It was the second morning after Christmas and I was eager to return home to Baker Street. As it was, I had scarcely set foot in my own rooms for nearly a week; an outbreak of cholera and a shortage of nurses had kept me at Bart’s for much of Advent. Having spent my Christmas on ward duty, the thought of a hot meal, a warm bath, and pleasant company innervated me so that I took the stairs at a gallop, calling Miss Holmes’s name as I went.
My entrance into the room had little effect on my companion. Shirley Holmes was lounging half-upright in bed in a purple dressing-gown, a cigarette smoldering in one hand, ashes looking very near to dropping onto the bedclothes. Perched upon the back of a nearby chair was a very seedy and disreputable-looking hard-felt hat—a battered, shabby thing, much the worse for wear. Miss Holmes paid me no mind, gazing instead at the hat, blowing blue-grey smoke rings as she did so.
“You are engaged,” said I, when she made no reply to my greeting. “Perhaps I interrupt you.”
“No, not at all. I am glad to have a friend with whom I can discuss my results. The matter, I admit, is a trivial one,” Miss Holmes began, sitting up enough to extinguish her cigarette. “But not entirely devoid of interest. Perhaps, even, of instruction."
“Ah, yes, of course,” I said, with no small amount of annoyance in my voice. I sat on the edge of my bed and bent down to unbutton my boots, stretching my tired, stockinged feet towards the fire. It was a cold night, and the windows were thick with ice crystals. “I suppose, homely as it looks, that this old hat has some deadly story linked to it, that it is the vital clue which may lead to the solution of some crime—the chapeau of a murderer?”
“No, no. No crime,” Miss Holmes declared with a laugh. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and began casting about for her slippers. “Merely one of those whimsical little incidents which result from having four million human beings all jostling about in the same few square miles. In so dense a swarm of humanity, many a mysterious and improbable combination of events may occur that are striking, or bizarre, but not exactly criminal.”
“Such as one’s very best friend and companion utterly neglecting to wish me a jolly Christmas?”
At that, she raised her head, and, for the first time since I had entered our room, looked at me. Her hand reached across the space between our beds and sought mine. I gave it to her willingly, and was rewarded with a beatific smile.
“Oh, Jane,” said she, “but I am silly. You were very much missed at Christmas. The new girl on the first floor, who fancies herself a soprano, woke us up bright and early with her caterwauling; Mrs. Hudson made a marvelous plum pudding; and I hadn’t anyone to smile at when Miss Samuels spilled gravy all down the front of her new lace gown.”
“Poor Harriet,” I said through a giggle, “She’s wanted a new dress for ages.”
“And now, she has a very becoming table runner. But, you must be hungry. Come, it’s nearly teatime—let us brave the wilds of the sitting room in search of sustenance.”
“What about the hat?” I asked. In spite of my hunger, I was curious how this battered old felt could have held Miss Holmes’s interest.
“Bring it along, and I shall tell you all about it over tea.”
I washed up and changed from the dreadful starched collar of my uniform. How shall I describe the feeling I had that afternoon to be in my own clothes once more? Many may write it off as a woman’s frivolity, but there is much to be said of the comfort and cheer that a pair of slippers or a simple gown hold, particularly for the lady professional. A metamorphosis from the seriousness of toil into a more gentle reality.
And so, battered hat in hand, we descended to the sitting room. ‘Brave the wilds,’ Miss Holmes had said, and a wilds it was. When one thinks of a lodging house for young ladies, perhaps one imagines the quiet serenity of a convent, a picturesque haven of unspoiled domesticity. I, too, had such visions before arriving at Baker Street. The reality, I confess, is something far less idyllic—a constant stream of activity, of gossip, of the petty thefts of one another’s stockings, of squabbles, disagreements, and tearful reconciliations.
I do not wish to slander any of the young ladies with whom I share a roof, and our landlady, Mrs. Hudson, runs a most respectable and godly household. It is merely that, as the estimable Charlotte Bronte put it, women feel as men do, ‘they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it’. So it is that all the residents of 221 Baker Street are well-versed in the creation of action.
We found the sitting room occupied. In one corner sat our landlady, busy with her mending. Miss Alice Stamford, a friend and fellow nurse, laid across the divan with her foot up—a sprained ankle, which had kept her out of work since before Christmas. There with her were Miss Samuels, a milliner’s assistant, and Miss Jones, a typewriter, whose small Pekingese dog was the sole focus of their attention. Upon our arrival, the dog lifted its tasseled head, considered us for a moment, then dismissed us with a derisive sniff. The ladies around it did much the same. Miss Holmes and I, having availed ourselves of the tea tray and sandwiches on the sideboard, settled into chairs by the fire.
“Ah,” exclaimed I, after a few bites, “I cannot tell you how glad I am to have something besides beef tea and cold toast. Even for Christmas, the best the nursing staff received was a bit of roast and stewed carrots.”
