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Case 73: The Adventure Of The Tide-Waiter (1888)

Chapter Text

[Narration by Doctor John Watson, M.D.]

Foreword: Only older generations like my own will recognize the job title in this story. In the days when ships had to wait for high tide to dock at some ports, a tide-waiter was a customs official who would take advantage of that delay to board and complete customs checks on those who needed it thus enabling people to be more quickly on their way once the ship had docked. Superior harbours and ships have since rendered the post obsolete.

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I had hoped that the brief delay caused to our return home to Baker Street by the Bohemian Scandal would have been it and that we could have made it home without any more misadventures. It was not to be but I did get to see something I thought I would never witness – Sherlock actually making a mistake! And even better, someone that I disliked then suffering as a result!

In the few short hours between our arrival in Rotterdam and our ship's departure to Sheerness the English Channel managed to brew up one of those storms for which it is justifiably infamous. With only an hour to go before our departure I could already see our ship rising and falling at the quayside even in the shelter of the harbour. I winced at the thought of putting my poor stomach through a crossing in that.

I should have known better. Sherlock suggested that we spend the night in the town and, if the storm had not ceased by the morn, make for Calais since most storms travelled up the Channel (i.e. from west to east) and it would clear that port first. Plus going from there would have the added advantage of a shorter crossing for which my stomach was most appreciative. Sure enough the storm did not abate so we set off and made it to the former English possession safely enough although it was full three days before the seas were tranquil enough to to make the crossing to Dover and home. I was so close I could almost smell Mrs. Harvelle's delicious breakfast!

I really, really should have known better.

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As our ship approached to within sight of Dover's mighty castle and those wonderfully welcome white cliffs and we awaited high tide so that we could dock, a customs boat drew alongside. I sighed heavily. Some bumptious overbearing Nosy Parker who, because someone had made the mistake of giving him a suit with shiny buttons, thinks that he can delay an Englishman going about his daily business. I only hoped that they would question those of foreign appearance and leave us alone, xenophobic though that probably was. But I was tired, so close to dear England's soil and just wanted to be home so that I could cu..... hold Sherlock in my arms in our own rooms.

The first official, a short scrawny chap who looked as if a strong wind would blow him over the side (all right, that may have been wishful thinking on my part!) looked at our passports as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

“You're flippin' Mr. Sherlock Holmes?” he said incredulously.

I suppose that I could understand his disbelief. Sherlock liked to go outside during sea-crossings with the result that his permanently dreadful hair somehow attained new depths of disorder. He looked less the great detective and more like someone who had been blown off the nearby cliff-top and had then been fortunate enough to have landed on the ship.

“I am”, Sherlock said politely. “Is there a problem, sir?”

The fellow looked between us, then surprised us both with a fair turn of speed along the deck to where we could see the other officer. I could clearly see the head and shoulders of this second person; he had to be prodigiously tall as he towered above those around him.

“'Arry!” the first officer yelled at him. “He's here! Flippin' Mr. Sherlock Holmes!”

I glanced skywards. Someone up there owed me for what was certainly about to befall us.

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It was a little time after and, annoyingly, our nice warm fast train to London had departed from the harbour station without us. We were sat in a small office which was filled with the second customs officer who turned out to be almost as broad in the shoulder as he was tall. There was not an ounce of fat on him, and I remember thinking that he would have looked more at home in a Viking longboat that in a dingy customs office (an observation of mine which I have to record was quite correct; we later learned that the man's family was indeed of Viking stock. See, I was right some of the time!).

Sherlock really needed to get something for that cough of his. Or perhaps I could proscribe a bacon-free diet......

“Name's Harold Godfreyson, sir”, the giant rumbled. He had to be in his early twenties at most but there was nothing boyish about his very solid appearance. “I wrote to you a month or so ago but got a reply back that you were out of the country and it weren't known when you'd be back.”

I was sure that someone up there hated me at times. London had been so close and now this!

“How may we be of assistance?” Sherlock asked politely (as always the 'we' made me feel a little better as I am sure he had known it would).

“It's about that brother of mine”, the man said. “We're a large family – there's seven of us all told, four boys and three girls – and Sweyn the eldest, well... he's in a spot of bother.”

“What sort of 'bother'?” Sherlock asked. The man scratched his head.

“Don't rightly know”, he admitted. “He had an argument with our dad when he turned eighteen some ten years back and stormed out the house saying he was going to London to make his fortune. I haven't heard from him since.”

“Then how do you know that he is in trouble?” Sherlock asked patiently. It was like pulling teeth, I though, but did not say given the size of the behemoth before us.

“He writes to Magnus – next down after him – once in a while”, the man said. “And he's in touch with Chris, the youngest, as well. Mother's been fretting a lot lately what with dad being ill and she's even said she may go up to the smoke to see him.” He blushed. “I'm not explaining it very well, am I sirs?”

