It was a grey, sombre afternoon in late November. It had been snowing for days, and the whole of the city seemed to be covered in a dirty woollen blanket, muffling all sounds and sights.
I sat at my desk cleaning my service revolver, while Holmes had taken possession of the sofa; he lay draped across it in his purple dressing gown, with his feet dangling off the further end, and his head pillowed on a handbook on poisonous plants and fungi.
"You might as well put your revolver in a glass case and label it for posterity, Watson," said he, yawning. "I am beginning to doubt that we shall ever have a use for it again."
"If that were true, would the world not be the better for it?" I answered, somewhat facetiously. "If there were no more crimes --"
"The world would be a sweeter place, and I should undoubtedly go mad," said Holmes, closing his eyes. "There is nothing that exhausts me more than idleness."
I finished cleaning my revolver and locked it away in my desk, then got out my notes from our last case, the curious adventure of the Addenbrook inheritance. I was poring over these notes, trying to make out my own hurried handwriting, when the bell rang, soon followed by a step upon the stairs. The door burst open and Inspector Hopkins entered, his face flushed with the cold.
"Ah, Hopkins," Holmes drawled, his eyes still languidly shut. "Do sit down and have a brandy. I perceive you are somewhat excited."
Hopkins shot me a quick, almost comically helpless look as I rose to pour the drinks.
"Your step is quite familiar to us by now, and Mrs. Hudson felt no need to announce you; you did not stop to knock the snow off your boots, and you took some of the steps two at a time," I told him, as Holmes was humming some French air and did not appear to be listening at all.
"It's true enough," Hopkins said, sinking down upon the cane-backed chair and stretching his hands towards our fire. "And I think you will agree, gentlemen, that I have some cause for excitement. The Chief Commissioner himself asked me to devote my full attention to this case, and yet I fear I will not lay my hands upon the culprit, or culprits, or even be able to give them a name. When I think of that poor lady --"
"My dear Hopkins," said Holmes, sitting up abruptly and drawing his knees to his chest, "you really must learn to begin a story at the logical entry point. I fear you have been taking lessons from Watson, who prefers to keep all the essential points of a story to himself until such time when he can unexpectedly produce them."
"Only when describing your methods, my dear Holmes," said I, with some emphasis.
Holmes coughed and apparently decided he need not pursue the argument further. Instead he turned on Hopkins, who had followed our exchange with a gleam of amusement in his eyes. "Well? What have you to report?"
Hopkins took a hasty sip of brandy. "Mr. Holmes, I was half sure you would have heard of this matter before me. It only happened last night, but I imagine the Clifford murder has already shaken up the fashionable world."
Holmes shook his head. "That is not a world I frequent -- at least, not by choice -- and the story evidently came in too late for today's newspapers." He leaned back, and though his features were calm, I could read his excitement in the twitching of his hands, and the piercing look he fixed on Hopkins. "Please tell us everything you can, and for the love of all that is logical, begin at the beginning."
I opened my notebook, and Hopkins took a deep breath. "Very well. This morning, a housemaid came up to Lady Clifford's bedroom to light a fire in the grate, and found the bed empty, but the door to Lord Clifford's bedroom standing open. She walked into the next room and saw her mistress laid out upon the floor in a pool of blood. Nearby, the safe Lord Clifford had lately installed stood open and empty. The Yard was called in soon after the housemaid raised the alarm. So far, we have established that Lady Clifford was killed by a blow on the head with some heavy, blunt weapon, which the murderer must have taken away with him. We have questioned the staff, but no one in the household has heard or seen an intruder."
"And where is Lord Clifford?" Holmes inquired.
"In China, on a diplomatic mission; he's been away for nearly a month now. I have sent telegrams, but I expect that it will be some time until he will be able to return."
"Do we know the contents of the safe?" I asked.