“Then you are very much in luck! Mrs. Burns is roasting a goose for us tonight. A most unimpeachable Christmas goose, at that.”
“Is she? But why?”
Miss Holmes smiled into her teacup. “It was a gift of sorts, along with this battered old hat. Do you remember Peterson, the commissionaire who lives down Tottenham Court Road?”
“It is to him that this trophy belongs.”
“You mean it is his hat?”
“No, no, he found it. The owner is unknown. A fascinating intellectual problem, to be sure. Listen, and I shall tell you how it came here.”
So I sat, drawing my feet up under myself as I listened to the story of the hat and the goose. The facts were baffling in their simplicity: at four o’clock on Christmas morning, Peterson was returning home to Tottenham Court Road, having completed his rounds for the night. Before him walked, or, by Peterson’s account, staggered a man—evidently very full of ‘Christmas cheer’—with a fat, white goose slung over his shoulder. As they neared the corner of Goodge Street, the man was set upon by a pack of roughs. A brawl ensued, a window was smashed, and as soon as Peterson rushed forward to protect the man from his assailants, the whole lot dispersed into the labyrinthine alleyways.
“And the gentleman?” asked I.
“Gone as well! Dropped his goose and hat, and took to his heels. No doubt he was startled by Peterson’s sudden appearance, and in his, shall we say, state of merriment, feared getting hauled in for disorderly conduct. So there stood Peterson, with a fine goose and an old hat for his troubles.”
“But why bring them to you? Why not restore them to their owner?”
“My dear Jane, there lies the problem,” Miss Holmes said with a smile. She settled back into her chair and steepled her fingers before her. “While there was a card tied to the goose’s leg which read ‘For Mrs. Henry Baker’ and, while the initials ‘H. B.’ are inscribed in the lining of this hat, there are no less than three hundred Henry Bakers in this great city of ours. To find the one in question is no easy feat. Instead, Peterson did the very sensible thing and brought them both ‘round to me on Christmas morning, knowing even the most trivial of mysteries is of interest to me.”
Miss Holmes is a collector of unlikely friends. Some days, I suspect she must be acquainted with half of all Londoners, for everywhere she goes it seems there is someone who recognizes her, or credits her with the solution to one of their problems. While she is not, regrettably, universally well-liked, she has a particular rapport with the veterans who serve as night-watchmen and commissionaires, this man Peterson among them. Still, what a sight it must have been on Christmas morn to see the elderly Peterson calling on the young Miss Holmes with a goose and an old battered felt as gifts. I giggled to imagine what the neighbors must have thought.
“The goose we retained until this morning,” Miss Holmes continued. “In spite of the slight frost, it was beginning to show signs that it should be eaten without delay. It is down in the kitchen now, with Mrs. Burns, no doubt preparing to fulfill the ultimate destiny of a goose. The hat, as you can see, is here, the only clue to the identity of the man who lost his Christmas dinner.”
I shook my head in amusement, glancing again at the well-worn headpiece on the sewing table between us. “Oh, but what clue can this hat afford?”
“You know my methods,” Miss Holmes replied. From the pocket of her dressing gown she drew a lens and handed it to me, eyes alight with mischief. “Take a look for yourself and see what you can deduce about the man who has worn it.”
I took the tattered object in my hands and turned it over rather ruefully. A twitter of laughter rose from the divan as I peered through the lens at the hat. I am certain I made a funny picture, sitting there, staring at this ordinary hat as though it might impart some secret knowledge to me. I am no expert in the matter of men’s attire, but it struck me as a very ordinary black hat, rounded in shape and much abused. Its red silk lining was faded and torn and bore no distinguishing marks, save the initials ‘H.B.’, which Miss Holmes had already noted. I handed it back to her with a shrug.
“I can see nothing.”
“No. Only…” I hesitated.
“Oh, it’s silly—but, if I were Mrs. Baker, I should never let my husband out in that mangy old thing.”
Miss Holmes smiled at me, a fond smile, which set my blood afire. “Oh, Jane… you see more than you know. You are simply too timid in drawing your inferences.”
At this point, the twittering from the divan broke into derisive guffaws.
“Heaven help us, she’s doing it again,” remarked Alice with a roll of her eyes.
“Lottie! Lottie, you’re missing it! Shirley Holmes is going to grace us with one of her divinations!”
“It isn’t a divination, merely observation,” Miss Holmes corrected.
There was a clatter of heels upon the stair, and the distance call of, “Wait, wait for me!”
“Girls, please, there’s no need to shout,” Mrs. Hudson chided. “This is a respectable house.”
“Though you should never know it from looking.”
“Pray tell us, Miss Holmes,” Miss Samuels called, “just what can you infer from a ratty old hat?”
“You’re a milliner, Miss Samuels, should you care to have a guess?” asked my friend.
“Only that whoever lost it is better off without it!” she declared, much to the amusement of her compatriots.
“I shouldn’t say that,” Mrs. Hudson cautioned, “For it is better to have a shabby hat, than to go bareheaded in weather such as this.”
