms, one educated and tame in his ways, the other savage without fear or conscience. I am certain the first is Bryan Ekard as he is left-handed and spent many hours in this chair composing his notices for the papers. No doubt he spent some restless nights here too, regretting his terrible partnership but afraid to break it off." At this the officer raised his brow in a question mark and Holmes immediately accommodated.
"The facts are clear. Ashes and two broken pencil points litter that side of the chair where a left-handed person would naturally hold his cigar and do his writing. Also there is an abundance of hair and two places stained by drool upon the chair pillow, which cannot be from a mere sitting. It is my guess he so disliked or mistrusted his partner he preferred the discomfort of the chair to sleeping in the same bed chamber.
"It is the other man who concerns me, the reckless and dangerous one, the one who paced these rooms day and night like a caged animal. I found several paths where he paced and smoked and dropped ashes in endless repetition; when he grew bored with one direction he tried another. The notches you see about the door frames and walls are also his. At least a dozen times he struck angrily at the wood with a sharp blade. The direction of the cuts tells me he is right-handed.
"What I find irreconcilable, Watson, is for two such reluctant partners to be on such intimate terms. When one sent us a warning the other sought to murder the messenger, yet his treasonous partner went apparently unmolested. You'll note also how instantly they cooperated in your capture, with only seconds to lay their trap. They as well shared a single valise, there being no marks of others on the dusty floor, which explains why they have been seen in only two outfits. Both also had a taste for Trichinopoly cigars. They even used the same razor, Watson, as only one has left a mark in a week's worth of dry lather on the sink.
"Men do not often grow this close outside of prison, Watson. The fact one is an excellent lock-pick and thief makes that even more likely, and I feel I might identify them even now if I could only recall where I first encountered them. As for this scarf there is an emblem upon it which will certainly lead to something."
"Surely you recognize it, Holmes" I commented unconcernedly, rubbing my wrists.
He looked at me in genuine surprise. "Should I?"
"Good Heavens, Holmes, you really don't recognize your own alma mater?"
For once it was my friend who was startled. "Watson, I swear I had no idea. What possible interest was it to me what the school emblem was? I was hardly out of the laboratory. Well of course this leads us to our next step." Then he smiled after a fashion, saying, "I am fortunate you are so involved after all, Watson. I cannot help thinking how disappointed would our adversary be if I could not follow their excellent clue to my own place of origin!"
My next stop was Baker Street where I was let off to rest. Holmes continued without me and returned in time for supper.
"Holmes, you're back!"
"You are certainly the observant one, Watson." His tone indicated all had not gone well, as did the full pouch of tobacco he plucked from his pocket.
"I have a long night ahead of me, Watson, and will begin with supper. If you please, Mrs. Hudson?"
Taking her cue our faithful housekeeper was quick to tend to his needs, and after his meal we retired to the parlor to discuss the case. He found it helpful to focus aloud on an investigation's meaningful points; my own contribution to that process is sometimes exaggerated by Holmes, but amounts to being an ear to test the sound of his theories. He sat back and took off his boots now, and a whiskey and soda prepared him a comfortable start.
"I spent a good deal of energy on that scarf today, Watson. I have of course just returned from the school, where I began my investigation at the hall of records. Several kind ladies there, despite their quick movements and thick glasses, were unable to find any mention of either Bryan or Neville Ekard, and Bryan's face was not in any of the school photographs that I could see. It was an inauspicious start.
"Next I thought to call upon the Headmaster, who I feared might still begrudge me my notorious episode with the city mortuary, also several expensive experiments involving silver nitrates, but happily that man has long since perished. The school now has a new master and I a clean slate, so when I sent up my card I was immediately shown in. Imagine my surprise, Watson, when this man knew some of my business before I spoke a word! Even as I entered he stood to ask where I had obtained the scarf about my neck. He knew not only where it came from, but its disappearance had caused a stir on campus, as it once belonged to the school's founder and was behind glass till a few days ago. A note was left in its place saying: 'I am taking your wrap but will return it soon. I have greater need of it.'
"With the Headmaster's enthusiastic consent then an escort led me to the scene, where I was left to examine its museum case in private. It was in its way enlightening."
"So the scarf was a hint after all? And where is it now?"
"You will think me absent-minded but I discovered it still about my neck when I was leaving by carriage, so threw it to the first student I saw. I explained I was done with it and asked him return it where it belonged. As for the man who first took it, he is a practiced burglar, you may be sure of that. Likely the same who invaded our chambers. He was again not seen by anyone and again very stingy with clues."