Hopkins nodded. "Matthews, Lady Clifford's dresser, says that most of her ladyship's jewelry was in it, including a very valuable moonstone and diamond tiara; this tiara was generally kept in a safe deposit box at the bank, but had been removed for cleaning, as her ladyship wished to wear it at the Prince of Wales' ball next week. There were also a stack of government bonds and a small portrait of his lordship's mother, set in a pearl and ruby frame. All of it was taken."
Holmes rubbed his hands together. "Watson, I fear we will have to arm ourselves -- not with guns, at least not yet, but with hats and mufflers and every device man has invented to fight the cold. Unless, of course, you choose to be sensible and stay indoors?"
He smiled as I rose without a word. "I thought I knew your answer."
Once we had made our way to Upper Brook Street, Holmes proceeded immediately to the bedroom where the fateful events had occurred. The body of Lady Clifford was laid out sedately upon the bed, the terrible injury to her head somewhat obscured by her unbound auburn hair. Only a great scarlet stain upon the thick carpet at the foot of the bed showed where she had been struck down.
Holmes turned up the gas, then cast himself down upon this carpet and began to explore it minutely, while I examined the poor lady's fatal injuries. Lady Clifford was a small, slender woman, dressed in a long nightgown of fine linen, with an embroidered shawl over her shoulders. Her pale face looked almost peaceful in the lamplight. As Hopkins had said, she had been struck on the left temple with a heavy, blunt, narrow weapon, such as a lead pipe, and there could be little doubt that she had been killed almost instantaneously. From the general condition and rigor of the body, I judged that she had been dead for some eighteen hours, so that the murder must have taken place in the midnight hour.
I relayed my findings to Holmes and the inspector; the latter nodded. "I'm grateful to have your opinion, Doctor, and the police surgeon's conclusions agree with yours. Well, Mr. Holmes?" he added, as Holmes' investigation of the carpet and its surroundings appeared to come to a halt.
"My dear Hopkins," said Holmes, "if a troupe of performing elephants had paraded through this house, the damage could not have been greater." He sprang up from the carpet, his expression one of disgust. "At least seven persons have been in this room, not counting ourselves, and there is no telling what the room looked like before they trampled all over it. If the murderer left any traces, it is impossible now to distinguish them. Nor should the body have been moved, as you are well aware."
Seeing Hopkins' chagrin, Holmes gentled his biting tone just a fraction. "I suppose you were called in too late to prevent it?"
"Far too late," said Hopkins, with feeling. "After she was done shrieking, the maid called in the housekeeper, the housekeeper called in the butler, the butler called in the footmen to help him move the body to what he called 'a more dignified position' -- pure bedlam, Mr. Holmes, and by the time we arrived, there was nothing to be done but herd them all out and post a guard upon the door."
"Well, well. At what time did her ladyship retire?"
"She returned to the house around ten o'clock at night, according to the footman who opened the door for her, and soon after she called in her dresser to help her undress, so we may assume that she retired no later than half past ten."
"Returned, you say?" Holmes tapped his chin thoughtfully. "From where?"
Hopkins looked a little perplexed at this line of questioning, but he answered readily enough, "From the Marlborough ball -- her ladyship enjoys balls a great deal, I'm told, and often dances until four in the morning, but apparently this time she went home early, complaining of a headache."
Holmes raised an eyebrow. "Alone?"
"No, she was escorted by Colonel Mooney, an old friend of the family, in his personal carriage. He did not enter the house, however, merely set her down at the front door. I have spoken with him, and he says that she did seem to be unwell, pale and listless. He urged her to rest and recover herself. He was greatly surprised and grieved to hear of her death, and I judged both his surprise and his grief to be genuine."
"I see. At what time did the rest of the household retire?"
"At ten, which was their usual time. The butler made the last rounds after her ladyship had gone up, and says he made sure all the doors were locked and windows shuttered. We found no trace of violence there."
"Hmm. That is suggestive." Holmes tapped his forefinger against his lips. "I think I must interview the servants, but first, let us take a look at this safe."
The safe stood in the corner of the bedroom, its door wide open. Its great sombre bulk and thick-walled door seemed almost pathetic, now that it had failed to guard its contents as it was designed to do.