“Quite so, Mrs. Hudson, quite so.”
Miss Holmes held the hat aloft and gazed at it with that peculiar introspective fashion of hers. By now, half the denizens of 221 Baker Street were gathered in the sitting room, eager to witness what Alice Stamford called ‘the show’. While it angered me to think of Miss Holmes’s talents regarded as no more than a cheap parlour trick, it nevertheless amused Miss Holmes. She had a flair for the theatrical and was apt to indulge it in such moments.
“It is less singular than it might have been,” she began. “But there are one or two unique points which are very conclusive, and a few more which I will assert with reasonable probability. The first, and the most obvious, that he is a man of great intellectual capacity. He was in possession of some reasonable fortune in the past three years, though hardship has befallen him, since. Though once gifted with great foresight, that too, he has lost, suggesting some sort of moral decay, most likely drink. All of which help to account for the fact his wife has ceased to love him.”
“Bosh!” Miss Jones declared.
“Bosh, rot, and humbug is more like it!”
“Further more,” my friend continued, unfazed by these outbursts, “he lives a sedentary life, is middle-aged, has recently had his hair cut, uses lime-cream, and does not have gas laid on in his home.”
“All my eye and Betty Martin,” said Miss Adams, “I don’t believe it for a second.”
“How could you possibly suppose all that from a hat?”
“Why, it is all here, clear as crystal. This hat is well-made, silk-lined, and about three years out of fashion, shouldn’t you say, Miss Samuels?”
“Exactly. Yet, now it is quite shabby and worn, all suggesting that, while he could afford a good quality hat three years ago, he has not be able to purchase one since. As to his powers of foresight—these holes here in the lining are from hat-securers. They are never sold with the hat, always an extra. That he considered them a worthy investment at the time suggests prudent care for the future, while the fact they have since been lost, along with his fortunes, suggests the opposite. A man who goes from rich to poor, and from prudent to careless in three years is usually the victim of some demonic force or other. Peterson’s account of the man staggering home at four in the morning would make drink the likely culprit.”
“Plausible enough,” I agreed.
“All the rest—that he lives a sedentary life, is middle-aged, grey-haired, etc.—is clear from the detritus the hat has collected. Fine, grey dust on the outside, rather than soot, implies the hat has spent more time hanging on its peg than out in the world. On the inside, here, around the hat band, are small bits of hair. Clippings from a haircut, no doubt. The hairs themselves are grizzled and have the distinct odor of lime-cream.”
“What about the wife?” asked Miss Jones, clutching her dog to her chest, “You said she had ceased to love him.”
“That much is obvious. It’s just as Miss Watson said; no loving wife would ever allow her husband go out with his hat in such wretched condition.”
There was a faint murmur of agreement among our audience. Miss Holmes set the hat back on the sewing table. A satisfied smile crept across her lips. I sat there, admiring her genius and the way the faint afternoon sun made her grey eyes sparkle.
“The gas—you didn’t explain about that!” Alice exclaimed proudly. “How do you know there isn’t any gas laid on in his house?”
“Ah, yes, I’d nearly forgotten. There are tallow stains here, all along the brim and crown. One stain, possibly two or three, may be due to random chance, but I count over thirty. He therefore must come into contact with burning tallow quite often. As we already established he is something of a home-sitter, it stands to reason it would be at home. In any event, he didn’t get these stains from a gas-jet.”
“It is all very ingenious,” I said with a laugh, “But how does that help us to find our man?”
Shirley Holmes had opened her mouth to reply, when there came a desperate cry from elsewhere in the house. I sprang at once to my feet, and, feeling Miss Holmes’s hand upon my elbow, would have charged into unknown dangers, had not the door to the sitting room flown open at that moment, revealing the cook, Mrs. Burns, clutching a hand to her chest, her face flushed and gaping in astonishment.
“She’s having an attack,” Alice declared, “Someone get a glass of water!”
A commotion ensued. Miss Jones’s Pekingese danced between our legs, yapping all the while. With a bit of wrestling, we managed to coax Mrs. Burns into an armchair. There was no water at hand, but a splash of brandy brought her around in a pinch.
“Bess, whatever’s the matter?” Mrs. Hudson asked.
“The goose!” Mrs. Burns gasped, “Oh, Mrs. Hudson! The goose!”
“What’s the matter with it, then?”
“Has it returned to life and flapped out the kitchen window?” Miss Samuels asked sardonically, much to the amusement of the other girls.
Mrs. Burns shook her head. “See here, ma’am! See what I’ve found in its crop!”
She opened her hand and held it out for all to see. Nearly every lady present let out a gasp. There, in Mrs. Burns’s calloused palm, lay a brilliant blue jewel. Almost as big as a bean, the stone shimmered and seemed to glow, its color as deep and rich as the sky at twilight.
Miss Holmes leaned closer with a whistle. “Mrs. Burns, you are a marvel! Do you realize what you’ve found?”