"So we are no further along than this afternoon?"
"Oh, I did not say that. The mere fact he imagined the scarf would provide some insight tells me a great deal. I am convinced now this wrong I have done him dates back to my university days. That explains why he was not in my scrapbooks, for I never confronted him as a criminal agent. But those old surroundings reminded me again of some vague dealing with a medical student my last year there. It would seem this person has attached far more importance to the deadly event than I have as I've not the slightest recollection. Hopefully with more time to reflect I will come to it."
"But why should he lead you to him with such daring, Holmes? Why does he not fear capture? His offenses are serious matters."
"Watson, you have struck again upon the most intriguing thing about this case: its varying degrees of villainy. It swings like a pendulum from public taunts to robbery, small pranks to attempted murder. I suspect the partners have each their own intentions. First there was this Bryan who takes delight in childish taunts, toying with me; he is the cat and I the mouse. Somewhere along the line he brought in a helper and lost control of the game. This new recruit is not afraid to trespass, nor to steal, nor to murder."
"Do you suspect the prankster, this Bryan, sent the warning and the other prevented it?"
"Wonderful Watson! You are catching on! Yes, that makes sense I think. The one detail I cannot fathom is how the one found the other, which is also key. I had supposed they shared a prison cell, but even there sheep do not protect wolves, it is the other way around. How else might they meet? As soldiers? Remember they are two men who travel light and share their kit. "Again, this is a case for long reflection. If you would kindly hand me my pouch?"
And so saying Holmes arranged the pillows on the sofa and stretched across it from end to end. My morning appointment being early I left him in a cloud of blue smoke, having faithfully discharged my appointed role. It was for that great brain to complete the solving of the riddle now.
On the Tuesday I rose ahead of Holmes to find him still in the sitting room, sound asleep. An extinguished pipe lay beside his boots and he occupying his clothes of the night before. A dozen plugs of tobacco lined the edge of the table.
As I entered he began to stir, "I am afraid this night has been a significant waste of tobacco, Watson. I am positive the first I ever saw our adversary's face was at the pawn shop, and whatever disservice I may have done him in the past is equally mysterious. All night long I reviewed this week in my mind till it is quite worn around the edges, but there is not one dangling thread to unravel. Why would such very different men with such divided agendas cooperate this closely? That is the lock which no key will yet fit."
"You are on the verge of mental exhaustion, Holmes. Some breakfast will do you good. Allow me to summon Mrs. Hudson when I am finished dressing," I offered.
With barely a glance he offered, "Your collar is crooked." I stood before the cabinet glass and arranged it.
"Just what is it that calls for such elaborate livery this morning, Watson? What requires a clean collar and new laces?"
"I am delivering a small paper today on the uses of poison. You were invited ..."
"Of course, your medical society affair. I'd forgotten with so much else going on. Still, Watson, do not go with your watch chain hanging loose. After this public thrashing in the agony columns you will be our final embarrassment."
Once again I confronted the glass to fasten the offending chain, but when again I turned back he was eyeing me most peculiarly. "Something else out of place?"
Holmes' eyes assumed that far away look, and it was several moments before he answered. "Oh Watson ... wicked indeed is the man who would abuse one of nature's gifts," and with these puzzling words rose as if relieved of a great weight, jingled my watch chain, and I saw no more of him till my return.
The hound was indeed on a new scent then, judging by the stack of telegrams on our table, and Holmes' mood had changed dramatically. "There is nothing like the right question for a quick answer, Watson. I have one final wire to send then we can celebrate your paper, for I am sure you did us credit." And so in astonishment I found myself hustled out the door and walking at brisk pace beside my enthusiastic companion.
Often have I remarked upon Holmes' ability to disassociate himself from a case and this was one of those times; we shared a pleasant afternoon, our first uninterrupted by work since his return from the terrible Reichenbach Falls. The haunting specter temporarily forgotten, we found diversion in a children's performance at the park, a small play act with a curious menagerie of costumes and dolls. It was not often Holmes was in the presence of children, if one disregards the Baker Street Irregulars, but he seemed to find their innocence mildly refreshing when cares of the darker world grew heavy.