Holmes dropped to his knees before it and whipped out his looking-glass to make a minute inspection of the lock. For a long moment he was silent, then he sucked in a breath between his teeth. "Where is the key to this safe?"
"Mr. Fenton, his lordship's secretary, has it on his watch-chain. It is the only key."
Holmes' head whipped round, and he fixed Hopkins with a penetrating look. "You have seen it there yourself?"
"I have," said Hopkins. "He says it has not been out of his possession. The man has been with the family for thirty-odd years, and handles all their confidential affairs. As the safe was clearly opened by a cracksman -- look at those scratches upon the lock! -- I saw no reason to doubt his statement."
"My dear Hopkins," Holmes said impatiently, "you should see rather more than that. This safe has a Hobbs parautoptic lock; it is one of the most ingenious locks ever devised, and would present a perfect conundrum to almost any cracksman."
His voice rose in his enthusiasm, and Hopkins and I watched as Holmes paced up and down the bedroom, gesticulating as he walked.
"The key has an ever-shifting bit, which makes the use of lockpicks peculiarly difficult, and the taking of wax impressions for false keys completely impossible. This particular lock also boasts an anti-pressure system and protections against the use of gunpowder. And in fact, as we can see, gunpowder was not used, nor is there any mark of damage upon the inside of the lock apart from this singular pattern of scratches. Where was his lordship's secretary last night?"
Hopkins started at the question so suddenly fired in his direction. "At home with his wife and family."
"Very well. There would in any event have been no reason for him to creep into the house late at night -- had he wished to steal from his employers, he could have done so when he wished, since he would be able to gain access to the safe in daylight without raising suspicion. And so, since there is no question of false keys, we must conclude that the murderer was a cracksman of truly rarefied skill and experience."
After this, Holmes declared that there was no more to be got from the scene of the crime, and we went on to interview the servants. This did not prove particularly illuminating, or add much to our store of knowledge; Holmes did examine the housekeeper's and butler's keys to the rest of the house, as well as all the doors and windows upon the ground floor, and that concluded our visit to Upper Brook Street.
"Well, Mr. Holmes," said Hopkins, "You have seen all there is to see, and you now possess all the information I do myself --"
"Or perhaps a trifle more," murmured Holmes. "No, no, do not fly up at me, my good Hopkins. I promised to share my conclusions with you, and so I will, when the time is right. I have nothing conclusive for you yet, and as Watson here will tell you, I prefer not to distract my colleagues with abstract possibilities. I hope to have something for you within the next day or two."
With that, Hopkins had to be content, and so we made our way back to Baker Street, where Mrs. Hudson had just begun laying out a late supper.
"Well, Watson," said Sherlock Holmes as he lit his long-stemmed pipe, "what do you make of our case so far?"
I leaned back into my chair and considered. "Well, it seems to me that a great deal depends on the veracity of the servants. If all the doors were locked, as the butler says, and no entry was made through any of the windows, then how did the thief gain access? And if, on the other hand, the thief was known to Lady Clifford and entered the house with her, why then did the footman claim that she came into the house alone?"
Holmes blew out a great cloud of smoke, and stretched his long legs towards the warmth of our fire. "You have no idea, Watson, what a pleasure it is to deal with a man of methodical mind. Let us lay out the few facts we have that do not admit of contradiction: Lady Clifford came into her husband's room, having heard a noise or perhaps seen the gleam of a dark lantern, and was murdered by a right-handed man, not much taller than herself yet capable of delivering a powerful blow. He was a cracksman of most uncommon skill and violent temper, who was able to open the safe, wrap up its contents in a pillowcase -- I trust you noticed there was one missing from the bed? -- and quietly walk out the way he came in, without being stopped or seen by anyone."
"And how did he come in?" I asked.
"In all likelihood, he came in through the front door. And no, before you ask, I believe the footman's testimony to be perfectly genuine. He saw Lady Clifford enter alone, having said her farewells to her Colonel at the door, and the dresser's story corroborates that. The thief entered later, when the household had gone to bed."