“Your job is akin in some ways to that of the doctor here”, Sherlock said, much to my surprise. “Both depend to a certain extent on using human intuition to make up for what can sometimes be a dearth of factual evidence. Clearly you sense that something is wrong and, given the nature of your job, then some piece of evidence has whether consciously or subconsciously triggered an alarm bell somewhere. I think that I might speak to your brothers. Are they available?”

“Not here, sir”, he said. “Magnus lives in Canterbury with his wife and family while Chris works in the docks in Chatham. He's single.”

I groaned inwardly. We would never get to London at this rate!

Sherlock nodded and stood up, and I assumed that we were going to leave, but he suddenly seemed oddly fascinated by some sort of chart on the wall. He turned to the tide-waiter.

“That is your duty roster, is it not?” he asked. For some reason the man blushed.

“Uh..... yes, sir.”

Sherlock stepped closer to the chart and looked at it for some little time before turning slowly back to the man. Harold Godfreyson had to be nearly a foot taller, almost as much broader and at least a couple of stone heaver than my friend, but bigger men than him would have backed away from that look. I half expected him to make a break for the door. Or the wall.

“As far as I am aware only two people, apart from ourselves, knew about our change of plans to come through Dover instead of Sheerness”, Sherlock said coolly. “After our Bohemian adventure I made it quite clear to both Gaillard and Bacchus that they were not to reveal our whereabouts for anything short of an apocalypse until we had reached home. Which one was it?”

The man gulped.

“Don't rightly know, sir”, he said, his voice having climbed at least an octave and his breathing suddenly irregular. “I had a letter back but that was just saying you were out of the country.”

The look continued. Mr. Harold Godfreyson actually whined!

“It was signed pretty badly, sir”, he said his voice now almost pleading. “Something starting with a 'C' or a 'G'. I, uh, I really don't know. I'm sorry!”

My friend continued to stare at the trembling giant for a while then a slow smile creased his features. It was the sort of smile that made me offer up a prayer, not for the first or the last time, that Mr. Sherlock Holmes had never taken up a life of crime. For that smile was pure evil!

“Very well”, he growled. “I shall still help you in this matter, Mr. Godfreyson, as I must say that it quite intrigues me. I shall 'deal' with my brother later.”

I made a mental note to check the 'Times' obituary pages for the few days after our return. You never knew your luck!

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It was the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, still as dreadful as always, that managed to get us to the ancient home of the English Church despite being behind an engine that frankly should have been in a museum somewhere if not a scrapyard. Fortunately the address that the giant tide-waiter had given us (with a shaking hand I had noticed, until Sherlock had re-iterated that he did not hold him responsible for what had happened) was close to the station. Mr. Magnus Godfreyson lived in a smart little terraced house that opened out directly onto the road. He was we had been told a builder and fittingly enough was built along the same massive lines as his elder brother although with brown rather than fair hair. I began to feel sorry for poor Mrs. Godfreyson wherever she was, having to had to push out such strapping boys.

Sherlock looked around the room curiously and seemed to find the small writing-desk worthy of far more attention that it deserved before sitting down with our host.

“Harry is fretting over nothing, as always!” Mr. Magnus Godfreyson scoffed when Sherlock told him why we were there. “A worry-wart he is and always has been. Sweyn's doing fine in London; he just isn't the sort to write letters every five minutes.”

“Your family does not seem the sort to skip familial obligations”, Sherlock observed dryly. “Your brother stated that your mother is increasingly concerned about him, especially after her husband's illness. She is thinking of going up to London for a surprise visit.”

There. A small but definite reaction.

“We're supporting mother to find her a nice place by the sea now she's getting on in years”, our host said stoutly. “There's seven of us so it's no burden. I can ask Sweyn to write her but he's got a memory like a sieve.”

Sherlock tilted his head to one side and looked curiously at our host.

“I am going to ask you a somewhat personal question, Mr, Godfreyson”, he said. “Your business marches well?”

The man looked surprised but answered.

“Yes”, he said. “We have a contract for repairs up at the cathedral which is pretty much an all-year round job with the size of the place. Not on the main building itself of course, just the outbuildings but there's plenty of those.”

Sherlock pressed his long fingers together and thought for a moment, then smiled.

“We have taken up too much of your valuable time, sir”, he smiled. “Thank you for seeing us. Good day.”

He swept from the house and I followed him. He went so fast that he disappeared for a moment around the corner of the terrace block and I nearly ran into him when I rounded it too.

“Watch!” he grinned.

Sure enough Mr. Magnus Godfreyson bustled out of his door just moments after us, checked briefly to see if we were still around then all but ran down the street to the post office which he entered.

“He is warning his brother”, I said watching the man go inside.

“In a way”, Sherlock smiled.