An excellent bistro followed and we concluded with a long walk discussing repulsive statues, the confusion of foreign currencies, and other sundry topics. As always Holmes' store of knowledge was impressive, covering as we did the machine industry, explosive charges, Indian culture and French art. That such knowledge sprang from criminal investigations into every corner of society lent an unfortunate undertone, but at last he observed his watch and announced it was time to go, and as we neared Baker Street he let me know what to expect.
"Watson, I am going to ask you trust me a little this evening. I have left instructions with Mrs. Hudson as to what to do, but you may be interested in knowing what I have been up to." I nodded.
"Let me start by explaining some years ago I did indeed make another medical acquaintance. I hardly realized it at the time, we never met and I knew nothing about him, but he certainly had heard of me. It so happened his graduation came to depend upon a treatise he was to write, the subject being injury from trauma, and when he learned of my detailed studies communicated by letter. A copy of his paper ended up in my hands so I might give my opinion.
"I set it aside for some time I confess, where it was all but forgotten. Perhaps it would be better if I had never stumbled across it again. When I finally did, I found his paper positively offensive in its ignorance and bloodied the margins with notes. I then went on to write he might be better suited for the meat cutting plant than the surgeon's office. You see I was much less the diplomat then." I drew a long breath but held my tongue.
"Unfortunately I'd lost his return envelope - it likely went the way of all papers within my reach and served as foolscap - so to spare myself any more trouble I requested a school clerk have it delivered wherever it belonged and thought no more of the matter till this very day."
I asked in sudden horror, "Do you mean all this stems from your poor opinion of his paper?
"Patience, Watson. There is more to the story. Today I also uncovered the details of this severe humiliation he holds against me. I have learned the clerk misunderstood and sent my caustic review not to the author but their review board, where every low-spirited thing I said about his paper was found merited and Bryan held back from his degree. That is the reason I am pursued these thirteen years later. Ah, here we are. Mrs. Hudson, have they arrived? And Jimmy is with them? Good. Watson, prepare yourself for one of nature's rarest commodities."
When the door opened I was struck speechless to see standing before me the very man who drugged and tied me the day before. Or so I believed. As I fully entered I was astounded to see an exact duplicate of the man standing beside him, and it was a second before I realized what Holmes had already deduced: the man was an identical twin.
"Sit, Watson, so we may share a few minutes with our guests. You may go now Jimmy, wait downstairs. Now then, which is Neville?" An angry looking man turned his face away in defiance. "So you are Bryan?" eyeing the other.
"Mr. Holmes, I am grievously sorry for this trouble we brought upon you and your friend here. I tried to do a thing I should not have, enlisting the aid of my brother, but I never meant serious harm you must believe. These robberies, they were Neville's idea. I was too frightened to oppose him."
"Shut your mouth spineless ingrate!" came the harsh demands of his twin, face apoplectic with anger. Identical in every other way, it was plain to see which was the lamb and which the wolf.
Holmes waved his hand. "Enough of that. It is I who am in charge here, I who will decide your fate. You see I have found you out, you two. I know your names, your family history, your methods. While Bryan has suffered innocently, Neville, yours is a record of disgrace. Unless I am much mistaken your family has paid you not to bring their name into it while you have been making your mark in the underworld, for that is the usual way with black sheep, and I shall be doing a public service to end your career. Your string of burglaries has been impressive, and this week we can add to that arson and attempted murder."
"Murder?" asked Bryan in horror.
"Attempted?" asked Neville in equal surprise.
Holmes rose to his feet. "Thanks to Watson we have saved the dustman struck from behind." At this the villain gave an evil look, as if preferring the charge of murder to the disappointment of failing in his attempt.
Bryan, on the other hand, reacted in abject revulsion. "So that is where you have been sneaking out to." Neville glared back uncaring.
"What I want before I decide what to do with you," Holmes interrupted firmly, "is the story behind it. The truth now. I already know enough to recognize if you deviate in the slightest."
The one named Neville leaned back against the fireplace defiantly while Bryan took a seat and dropped his head in his hands. It was the lamb who finally spoke.
"You are too good at this game, Mr. Holmes. I thought myself clever but I acknowledge you its master. Yes, I determined to make a fool of you, but had no chance when the iron was hot. You left your university before graduation and for a while I lost track. After that I followed your career from afar as did everyone, for one could not pick up a paper without hearing of some affair involving you and Scotland Yard, you and the French, you and the American Pinkertons. And with every new mention I reveled in plotting humiliations against you ..."
"But lacked courage to carry them out!" exploded his twin.