"You believe someone opened the door for him?" It was certainly not unheard of; in fact, there had been any number of household thefts in the last few years where a servant had proven to be in league with the thieves, but then once the theft had occurred, the untrustworthy servant usually vanished along with the afflicted household's possessions.
"And in this case, all the servants have been with the family for a great number of years, which makes collusion a good deal more unlikely," said Holmes, chortling at my expression. "My dear Watson, I do apologize if you did not wish me to break in upon your thoughts, as transparent as they were."
"Think nothing of it," said I, somewhat drily.
"It is, I suppose, the curse of being an honest man. There's many a thief or a perjurer who would give a fortune for your face, my boy," said Holmes. He stretched out his long white hand to the mantle, took down his silver cigarette-case and offered it to me; I took out a cigarette and lit it, drawing in the smoke gratefully.
"To return to the matter at hand: I may as well tell you that after examining that most interesting safe, I felt much more sure of my case. This was a highly professional burglary, but for the fact that it ended in murder. It is clear to me that the thief procured himself a key to the house, not by outright theft -- which would, after all, surely result in the locks being changed -- but by temporarily abstracting it from the housekeeper, probably while she was shopping at the market. The thief would simply press the key into a piece of wax concealed in a handkerchief and then return it to her pocket without her being any the wiser. I was gratified to see this theory confirmed by a small trace of wax on the housekeeper's key."
"I suppose the thief is likely to break up the tiara and sell it piecemeal, which would be difficult to trace," said I. "I must say, I can see Hopkins' difficulty. What can we do to find him?"
Holmes leaned back in his armchair with the smoke curling from his nostrils, and an enigmatic smile upon his lips which gave him something of the aspect of an Oriental dragon. "I have dispatched a telegram, and by tomorrow morning I trust I will have an answer to that question. For now -- how do you feel about Tartini's Sonata in G Minor? It is not the same without the accompaniment, of course, but I think I may be able to give you an idea of it."
Without waiting for my answer, he sprang from his chair with one of his sudden bursts of energy and took up his violin from its padded case. I knew better than to expect more conversation from him that night, and so I settled back by the smouldering fire to watch my friend sway gently back and forth to the rise and fall of his bow, and listen to the swift, dazzling, infinitely expressive language of his violin.
When he was not engaged upon a case, Holmes was a late and intemperate riser, and drove our landlady to distraction with his habit of calling for hot water at whatever hour suited his fancy; yet once his sleuthing instincts were engaged, he was another man entirely, and so it was with some reluctance but not a great deal of surprise that I found myself suddenly awake at three in the morning, with Holmes leaning over me, a candle in one hand and the other shaking my shoulder.
"Awake, dear boy, awake! For morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight -- that is to say, I have persuaded Mrs. Hudson to provide us with an early breakfast, which I trust will not consist of stones, or eggs cooked to that consistency, for she did not appear altogether pleased."
"I presume you have had an answer to your telegram?" said I, as I struggled into my clothes.
"An elementary but astute deduction. Indeed I have, and I believe I will be able to put my hand on the culprit today. I should value the chance to talk the matter over with you beforehand, and then I must be off -- the criminal world sleeps in daylight, and I mean to make the most of what night we have left."
Once I had managed to revive myself somewhat with the aid of toast and strong coffee, Holmes laid the telegram before me. It had been sent by the Governor of Wormwood Scrubs prison, and read in its entirety: "Prisoner J. Stroud released two months ago."
"Some years before his full term," said Holmes, spreading marmalade on his toast with a generous hand. "Released into the world again, Watson, free to take up a new life, and yet what does he do but fall straight back into the old one? I have no doubt that this is our man. Now we must see if he can be brought to remember his old friends, and one old friend in particular: Victor Lynch, the forger and cracksman."
"You know this man Lynch?"
Holmes smiled at me over his coffee cup. "As well as any man can hope to know himself. I was Victor Lynch for three whole months, Watson, and very instructive months they were."
