Authors: Daniel D. Victor
Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction
The set of Holmes' jaw revealed just how hard he was biting on the stem of the briar.
“As for following him myself,” Mrs. Chandler went on, “I've tried - and been unable to keep up. Ray is, after all, a healthy fifteen-year-old boy.”
“âHealthy,'” Holmes repeated disdainfully, yet obviously pleased that Mrs. Chandler's word had so clearly confirmed his previous point. His was an off-putting tone, as if he couldn't be bothered by so trifling a mystery despite the great concern it was causing the woman before us.
With his arms folded like a great brooding bird encased in long, feathered wings, Holmes sat motionless. A moment later he resumed puffing billows of blue smoke into the air. For her part, Mrs. Chandler once more took up massaging the clasp of her bag.
“Holmes,” I found myself urging, “for the sake of old Bannister's high regard, you must help this lady.”
Unmoved, Holmes continued to smoke.
“Holmes,” I tried once more. “For the sake of a desperate woman - oh, bother, Holmes - for the sake of a desperate
, you must bend to Mrs. Chandler's entreaties.”
His silence continued for another minute. He appeared to be deep in thought. Investigating the activities of children was not his usual line of work. On the other hand, the woman before him seemed desperate enough to warrant his help. At last, following a sharp glance in my direction and a defiant final exhalation of smoke, he stood.
“Oh, very well, Mrs. Chandler,” he said without an apparent ounce of sympathy. “As I have no significant criminal cases pending at the moment, even so trivial a matter as a disappearing boy should provide me with some cerebral activity. I shall meet you in Dulwich tomorrow evening at 6:00.”
The lady grasped Holmes' hands. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Holmes, thank you. I am ever so grateful.”
Sherlock Holmes displayed one of his more sceptical smiles. “That is your opinion
, Madam, but if I am any judge of the behaviour of adolescent boys, I fear your son may be up to the kind of activities you would prefer not knowing anything about.”
Holmes arranged a place for their meeting the next day and then handed Mrs. Chandler off to me to escort to the door.
Once the lady had left, I offered my opinion. “A good decision, Holmes.”
“I hope so, Watson. But to judge from the boy's secretive nature, as well as from Mrs. Chandler's exaggerated concerns, I fear that there might be more thorny issues brewing between mother and son than a simple accounting of his nocturnal whereabouts will settle.”
* * *
It was not until the weekend that I could return to Baker Street to find out the results of Holmes' investigation. When I did see my friend again, it was Sunday afternoon, and I was just in time for tea. The fire was blazing, and Mrs. Hudson had already set our table. Except for an unfamiliar little bell made of cut-crystal that stood next to the white teapot, the nostalgic scene might have taken place some ten years before.
Holmes filled our respective cups with tea; and while I dined on watercress sandwiches, he gave me a full account of his adventure in Dulwich.
“The train was punctual,” he began, “and with the fog diminishing, Mrs. Chandler and I met in the early evening - just as we had agreed - beneath the Italianate clock tower at the College. I'm sure you'll remember that
, Watson. There's also a new library just built. It is a tribute to the Old Alleynians who died in the Boer War.”
“Much of the school was designed by Sir Charles Barry,” I seemed to remember, “the architect of the Houses of Parliament.”
It was easy to recall the picturesque grounds of the college - the graceful structures of red-and-white brick, the large swaths of lush, green lawn, the armies of stately chestnut trees. I have always found that such pastoral beauty aids the acquisition of knowledge. Even with my own schooling in London - ”
Reality interrupted my reverie.
“His son, old fellow,” Sherlock Holmes was informing me. “Charles Barry,
, was the architect of Dulwich College.”
“It's still a beautiful place,” I responded weakly. No one likes being corrected, even by a man with Holmes' reputation for accuracy.
Oblivious to my embarrassment, Holmes simply cleared his throat and resumed his narration: “Mrs. Chandler escorted me to the athletic field where we concealed ourselves behind a hedgerow. From this hide, she pointed out her son, a middle-sized, athletic-looking lad with dark hair and brooding eyes. As I watched him racing his mates across the pitch, she placed her arm on mine and, giving it a supportive squeeze, silently waved good-bye and, as we had earlier planned, retreated to her home. I was left standing there to see where the boy might be off to.
