Introduction by Sir Sherrinford Holmes, Baronet
In the summer of 'Seventy-Four my brother Sherlock had his first 'recorded' case The Gloria Scott, although it would not be published for another nineteen years. It was a small matter, but the élan with which he solved it led to the next of his unpublished cases, and the first of several occasions when the great (especially in the sense of self-importance) Mycroft would demand his services. I believe that there was a study some time back which showed that the middle brother of three always turns out different from their siblings, and I shall always cherish the memory of Sherlock's face when I suggested that if this case had set a pattern, he might have ended up with Mycroft as his associate rather than Watson.
If looks could have killed!
Narration by Mr. William Sherlock Scott Holmes, Esquire
At the beginning of this year Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's second son, had married Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, the only daughter of the Tsarevich (the heir to the Russian throne, later Alexander III). It was a union fraught with potential repercussions, especially given the way that the Bear persisted in sniffing around the ailing Ottoman Empire as it sought to strengthen its foothold on the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and matters were not helped by Duke Alfred's father-in-law Tsar Alexander II demanding that his daughter took precedence over the Princess of Wales when he paid a short visit to Great Britain soon after the marriage.
Then as now I cared little for politics, considering it to be an irrational science filled with irrational men, but certain events after the Tsar's departure caused Mycroft to call upon my services to solve a problem that had the potential to be very serious indeed. I was of course a patriotic Englishman so I said yes, but working with my brother – it was a wonder that there was not a second murder to go with the first! 'Here lies Mycroft Holmes, who talked down to his own blood once too often!' I also include this case as it was one of the precious few times when I actually got the better of my cleverer sibling.
I should not even have been in London at the time of these events, and even though it would be years before I met the man with whom I would always and quite rightly be forever associated, John Hamish Watson was already having an effect on my life. He had become an acquaintance of my room-mate back at Christ Church, Peter Goodfellow, and had stepped in to help his colleague when, as I really should have foreseen, matters arising out of the Tarleton Hall Affair unfolded as they did. The Christ Church authorities had not taken the fallout from my investigation at Tarleton Hall at all well and, unable to vent their fury at me personally, (the fact that their friends had committed cold-blooded murder was, it seemed, by the by), they had instead turned on poor Peter who had found his course increasingly difficult as a result. Fortunately Watson had a professor at the University of London who was looking for a trainee doctor and recommended him, so Peter was able to quit Oxford and complete his studies 'on the job'.
Peter had also, for once, had some good fortune, as he had met the woman he was destined to marry, a Miss Anne Tudor. She was a very distant relation to the royal family, and although one of six daughters and four sons to a Hertfordshire family of yeomen was in line for a small inheritance from a recently-passed great-aunt who had favoured her, the only minor issue being that she would not receive the money until she was twenty-three years of age, some three years hence. Peter invited me to the wedding and, loath though I usually am to attend such fripperies, I went for his sake.
I did not really enjoy the ceremony, although I was pleased to see my friend so happy. Unfortunately my own happiness was curtailed halfway through the reception when I spotted, of all people, my brother Mycroft sailing regally towards me. Even then he was showing the signs of being rather too much of a gourmand, his portly figure passing with some difficulty amongst the throng. I sighed and waited to see what he wanted.
“You are supposed to be in Cambridge!” he said plaintively.
“I am attending my friend's wedding”, I pointed out, “to which I am sure that you have not been invited.”
“When the security of nations is at stake, insignificant niceties such as waiting for an invitation to do not matter”, he said firmly. “Come!”
“I must make my farewells to Peter and his new wife”, I said, perhaps enjoying his scowl at that remark a little too much. Perhaps not; Mycroft had always wanted to have his own way when we were growing up, and he was the only one of the three of us who had ever talked down to the servants. Sherry was and still is much more easy-going.
My brother was tapping his foot when I finally returned to him, and all but hustled me out into a cab.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Rhododendron Lane!” he barked at the driver (I made a mental note to tip the man for my brother's rudeness, as I knew such giving extra money to the lower orders was an alien concept to him). “Hurry!”
“Why the haste?” I asked, more than a little annoyed. The hansom cab was a chancy vehicle at the best of times, and was most definitely not designed to be driven at speed.
“There has been a murder”, he said. “A Miss Frances Hanover, found dead this morning. And if we do not get it solved as soon as possible, there will likely be hell to pay!”
Rhododendron Lane was a fairly average street in Clerkenwell in south London. A run of yellow brick terraced houses which was typical of the city, save that one of them had a small crowd outside being kept in control by a smartly-dressed constable. Once Mycroft had paid the driver (and I had given him a tip to my brother's visible annoyance) he tried to hustle me inside. I baulked.
