Actions

Work Header

The Adventure Of The Old Russian Woman

Work Text:

Introduction by Sir Sherrinford Holmes, Baronet

One of the questions sometimes posed by the 'Sherlockians' who read my clever brother's adventures was as to how he survived for as long as he did in a city as dangerous as our greatest metropolis. This, his fifth adventure, brought him into contact with one of the most dangerous of those city's denizens, and the service that Sherlock provided for him (despite it being not quite what the gentleman had expected) led to his effectively extending his 'favour' to my brother. The sort of 'favour' for which the ignoring of it tended to earn the transgressor a one-way trip along the bed of Old Father Thames (free concrete footwear provided).

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩

Narration by Mr. William Sherlock Scott Holmes, Esquire

I do not know how it was, given the secrecy surrounding anything associated with government these days, but my solving of the Ricoletti case somehow seemed to establish amongst my fellow students a reputation for problem-solving, and several of them came to me to help them in one way or another, Nearly all of these were utterly trivial – the first of two cases concerning a lost fountain-pen that Watson often teased me about was one of them – but one case in particular stood out, as it without doubt had some most beneficial long-term effects for my career. And for my survival prospects as some in the criminal world became increasingly desirous of my removal into the next world.

One of the most curious characters on my course was a gentleman by the name of Mr. Ivan Khrushnic. As the name suggested his family was of Russian extraction, and I knew that his father was some sort of businessman. A successful one obviously as he had been in the Times recently for his acquisition of one of the most famous paintings of the day, The Two Ladies. It was a small work barely eighteen inches square, and was based on that well-known optical illusion that shows either an ugly old woman looking one way or a pretty young lady looking the other. The Russian artist had done much more with it however, showing the two images as the old and new faces of his homeland. I was not surprised that Mr. Richard Khrushnic would have wanted to acquire such an item, and could only hope that he had adequate security measures in place wherever he had chosen to display it.

Seemingly, he had not.

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩

Mr. Ivan Khrushnic was one of the most unimaginative gentlemen that I had the acquaintance of; indeed I suspected him of being incapable of most human emotions. So when I saw his hand shaking over a laboratory experiment that Monday afternoon I knew that it had to be something serious. He caught me looking at him and sighed.

“I doubt the matter that renders me like this is capable of solving even by your great brain, Holmes”, he said ruefully. “I am about to lose a brother.”

“How, exactly?” I asked.

“My father is going to have him killed.”

I swallowed at that. He said it as if he were announcing his parent's intention to rid himself of an unwanted household cat.

“May I ask why?” I ventured.

“Because he believes that he stole his painting.”

The Two Ladies?” I asked. He nodded.

“It looks very bad”, he said.

“Has the painting been recovered?”

“It was found at his house, not five minutes away.”

“Do you think your brother stole the painting?” I asked.

He frowned.

“It is like one of those dreadful melodramas”, he said, “where all the facts point in one direction. It just seems a little too obvious for my tastes. But of course I cannot question my father's word.”

“Would he accept my taking an interest in the matter?” I ventured.

He thought for a moment.

“Would you?” he asked. “I would be very grateful.”

“Of course”, I said.

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩

Mr. Richard Khrushnic lived in a surprisingly modest medium-sized house facing across one of London's quieter squares. There was nothing about it that suggested any criminality on its owner's behalf, although I thought that that might not be surprising. The gentleman himself was also fairly regular in his appearance, the archetypal Victorian gentleman and very clearly my fellow student's father. He stared at me suspiciously.

“Ivan says you agree with him that his brother is innocent”, he said sharply.

“He is wrong in that”, I said, to the evident surprise of both men. “I know none of the facts in this matter, so at the moment I think nothing.”

The criminal lord looked at me even more suspiciously.

“And why should I trust you?” he demanded.

“Because I have nothing to gain except the possibility of making your elder son, my fellow student, rest more easily”, I said. “When he told me what little he knew of the case, I was reminded what a fellow student once said to me. It is not just the facts as they are presented, but sometimes the small details observed only on a subconscious level that are important. I have a feeling – and for now it is just a feeling – that your son may have noticed something that is making him uneasy but without knowing exactly why. Surely in your line of business, sir, you know the importance of something as seemingly insubstantial as a hunch?”

He looked at me hard for some little time, then nodded.

“I will give you that”, he conceded. “I once backed away from a meeting in a warehouse that felt wrong, though I had no facts at the time. It saved my life; there were three armed men waiting for me inside.”

