My dear boy, Come at once, when you arrive in Scotland.
Such was the note sent to Sherlock Holmes during the summer of 1905, a year after he had retired upon the South Downs. Like Holmes, Willow had that demanding tone to his correspondence that left its reader no option other than to obey based on the merest morsel of information. Though it was hardly as urgent as the note portended, the trip would have unexpected results, and it would take years before I understood the event in its entirety.
Unbeknownst to me, Holmes had travelled to Scotland during my visit to an annual medical convention, placing him within arms reach. Unlike my old friend, however, I retained a keen interest in my profession after my retirement and looked forward to travelling home to Edinburgh each year. I enjoyed seeing old friends, though my family had long since passed, and I enjoyed the invitation to speak about my former adventures and how they related to modern medical science.
Willow held an estate in the Highlands, and for reasons never quite revealed, he preferred to leave it unoccupied, outside of a few servants who lived there and cared for the house and grounds. He would travel north once each year to check on his affairs, spending only a few days before returning to Sussex without explanation of what he did or how his trip had gone. The house was a grand monument to ancient architecture, with a prominent Baronial style - blending Gothic with motifs from Scottish vernacular. I had seen it only once, but its grand appearance had made a profound impression on me.
In the front room Holmes found an old trunk near the large windows, very much like the trunk perched at the bottom of Willow’s bed. A chair was placed before it and the lock removed. Holmes lifted the lid and sat unmoved, letting his mind adjust before sifting through the contents: a photo album, an odd book of poems and literature, a family bible and a collection of papers and mementoes; much as one might expect to find in an old trunk tucked away in the attic. It wasn’t until Holmes came upon an old box at the bottom that his posture changed. He recognised it, rekindling old memories long since closeted away like the box within the trunk, locked and kept out of sight and out of mind until the light once more brought it back to life.
Gingerly removing the box, he hesitated at the removal of the lid, caressing the box along with the anticipated memories he knew it would flood back. His courage gained, he lifted the frail lid and removed the contents, taking it into his hands with great delicacy. Holmes regarded it, his mind a bright confusion. Unbelievable…absolutely unbelievable that he should see this of all things, once again. His lips moved, unbidden, forming the words, repeating the formula.
‘And what do you seek?’ ‘I am in search of that which is lost.’
It had been some time since I had seen my old friend, Sherlock Holmes. He had retired to the country and our regular visits had begun to grow shorter as the duration between them steadily increased. He had become a fixture in that old house of his with his bees, his chemistry and his experiments in agriculture. I thought of him often, finding my life much the lonelier for not having him in it. I kept active in criminal investigations, offering my services as police medical examiner and consultant to the local police department, but I missed those days on Baker Street knowing that we would never again stroll through the streets as master adversaries to would-be criminals. Annually I went up to Edinburgh for a medical conference, which lasted ten days. Most of my childhood friends were gone, but it was a treat to return home and hear the locals’ praise of both my medical work and my former adventures with the great Sherlock Holmes. Most were eager to learn of the fate of my singular friend, but we had agreed that to the world he should now remain forever beyond reach.
I had been in my hotel room during most of the final day preparing to return home and had gone out for a mouthful of food before the journey home. You can imagine my surprise on my return when that old familiar figure sat sitting on the sofa in my hotel room waiting patiently, smoking, with the most intense look upon his face. I had seen that expression many times during the years in our Baker Street lodgings and it could only mean one thing, that he was actively engaged in a case. His eagerness to see me suggested he was in some need of my advice, which gave me no small measure of pleasure; I had truly relished those days, striving to find solutions to the most intricate of problems set upon our doorstep. His brow was so low set and his stare so intent that I could scarcely suppress my delight, though it burst forth from me uncontrolled as he glanced up at me. What obscure crisis brought him so hastily to my door I could only imagine, but seeing him sitting there as he once did in our old rooms I jumped eagerly at the chance to find out.