I sighed. What did I see in him? Well I was stuck with him now.

Thankfully!

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Chapter Text

Sherlock said that we would have time to look around the cathedral as the train he wished to catch did not leave for a couple of hours. I greatly enjoyed the ancient building though I wondered what old Augustine would have made of the way things had turned out in the country he had reluctantly gone to, and for that matter what he would make of us. Sherlock went to send a telegram of his own before rejoining me. Then it was back to the dreaded London, Chatham and Dover, and hoping for something a bit better than Stephenson's 'Rocket' this time round.

“What was your interest in that horrible writing-desk?” I asked.

“Not so much the desk as what was protruding from one of the draws in it”, Sherlock said. “Two bank transfer receipts.”

“He is a businessman”, I pointed out. Sherlock shook his head.

“Like railway tickets many such receipts are unique in colour and design”, he said. “And the ones in his drawer are from a very private London bank which demands a high income before it will even consider deigning to admit potential clients. Mr. Magnus Godfreyson would have no reason to deal with them as a Kentish builder let alone falling way short of their minimum demands, so his brother Sweyn is sending him money presumably for their mother. Furthermore this Sweyn is exceptionally well off yet his brother did not mention his source of income although he must surely be aware of it. I find that fascinating.”

I sighed. I might be on land but mentally I was as usual all at sea. Oh well, at least it was a mental and very flat sea.

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After a ride that seemed interminable we reached the naval port of Chatham; at least we were going in the right direction for London. Again we were at least fortunate in that Mr. Christian Godfreyson lived a little over a mile from the station and a cab soon whisked us to another terraced house, as well-maintained as the first. And another huge hulk of a man, this time with strawberry blond curly hair that looked boyish when compared to his two brothers. He was not pleased to see us.

“Gentlemen like yourselves shouldn't be digging up what's best left alone”, he said sourly.

“And if your mother decided to call on your eldest brother unexpectedly?” Sherlock asked and I noted how pale the fellow went at those words. “What do you think she would say? Would not the shock be quite dreadful?”

The man stared at us uncertainly.

“I suspect”, Sherlock said with a slight smile, “that this case hinges a lot around the idea of morality. If you deal honestly with me Mr. Godfreyson, then I can help you in your little game. But I need that address.”

“What address?” I asked.

“The molly-house”, Sherlock said simply.

I stared at him in shock. Our host sighed.

“Molly-houses, plural”, he said unhappily. “He works as a trainee manager running a whole heap of the things. And you wonder why we keep him away from Mother?”

“Give me his address”, Sherlock smiled, “and as I said, I will help you. Otherwise.... if your mother does decide on a sudden trip to London without telling you, we all know that the Fates will ensure she finds out. I doubt that she would be overly happy.”

The man shuddered but took a piece of paper and wrote an address on it. Sherlock took and read it and I saw him frown for some reason. I wondered why.

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I was more than a little surprised when our cab dropped us off by a small park not far from Baker Street.

“I wanted a short walk to our destination”, Sherlock said and he looked oddly awkward for some reason. “I am afraid I may have done a rather foolish thing.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“I assumed from Mr. Harold Godfreyson that Gaillard was the person who informed him of my change of plans, so I used our stop at Canterbury to set my revenge in motion. Rather unfortunately it was not him after all.”

“How can you know that?” I asked.

“I forgot that one other person in my life had been given the right to contact me while we were abroad”, he said, staring at the pavement rather than me. “My half-brother Campbell, owner of those molly-houses. It was 'C', not 'G' in Mr. Harold Godfreyson's letter.”

“You cannot be sure of that”, I objected.

“I can”, he said stopping in front of a well-maintained town house that, when I looked at it, I recognized. “Because Mr. Harold Godfreyson did not just write to Baker Street seeking my help. He wrote to his brother Sweyn, who you probably know rather better as Mr. Stephen Gosport, a.k.a. Ragnar The Striking Viking. He works under my half-brother – figuratively speaking of course else Alan would kill him!”

I stared up at the molly-house, then realized.

“So poor Gaillard is going to be punished for something he did not do for once”, I said. “Oh dear how sad never mind.”

He shook his head at me but smiled, as we climbed the steps and rang the doorbell.

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“Sweyn?” Mr. Kerr said, looking surprised. “One of my best boys. He'll be taking over from me one day when Alan and I retire to the country.”

“You never mentioned that”, Sherlock observed.

“I am forty-four now”, his half-brother said. “Alan and I had been on the lookout for someone we can trust the boys to when we do go, and when he came up a couple of years ago we realized he would be ideal. He goes by the name Steve in the house, as you know doctor.”

It seemed odd to equate the hulking Mr. Stephen Gosport with someone who could be running this empire one day although I now saw the similarities with his brothers. My sympathy for the unseen Mrs. Godfreyson increased another notch. Maybe two.