“I might suggest that, subconsciously, some part of your brain noted a clue to the men's presence at the time”, I said, “and that manifested itself as an uneasy feeling. Perhaps a door slightly open or some footprints; the substance itself is irrelevant. What is important is that your elder son has the same feeling about this painting. I would like to offer my investigatory services, such as they are, to see if he is right.”

“And if he is?” Mr. Khrushnic asked.

“The matter shall remain in your hands”, I said. “I am not an agent of the law, but I do prefer justice to be done. How you do that is for you to decide.”

He hesitated, then nodded.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“I am afraid that I must start with a somewhat impertinent question that you will not like at all”, I said. “I must ask to see your will.”

That clearly caught my host by surprise.

“And why would you need to see that, sir?” he asked frostily.

I reminded myself that this man could very easily have me killed without batting so much as an eyelash. Nevertheless I stood firm.

“I like your elder son as a person”, I said carefully, “but it may be that by removing his younger brother he may gain in some way. Similarly, others may benefit from his early demise.”

“I can tell you he will not”, Mr. Khrushnic said firmly. “My eldest son receives three-quarters of my estate and my youngest one quarter, save for a trust fund for my good lady wife should she outlive me. Ivan's share devolves upon Gregor is he dies first, but if anything happens to Gregor then his share is held in trust for any sons that Ivan may have, or failing that to a cousin who lives in Lancashire.”

I was about to speak when we were interrupted by a footman bringing his master a note. Not the same dark-haired one who had admitted me and who had been in desperate need of a haircut; this was a blond fellow who seemingly viewed me with contempt as he delivered his missive. I looked at him curiously, then up at the absolutely huge painting that my host had of himself hanging over the fire-place. Mr. Khrushnic informed the man that there was no reply and he left.

“Your footman is Russian?” I asked.

The man was good – he had to be in his line of work, I supposed – but I spotted it.

“Two of them are, but not Feodor.”

“Then why does he have a Russian name?” I asked. My host shrugged his shoulders.

“He told me that he was christened Theodore”, he said, “but took the Russian version of that name because of his mother. I believed you came here to help investigate a missing painting rather than to inquire into the ancestry of my staff?”

“All facts are important to an investigation”, I said. “May I still see that will, sir?”

As I had guessed he might, he was now rather less unhappy about me seeing that document. He crossed to a bureau where he extracted a key from his pocket and unlocked a small drawer. Taking out a sheaf of papers, he handed them to me. I carefully read through them and handed them back, thinking wryly that the best of intentions was sometimes still insufficient.

“I believe that I can see an alternative set of facts that would explain what occurred”, I said. “I would like to speak with your son Gregor, but first I would like to see the actual painting.”

Mr. Khrushnic nodded, stood and led the way out of the room. After a considerable walk we found ourselves in a long gallery, with the picture in question hanging on the wall immediately to our right. I stared at it for some little time before thanking my host, and we returned to the reception room.

“I would like to speak to your youngest son now”, I said.

“He is waiting upstairs”, Mr. Khrushnic said. “I shall have him summoned.”

He rang a bell, and a few moments later Feodor reappeared with Mr. Gregor Khrushnic. He was an unprepossessing, reedy young blond man with spectacles, a weak chin and a most unfortunate attempt at a moustache. He looked at us fearfully.

“I have just two questions for you”, I said crisply. “Firstly, did anyone know you were coming round to the house on the day of the theft?”

The man nodded, then looked fearfully at his father.

“Mrs. Wells knew, sir.”

“My housekeeper?” his father asked, clearly astonished. His son turned to him.

“I wanted to discuss something..... delicate, Father”, he said carefully. “I chanced to meet her in the park last week, and she recommended coming yesterday because she was making your favourite apple and rhubarb pie.”

This was good, I thought.

“Mr. Khrushnic”, I said, “I would like to examine the ring that you are wearing.”

The young man looked appealingly at his father, but the latter shrugged his shoulders and gestured for him to hand it over. I looked at it briefly and was careful to keep a straight face. Even better.

“Thank you”, I said politely. “You may go.”

The young man looked to his father, who nodded his permission. He left.

“The case is almost complete”, I said. “I shall however need you to do something for me – and for that matter, to not do something as well.”

“What is that?”

“I first ask that you refrain from doing anything to your younger son until this time tomorrow”, I said. “By then, if things work out as I expect, you will know the true facts about the theft of your painting. Or at least most of them; I am sure that your own connections can fill in what needs to be filled in.”