“A diamond! Oh, tell me it’s a diamond, miss!”
“A sapphire,” someone cried.
“I’ll bet it’s only cut glass,” said another.
“I’ve never seen glass with so much sparkle. It has to be a precious stone.”
“A very precious stone,” said Miss Holmes, taking the treasure between her thumb and forefinger and holding it up to the light. “It is the precious stone—the Blue Carbuncle. The same stone which Countess Morcar lost some five days hence.”
“The Blue Carbuncle? Are you sure?”
“I should stake my honor on it,” said Miss Holmes and, before anyone could make a crude remark, continued, “I ought to know its size and shape by heart. The advertisement for its recovery has been in the paper everyday lately.”
“If someone’s lost it, might’n’t there be a reward for having found it?” asked Mrs. Burns.
“Oh, yes. But the thousand pounds offered for its recovery is barely even a twentieth of its true value.”
“A thousand pounds!” exclaimed Mrs. Burns, dropping back against the chair in alarm. It took another ample swallow of brandy for her to regain her composure. Even then, she simply sat, gazing into the fire, repeating to herself, “a thousand pounds, a thousand pounds.”
“Now, now, Bess. It was in Miss Holmes’s goose. If anyone’s to have the thousand pounds, it’s her.”
Miss Holmes smiled at that, and, with a reassuring hand laid on our cook’s shoulder, said, “Not to worry—if there is a reward to be had, part of it shall be yours, for the glory of discover. And the rest, I suspect, shall belong chiefly to Mrs. Hudson, when all is said and done. I believe I am behind some weeks fees.”
“Seven weeks, plus half for the use of my library.”
“Quite right,” agreed she. “As it happens, I have need of your library tonight.”
“Yes. I hope to conduct a brief interview. Shall we say half past six?”
Mrs. Hudson straightened herself up in preparation for rejection. All of us girls were familiar with this moment, when the ordinarily tender, almost motherly, expression on her face hardened with the sternest of her trade. It was this expression which always preceded a chiding about noise, or a polite reminder of a late remittance. But, before she could speak, Mrs. Hudson’s eyes caught once more the sparkle and glimmer of the stone. As her face softened, I could nearly see the words ‘paid in full’ dance across her features.
“Very well. But you will be brief?”
“Upon my honor.”
“But what about the stone?” asked Miss Jones.
“Oh, it would make a lovely ring,” someone suggested.
“I shall keep it, for now,” Miss Holmes said, then turned to me. “Come along, Jane, there’s work to be done!”
Up the stairs we dashed, though I could not for the life of me imagine to what end. Once in our room, Miss Holmes set the priceless stone on her dressing table and began rifling through the piles of newspapers which littered her side of our shared home. When at last she found her mark, she gave a short cry and smoothed the paper open on her bed. The point of her long, thin finger directed me to an article, the headline of which read: HOTEL COSMOPOLITAN JEWEL ROBBERY.
“Yes, here we are—just as I recalled. ‘December twenty-second, Cosmopolitan Hotel. A plumber by the name of John Horner, age twenty-six, brought up on the charge of having perpetrated the robbery of the gem known as the Blue Carbuncle of the Countess Morcar.’ Let us see… ‘ the stone’s value,’ et cetera, et cetera… Ah, yes. ‘The chief evidence in the case was provided by upper-attendant of the hotel, James Ryder, to the effect that he had shown Horner up to the dressing-room of the Countess for repairs. Ryder was called away for a short time, and upon returning to the room, found that Horner had disappeared. A bureau drawer had been forced open, and the Morroccan case wherein the Countess kept the priceless jewel, lay empty on the dressing table. Horner, who had shown signs of intense emotion during the proceedings, fainted away at the conclusion and was carried out of court’.”
“How brazen,” said I.
“How awful, too. This man Horner has a previous conviction—another shall be a very dark mark against him, indeed.”
I sat at Miss Holmes’s dressing table, resting my chin in my hand, and gazed down at the stone. What an odd bedfellow it made with the hodge-podge there: hair pins and bullet casings, a boot buttoner and a old, brass microscope. The dark wood was marred and stained by chemicals and costume makeup. And there, amongst it all, a shimmering wonder, pulled from a goose. It was a bonny thing.
“But, Shirley… if this John Horner stole the carbuncle, what did he do with it? I mean, how did it end up in a goose, of all places?”
“That is the question, my dear. Let us start with what we know: We have the stone. The stone came from a goose, the goose, from Mr. Henry Baker. Now, from whence Mr. Baker? The easiest answer to that, will come from Mr. Baker himself.”
“Yes, but how do we find Mr. Baker?” I asked, laughing at the impossibility of it all.
“Quite simple. We shall advertise. Give me that pencil, will you? How is this? ‘Found at the corner of Goodge Street: one hat and one goose. Mr. Henry Baker can have same by applying at 6:30 this evening at 221 Baker Street’ Clear and concise.”