I was, of course, convinced that his retirement would not last. Sherlock Holmes was not a man to lay idle for too long. His mind rebelled at stagnation. Chemistry, apiculture, philosophy and agriculture surely would lose its flavour to so precise a mind. He was a man of narrow and concentrated habits, and in those days of my residence with him I had become one of those habits, which I was sure I still remained. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and the all the others, perhaps more or less excusable. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that annoyance served only to make his own insight and impressions blaze all the more brightly. Finally, being unable to withstand the suspense any longer, I eagerly engaged him to tell me the circumstances behind his visit.
‘Holmes, my dear chap – I am overjoyed to see you,’ said I as I removed my coat and thrust it over the chair. ‘Your rheumatism is acting up I perceive. Do you want me get you something for it?’ I offered, noting a certain amount of stiffness in his limb. He looked at me as if he had no idea of what I was talking about. ‘I observed that you’ve been rubbing your right wrist.’
Holmes had broken his wrist, along with several other bones two years earlier, the result of which prompted his retirement to that soothing life in the country.
‘I am quite alright, thank you,’ he insisted, easily dismissing my care.
‘I had no idea you were here. Is everything alright? I mean – what brings you to Edinburgh; a case?’
‘I was in Gloucestershire to see a man about using active Manuka Honey for medical applications.’
‘Yes. Over the past year or so I have been dabbling in its use for the treatment of various ulcers, skin infections, burns, bacterial infestations and digestive problems,’ he paused, dropping off to add, ‘I thought perhaps you might accompany me as far as Kings Cross on your way home.’
Viewing the singular method used in his own recovery from illness, Holmes had dedicated himself to the study of bees and their various medical applications. However, I could tell that there was more on his mind than the efficacy of his bee preparations. Something was on his mind; something he was agonizing over to the point where he desired my opinion, but I had long since learned to let him reveal it in his own time.
I had, over the course of our lengthy acquaintance, come to observe details that others might easily ignore or dismiss. It had served me well, both as a physician and as a detective. From his posture and habit, of lighting one cigarette after another as he sat in the chair, I concluded that there was some anxiousness attached to whatever was on his mind. He had been caressing his wrist, suggesting a stiffness or pain, despite his assurance that all was well with his health. Further substantiating my theory was how he leaned on his walking stick for support. Though now completely healed, Holmes found the cold damp weather as painful to him as my old wound had been to me. Yet even with the obvious signs of bursitis, his demeanour suggested that his problem was not a physical one. Holmes picked up a small carpet bag and an old shoe box he carried with him. The tattered cardboard offered very few clues as to its content, although I was sure it held something of immense value, for Holmes treated it with infinite care. It could not have contained vials or beakers, for the box was not sturdy enough to hold glass; nor could it contain anything animate, for it had no holes. Whatever it was that was contained therein, it was the key to whatever lay heavily upon his mind.
As the train made its way towards London Kings Cross, I made several attempts to strike up a conversation in hopes of taking his mind from the matter. My efforts were all in vain, however, for he was lost in a world of his own and I was as far from understanding his need of me as I was at the onset. Even the knock on our compartment door did not seem to affect him. Opening the door I found a harried little man in a conductor’s uniform ascertaining if the rumour he had heard was true , that his distinctive passenger was indeed the famed detective. He was clearly in need of some assistance so I begged him to come in and have a seat. He took his hat off and sat down on the bench next to me, facing Holmes.
‘Mr. Holmes, I am sorry for disturbing you, but I find I am in desperate need of your assistance.’
Holmes looked up from his newspaper with only a passing interest before returning to it as if to dismiss the man before allowing any unspoken agreement to pass between them.
‘Please sir, there is very little time,’ he continued, refusing to be dissuaded by Holmes’ obvious indifference to his plight.
Holmes begrudgingly put down the paper and gave the man his attention. ‘Forgive me, what is it that you need?’
‘There has been a deplorable occurrence aboard the train, sir. A robbery has taken place; a robbery of such unique nature that we are left without a clue to guide us and beg you hear the matter in hopes of guidance.’
‘You are aware that I am retired? I no longer take cases, gratuitous or otherwise.’
‘Mr. Holmes, may I be perfectly frank? The necklace that was stolen is insured by the Great North Eastern Railway, who has suffered from the recent economical decline. If the necklace is not recovered before we arrive in London, we are obliged to pay restitution. The sum that is named is…well, far more than the line can carry without feeling some extreme ill effect.’