“Some background first?” I pressed. “I am not some machine that you can just expect to churn out solutions to problems.”
“We need to be inside”, he said, and for the first time he looked nervous which was definitely not like him. “I do not wish to be overheard.”
I kept back my doubts over that – Mycroft had always been paranoid even whilst growing up – but sighed and followed him inside Number Thirty-Three. He shut the door and led me into the small front room.
There was the dead body of a young woman, about thirty years of age, lying on the rug before the fireplace. It was, I thought immediately, almost uncannily redolent of the Tarleton Hall Affair, which thought was quickly followed by a hope that this one would not end so badly. The only major difference was that this woman was wearing some sort of dressing-gown with a strange dragon pattern on it.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“That was Miss Frances Hanover”, he said grimly, gesturing to two men who were standing by with a rug and stretcher to presumably take the lady away. “Recently arrived to this area, and one of the top spies for the Austro-Hungarian government!”
I knew enough of my brother to avoid asking the obvious question. He was visibly disappointed that I had not.
“As you may guess, she was a lot more use to us free than in the Tower”, he said. “We could make sure that she transmitted to her masters exactly what we wanted them to know and nothing else.”
“Who found her?” I asked.
“That young copper outside”, Mycroft said. “I am having him looked into but so far he seems to be as dumb as he looks, worse luck.”
“You were hoping for him to be a secret murderer?” I smiled.
“It might have been better than the alternative”, he said. “See that door there?”
I looked over to a door that presumably connected into the adjoining property, in the far corner of the room.
“Yes?” I said.
“That leads through to Number Thirty-One”, he said. “And in that abode live one Mr. and Mrs. Nicola Ricoletti.”
“Italian?” I ventured. He nodded.
“As I'm sure even you are aware”, he said, “the sight of Prussian troops marching through the streets of Paris has led to many European countries doing their best headless chicken impressions. The whole continent is forming into two camps, with or against an increasingly mighty Germany. The other new tenant on the block, Italy, is uncertain as to which side they will join as yet. An Italian murdering an Austro-Hungarian in London may be just what we do not need to complicate matters eve further.”
“Who are these people, the Ricolettis?” I asked.
“They are actually Venetians, some of the many who fled here when La Serenissima was swallowed up by Italy a few years back. Many Venetians would have preferred either independence or some arrangement with Austria-Hungary, so came here rather than be ruled by Rome. Mr. Ricoletti has a club foot and works as a clerk at an accountant's in town, whilst his wife works as a dressmaker. She does set days at a place in Southwark but also has a few of her own customers. Miss Hanover was one of them.”
“Are either of them rich?” I asked.
Mycroft grinned, an unusual (and to be frank, quite unsettling) look on him.
“Thinking that the fair Virginia married Nicola for his money rather than his looks?” he said. “Yes, he is fairly well off because of an inheritance that he came into when he came of age, over a decade ago. She... well, I do not say this often, but she gives me the shivers. The first time I saw her I immediately thought 'Lucretia Borgia'. I would not like her to have a sharp weapon in my vicinity.”
“Does she inherit her husband's money if he dies?” I asked.
“And therein lies the rub”, he sighed. “She does not. It is run by some sort of trust fund and he can only receive the interest. If he does not have any children, then the capital is split between his nephews back in spaghetti land. There are eight of them so none would get much at the end of the day.”
I thought for a moment.
“Any ideas?” he asked hopefully.
“How did Miss Hanover die, exactly?” I asked.
“That is what clinches it”, he said, “or will for an English jury. Stabbed to death with a dagger – the property of one Mr. Nicola Ricoletti! Plus the constable out there said that local gossip said they had something going on.”
“He left his knife in her?” I asked dubiously. “I find that hard to believe. And what about her choice of apparel?”
“A kimono”, Mycroft said. “The police doctor is in the back room, ready to sign her out. Is there anything more you need to see?”
“I must talk with your constable”, I said. “And who lives on the other side, Number Thirty-Five?”
“A Mrs. Parker”, he said. “Good name; she has been in and out of her house all morning nosing over the fence, trying to see what is going on.”
“I shall speak to her too”, I said. “I think it would be better for me to see the constable alone, Mycroft; two of us might overawe him.”
He scowled at that but could see my point. He left to see the police doctor and I went outside.
I decided to see Miss Virginia Ricoletti first, to ascertain if certain ideas I had were indeed correct. I tried to avoid thinking the worst of humanity (unlike Mycroft), but far too often the worst was horribly true.