"This was before my time, then?" said I, trying not to show my eagerness, for Holmes was likely to change the subject abruptly when I chanced to allude to his earliest days as a detective. He had told me a little over the years: there was the matter of the mutiny on the Gloria Scott, and his solution to the ancient Musgrave ritual, but I knew there must be more.
A shadow crossed Holmes' face. "This is not a matter for your record books, my dear fellow. I have told you before that my early cases were not all successes, and in this case I can say with no false modesty that I have rarely proven myself to be so thoroughly in the wrong."
He drew back from the table and quickly filled his after-breakfast pipe. "You have seen me in the guise of a criminal before, Watson, so I trust I will not lower myself irredeemably in your eyes when I tell you that for those three months in the autumn of 1880, I immersed myself so fully in the character of Victor Lynch that I was in some danger of losing my way back to the right side of the law. My consulting practice, such as it was, was then at its lowest ebb, and I filled my empty hours by setting myself various challenges -- to disguise myself as a blind beggar, complete with a cane and a rag wound about my head, and have a cabby set me down somewhere so that I might find my way home through London unaided, for example, or to collect samples of clay and mud from all the London boroughs.
"It had long been my intention to further my knowledge of London's prime criminal societies by first-hand experience, but as you will appreciate, it is no easy matter to insinuate oneself into their midst. I spent weeks perfecting my disguise, my story, and my accent, while loitering in the vilest ale-houses and sleeping in lodgings in Seven Dials, where I was as much in danger from the vermin as from my fellow lodgers. I let it be known that I was a forger with no little skill in coining, engraving, and drawing false signatures, but that I was looking to move up in the criminal world by becoming a cracksman. Through a pickpocket of our mutual acquaintance, I finally fell in with Charlie Stroud."
Holmes paused for a moment, and his features took on a faraway look. "I must confess to you, my dear Watson, that I greatly enjoyed those days. Charlie Stroud was an elderly man, with grizzled whiskers, a sharp, inquisitive face and a merry look in his eye. His mode of dress was quiet but well-tailored, and he spoke softly. He might have been a senior clerk or a notary, but for the tell-tale calluses on his fingertips; he had been a cabinet-maker ere he turned to crime, and I have rarely met anyone with such delicacy and deftness of touch. He was an artist in his way, one of the most highly-skilled cracksmen in London, and he took a fancy to me, perhaps seeing something of himself reflected there; he treated me with great kindness, and it was not long before he was teaching me everything he knew.
"'It does my heart good to see you apply yourself, Vic,' he would say, as we worked at a combination lock over the course of an evening. 'So many of these young 'uns don't take the time to learn the job properly. Why, my own Jem over there tried to force a Milner safe with a jemmy the other week, can you believe that?'
"Jem was his son, who had inherited his father's talent for the fine art of picking locks, but not his patience; he was a clever young fellow, but possessed a violent and unpredictable temper, and often showed his irritation at what he called his father's 'slow and poking ways'.
"To liven up the work, Charlie would time us, and so it was that I found myself in competition with Jem over the course of several evenings as we attempted to pick a Hobbs changeable lock, the very same lock you saw opened at the Clifford house. This was generally regarded as an impossible task, yet Jem managed it first, by a method of his own invention; I then improved upon his record, and so we went on until we could both crack it in less than two hours, a feat which attracted some little attention in the London underworld, and which has not been duplicated since.
"Charlie Stroud was the head of a small gang of burglars, and it was his habit to plan their excursions very carefully; he would take weeks or even months to case the house, draw up floorplans, and make himself familiar with the habits of the family and servants. When I met him he was in the middle of one such operation, and after weeks of working and studying with him, he took me deeply enough into his confidence to tell me which house he intended to burgle, and when, and to ask me to join them.