“Yes, very. Oh, but, it’s after five already. We shall have to hurry, if we mean to get it in the evening papers.”
“Right you are, Jane. Get dressed, quickly, and take our note down to the advertising agency. Put it in every paper you can name. I, meanwhile, am off to find a goose.”
“Of course! We must have something to give Mr. Baker.”
It is a truth, which ought to be universally acknowledged, that a crowded omnibus on a winter’s evening is one of the least pleasant places for a young lady. While it is much preferred to walking, particularly in icy weather, and more affordable than a cab, there is a propensity for ‘bus wheels and gentlemen’s hands to go sliding into places they should not. The former is liable to impede traffic and break axles, while the latter adds insult to injury, and, if a lady is in possession of a good hat pin, injury to insult.
So it was that by the time I returned to Baker Street, the frosty day had become a bitterly cold night. As I neared 221, I spotted a man, his overcoat buttoned up to his chin, standing on the front steps. A Tam o’ Shanter bonnet of green felt balanced atop a head of grey hair. Upon hearing my footsteps up the stairs, he turned and regarded me with a confused gaze.
“Good evening,” I said, amicably.
By the glow through the fanlight, I could see Miss Holmes had been right to suspect him of drink; his face had a reddened, mottled appearance, the sort caused more by bad habits, than by the cold.
“Good evening,” replied he. The man glanced from me, to the brass plaque beside the door, which read: ‘Mrs. Hudson’s Lodging House for Young Ladies’. “I… I am afraid I’ve got the wrong address.”
“I dare say you haven’t. Mr. Baker, I believe?”
“Why, yes! But how did you—“
At that moment, the door opened, and the both of us were shown into Mrs. Hudson’s library, which, for an extra half-week’s fees, Miss Holmes made use of as her private reception room. A small price to pay to be able to receive guests without suffering an impromptu recital at the piano forte, or the unwanted affections of Miss Jones’s dog. It was small, cheerful room, decorated with rich reds and golds, and furnished with high-backed wing chairs, which never failed to make Miss Holmes look distinguished.
That night, as we entered the library, we were greeted by a tall young man in a brown suit. Or so Mr. Baker believed. Knowing her as I do, I cannot look upon this young man and see anyone other than Shirley Holmes, it never fails to amaze me how wholly convinced most people are by a bit of lime-cream and a confident air.
“Ah, Mr. Henry Baker, isn’t it? Tell me, sir, is that your hat?” Miss Holmes asked, pointing to the sideboard where the object lay.
At the sight of it, Henry Baker let out a cry of excitement and seized it. “It is! It is my hat—oh, bless you, sir, for returning it. I must admit, this old cap is not very befitting of my years, nor my bearing. I thank you.”
“I should have returned it to you sooner, only I had no way of contacting you. Why-ever didn’t you advertise?”
“Shillings are not as plentiful as they once were,” Mr. Baker admitted sheepishly, “It is such an old hat, I thought the odds not particularly favorable that anyone would bother to return it. At least, not favorable enough to bet my meager coin against. So you see, sir, I really am grateful.”
Miss Holmes waved a hand. “Not at all. As for the goose… I am afraid we were compelled to eat it.”
“Eat it?” he asked, his expression crumbling into something almost sorrowful.
“Yes, I’m afraid we had to, or it wouldn’t have been much good to anyone. However, I do have another goose of about the same weight and quality as the one you lost, if that will be a satisfactory substitute? Miss Watson, would you be so kind as to ask Mrs. Burns to bring in the goose?”
Mr. Baker was delighted by the substitute. It was a fat, fresh goose, a fine looking candidate for any dining table. Silently, I wondered how Miss Holmes had managed to afford it.
“Of course, we do still have the trimmings of the one you lost, should you want them. Feathers, bones, crop…”
“I can’t imagine why I should!” Mr. Baker declared with a laugh. “Expect, perhaps, as a souvenir of my misadventure. No, this goose will suit me splendidly. Good evening to you, sir, miss, and thank you again.”
Miss Holmes and I shared a glance, our eyes affirming that we both understood: Mr. Baker had no idea of the treasure concealed within his goose.
“One question, before you go,” Miss Holmes said. “I should be so curious to learn where you got your goose—the first goose. I consider myself something of a fowl fancier, and I thought that one quite unrivaled in size and quality.”
“Why, of course, sir! I got it from my goose club, you see.”
“Goose… club?” I asked.
“Yes. Run by the landlord of the Alpha. That’s a… er… public house, you see,” he said, nodding his head to Miss Holmes. He fumbled with his hat as he continued. “While I am loathe to admit to it in the presence of a lady, I, myself, am something of a frequenter of the establishment. We all are—all of us at the museum. That’s where I work, you understand: the museum. The Alpha is just around the corner there, and for Christmas the landlord ran a goose club for the frequenters, myself included, whereby a gentleman can put a few pence in a week, and come away with a bird at Christmas. My contributions were duly paid, and the rest of the story is already familiar to you, I fear. Thank you, again, sir. Truly, you cannot underestimate my gratitude.”