‘Do you not have your own inspectors?’
‘We do sir, yet the time is so limited that I fear failure in anyone’s hands but your own.’
Holmes sat back for a moment before speaking and then made his pronouncement. ‘I regret to inform you that I am unable to help in this matter. I am currently engaged in another affair. Perhaps Dr. Watson would be so good as to assist you,’ he said with that sinister grin of his, glancing in my direction.
‘I have no doubt that Dr. Watson is a remarkable student of yours and quite excellent in his own right, but I must reiterate the importance of time. May I at least lay out all the facts before you make your decision final?’
Holmes waved him on and we were subject to the most unusual facts of the case concerning Mrs. Jane Prise-Temple and her necklace. I could see that Holmes had no interest in the case so I paid particular attention to the details.
The Lady Prise-Temple had boarded the train at Dunbar. The two men that shared her compartment, a Frenchman and a blind man boarded in Alnmouth. Lady Temple brought with her a pearl necklace adorned with several diamonds offsetting it. The necklace was insured by the GNER for the duration of the journey. For this reason the conductor posted a guard outside of the compartment. Each and every time the necklace was removed, the guard was required to be in attendance. Lady Temple, just before she went to the dining car, removed her necklace and placed it in its case. Mr. DeMarke, the Frenchman, asked to see the necklace, but it was never removed form its case. The guard was in attendance the whole of the time. Mr. DeMarke shut the case and handed it back to Lady Temple, who locked it and place it in her carry all in front of the guard. Both Mr. DeMarke and Lady Temple left the compartment and the guard took his post outside the door. On their return, Lady Temple opened the case to find the necklace missing.
I could not help but notice Holmes’ expression as the corners of his mouth turned upwards into a slight smile at the hearing of the facts. It was as if he had already pieced together the clues to form a working hypothesis from the short description given. I confess, however, that I was completely in the dark other than the fact that it only left one suspect. I listened closely as the inspector continued.
‘Of course we suspected the blind gentleman at once, for he was the only one in the cabin at the time.’
‘You found nothing,’ Holmes said with confidence.
‘That is correct. We searched the compartment and the blind man. The guard swears that no one entered the cabin, but the necklace was not to be found. Everyone was eventually searched along with their luggage, but we found nothing. We have no clue as to what became of the necklace or who might have taken it. I need your advice, Mr. Holmes. We have already passed York and have little more than an hour and a half before we pull into Kings Cross station. We must have an answer before that time.’
‘It is a unique little problem to be sure,’ he said, the grin slipping away as he returned to his paper. ‘However, I regret to say, I maintain my position. I must concentrate my efforts on another matter.’
‘Mr. Holmes, I beg of you; I implore you. We are in desperate need. The scandal this will cause to the line could make our losses unrecoverable!’
‘Holmes, surely the case is of some passing interest to you,’ I interjected. ‘It couldn’t hurt to take a look. He’s only asking for your advice.’
Holmes gave my plea a moment of consideration and begrudgingly agreed. ‘Well, there is one point upon which I would like to satisfy myself, but I make no promises,’ he insisted.
The conductor arose with a smile of satisfaction, placing complete confidence in Holmes’ reputation. He led us down the corridor to the compartment where Holmes immediately thrust open the door and stood in the doorway. He had been standing there no more than half a minute when he threw up his hands and walked out.
‘Mr. Holmes!’ The conductor called after in confusion as Holmes made his way back to our cabin.
‘Holmes, at least you could say something,’ I pressed, stopping him for but a moment.
‘This is not a case! A child could solve it,’ he burst forth in frustration.
The emphasis on the word ‘child’ convinced me that the problem preoccupying him was somehow related, one frustrating his intellect in some intimate fashion. What it was, however, I could scarcely guess. Any guess I might put forth filled me with a sense of morose sentiment.
