Introduction by Sir Sherrinford Holmes, Baronet
My brother Sherlock and Watson quitted the Fen Country that spring and upon their return to London solved the case known as The Solitary Cyclist'. As I have said elsewhere my brother did not like to leave London for any length of time and it was a curious coincidence that his very next case, which involved someone at the top of high society, took him back to the Fens and a case involving blackmail of the vilest sort. And this case was also interesting because Doctor John Hamish Watson found himself confronting a most unpleasant green-eyed monster!
I am indebted to the two gentlemen who feature in this story who, upon their quitting England for a new life abroad most graciously granted me permission to publish their story.
Narration by Doctor John Hamish Watson, M.D.
“As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?”
I did not squawk nor did I perform an unmanly jump out of my chair. Not much of one. I turned and glared at my friend who smiled innocently back at me.
“I would have thought that you would claim there to have been insufficient information”, I said a little haughtily. “We are not told whether the man and his party were overtaken by the speaker on their way to the town or met them headed away from it. You are the one always pontificating about the importance of having all the facts.”
“I like facts”, he said simply. “But I rather think that this case will not be as easily solved as a child's riddle.”
I sighed in a put-upon manner, although in reality I was happy at being off on another case with Holmes. This morning he had been summoned to wait on none other than Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Thanks to some adroit manoeuvring by the previous government, George Duke of Cambridge (our dear queen's cousin and a man who could very well have been king himself had things worked out differently) was still Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in name but his role had been re-worked to be subservient to that of the Secretary of State for War, the aforementioned knight, who was a former captain in the army and a sound man. It was he who had sent for Holmes to ask him to investigate a 'delicate matter'. To wit, the Harden brothers.
One of the great philanthropists of that time was Mr. John Vincent Harden, a gentleman then in his seventies who had made his fortune in the tobacco industry and now continued to do good works from his semi-retirement in the Huntingdonshire town of St. Ives, whence we had just come. He had married young and had had an impressive seventeen children some thirteen of which had been sons. The two youngest, James and John, had both chosen to make their way in the Army, and had achieved fame for their efforts to defend and later expand the Cape Colony (now South Africa), in the course of which both had been injured and compelled to return to England.
The two brothers, both in their late thirties at this time, lived in a small house called Fenchurch on the road between St. Ives and the nearby village of Fenstanton. John was unmarried whilst James had wed a Boer girl during his first posting in southern Africa, over two decades earlier, and she had sadly died in childbirth, although fortunately her son had survived. That son Augustus, some eighteen years of age, was the gentleman who met us at the railway station.
“Sir Henry was less than communicative about the nature of the case that he wished us to investigate”, Holmes said as we sat down. “I must tell you, Mr. Harden, that I myself was disinclined to take a case based on such little information. It is fortunate for you and your uncle that Doctor Watson here is such an ardent patriot, and pressed me to accept it.”
I blushed at my mention. Yes, I had said that I wished Holmes would take this case, but I had not expected him to actually follow my advice. And his use of the 'us' word made me feel warm inside, even though I strongly suspected that I would supply little if anything to the investigation.
“I am thankful that you have both come”, Mr. Harden said gravely. “The matter is a serious one, and I do not think that it can be easily resolved. My father would be grateful if you could find a solution because I myself cannot see one myself.”
“When a would-be lawyer says that”, Holmes observed, “it is indeed ominous. But kindly place all the facts before us and we shall see what we can do.”
“The matter in question concerns a foul personage by the name of Mr. Ronald Barking”, Mr. Harden began. “He has only recently arrived to the area, which was doing very well without him.”
“Who is this Mr. Barking?” I ventured. Mr. Harden hesitated.
“He claims to be my half-cousin”, our host said, “the result of an affair that Uncle John had with a girl before he went off to his first posting abroad. He is lying, of course.”
Holmes looked at him sharply.
“How can you know that?” he demanded. The young gentleman snorted.
“My uncle may be a little withdrawn and anti-social”, he said, “but he would never do anything like that!”
I wondered how he could be so sure. Holmes looked thoughtful for a moment, but when he spoke it seemed that he had dropped that particular line of questioning.
“Why should this Mr. Barking lie?” he asked.
“You will doubtless be aware of how rich my grandfather is”, he said carefully. “He is as you know, as man of high moral standing. I suspect that Mr. Barking is of the belief that despite the obvious falsity of his claim, there might well be a large payment just to get him to go away.”
“It is never just one payment”, I said sagely.
“So Mr. Barking is trying to obtain recognition as your cousin”, Holmes said. “One presumes that he has proof of some sort, however dubious?”
“He has not yet shown any”, Mr. Harden said.. “The only problem is that his mother hails from Gibraltar, and I know that my uncle served there at around the time of Mr. Barking's birth. But that he would do such a thing is out of the question!”
Holmes pressed his long fingers together and thought for a moment. His next question surprised me.
“Who is your family doctor?”
Mr. Harden looked as surprised as I was by the question.
“Doctor Forrest”, he said. “His surgery is in the High Street, next to the Taverner's Inn. Is that important?”