With a tedious and effusive ‘good evening’, Mr. Baker made his departure, leaving Miss Holmes and myself alone in the library.
“So much for Mr. Henry Baker.”
“Yes,” Miss Holmes agreed.
I have said that when she is in drag parts, however convincing they may be to others, I see only Shirley Holmes. That is not entirely true. There is an expression she makes while in her gentlemanly disguise, a faint tilt of the head, and a debonair smile, which fills me with a girlish excitement, so that I, too, am apt to forget. Miss Holmes looked at me then, with that same expression, her eyes bright with such mischief that it felt almost wicked to be alone with her.
“Are you hungry, Jane?” she asked, laying a hand upon my knee.
“Not terribly,” mumbled I.
“Excellent! Then I suggest we turn our dinner into supper and follow this fresh clue while it is still warm. Mrs. Burns? Mrs. Burns! Save us some choice bits of that goose, will you? Miss Watson and I are stepping out.”
“Oh, but… oughtn’t you to change?” I asked.
“No time, no time!” Miss Holmes was already striding into the hall, a man’s round hat in one hand, and an overcoat in the other. “Besides, I suspect a pair of trousers may get us straighter answers from a barman than a skirt should. Come along, Jane, and don’t forget your muff!”
We walked briskly, arm and arm, looking to all the world as any other young couple. Cold as it was, the streets were quiet and calm. In such weather, the yellow glow of lamplight in the windows seemed so inviting, almost holy. It was easy to imagine that behind every pane of glass was a happiness, a love, a family; in my adventures with Miss Holmes, however, I knew, too, how likely it was that those same rooms concealed something devious, even deadly.
Was there, at that moment, a warm little room wherein sat our jewel thief? Or was he, as we were, roaming the icy streets in the lamplight, searching for his lost prize? So lost was I in these musings, that a quarter of an hour passed without my notice. When next I looked, I found we were in Bloomsbury, standing at the door of the Alpha Inn. With a quick glance to Miss Holmes, I pushed open the door to the private bar and was greeted by the bellowing of the ruddy-faced, white-aproned landlord.
“What do you think you’re doing? This here’s no cowshed!”
“I beg your pardon,” said I with a hurmph. I should have been ready to say more, only Miss Holmes caught my elbow and the publican’s eye with a wave.
“Beggin’ yours, sir,” the landlord said to her. “I didn’t realize...”
“Quite all right. We’ve only stopped in for a moment. A glass of beer for myself, please, landlord, and a brandy for the lady. Positively frigid night,” said Shirley, rubbing her hands together.
Our host nodded, considering me once more with a critical eye.
Miss Holmes raised her glass to him and said, “Should be an excellent draught, if it’s as good as your geese.”
“My geese, sir?”
“Yes. My wife here was talking not an hour ago with a Mrs. Henry Baker. Seems her husband’s a member of your goose club. So impressive was this goose of yours that the wife demanded we come straight down and get one of our own. Isn’t that so, my dear?”
Her words caught me off-guard. I confess, I flushed to hear myself called ‘wife’. I was stammering for a reply when the landlord interjected.
“Ah, well, them’s not our geese, you see. Got them off a bloke down’t Covent Garden.”
“Did you?” asked Miss Holmes, leaning her elbows on the bar with such casualty, one would think her a frequenter. “I know a couple of salesmen down that way—do you remember the fellow’s name?”
“Breckinridge, I think it was.”
“Breckinridge, Breckinridge... don’t know him. Well, to your very good health, my man. And to the prosperity of your house,” said she, placing some coin on the bar and starting for the door. “Come along, Janey, dear.”
“Oh, but I haven’t—“ I stammered, looking at the full glass before me. Without thinking, I tossed it back before dashing to join Miss Holmes on the street.
“Now then, to Covent Garden, and to this Mr. Breckinridge!”
We turned our faces southward and strode on, though to what conclusion, I could hardly then imagine. It all seemed so improbable; the goose led to a man, led to a man, led to a man… but I could not fathom how it led to a jewel. I knew better than to ask Miss Holmes for her opinion. It was a founding tenet of hers never to speculate before knowing all, and her eagerness to press on to Covent Garden told me she knew no more than I.
I turned my head to glance up at her. Between the tall grey hat she wore and the woolen muffler wrapped about her neck, her face was framed on all sides. In the lamplight, the curve of her nose and the sharpness of her brow seemed all the more handsome. I felt the brandy’s warmth rising in my cheeks as I recalled her words to the landlord.
“Shirley,” I asked in a low voice. “Why did you say that to the barman? About my being your wife, I mean.”
Her thin lips quivered with a smile. “It seemed the most savory explanation for why a young woman such as you would find herself in a public house in the company of a man… Why? Do you object to my calling you that?”