Holmes went back into our compartment, leaving the rest of us dumbfounded. I looked into the compartment, hoping to see the illusive clue that caused Holmes to determine the case so quickly. The compartment was as the conductor described. It was an identical cabin to our own, with two bench seats facing each other affixed to the wall. The luggage compartment above was stacked with the lady’s luggage on the one side and the gentleman’s luggage on the other. The lady carried two suitcases and a locked carry-all for her personals and necklace. The Frenchman carried one suitcase, which was on the rack above his head. There was one thing the conductor did not mention, a small monkey in a red vest. It regarded us, chittering away happily; it obviously belonged to the blind man. Its cage sat near his feet. I did find a length of string on the floor, but nothing else. I knew the string did not belong to the garments of either the men or the monkey. The string was white in colour and both men were wearing dark garments. The Frenchman’s shirt was white, but the consistency and weight of the string did not correspond. The monkey wore a red vest with fake sequins sewn on with dyed thread. The lady’s dress was green and yellow. What it was that made it all clear to Holmes remained ambiguous to me.
‘What does he mean?’ The conductor asked desperately as he escorted me back to my compartment. ‘Who is the thief? Where is the necklace? If they are not recovered by the end of the trip, the railway will have to pay. The railway was the guarantor.’
‘I’m sure Mr. Holmes has something in mind. Let me talk to him.’
‘Tell him we will gladly pay him a substantial reward for the recovery of the necklace.’
‘I’m afraid money does not interest Mr. Holmes. It never has. He only ever engaged in cases that interested him. In retirement I can assure you he is more adamant than ever.’
I saw a hopeless look creep across the poor fellow’s face and I reassured him that I would handle matters personally. Returning to our compartment, I shut the door behind me and sat across from Holmes, who seemed only interested in the morning’s paper.
‘Well, it certainly is an unusual problem,’ I began, hoping to draw him into conversation. ‘Certainly the railway stands to lose a great sum,’ I remarked with only a derisive snort from Holmes as an answer. ‘Holmes, we cannot simply abandon them to their fate. We would be as guilty as the thief!’
‘Then why don’t you take up the case? I certainly do not want this to find its way into my archives.’
Holmes returned to his paper leaving me now with two mysteries to solve. He once said that he was accustomed to having a mystery at one end, but at both ends was too confusing. Faced with that precise problem I had to agree. Holmes was clearly preoccupied and I was sure he had come to me for more than companionship on the journey home. Holmes was uncomfortable being alone for too long, often sinking into depression, which required a means of simulation for his mind, either natural or artificial. One might assume, given his need for companionship that he would be overtly social, yet he was as far removed from sociable as could be imagined. Holmes tolerated society, but he could hardly be accused of accepting it or fitting in. He was isolated and withdrew from the petty conversations and interactions of traditional society. My only clue to his problem lay in the box seated beside him. He had not placed it on the rack above with his bag, but placed it affectionately next to him, though he neither looked at it nor referenced it at any point in the journey.
I sat quietly for some time concentrating on the box rather than the theft, perhaps out of a lack of any real place to start or perhaps out of my sincere desire to ease his mind from whatever troubled him, though the feat was not an easy one where Holmes was concerned. The box was at least forty years old, for Marley Shoes had gone out of business years before. Though the box was old, it was not dirty, suggesting it was housed in a clean dry place like a closet or cabinet. There were no signs of writing or reference to give any indication of its current content, though I was quite sure the original content had been long ago used and discarded.
‘Some of your earlier case files?’ I referenced the box, utterly defeated.
Holmes looked up, granting a small smile before changing the subject entirely. ‘Oh Watson,’ he cried. Turning from the subject, he stabbed a finger toward me. ‘I see you found the string. What do you make of it?’
‘It is very unusual, not like garment thread at all.’
‘Unusual, yes, That is the very word for it. It is not garment thread at all. It is a peculiar blend of silk and cat-gut, made in Malaysia.’
‘That is unusual. If it is not garment thread then what; the necklace?’
‘I knew I could count on you, Watson.’
‘Then the necklace is no longer intact.’ I commented, drawing a smile from him.
‘The ends are frayed suggesting they have been crudely cut…or bitten.’
‘Bitten? You mean the monkey?’ I asked.
‘You’re not much help, Holmes.’