"At this point, as you may suppose, my conscience reproached me, and I left off the character of Victor Lynch long enough to inform the police. This had always been my intention, but it proved surprisingly difficult, not least because of my own reluctance to betray a man I had become strangely attached to, but also because I was then practically unknown at Scotland Yard, and they treated me with a good deal of scepticism. It was due to Lestrade, in fact, that I got any hearing at the Yard at all; I had done him a good turn or two in the past, and so he took a chance on me, and directed a few constables to lie in wait at the house where the burglary was to be committed.
"For once Lestrade did not bungle his arrest, and the burglars were caught -- with the exception of young Jem Stroud, who had been posted as a lookout and took to his heels as soon as he heard the police whistle.
"I visited Charlie Stroud in prison, having assumed my character as Victor Lynch once more, to see if there was anything I could do for him. He supposed that I had turned informer -- which, in a way, I had, and so I did not deny it -- yet rather than heap abuse upon me, he begged me in the most affecting way not to betray his son to the police. Jem had got clean away, and the police had no clear description of him; I was the only one with enough knowledge to ruin the boy.
"Not to make a long story of it, Watson, I gave Charlie my word that I would keep silent, and I kept that promise. Jem Stroud remained free, while his father was sentenced to transportation."
Holmes laid his pipe upon the table. His expression had grown darker as he neared the end of his narrative, and now he frowned fiercely down at the pipe, then finally looked up to meet my eyes. "It was one of the worst mistakes of my life, Watson. Now, I seem to recall a time, some years ago, when you called me an automaton, a calculating machine --"
"My dear Holmes," I protested. "It was in the heat of the moment only --"
"I daresay I gave provocation enough, my dear fellow; I merely wish to point out to you that for a man in my position, it is very dangerous to be anything else. It was not long before the extent of my mistake was demonstrated to me. Jem Stroud was arrested a year later; he had burgled a country house, and killed the elderly housekeeper and her husband by battering them to death with his jemmy when they tried to raise the alarm. Those two deaths are on my head, Watson -- I can see you are ready to protest, and I thank you for your loyalty, but it is no use, believe me. I know the shape of my own folly.
"Stroud was lucky that the local police were such fools, and that I did not hear of the matter in time, or he would certainly have been hanged. As it is, he went to prison, and was recently released, as this telegram tells us; and now, it is clear to me that he is at his old game once more. He has left us his signature in the form of that open safe, as well as in the method he used to murder Lady Clifford."
"How do you propose to find him?"
"I do not. He has surely gone to ground somewhere, and to comb through all the dens of vice in this great city would be the work of a lifetime. No, I propose to let him find me -- or rather, Victor Lynch, the man who wormed his way into his father's trust and then sent him and all his comrades to gaol."
I did not reply, and Holmes fixed his brilliant gaze upon me. "I find that for once I do not know what you are thinking, Watson. It is highly disconcerting."
"I am thinking that this Stroud is a dangerous fellow," I said at last. "What do you imagine he will do when he meets you?"
"I expect he will try to kill me," Holmes said, with a maddeningly cheerful air. "In fact, I depend upon it. It will take a strong motive to draw him out of hiding."
"You will not call in the police?"
"Not until he is safely within my grasp. In the mews of Seven Dials, even a single constable in plainclothes would stand out like a dandelion in a field of burdocks. I simply cannot risk it."
He rose from our breakfast table and strode into his bedroom, where he immediately began flinging articles of clothing about, whistling some merry tune. His earlier dark mood seemed to have abated completely, now that he had decided upon a plan of action; often have I felt that Goethe's himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt applied uniquely to my friend.
I watched him remake himself into a dapper, dandified yet somehow dangerous-looking fellow, who did not at all appear like a common burglar in his dark coat, florid silk waistcoat and bowler hat, and as he put a pair of handcuffs into his pocket I came to a decision.
"I am coming with you," said I.
Holmes looked surprised, then vaguely annoyed. "You cannot possibly assist me."
I went to my desk and took out my revolver. "You cannot possibly keep a man at gunpoint and clap him in handcuffs at the same time," was my riposte.