“I think he has finished for the day and is likely working out in the gymnasium”, Mr. Kerr said. “Alan, go and ask him to come up please.”

His lover left to find our fourth Godfreyson and soon returned with the fellow. We all sat down and I felt almost intimated by all the prime specimens of mankind sat opposite me. Then I remembered that I had the best of all four of them to take home with me and smiled.

“Mr. Godfreyson”, Sherlock said and the giant's eyes lit up at his real name. “It is about your mother.”

“Is there a problem with her?” the fellow asked (like so many of the 'boys' here he sounded like he had had elocution lessons although I knew that he could 'turn on' his performance accent when needed as he had demonstrated to me the one time). “I do not keep in direct contact but two of my brothers keep me informed of her health and well-being.”

Sherlock smiled.

“Your brother Harold, a tide-waiter whom we 'chanced' to meet at Dover” – he looked pointedly at his half-brother who blushed - “bade us inquire as to why your contact with her and the rest of the family is so irregular.”

“I am not one to write long letters”, the giant smiled.

“Your brother is also concerned that your mother is making suggestions that she wishes to come and see you in London”, Sherlock said smoothly. “Maybe even a surprise visit.”

That definitely got a reaction. The man clenched his fist and drew a deep breath.

“She must be stopped!” he said firmly. Sherlock chuckled.

“I have achieved many great feats in my time”, he said, “but stopping a lady from doing something once she has set her mind on it – that is stretching even my talents. However if she cannot be stopped, it is my suggestion that she may be.... deflected.”

Mr. Godfreyson leaned forward. I found it hard to think that he was but twenty-eight; he looked solid enough to be ten years older.

“How?” he asked.

“Because you are a friend of my half-brother that means you are a friend of mine”, I said. “I have certain unique contacts who can set up a fake business of any sort in a matter of days, if not hours. We could establish you as something seemingly respectable, find you a temporary home in a middle-class area so that your mother is not suspicious and then invite her to London and let her see that her eldest son is settled and happy and that she need not worry. I can also arrange a set of financial circumstances that make it look as if you have just been singularly fortunate, and that you used this windfall to support her as any good son would.”

“I am happy here”, he smiled. “Cam and Al are wonderful, and I am honoured they think I can carry on their good work. My brothers are good sticks even if they find my way of life a bit rum.”

“Very 'rum' I dare say”, Sherlock said. “And one which has inadvertently caused me a few problems today. Still let us make sure that your mother can have her mind set at rest, and then take things from there.”

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I was never so happy to see dear old 221B's Georgian façade looming over a wet Baker Street through the winter drizzle. Mrs. Harvelle bless the woman had been alerted by a telegram that Sherlock had sent from Victoria and there was a delicious meal (yes, a fry-up with plenty of bacon!) waiting for us as soon as we were into our indoor clothes. It was heaven!

I do not know how but when Mrs. Harvelle brought up a tray with our meals, she gave me a knowing look that said she knew full well that things had changed between me and Sherlock since our departure. She said nothing, yet somehow I still thought of that rifle.

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The following day I opened the 'Times' to see what was afoot in the world and saw a familiar name on the front page. I read the article, smiled, then read it again. I was still grinning when Sherlock emerged from his room, looking as morning-dreadful as ever.

“There is a fascinating article in the paper this morning”, I said. “Apparently the manager of the Grand Hotel has been sacked after he contrived to let a couple of male prostitutes into the elderly Duchess of Lavenham's suite. She returned from the theatre to something of a surprise!”

Sherlock looked more than a little embarrassed. I could guess why.

“Gaillard?” I ventured.

He nodded and slouched into his chair.

“They had a signed letter from him asking them to attend on a gentleman in Room 104”, I said. “Unfortunately they went to 401 by mistake.”

“Oh dear how sad never mind”, Sherlock echoed. “Ah well, I am going to think of it as a down-payment on the next time that he annoys me in some way which, I am sure, cannot be that far into the future.”

I grinned.

“So that means you made a.....”

Damnation, he was looking at me again and giving me the quivering lip! That was just not fair!

“Never mind”, I sighed as I handed over half my bacon as per usual. “And don't you dare smirk!”

He out on his most innocent look which I did not believe for a minute.

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Postscriptum: Three weeks after Mr. Gaillard Holmes had been the victim of a rare Sherlockian misjudgement we received a visit from Mr. Sweyn Godfreyson who told us how his mother had recently visited her son in his small West London house and been delighted that he was doing so well for himself working as a manager at a small shipping company. He was indeed taking over the running of some of Mr. Campbell Kerr's molly-houses as preparation for running the whole 'empire' and some time later mentioned to us that he had been fortunate enough to find a fellow manager whom he deemed 'most capable'. I could not know that that particular choice would come back to haunt me personally, sooner than I deserved.

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