“Can you not tell me now?” he asked plaintively.

“I would rather not, and I am afraid that I cannot explain why”, I said cryptically. “Now to the thing I require you to actually do. An hour or so after my departure, inform your staff that you are closing the house up and moving to your house in the country. Say that you are leaving at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. I will be here at eight thirty.”

“You are coming with me?” he asked. I smiled.

“Not exactly”, I said. “But I guarantee you a resolution within half an hour of our arrival. Good day, sir.”

I left the room.

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩

I had one small matter to check appurtenant to the case that evening. I managed to locate a catalogue of a recent exhibition in which the famous painting had been shown, and checked the illustration thoroughly.

“Just as I thought”, I muttered to myself. “Four birds.”

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩

I arrived at exactly eight-thirty to his father's house to find the place all a-bustle. Bags were heaped up in the huge hallway and the crime lord himself looked quite exasperated as I was shown in. Ivan was in the room with him.

“So, why am I going to the country Mr. Holmes?” Mr. Khrushnic demanded.

“You are not.”

“What?” The man blinked at me.

“You are going nowhere”, I said calmly. “I shall now explain all. Is your butler to be trusted?”

The man looked at me confusedly.

“Yes”, he said at last, “but why....”

“Kindly summon him, if you please.”

Still looking bewildered he rang the bell. The butler promptly appeared.

“I would like to give your man an instruction, if I may”, Holmes said.

“Go on”, our host said warily.

I whispered something to the elderly servant, who looked surprised.

“That item is in the hallway, sir”, he said crisply.

“Please bring it in here”, I said quietly.

The butler nodded – clearly a good servant if he was doing whatever strange thing a visitor had requested without asking why – and left. Less than a minute later he was back hefting a medium-sized bag with some effort, which I took and placed behind one of the chairs.

“The staff are all downstairs having breakfast as requested, sir”, the butler intoned.

“As you requested?” Mr Khrushnic demanded, clearly getting annoyed. “What is going on here?”

“I took the liberty of asking Ivan to get your housekeeper to serve a late breakfast”, I said, “so all your staff would be out of the way when I called.”

“Oh you did, did you?” Mr. Knrushnic asked. He was evidently not pleased.

“Yes”, I said. “Because I shall now tell you about the theft of your painting.”

“Theft and return”, the man corrected.

“No”, I said firmly. “Just theft. The painting hanging in time in your gallery is, I am afraid, an excellent copy. Doubtless done by one of the master copiers in the city – as I said yesterday, I am sure that your connections can find out which one - and probably worth quite a fair sum in its own right, but not a patch on the original.”

The man gaped.

“So I have been robbed! It was Gregor all along!”

I sighed.

“And it really would have been easier if you had told me everything”, sir”, I said, almost plaintively.

“I did....”

“You did not mention that, on the day of the theft, you received a hoax telegram that caused you to have to leave the house.”

The man's jaw dropped. Even my fellow student looked askance at me.

“I did not tell you that”, Ivan said cautiously.

“Nevertheless I knew”, I said. “It was the only way to make sense of what really happened that day.”

I handed a slip of paper to Mr. Khrushnic.

“Kindly carry out the instructions therein, sir.”

The crime lord pulled himself together and rang one of the bells. Feodor, the glaring footman from the previous day, promptly appeared.

“Fetch Mr. Gregor from upstairs, Feodor”, Mr. Khrushnic said heavily.

The man bowed and left. I looked pointedly at Ivan Khrushnic, and he moved over to the door in order to block any exit. Not a moment too soon for there was a knock swiftly followed by the entrance of a terrified-looking Mr. Gregor Khrushnic and the footman, who made to leave but was bidden to remain by his master.

“I am now in a position to return your property to you, sir”, I said. “But before I do, I regret that I must cause you some pain. You believed that your youngest son stole your painting. My investigations have shown that you that you were quite correct in that belief.”

Mr. Gregor Khrushnic gasped.

“Father! I swear that is not true!”

“I am sorry but it is”, I said, moving over to the chair behind which I had placed the bag. “It happened like this. At around two o'clock, Feodor here hands you, Mr. Khrushnic, a telegram. I do not know the contents of that message but the effect, as desired, was to cause you to leave the house for at least two hours. The message was as you later discovered a hoax, but it was essential that you not be here when your son was.”