I have to say that I took an instant dislike to Miss 'please, call me Gina' Ricoletti. Like Mycroft had said, I felt instinctively that I would not want her wielding a sharp instrument anywhere in my vicinity. She was young, beautiful and charming, but there was something cold and calculating about her even when she spoke of her husband. I thought her looks to be not quite Italian, and later found out that she haled originally from Latin America.
“Poor, poor Nico”, she said sadly. “I do not like to speak ill of the dead, but That Woman led him on.”
I could hear the capitals in that sentence.
“Why would Miss Hanover pursue a married man?” I asked.
“I think she enjoyed the sense of power, with him worshipping her on her pedestal”, she sneered. “She had more than enough other male visitors, the Jezebel!”
Jealousy, I thought wryly. And she had the green eyes to go with it.
“You might have been amongst the last people to see her alive”, I said casually.
She looked at me sharply. I covertly checked her hands for any weapons.
“What makes you say that?” she demanded.
“She was wearing a kimono”, I said, “so clearly she was preparing to try on some dress. May I take it that you did not mention your planned visit to the police?”
“We had a fitting planned for mid-day”, she admitted. “Then at about half-past eleven that young policeman comes by and sees the door open, and.... and....”
She tailed off and I could not help thinking her whole performance was somewhat theatrical. Then again, her husband could be facing the gallows. I also thought that it was slightly odd of Miss Hanover to have changed into her kimono so early, as it was not really that warm.
I got up and walked over to the dresser where I had noticed something else rather curious.
“Is that a Meissen?” I asked, looking closely at a hideous vase.
“Lord, no!” she smiled. “Just an old family piece from home.”
I studied the vase intently. It was singularly uninteresting.
“And your husband's only job is his clerical work?” I asked.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered”, I said. “I shall not take up any of your valuable time, madam. Good day.”
It was my intention to speak with the constable next, but it was not to be. Before I could invite him inside he told me that the cleaning-lady, a Mrs. Parsons, had arrived and wished to know if she was needed. I decided that it would be best to talk to her but that I would talk to the neighbour first. Constable Oakham grinned when I said that, as if he did not rate my chances very highly.
His cynicism was to prove more than justified. Mrs. Eugenia Parker seemed able to talk without any apparent need to draw breath, and it was with some relief that she eventually offered me a slice of cake. Whilst she was fetching it I took my opportunity.
“I can see that you are a most observant lady”, I said, “so I will cut straight to the chase. I wish to hear anything and everything you know about the gentleman who was seeing Mrs. Ricoletti behind her husband's back.”
She froze and peered at me over the tops of her spectacles.
“And what makes you think there was such a gentleman, sir?” she said warily.
“Generally people kill for two reasons”, I said. “Love, or money. I know that Mrs. Ricoletti did not stand to inherit her husband's money in the event of his death, so we are left with love. I think that she was seeing someone else behind her husband's back and that the death of her husband – possibly through his execution for murder – would be one of the few things to free her for remarriage. The man that I am interested in works at a local stonemason, and is of at least some physicality.”
She looked at me in amazement.
“No flies on you, are there?” she said. “He goes by the name of Rolando; I don't know his surname. Comes round often enough; I supposes she lets him know when it is safe.”
“Was he here today?” I asked.
She looked at me warily but nodded.
“Came about ten; I don't know what time he left”, she said. “But there's an exit out the back into the alley so he may have gone that way. Was he the one who... you know.”
“That”, I said, “is what I am endeavouring to find out.”
It amused me as I returned to the scene of the crime as to what Mycroft would say about me lowering myself to speak to a humble servant. I doubted that Mrs. Parsons could have anything to add to what I already knew, but the lady was most likely worried over events here and deserved to be reassured.
I would later have cause to be thankful for such consideration, because Mrs. Parsons did have something of import. In fact she had the solution to the entire case.
I saw very quickly that something was troubling the lady, so suggested that she make some tea over which we could discuss what she could tell us about the victim. Once she had sat down and had more or less stopped fidgeting, I broached the subject.
“Mrs. Parsons”, I began, “although you are doubtless able to provide us with some information as to the deceased and her background, I sense that something rather more serious is troubling you. May I know what it is?”
She seemed even more worried now.
“That nice Constable Oakham, sir”, she said, much to my surprise. “Would he.... that is..... would he be in any trouble, sir?”
“Not unless he has done something wrong”, I said gently. “Why do you ask? Is there something he has done that might concern you?”
She fretted some more, and I began to wonder if I would ever extract whatever information she did have. Then suddenly the words flowed.
“You see, sirs, it's like this”, she said. “I live over in Sandalphon Street with my Bert and our daughter Alice. She's a dressmaker, and like the foreign lady next door she does for several ladies around. And I'm worried that nice policeman will go to prison!”