“No,” I replied, somewhat startled by the swiftness of my answer. “That is… I haven’t given much thought to the subject of husbands, but, if I should meet a man who was half as gallant and handsome as you, I should be very proud to call myself his wife.”
“Jane,” said she. “Jane, my little wife.”
Her voice was warm, passionate, as when she spoke about her cases, or her aspirations, or when we were cuddled together in bed. We were paused at the corner Endell Street, waiting for a clutter of carriages to disperse. Miss Holmes put her hand on my elbow and bid me to look at her. I shall say no more other than we kissed, and with such tenderness and affection as I hope shall be granted to every lover.
It was late when we arrived at Covent Garden Market. Many of the proprietors were shuttering their stalls, and many a shopper was trying to make his way home with the newly gotten goods. We wound our way through the crowds for some time, until, at last, we came upon a large stall bearing the name ‘Breckinridge’. From a distance, it was clear the stall was shut up for the evening.
“I’m afraid we’ve arrived too late,” said I.
But my remark was premature, as at that same moment there was a great cacophony of overturned buckets and smashed crates coming from the same stall. We hurried in the direction of the commotion and watched as a tall, russet-haired fellow in a white apron stood in the stall doorway, shaking his fist at a whinging figure crouched before him.
“I’ll hear no more about you and your geese!” shouted the tall man, “The Devil take the lot of you! Mark me—if you come ‘round here again, I’ll set the dog on you. You’re so curious about them geese, you bring Mrs. Oakshott here; I’ll answer to her. But not you—what’ve you to do with any of it? I didn’t buy them geese off you, did I?”
“No, but you see, one of them’s mine, just the same,” answered the other man, picking himself up.
“Ask Mrs. Oakshott for it, then.”
“B-b-but she told me to ask you!”
“Then, go and ask the Devil, for all I care. I’ve had enough of you. Our of here!” With that, the tall man lunged forward sending the other skittering off into the darkness.
Miss Holmes squeezed my hand tightly. “Promising, Jane, this sounds very promising, indeed. Whenever else has a man been in such an agitation about geese? Come, let’s see what we can make of this fellow.”
We hurried through the market after the curious little man. Miss Holmes, in flat shoes and trousers, was much quicker than I, and in short measure managed to overtake our quarry. She seized him by the shoulder, causing him to cry out in alarm. I hurried to her side.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“It’s more a question of what you want, sir,” Miss Holmes said. “I could not help overhearing your conversation back there with that gentleman—Breckinridge, I believe is his name—over a matter of some geese. I believe I may be of assistance.”
“Can you?” he asked, his dark, beady eyes narrowing at the two of us. “What can you possibly know of it?”
“Plenty. I know there was a goose, sold by Mrs. Oakshott to this Breckinridge. And from this Breckinridge, I know it was sold to the landlord of the Alpha Inn, to be given away as part of their annual goose club. I know that it was given away, and to whom, and, what is of much more importance, I know where it is now.”
“Oh, sir! You are the very man I have been longing to meet,” the man said. He grabbed Miss Holmes by the coat sleeve, his face so twisted in agitation, he was near tears. “I can hardly explain to you how interested I am in this matter.”
Miss Holmes smiled at that and waved down a cab. “In that case,” said she, “we had better discuss this business in a cosy room, than in this wind-swept market-place.”
The man stood, regarding the pair of us with nervous eyes. It must surely have been bizarre to him, being beckoned into a four-wheeler by a strange couple—like some odious beginning of a detective novel. I am sure, from the nervous way he clasped his hands, that he was well aware that in such fictions, little fellows such as himself usually did not survive such ominous carriage rides.
“But who are you, sir? And how do you know of this business?”
“My name is Holmes and it is my business to know things, which others do not. Pray, step into the cab, Mr. Ryder, and I shall be able to tell you everything you wish to know.”
At the mention of the name, the man paled. His eyes grew wide.
“Your name is Ryder, isn’t it? James Ryder, head attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan?”
“That it is, sir, heaven help me.”
Miss Holmes gave a triumphant harrumph and offered her hand to help me into the cab. I smothered my own astonishment to smile reassuringly at the man. It was an awkward, silent ride back to Baker Street. All the while, our new-found companion fidgeted and jostled with nervous energies.
“Here we are!” cried Miss Holmes cheerily as we filed into the foyer. “Pray forgive me, Mrs. Hudson, but I need to make use of the library once more. We shall only be a moment—business, you know. Mr. Ryder, if you will be so kind as to follow me. Here, have a seat by the fire. It will do you good on a night like this. Jane, have we a brandy for our guest? Excellent. Now, then! You wish to know what became of Mrs. Oakshott’s geese?”
“Or, rather, I fancy, of a goose. There was one bird—white, with a black tail—in which you were interested.”
“Oh, sir, please.” Mr. Ryder’s voice was hoarse, his lips trembling as he spoke. “Please, can you tell where it went to?”