It felt good to hear a word of praise coming from him despite my frustration. Yet, I felt like a student before his master. I did not want to fail him, especially after his vote of confidence in me. Even more reason not to fail was the lady and the railway. Being uninterested, Holmes might very well decide not to solve the case, and feel no remorse at the loss. I, on the other hand, could not abandon these people to their fate so easily. While Holmes employed his mind with a previous problem, I investigated the matter of the lost necklace. So far I seemed to be getting nowhere in my investigations. I contemplated two lines of investigation. The first was the idea of the blind man and the monkey. The monkey alone could not have picked through the two locks, especially considering that the locks looked clean and unpicked. However, if the blind man somehow had a key, the monkey may be in league by some method to retrieve the correct item. At first, I entertained the idea of the monkey having swallowed the necklace. However, I soon realised that, though the diamonds would be safe in the digestive system, the pearls would dissolve. The other idea I entertained was that the guard might have been in league with the blind man and therefore have easily escaped detection.
I made my way back down the hall and made a few inquiries about the guard. The problem was that his service record was impeccable and several people remembered seeing him standing on guard the whole of the time the couple were at dinner. The guard was searched, but nothing was discovered on his person, ruling him out as a possible suspect. Even Holmes agreed that this line of investigation would yield nothing. If the guard was innocent, then my original assessment must be correct. One of the two men must be responsible.
With time growing short, I returned to the lady’s cabin and re-examined both locks. I found they had not been forced and had no recent scratches. It was as if the necklace simply disappeared. I was no closer to solving the mystery than I had been at the start. I made my way back to our compartment and sat morosely on my seat, defeated.
‘What is wrong, Watson?’ Holmes asked, opening his eyes from a nap.
‘I’ve checked out their stories and they all tally. It is as if the necklace simply disappeared!’
‘Nothing can disappear simply. There is always a hand behind it.’
‘I checked the locks. They appear untouched.’
‘But you didn’t even check the locks, Holmes. You weren’t even in the room more than half a minute.’
‘I didn’t need to check them. I knew they had not been touched.’
‘We have only minutes before the train pulls into the station. If you know something, Holmes, you owe it to this unfortunate woman to reveal it.’
‘Oh Watson, you are so long suffering. Do you remember nothing that you have learned over the years of our acquaintance? It is as clear as day!’
‘I don’t see it.’
‘On the contrary, Watson, you see everything. You’ve been away from it too long, I fear. You know my methods. Eliminate the impossible and, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Ask yourself, when did this robbery take place? It could not have been before she showed the necklace. It could not have occurred after they came back. So what happened? What remains?’
‘It must have occurred sometime during their absence.’
‘That would presuppose that either the blind beggar or the monkey picked through two locks, retrieved the necklace, disposed of the necklace, returned the two cases to their original locked state and original position, all without being seen or heard by the guard. It would also presuppose that the blind man knew which case to look in. There is another possibility.’
‘Perhaps the blind man isn’t really blind.’
‘Oh Watson! Far simpler than that explanation!’
As the clock ticked down and we neared the station, my mind raced through the various possibilities. If it was not taken during their meal, when was it taken? I looked down and saw Holmes tapping on the newspaper, which was turned to the front page announcing the arrival of the International circus arriving in London next week.
‘Of course!’ I cried, feeling mortified at my sluggishness of mind.
We pulled into Kings Cross station and I rushed out to meet up with the conductor.
‘Any hope, doctor? Has Mr. Holmes found anything?’
‘I have every hope of recovering the necklace and handing over the men responsible.’ I announced.
‘Yes, two were involved.’ I said, being sure of my facts at last. The conductor ordered the door open as the occupants were preparing to disembark. ‘Guard, you may arrest these two men.’ I said pointing to both the blind man and the Frenchman.
‘This is outrageous!’ cried the Frenchman. ‘How could I have stolen the necklace? I wasn’t even there! I went with madam for something to eat.’
‘You stole the necklace before you left. You didn’t need a key, or to pick the lock because you stole them right in front of both the lady and the guard.’
‘Do you mean to tell me I could take them in front of witnesses?’