I blinked at the apparent non sequitur.
“Why would Constable Oakham go to prison because your daughter is a dressmaker?” I asked (it sounded even stranger when I actually said it).
“He found the body”, she almost whispered, looking around furtively as if we might be overheard. “And he took away.... evidence!”
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“When I was talking to him out there, I saw that pin in his uniform”, she said. “He reminded me of the old saying; 'see a pin and pick it up, then all the day you'll have good luck'. And he'd nearly trodden on it in Miss Hanover's house.”
“So Miss Hanover dropped a pin”, I said, not having a clue where she was going with this. “Lots of people do that.”
She shook her head vigorously.
“Not that, sir”, she said. “Alice once showed me the pins she uses for her ladies' dresses; they're special ones with rounded heads. She has to order them in; you can't buy them normal like.”
I felt all at sea. Where was she going with this?
“The constable said that the Italian lady was due round later”, Mrs. Parsons said fretfully. “But if her pin was there then so was she, sir, and the constable he took it. He won't get into any trouble, will he?”
I stared at her incredulously.
“Mrs. Parsons”, I said, “I must congratulate you on your most brilliant observational abilities. I believe that you have just solved this murder.”
She looked at me aghast.
“Me, sir?” she exclaimed, sounding horrified. “How? Um, if I may ask.”
“I shall have to handle things very carefully”, I said. “You are right to be concerned madam, for the poor constable out there did, however inadvertently, commit a minor crime. Yet in doing so, he and you have caught the murderer of Miss Francis Hanover. Now, this is what I wish you to do.....”
“I do not know how you did it, Sherlock”, Mycroft said ruefully, “but you did it.”
“She has confessed?” I asked,
“She was seeing some Italian stone-worker from the marble place over in Camberwell”, he said. “He helped her do it. How the hell did you find out?”
“Well, first there was the ugly dresser in her house”, I said.
“What of it?” he asked. “Cheap copy of a quality item, most likely from the wrong end of Portobello Road.”
“There was Portland stone-dust on the floor next to it”, I said. “I did a thesis on different types of stone-dust as part of my chemistry course. Not only that, but I noted that it was in front of the connecting door through to Miss Hanover's house, yet the dresser had clearly been moved quite recently. I very much doubt that Mrs. Ricoletti would have been strong enough to shift it by herself. And since her husband worked only as a clerk, the dust could not have come from him.”
“I talked with Mrs. Parker, the neighbour on the other side, and she confirmed my suspicions about the lover Rolando. As I told her, people usually kill for either love or money. Mrs. Ricoletti was not going to get her husband's money, so it was love – love of country and/or someone she preferred to her infirm husband. She or her lover may or may not have been aware of Miss Hanover's espionage activities, but either way her removal and Mr. Ricoletti's execution for murder would be one of the few things to free up the lady for remarriage.”
“If that stupid copper hadn't have picked up that pin....”
“We would never have been able to prove Miss Ricoletti's presence in the house that morning”, I said smoothly. “The pin that only she as a dressmaker would have used.”
“Well he'll be facing the chop”, Mycroft said firmly.
“He will not”, I said equally firmly. “You will not allow it.”
“You think I can stop the Metropolitan Police?” Mycroft asked dryly.
“I am sure that you could stop Mr. Disraeli if you set your mind to it”, I said. “Now, about that reward that the Austro-Hungarian government posted for the murder of one of its citizens.”
Mycroft looked even shiftier than usual (yes, that was possible).
“Ah yes”, he said. “Tricky that. You see, to keep the Italians on side we had to agree to them having the murderous duo back so that they could try them. So no-one qualifies for it.”
“You will tell the Austrians that they will pay the reward to me”, I said. “I shall pass on a third each to Mrs. Parsons, Mrs. Parker and Constable Oakham.”
“I do not know about that...”
“They will pay”, I said firmly. “Otherwise the truth about Miss Hanover's activities might come out after all, including the British government's less than creditable actions. Most likely just in time for the next general election.”
“That is blackmail!” Mycroft protested.
“Really?” I said. “I think that I prefer the term 'politics'.”
I did not think that five hundred pounds was going to bring down the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although their continued mishandling of their copious minorities might. As I had said I would, I divided the money equally between Constable Oakham (who I later checked on, not fully trusting my brother at the best of times), Mrs. Parker for helping confirm my theory and Mrs. Parsons, for her skills and also for teaching me a valuable lesson that the lower orders fully deserve the same treatment as everyone else, and that the answers to problems can come from the most unlikely of places.