Holmes gave a long-suffering sigh. "Watson, you will never cease to surprise me. Do you propose to walk into the worst neighbourhoods in London with me, looking exactly like what you are -- a doctor, a military man, and an ex-rugby player, and above all, the picture of a respectable citizen?"
"I propose that you set yourself the challenge of finding me an appropriate disguise," said I, somewhat amazed at my own temerity, but determined not to let Holmes go off into mortal danger by himself. "Unless you do not think you can do it?"
Holmes' eyes widened, and for a moment he appeared lost for words. "My dear fellow --" he began, and I braced myself for more argument, but then I saw the gleam of humour in his eye. "If you are determined to soil your reputation beyond hope, very well, but you must follow my instructions to the letter. Will you do that?"
"You know I will," said I.
In the next half hour, I found myself transformed into a rough whom I would not gladly meet upon a dark night, burly and obviously bad-tempered, with an ugly scar upon one cheek, bruised knuckles, and remarkably realistic tattoos upon both wrists.
"Speak as little as possible, and when you do, keep your voice low and gruff," Holmes told me. "You cannot take the Army out of your step, so we will presume you are a deserter. Put this cosh in your left coat pocket, and your revolver in the other -- it is entirely in character for you to be heavily armed. Now, let us see if we can find a cab at this hour that will take us where we wish to go."
I will spare my readers the full tale of our journey through the slums of Seven Dials, not least because I would not willingly revisit those memories; let it suffice to say that in all the adventures I had shared with Holmes I had never found myself in a place so squalid, so wretched and so hopeless.
We visited tumbledown thieves' dens, fetid rag-and-bone shops, and filthy, crowded gin-houses, and wherever we went, Holmes would strike up an acquaintance with a knot of hulking men and introduce himself as Victor Lynch, a cracksman who had got out of gaol not long ago and was looking for 'a bit o' work'.
From the knowing looks and muttered oaths of surprise, I could tell that his name was still a familiar one to many. I stood at his shoulder, my cap tugged low over my brow and my hands thrust into my pockets, and found that very few dared to meet my eyes, let alone come close enough to imperil my disguise.
"We have cast our lure, Watson," said Holmes to me at last in an under-voice, as we sought shelter near a public house from the flurries of snow whipping about the narrow alleys. "Now we can but wait, pay out our line, and watch for the tell-tale ripple in the water."
He pointed up the street. "I believe I have sufficiently advertised the fact that I am to be found at Mrs. O'Halloran's lodgings; we may be in for a long wait, but then again, news travels fast in a warren like this. Let us hope she can provide us with a fire."
Most of Mrs. O'Halloran's lodgers slept in the straw-covered cellars, but Holmes counted enough shillings into her greasy hand to obtain a front room to ourselves on the first floor, with a view of the street below.
The room was lit by a murky oil lamp and furnished with nothing more than a sagging bedstead, two rickety chairs and a table, but a small fire flickered in the grate, and I sat down close beside it.
Holmes stationed himself at the window, which was half-obscured by a threadbare curtain, and gazed down into the darkness. "It is a strange sensation, Watson, to revisit one's old haunts like this, and discover how little has changed. Charlie Stroud's lodgings were no more than two hundred yards from here."
I thought I detected a note of melancholy in his voice. "Does he still live?" I asked.
"No. From what information I have been able to gather, he died of typhoid fever soon after he arrived at Van Diemen's Land." Holmes turned away from the window and came to join me by the fire. "Let us speak of other matters. What do you think of those mysterious deaths in Sunderland reported in the Times?"
And so for several hours we sat by the fire, talking as easily as though we were back in our own, infinitely more comfortable rooms in Baker Street, while great gusts of wind rattled the windows and the gloom slowly lightened into the grey-purple of an early dawn.
I was beginning to entertain vague longings for a second breakfast when Holmes, who had been discoursing eloquently upon the use of arsenic in wallpaper, broke off his remarks abruptly and stole towards the window, taking care to remain invisible from below.
"Things are looking up, Watson," said he. "I believe we are about to have a visitor. He chose to wait until I could be expected to be asleep; let us not disappoint him."