Holmes ignored the outburst and Bryan timidly began anew, "Yes, just as he says, Mr. Holmes. I was afraid to act but sworn to smudge your reputation. I felt justified. Do you know my family had a posh office waiting upon my graduation? Then my treatise was slandered and anyone jealous of my standing at the school used it to humiliate me. I suffered a nervous setback." He cast a pleading look in my direction as if for sympathy. He received none.
"It was impossible to repair my reputation on that campus and long arrangements had to be made elsewhere. It was quite winter again before I finally won my degree, and by then I owed my family arrears on the lease. It crippled me financially for years, Mr. Holmes. And always I would hear remarks about how my diploma was likely bought, for I never showed my face on campus again. They said it was shame.
"The terrible rumors followed me right on to Cavendish Square. Physicians of half my ability attracted patients who were rightfully mine, by way of the scandal, and my bitterness against you grew till I heard at last you were killed and gave up vengeance altogether. But a few months ago came stories of your return and I knew fate had blessed me with a second chance. I was determined not to waste it."
At this I defended my friend, "I know the story, and your injury was but accidental."
"I believe you Dr. Watson. But it was only after my feet were on the path I realized what a low mean thing I was up to, and what a high honorable man Holmes shown himself to be. Seeing his abilities first hand, realizing it was he who knocked my hat off at the pawnbroker's, his mastery of disguise, of detection, of everything." At this last discouraged remark Bryan sighed heavily. His brother at the fireplace snorted in disgust, but with Holmes' sharp eye upon him Neville dared not interfere.
Our gentler guest thought a moment and began again, "All this week you have shared the paper with me, Mr. Holmes, not for a paltry charitable sum but for putting behind bars a murderous rogue, not for cheap insults but for investigating this string of forgeries, all while I made a daily nuisance of myself. Every day I felt guiltier as my opinion of you grew.
"Above all a man may be judged not by the airs he puts on, but the kind of men who surround him. I knew your reputations, Dr. Watson, but till you came to my door and risked your life for a stranger I didn't grasp your true character. It was then I spied Neville preparing to strike down whoever entered, and determined it was not to be. I convinced him to put up his weapon, fetched my medical bag which is always ready, and set him up with a rag of chloroform."
I asked then out of curiosity, "But how could you hope to prevail? You say you knew Holmes' unfailing reputation."
"I knew it all right. Criminals across the world knew it, but I had an advantage they lacked. Your friend has bested every man who came his way, Doctor, but we are not one man. I reasoned things might turn out differently if he came up against someone who could be in two places at once. I was not sure at first how to gain advantage by it, but you see we gave you a good run. Still it was never meant to be a danger and I am ready to quit it now."
At this Neville broke his angry silence. "You are contemptible, Bryan! Even now you show your weak nature. I tell you, Doctor, it was I who realized how perfect an alibi we shared. And you who consider yourself smart Mr. Holmes, all England sings your praises, we held you at the gate for a week. I have had a perfect crime spree and mean to do so again. All we need do is change the trick some. Of course you will not be here to tell our secret ... ," this said in an ominous tone that put Holmes on alert. As the malevolent twin drew a weapon Holmes snatched a wooden cane and struck like a cobra, but the other dodged with incredible speed.
"Surprised, Mr. Holmes? I am known for my reflexes!" said he gloating.
"No Neville, no more guns!"
"Yes Bryan. We will have our day yet, as the executioners of Sherlock Holmes and his good friend Doctor Watson!"
"Neville," pleaded his brother for our lives. "You can't!"
"I can and will. I mean to see it through and you're going to help me if I'm ever to trust you behind my back again," and so saying gave the meeker sibling a glance which made him shiver in his knees. Like a cowering dog Bryan backed into a corner. Turning again to Holmes, Neville continued, "You're not such a smart one now are you, Mr. Holmes? What? Nothing to say? No famous last words?"
I plainly saw Holmes calculating - calculating - calculating. His eyes moved rapidly about the room then back to our tormentor.
"You would not get far, Neville. Did you think me so unprepared? There is a night patrol on this street and the instant you make trouble our housekeeper is prepared to run for assistance."
Neville thought but a moment then returned a wicked smile. "I should say the opposite. I'll wager a gunshot will bring her running to your side. Be assured she would follow you to your grave, Mr. Holmes, so I beg you not to call out. Besides I have thought of raising any alarms," said he, taking a pillow from the chair to muffle the blast. "When I am through we will simply close your door and leave quietly."