‘Easily done, just like you do in your magic act at the circus. You direct the audience’s attention to the box, where they believe the item to be. The trick is that you yourself closed the box. In this instance, you appear concerned that they will be seen by passers by, so you close the lid and hand Lady Prise-Temple the box. You do so, but not before you had retrieved the necklace. You watch her lock the case and secure it in her suitcase. You remind her to lock her suitcase as well, ensuring that you would not be thought a suspect. You also counted on the fact that it seems absurd to suspect a blind man. You then ask her to join you for something to eat, thus giving you an alibi during the time of the supposed robbery. You slip the necklace between the seat cushions for your partner to find. He doesn’t need to move anything except for his hands. The monkey acts as his look out. Being well trained in the circus, he now acts as the third member. While the monkey kept watch, your partner disposes of the necklace. The crime was nearly perfect. By misdirecting the time of the crime, and a little sleight of hand, no one would suspect a man not in the room or that a blind man could pick through two locks and replace everything without being seen or heard. Even I was misdirected by this at first.’
‘Excellent doctor’ complemented the conductor. ‘But, Dr. Watson, where is the necklace?’
‘Yes, doctor, without it, you only have your theories and suspicions.’ added the Frenchman.
‘It’s right in front of you. Holmes saw it the moment he walked into the room.’
‘But we searched the room!’ exclaimed the guard.
‘You searched the obvious.’ I remarked as I stepped into the compartment. I picked up the blind man’s thin cane and pulled off the handle. Tipping it over, out came a handful of pearls and diamonds, one by one.
‘How on earth did you know?’ the conductor asked in astonishment.
‘Because I knew they were nowhere else! Also, Holmes had not been in the cabin for more than thirty seconds. He touched nothing. All drawers, pocket, cage, and cushions had been searched. That only left one place to look. The string I found was my final clue. It wasn’t garment string at all. It was designed for jewellery. But why was it broken? There could be only one explanation - to fit pearls and jewels snugly in the cane.’
I saw Holmes standing in the hall with a huge grin of satisfaction on his face, which told me I had hit upon the truth. It was a good feeling; not that I solved the case, but the gratification of Holmes’ approval. I had missed it. I hadn’t realised how much until that moment. It was obvious to me that Holmes had solved the case from the very start. Yet, we had both been away from such little problems for so long that I had become rusty, a thing Holmes would never tolerate from a student of his. Though he would be loathe admitting it, Holmes cared too much to let me stagnate. He handed me the case so that I would never allow myself to become desensitised to the laws of observation which he had so meticulously taught to me over the years.
We stepped from the train, putting the case behind us; the solemn look returning to my friend’s face as he resigned himself to the other matter on his mind. He paused for a moment, while we were collecting our luggage, as if he wanted to speak, but said nothing.
‘Sometimes simplicity holds the greatest meaning for a child,’ I said. It was my intention to offer him an opening to reject or confirm, but ultimately to open himself to me on whatever it was that was bothering him. I knew it related somehow to a child, for the clues on the train: the paper, the circus, the reference to child-like things, all were allusions to a child; but what child and under what circumstances, I could not fathom. I could only hope that a general statement about a child would prompt him to open up to me.
I thought, for a moment, by his reaction, that I had entirely got it wrong. He showed genuine surprise, but I could not tell if it was because I was close to the mark or entirely misguided. Collecting his bag, Holmes stood before me speechless. A few times I thought he had collected his thoughts enough to tell me about it, but each time he drew back until eventually he granted me a smile in defeat, patted me a good-bye on the back and walked away. I felt I had failed him. He came to me, the man he had always been able to use as his confidant and sounding board, and found me lacking.
I watched him slowly walk into the mist, stretching his hand out and discarding the box into the bin before disappearing into the steamy mist along the platform. Eagerly I gave chase, but lost him in the crowd. Turning to the bin I reached in and retrieved the box, looking one last time for Holmes. When he did not appear I opened it, finding a soft tattered knitted monkey swaddled in tissue paper, a button, which once served as an eye, laid carefully between the layers of tissue beneath him. I knew at once what it was, what it had been, and an overwhelming sense of sadness filled me at its discard. I tenderly replaced it back into the box and, with infinite care, covered it again with the tissue paper and lid. Looking down the empty platform one last in hope of seeing him, I tucked the box under my arm and continued on my way.