“At approximately two-thirty Mr. Gregor Khrushnic leaves his apartment for the ten-minute walk to his father's house. He believes that the only person who knows he is coming is the housekeeper but, as we all know, servants gossip. Importantly for what it about to happen, Mr. Gregor is wearing his long-coat.”

“At approximately twenty minutes to three Mr. Gregor Khrushnic arrives at this house and is shown into the waiting-room. He hands his coat to the footman, Feodor here, who takes it and hangs it in the cloakroom – but not before extracting something from it. A set of house-keys.”

The footman had made a desperate lunge for the door but fortunately Ivan Khrushnic was onto him at once and his brother hurried over to assist. The two of them soon had him pinned down, much to our host's astonishment.

“Feodor?” he gasped. “But.... that's impossible!”

“Mr. Gregor had mentioned that he was coming here at this time, so your footman arranged for you to be out”, Holmes said. “I have studied the forging of such works purely for my own interest, and I found one interesting fact which served me well in this case. Many forgers, unwilling that their works of art be used for criminal purposes, add a very small difference to the forged work that would distinguish it to anyone who examined it closely. Since you assumed it was the original that was returned, sir, you did not immediately examine it, but had you done so you may well have noted that whilst the original had four small birds flying away into the distance on the right of the painting, the copy hanging upstairs only has three.”

“Why did you not tell me this yesterday?” Mr. Khrushnic demanded hotly.

“Because I wished for you to have a good night's sleep”, I said. “In light of what I knew about the case, I thought that you might well need it.”

I caught my fellow student looking at the painting on the wall that was now directly behind the trapped Feodor, and knew from his sudden pallor that he too had spotted it.

“Feodor slips out with both the fake painting that he has secured and the keys that he has extracted from Mr. Gregor Khrushnic's coat pocket”, I continued. “A fit man, he can make it to his target's house in five minutes. I dare say that he was seen, but no-one thought to ask if anyone went into Mr. Gregor Khrushnic's rooms at that time as all the attention was on this house. Feodor leaves the painting poorly hidden and races back home. Fortuitously his absence has not been spotted and even better, no-one has yet told Mr. Gregor that his father is unlikely to return for some hours, so Feodor tells him that and he leaves. Our criminal then quickly goes to the gallery and takes the real painting from the wall, hiding it in his own room. When his master returns from his hoax errand, he arranges for one of the maids to clean the gallery knowing that she will see the bare gap on the wall and raise the alarm. You, Mr. Khrushnic, send your men round to your son's apartment and find the ill-concealed copy.”

Mr. Khrushnic sat in stony silence. Feodor whimpered on the floor between myself and the two tall Khrushnic brothers.

“By advising you to make an immediate move to the country, I forestalled any attempt by the criminal to dispose of the painting”, I explained. “His only hope was to take it with him” - I reached behind the chair for the suitcase and saw the footman's face go even whiter - “so I believe that it should be in here.”

I opened the case, and extracted a slim package which I unwrapped. Sure enough, it was 'The Two Ladies'.

“You were wrong on one thing, though”, Mr. Khrushnic pointed out. “You said that the theft had been carried out by my youngest son!”

Mr. Gregor Khrushnic has clearly spotted it as well, now. He looked horrified.

That was the motive”, I said quietly. “Your will's precise wording, as I suspected, was that the estate was to be divided between all the sons of the blood body, regardless of which side of the blanket they were born on. And critically, if there was only one son remaining then he would receive all. You, Mr. Khrushnic, were not prepared to recognize your actual youngest son's claim, but you did find him employment and, fatally, gave him a signed document recognizing his status. The wording of the will, which he chanced to read one day, meant that he could use that to push a claim to the estate once he had, to coin a phrase, 'eliminated the opposition'.”

Mr. Khrushnic sat in stunned silence.

“Sorry I am to say it, sir, but had you taken action against Mr. Gregor here, then I fear you and Ivan here would both have suffered 'accidents' not long after his 'removal'. Your.... 'servant' would inherit all.”

“What are you going to do?” the man managed.

“I am, as I said at the start, employed by you in merely a private capacity”, I said gently. “The way you choose to deal with what has happened is up to you, sir. I shall leave you now.”

I left Mr. Khrushnic and his sons – all three of his sons – in the large, lonely house.

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩

I was not surprised when, less than a week later, Ivan Khrushnic handed me a copy of the ”TImes” with a small article on page five ringed. Apparently the body of a footman had been dredged up from the Thames near London Bridge. The price of failure in some 'businesses' is a high one indeed.

۩۩۩۩V♔R۩۩۩۩