"No that still won't answer," said Holmes stalling for time. "If you kill us Scotland Yard will carry you to the gallows, for I have written them a letter with all my notes on this case."
At this new frustration Neville glared briefly into the eyes of Holmes, reading not fear but menace. "I shall win still," said he at last, pleased by Holmes' desperate lies. "The Yard knows nothing of us. You are not in the habit of sharing your opinions till a case is resolved; Dr. Watson's writings tell me so. I call your bluff!"
At this my heart sank deep in my breast. By my own hand another of Holmes' habits lay exposed; the chronicles I hoped might give him eternal life would instead prove his downfall. Seeing this my companion spoke in a voice ragged with grief, "You could not know, old friend, and I could ask for no better way to leave this world than with you at my side." His heartfelt speech held the brothers momentarily motionless, and the one lowered his weapon to allow me my reciprocal farewell. Perhaps Bowen was right, sewn into the lining of every human heart there is after all one thread of compassion. But so soon after Holmes' resurrection I could not think, much less utter, that most painful of all words.
To my relief I did not have to. When Holmes turned his face towards me I saw the woeful eyes flash like metal, in a flicker I spied the grim face of the reaper, then the slightest smile touched his lips. Before he turned back he resumed his hopeless expression, and as our assassin raised his muzzle, ticking off the remaining seconds of our mortal existence, Holmes gave a sudden cry. To everyone's shock he exclaimed, "At least I will get that mouse before I die. There he is again! "
What happened next almost defies description. In theatrical fashion Holmes waved me to one side to allow him throwing room, picked up my bullet-ridden almanac, and pointed my eyes towards the desk. For Neville this bizarre last act of the dying detective again stayed his hand, but I understood immediately.
Neville watched in amusement, and Bryan in confusion, as Holmes took careful aim at the accumulated mound of papers which now covered Harold Whitworth's notorious pistol, and let the book fly. It struck like a thunderclap! An explosion echoed the room, the brothers ducking in reflexive unison, Holmes leaping at the gunman. With a grip of iron Holmes wrested the pistol free but found its use unnecessary. Neville stood momentarily paralyzed in open-mouthed shock, his eyes managed a single blink, and he crashed to the floor like a felled tree. The slug had found his thigh and excruciatingly shattered the femur.
As suddenly as the terrible ordeal had begun so too it ended. I dashed for my medical kit as Bryan Ekard stood trembling, clinging to the back of a chair. Then just as Neville had predicted and Holmes had feared, Mrs. Hudson appeared in the doorway, armed with her heaviest skillet.
The police did not take long to arrive . I had by then bandaged the wound and administered a pain-killer, and with things so settled Holmes filled in for me the gaps in this most peculiar story.
"It is as I said, Watson, I did not recall his face or name because I was never privileged to know him. His very distance from my past life shielded his anonymity."
"But I wonder at an enemy so far removed from you, Holmes. That a rival never seen or met, so completely unknown, might emerge from the shadows to strike at any time! Bryan was an innocent threat but how easily he brought evil in tow. I fear for your daily safety now more than ever."
Holmes raised his hand to stop me. "As I fear for yours, Watson. It is a risk we share in our chosen professions." I looked back in momentary confusion.
"Do you not see the parallels? Do you imagine your life in any less jeopardy? You expose yourself to many an unseen enemy, to unknown and nameless diseases. Would you have me believe you would for an instant let fear prevent you? No, Watson, you face your foes without qualm, for that is your calling as much as this is mine, and we neither of us can ignore a cry for help." That the great detective saw me in such light, compared my own commonplace talents and devotions to his own, was a revelation to me. I sat down at his approach.
"We are alike, Watson. Where I root out human vermin you attack the microscopic. It surprises me you do not know the regard I have for you and your profession. In any event our common foe this day has been a most bizarre sickness. Though their morals and talents were worlds apart they acted in perfect harmony, making them most difficult to diagnose. I shall hereafter have a healthier respect for the natural unity of twins."
"And how did you first uncover their secret, Holmes?"
"You made me see it," and he began to pace anew. "I don't mind confessing I was grasping at straws last night, Watson, turning over in my mind every little curiosity of the case which might lead somewhere, yet ending up nowhere. It was only when I saw you dress this morning that one puzzling detail became instantly clear: the matter of the watch chain.