I took up a position beside the door, while Holmes arranged himself upon the bedstead into the semblance of a man fast asleep. There was a quiet tread upon the stair, and then the door swung open while I remained concealed behind it, hardly breathing.
The small, wiry man who entered the room crept towards Holmes' bed on stocking feet, as noiselessly as a cat, swinging something long and dark from his right hand.
"Quick, Watson!" cried Holmes. I sprang towards the man and struck him on the back of the head with the cosh, but though he dropped like a stone, he rolled away from both of us and came up again, swaying on the balls of his feet like a prize-fighter, the jemmy still in his hand.
Seeing himself outmatched, he rushed towards the door, but I was there before him and put my back against it. Stroud swung the jemmy at me, and by a stroke of ill luck the blow fell upon my injured shoulder. As I cried out, Holmes surged up behind Stroud like a vengeful demon and wrestled him down to the floor, giving me time to get out my revolver.
I cocked the weapon, and Stroud went still at the sound, looking as wary as a fox; he lay panting upon the floor, his eyes wide in his thin face, while Holmes twisted his arms behind his back to put him in handcuffs.
"Why don't you keep out of it?" said Stroud to me, with a sudden air of friendly confidence. "Whatever he paid you, I'll double it. You won't get your money from him, anyway -- don't you know he'll have you afore the beaks as soon as look at you?"
"You had better worry about yourself, Stroud," said Holmes in a grating voice, as he rose and dusted off his knees without looking at his prisoner. "Watson, are you quite all right?" He looked at me searchingly.
My shoulder throbbed as though a red-hot iron had struck it, but already the pain was lessening, and I nodded.
"Then let us be off to Scotland Yard at once," said Holmes. "It is rather early, but I fancy Hopkins will be glad to see us, nonetheless."
No one stirred as we made our way downstairs and out into the pale new day. The snow-dusted alleys were deserted, and though Stroud called out once or twice, and we saw a few wary faces watching us from dank cellars and dusty windows, no one came forth into the light to waylay us.
Our hansom cab stood waiting for us with the cabman asleep inside, bundled up in his greatcoat against the cold, and it was not long before we were dashing away from those miserable streets, Jem Stroud wedged awkwardly between us.
"You have not disposed of the swag from Brook Street yet, have you?" Holmes asked him, but received no answer. "Well, I know you haven't. Better to lie low with it for a week or two, until the police have turned their attention elsewhere. I would not be surprised, either, if you were still in the habit of hiding your spoils halfway up the chimney. Perhaps I will give Hopkins a hint to that effect."
"So that's why you've put the derbies on me, is it?" Stroud said bitterly. "Another feather in your cap, I suppose. Can't you be content with getting my poor dad lagged? And him always talking of you, praising you to the skies to anyone who would listen -- 'Here's a man who knows how to use his gifts, who will never be nabbed for taking the easy way out,' he would say. Little did he know you'd be the death of him."
From my corner of our narrow seat, I saw Holmes' hand tighten on the door of the cab with convulsive strength, though his features remained as cold and hard as if carved from stone.
"Charlie Stroud was never a violent man," Holmes said at last, as we rattled down Charing Cross Road. "It is a pity you did not choose to live by his rules, for if you had, our paths need never have crossed again."
When we alighted at the police-station, we found that Hopkins was not yet in, and so we deposited our silent and sullen prisoner with the official on duty while Holmes scribbled a note to the inspector, then turned to me.
"Well, Watson, it has been something of an enervating morning, and I find myself in need of sustenance. Do you think Simpson's would admit us to our usual table in our present attire?"
"I believe I already declared myself willing to ruin my reputation," said I. "Though I suppose the question is whether we will ruin theirs."
"Ah, well," said Holmes. "Victor Lynch might not gain entry by himself, but I have noticed that you seem to have the most intimidating effect on people, Watson. If the bruisers of the Seven Dials boozing-kens give way to you, then I have no doubt that the waiters of Simpson's will be content to do the same."