“I rather think that it may be”, Holmes said mysteriously. “If you leave us your card, we shall call when we have news.”
Holmes duly called in at the doctor's, but whatever he was looking for was apparently not there because he was out in barely a minute. He chuckled at my confusion.
“We shall wire Mycroft in London”, he said, “and he can make himself useful for once.”
“What about?” I asked. Mr. Mycroft Holmes was still persona non grata at Baker Street, and I would have been lying had I not said how much I enjoyed his absence.
“Wait and see!” he teased.
Whilst Holmes sent his telegram, I purchased a newspaper from the shop. I noticed that the advent of this Mr. Barking had made the front page, and I winced. I mentioned it to Holmes when he came out but he seemed unperturbed.
“Do you still wish to go over to Huntingdon?” he asked. A fellow student from my days at St. Bartholomew's had taken up a post in the nearby county town and I had mentioned to Holmes that, time permitting, I might call in on him.
“If you do not need me”, I said.
“Maybe later”, he said. “The post office has a railway timetable, so you can see if there is a train that will get you there and back by this evening.”
As it happened, there was, so we separated and I went off to see Doctor Edward Merridale.
Holmes and I had arranged to meet back at the inn, but I was earlier than expected so decided to take a walk along the High Street. The midsummer sun had eased off, and it was pleasurable to walk down the streets of an old country town and....
I stared incredulously through the window of the same restaurant where Holmes and I had met Mr. Harden earlier that same day. Holmes was back in there – and opposite him was some blonde female, clearly trying to flirt with him.
He looked up sharply from his conversation and I just had time to dodge out of sight. I decided to walk back to the inn, and see if the fresh Huntingdonshire air would help me cope with my jumbled thoughts.
It did not.
Holmes was late back from his encounter, which set my mind running even more frantically. I wondered if he had taken his lady-friend for a walk, or even back to her house? I got into bed whilst it was still light outside and tried to read my book, but my current choice of preternatural adventures could not hold my attention, my mind straying constantly to my absent friend.
Finally he returned, seemingly tired out, and undressed immediately before getting into his bed and falling asleep at once. I hated how he could do that.
Next morning I was still feeling down. I hoped that Holmes would not notice which, considering his skills, showed just how out of sorts I was.
“What is wrong?” he yawned over breakfast. “You look like someone has told you about my secret career as an axe-murderer!”
“I saw you with that woman!” I blurted out, wishing a second too late that my mouth would wait for the guard's whistle before charging out of the station. To my surprise, he chuckled.
“That was Miss Featherstone, Doctor Forrest's secretary”, he said. “In light of how I expected the case to develop, I felt it would be useful to find out what role she herself played in recent developments.”
I looked at him in confusion.
“What does the doctor's secretary have to do with anything?” I demanded.
He looked at me curiously, and I prayed to whatever deity might be listening that he would use any word starting with the tenth letter of the alphabet. I do not know how many credits I used up in the next world, but he hesitated only briefly before returning to his breakfast.
“I shall tell you later.”
I was sure that I detected something suspiciously close to a smirk there, but I could 'not see' that.
At Mr. Augustus Harden's house a short time later we were finally introduced to Mr. Ronald Barking. I have to say that I disliked the man on sight; he had one of those faces that suggests that some parts of humanity had not descended that far from our common ancestors with vermin. He was about twenty-five years of age and had brown hair that was both slicked down and perfumed. He squinted at us over the top of thick-framed spectacles.
“I trust that you gentlemen are not going to interfere in my rightful claims against my father's estate”, he sniffed.
Ye Gods, even his voice was nasal! Holmes sat down in the other visitors' chair, whilst I stood.
“I understand that your claim is that Mr. John Edward Harden is your father”, Holmes said carefully, “which would make you the result of a relationship between him and your mother Miss Betty Martin, later Mrs. Cannock?”
“It is not a claim; it is a fact”, Mr. Barking said testily.
“May I ask if your mother is aware of your pursuing this claim?” Holmes asked.
“My mother has nothing to do with me any more”, the man said, sounding bitter about it. “She disapproves of my decision, but that is her right. All I demand is a fair settlement.”
“Oh, I am sure that we can reach a settlement that is quite fair”, Holmes smiled.
I knew that voice. He had something. Holmes took a sheaf of papers from his pocket and placed them on the desk in front of Mr. Barking.
“What are these?” the man demanded, not touching them.
“Papers concerning the recent collapse of the Farnborough and Fleet Insurance Company”, Holmes said airily. “I had them couriered up here from London on the first train of the day.”
Mr. Barking had gone pale.
“I do not know what you are talking about, sir”, he sniffed.
Holmes shook his head at him.
“It really will not do, Mr. Barking”, he said reprovingly. “However, since you persist in denial, I will tell you and the others what really brought you here. The collapse of the Farnborough and Fleet hit many investors, amongst whom was your stepfather Mr. Caleb Cannock of Woking, Surrey. Somehow he found out that you were involved in bringing about that collapse, and he offered you a deal.”