"The man I met in front of the pawn shop was left-handed but I kept remembering his watch chain on his right side, where it did not belong. It was a small inconsistency to be sure, but you know small things may be revealing so I wondered about it from time to time. The explanation came to me in a flash Watson ... or rather a reflection. When I saw you adjust your chain this morning I could not miss its image in the cabinet glass, and realized at once why he seemed to wear chain on the wrong side. I was recalling its brilliant reflection in the pawnshop mirror! The truth is he wore it on his left as expected all along.
"It instantly occurred to me if one of our villains was a reflection of the other it would answer many more inconsistencies, and they began to fall like dominoes. According to witnesses he wore his hat sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right, his cigar was reported in opposite hands, he even shook with different hands, but in every visible detail they appeared identical. An opposite-handed twin would answer nicely."
"A twin would explain why they wore no disguise, there was no need," said I.
"A point for you, Watson. Even the name was a mirrored fiction. Scotland Yard and I found no Ekard in our files because their real name is Drake, though I discovered it only this morning. I learned that by telegraphing local medical schools inquiring after tall red-headed twins, at least one studying medicine thirteen years ago. He had to be local, else how would he know the Downey Library and my small reputation at the time? That brought an immediate response."
"But where did they go when they flew their nest yesterday? And how did you find them again so quickly?"
"Where is not important, but how is simplicity itself. All it required was one line in the afternoon agony column, inviting twins BD and ND here this evening. They could hardly refuse. They had to find out how much we knew."
"I have often heard the name Drake in Cavendish Square," I volunteered. "They have a long line of physicians."
"And that tradition was to be carried on, Watson. The twins' whole lives were arranged around that single purpose. They studied side-by-side at Cambridge till Neville came to early disgrace with gambling, which turned him to crime for his living. Bryan went on to perform admirably and was the pride and savior of his family name, till his setback with the treatise. So much I got from my telegraphed answer at lunch.
"When Bryan faltered at the very end you see it disgraced him. His nefarious brother, already a hard criminal by then, possibly ridiculed him. There was no great love between them. But in the end Bryan persevered and graduated. If not for this recent moral detour he still might return to his office, but I am afraid even my help may not save him now. He is rumored to be a brilliant surgeon, Watson, but will likely end up a prison doctor. It is a shame really."
Holmes answered my other questions then, and told the whole of the story to the rapt attentions of Mrs. Hudson and her much relieved household.
In the end of course Bryan Drake was spared prison and further disgrace, thanks to Holmes' generous testimony at the assizes, but his brother was far less fortunate. The once inseparable twins are to be apart for the rest of their natural lives.
There is always a void after the solving of a case, one which Holmes earnestly fills with new distractions. Thus at breakfast next morning, hunting any item of interest in the crime pages, he guffawed and approached me with the paper. "Here, Watson, see what I have found. I shall have to watch my back next time I am out that way," said he with a grin. Among the petty theft listings I read:
"What is that saying, Watson? Novus providentia? Curious indeed are the ways of providence. For another example, it has been my unlikely hand that saved Inspector Lestrade's wilting reputation."
In genuine shock I asked what could possibly spare Lestrade, once he publicly swore to arrest the killer of Chauncey Street.
"A trick I have long found useful, Watson. When you wish to draw attention away from a defeat you shine the light on a victory. You will find your answer in this part of the paper, in fact." And taking it from him a second time I now read:
"This house burglar, Holmes, he has been active in that vicinity all along?"
"Ironic, is it not? With a string of recent break-ins he was likely the very reason our cheese-lover armed himself in the first place; so in his way Harold Whitworth has succeeded in putting an end to that threat at the last." It seemed fate indeed traveled convoluted paths.
Yet remarkably, one more thread was to be plucked from the tangle.
In another of his humorous fits I noted Holmes preparing a special gift for the Inspector to go out with the morning mail. It was a mousetrap with the words "For Your Next Felon" scrawled across its face. At this I urged he include the deadly Whitworth firearm, and to my relief Holmes agreed, digging it from behind the desk where its own force had thrown it.
It was only as we emptied the weapon that Holmes recalled the cartridge which spared our lives was the very last in the drum. We considered then the final legacy of the late Harold Whitworth to be a noble one, for in giving up his own friendless existence he provided the means of sparing ours.
If it had been otherwise these may well have been unwritten pages in the book of Sherlock Holmes. For with our passing who then, dear reader, might there be to share this remarkable tale of the revolver which took and spared lives with equanimity, the criminals so alike yet so different, and the felonious mouse who has never been brought to justice?