“It came here.”
“Yes. A remarkable creature, that goose. It’s little wonder you should be so interested in it. It laid an egg after it was dead—the bonniest, brightest little blue egg that ever was seen. I have it here, in my waistcoat pocket.”
Miss Holmes reached into the watch pocket of her waistcoat and held the Blue Carbuncle, which glistened like a star. Mr. Ryder staggered to his feet, while I, thinking of Miss Holmes carrying the priceless gem about on our travails, sank deeper into my chair.
“The game is up, Ryder. But you’re so pale. Have you not courage enough to face your felonies? Watch him, Jane! Or he’ll topple into the fire.”
Mr. Ryder swayed, knocking against the mantelpiece. I reached over and grabbed his sleeve, steering him slowly back to his chair. He stared at me with frightened eyes, as though I were a specter. Miss Holmes returned the gem to her pocket and smiled.
“I believe I have all the essential facts of the case, though there are one or two details which I am curious to know. You had heard, Ryder, of this blue stone of the Countess of Morcar’s?”
“Yes,” Mr. Ryder agreed. “It was Catherine. Catherine Cusack who told me of it. That’s her ladyship’s waiting-maid.”
“I see. And the temptation of easy wealth was too much for you, I gather? Still, it was a cruel jest to pin the theft on this man Horner, the plumber. But that is precisely what you did, isn’t it? You knew that Horner, once convicted of the same, would be the ready suspect. And clearly he was, as he sits now in jail, where your evidence has put him. But it was not Horner who stole the jewel, was it? It was you. You broke into the Countess’s bureau. You took the jewel from its case. You—”
“It’s true, sir—every word of it,” he cried, putting his face in his hands. “Oh, please, sir, please! Think of my mother! I never went wrong before! And I never shall again, I swear it on my life! Only, please don’t bring me to court! I beg you!”
There were tears now. They flowed down Mr. Ryder’s cheeks in broad strokes. It was an earnest agony, the like of which I had seen on many a patient who realizes, at last, that they are not long for living.
“It is all very well to cringe and crawl to me,” Miss Holmes said, a hint of disgust in her voice. “It was on your word that Horner now must face a jury. Where was your concern then?”
“I shall flee. I shall leave the country. The charge against him will break down. As you say, it is on my word that the conviction hinges.”
“Humph! We will discuss that later. Now, let us hear a true account of the next act. How came the stone into the goose, and how came the goose into the open market? Tell us the truth, man, for I have no patience for lies.”
Mr. Ryder mopped his forehead with his handkerchief and told us how he and Miss Cusack had conspired to steal the stone. How, once Horner was arrested, Mr. Ryder had needed a place to hide the Blue Carbuncle, lest he be searched. He told us of his sister, now Mrs. Oakshott, who keeps geese in her home on Brixton Road, and who promised him his pick of her Christmas fowl. There seemed in the moment, Mr. Ryder explained, no better place to store the gem than inside his promised goose. He chose a distinct-looking bird—white, with a black tail—and forced the stone down its gizzard. He carried it off with him, or so he thought. But when the day came to slice it open and recover the carbuncle, Mr. Ryder found nothing.
“I went back to my sister, and she told me there’d been two geese with black tails. Two! I demanded to know where the other way, which surely had the stone in it, and she told me she’d sold them all to that Breckinridge. I ran just as fast as my feet could carry me to the market, but it was too late! He’d sold them too, and not a word he’ll breathe of where or to whom. My sister thinks I’ve gone mad. Sometimes I think I must be. What else must I be—I have branded myself a thief, and for what? I shall never ever touch the riches for which I’ve sold my character. God help me!”
Once more, Mr. Ryder dissolved into tears. I confess that I, myself, was moved by his anguish. For a moment, the three of us sat, the sound of Mr. Ryder’s sobs and the ticking of the mantel clock the only sounds. Then, Miss Holmes rose, and gazed into the fire, her hands in her trouser pockets.
“Get out,” she said, softly.
“What? Oh, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you, sir!”
“No more words. Get out.”
And no more words were needed. Mr. Ryder bolted from the room. We heard the knocking of boots on the stairs, the bang of a door, the sharp reprimand of Mrs. Hudson, who does not permit such extremes. Then, there was silence once more. When Miss Holmes turned back to me, I could see she had been crying.
“I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies,” said she, “Send him to jail now, and he will be a jail-bird for life! No. I do not think we will hear of any more criminal exploits from Mr. Ryder. This experience has, I believe, frightened some sense into him. See if it doesn’t!”
Though it was to me that she spoke, it was not I who needed convincing. I rose and moved to her side, wrapping my arm about her waist. When she looked at me, I could not help but smile.
“After all, it is the season of forgiveness, isn’t it?”
“Precisely so. And now, Jane, I believe there is one more bird for us to investigate this evening. Shall we venture into the kitchen and see what Mrs. Burns has saved for us?”
“Yes,” said I, “Let’s.”