“Mr. Cannock knew of his wife's background, and that she had had a brief relationship with one of the Hardens when they were both younger”, Holmes went on. “He realized that you were of the right age to claim to be a result of that relationship, that whilst the claim might or might not be successfully pursued, the millionaire Mr. John Vincent Harden would probably pay good money to get you to go away. Indeed, considering the good publicity that their name has brought the army even the British government might dip into their taxpayers' pockets to be rid of you. So the two of you came up with this little ramp to blackmail two heroic men who have served this country well. You are both rascals of the first order!”
“Lies!” the man hissed, looking increasingly nervous.
“However, when you came to St. Ives you decided to check things out first and met with Miss Featherstone, the local doctor's secretary. She, in a moment of garrulousness, let slip a certain fact that greatly strengthened your hand; one which made you realize the Hardens would pay even more to buy your silence. You made your play but you, sir, have lost.”
“I shall go to the papers!” he threatened.
Holmes smiled darkly and took an envelope out of his pocket, which he placed before the man. Mr. Barking looked at it fearfully.
“What is that?” he asked.
“A train ticket to London, and a ticket for the barque “Elizabeth”, due to leave the docks at eight this evening”, Holmes said. “You will return to your hotel, pack, take the train to King's Cross, and be out of this country by nightfall. And Mr. Barking....”
He moved his chair closer to the other man, who visibly cowered.
“Kindly understand that I have friends whose reach is incredibly long. If any word of what you know appears in a single London newspaper any time in the future, then there will be a knife in your back less than twenty-four hours later. The “Elizabeth” stops off in San Salvador, Cape Town, Bombay and Singapore before reaching Hong Kong. No matter where you choose to restart your life, I or my agents will find you. And kill you.”
His tone was ice-cold, and even I shivered. Mr. Barking whimpered and almost fell over his feet as he all but ran from the room. Holmes smiled reassuringly at me, and I let loose a breath I did not even know that I had been holding in. He turned to Mr. Augustus Harden.
“I think, sir”, he said calmly, “that you should go and inform your father that all is well. I am sure that both he and his.... brother will be relieved. We will call in on your grandfather ourselves.”
The young lawyer looked as shocked as I felt, but nodded, and thanked Holmes profusely for his efforts.
Mr. John Vincent Harden did not look his age, I thought, although perhaps all those millions brought the very best in healthcare. He listened to what Holmes had to say then smiled.
“It seems that I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Holmes”, he said. “I am to take it that you know everything?”
There was something in his tone that implied more than he was saying. Holmes smiled.
“I do”, he said. “Fortunately my brother Mycroft is in bad odour with me just now, and moved impressively fast even by his standards. I know in particular about Major Edmund Brockenhurst.”
“Who?” I asked.
“An army officer who I knew in India”, Mr. Harden said. “My company was in charge of supplies to his men and we became friends despite our different backgrounds, especially as we had similar natures.
“Major Brockenhurst had a son”, Holmes said, “and sadly he and his wife died soon after. Mr. Harden, honouring the promise he had made to his friend, raised the boy James as his own son, having presumably decided to inform him of his background when he was of age. Unfortunately a complication then arose. James and Mr. Harden's own son John developed feeling for each other.”
“You prevented any scandal by the simple expedient of not telling James Brockenhurst about his true origins”, Holmes said to Mr. Harden. “It was understandable given the circumstances, and the fact that they grew into two almost identical-looking young men most certainly helped. However it is truly said that 'the truth will out', especially when one has a blabbermouth the size of the doctor' secretary Miss Featherstone in the vicinity. The young men found out the truth but, for your sake, agreed not to be open in their relationship.”
I thought about that for a moment. I could see why the 'brothers' had taken that choice. Small towns were instinctively conservative, but for two brothers to share a house – well, it would be only natural. No-one would suspect anything between them. So that was what Holmes had meant when he told Augustus Harden about his father celebrating with his 'brother'!
“So to continue”, Holmes said. “All marches well; the 'brothers' grow into two fine young men of whom the Nation can be justifiably proud. Unfortunately, we then have the unpleasant Mr. Barking, on the lookout for money to fund the lifestyle he presumes to think that he deserves in some way. He comes to St. Ives hoping to have his silence bought, but in checking around he learns the family secret from a garrulous Miss Featherstone. She is a recent arrival I found, and I can but hope that she does not last long. Not only is she terribly indiscreet, her perfume is utterly repulsive!”
I smiled at that.
Mr. Harden thanked us for our work in the case – Holmes left with two handsome cheques, one for himself and one for his favourite charity – and we returned to the station to catch the train back to London.
“It is sad in a way, though”, I said. “They love each other, but must remain 'brothers' to stop tongues wagging.”
“Can you imagine how the British Army would react to such a scandal?” Holmes snorted. “The papers would have a field-day with the story, and their lives here would become untenable. And many would believe that they really are brothers and that they are committing incest. No, life is far from perfect and this is in all the best solution.”
“That is so old-fashioned”, I said. “People should be allowed to do what they want, provided it is with consenting adults.”
“And provided that it does not make other people jealous!” he grinned.
I glared at him.