“Fortunately, I had not long to wait. It soon grew dark and some wisps of fog hovered above the grass, but I could still distinguish the black suits and white collars of the young boys exiting the changing rooms. Almost immediately one parted from the group, shouting something about seeing them on the morrow. It was Raymond, of course. When the others had gone, he broke into a kind of canter, and I followed him at a distance even as he loped across the lawn. He continued up a hillock and finally down among a grove of leafy oaks, arriving at a small, square, wooden outbuilding not far from the gymnasium. He'd given me quite a run actually. With his galloping gait, it's easy to see why his mother couldn't keep up with him. If truth be told, old fellow, it wasn't so simple for me either.”
I chuckled in sympathy. “Didn't Oscar Wilde have something to say about the shame of wasting youth on the young?”
“I believe you'll find that most people attribute the sentiment to Bernard Shaw,” Holmes said. How much my friend knew about literature never failed to amaze me, especially in light of how often he claimed to be ignorant of the subject. His knowledge of literature, I had once described as “nil”.
“But they're both Irish,” he added. “You got that part correct.”
Unable to discern whether I'd just been complimented or ridiculed, I silently watched Holmes sip his tea. He took a moment to enjoy the brew, then replaced his cup and continued his account: “I followed the boy to the outbuilding. Had I not been trailing behind him, I might well have missed it in the darkness. The building, a small square structure with darkened windows on each wall, is shielded from pedestrian traffic by the oak trees. Taking cover behind a broad trunk within the grove, I could just make out young Chandler creeping towards one of the windows.
“It had grown quite dark by then, but the fog was thin enough to allow me to distinguish what was happening. On closer inspection, I could see that broken lines of light framed the glass of each casement. It seemed obvious to me that someone on the inside had done his best to cover the windows with dark paper to conceal what was going on within. But his best was not good enough, Watson. The tell-tale light emitted at the edges of each large pane revealed the amateurish skill of whoever had attached the paper to the glass. Quietly, I stole up to a window on the side opposite Raymond to witness for myself what had been attracting the young man to this spot.”
“And,” I asked Holmes between bites of a chocolate biscuit, “what did you see?”
“It was a make-do photography studio, Watson, complete with lights, camera, photographer and model.”
“Only a photography studio? One wouldn't need paper to cover the windows at night. Why would someone go to these extravagant lengths to conceal such a place?”
“Use your imagination, man!” he scolded. “What kind of photographic activity do you expect would draw a male adolescent to its windows every night?”
“I cannot imagine, Holmes - especially not at a public school like Dulwich.”
Holmes smiled. “In fact, old fellow, it was actually a Dulwich student responsible for the scene: a young artist seeking to earn extra money had found himself a voluptuous young maid from town willing to pose for him. âCarmen' is her name, a recent arrival from Spain, who needed money to send home to her family.”
I dabbed at my lips with a linen handkerchief. “Proceed,” I said drily. “I fail to see the entire picture.”
“Ah, Watson,” Holmes sighed as he leaned back, “it was exactly that âentire picture' that Raymond himself was trying to see. But clearly, you need everything spelled out. Imagine.” He held up his hands as if to frame a photograph for me. “The compliant young woman in question is sitting in a high-backed chair made of teakwood. For some artistic reason, she is posed on an orange-coloured shawl fringed in white. Although she is positioned rigidly with her hands on the arms of the chair, her back straight, and her knees decorously pressed together, she manages - with her white teeth quite apparent between her parted red lips - to present a smile that I'm sure some men might call provocative.”
“But what was she wearing?” I asked. “Surely, it is quite unlike you, Holmes, to leave out the most obvious part of the description. Must I always have to rely on my own imagination?”
Holmes dropped his arms in exasperation. “Oh, Watson,” he chuckled, “you do fail to understand. She was quite naked - well-endowed, and quite naked indeed.”
I gasped in disbelief. When I could finally catch my breath, I said, “Surely, Holmes, you exaggerate.”
“Pray, forgive me,” he said, eyes twinkling. “I did neglect one detail. She was, in fact, wearing long, green earrings, possibly jade or
faux Fei Tsui
“Holmes, really!” I moved my plate away, no longer able to enjoy my repast.
“What's more,” he continued, “to judge from the jerking movement of the boy's right hand - his back was to me, remember - what had attracted a healthy young male to the windows of this studio every night should be quite obvious. Especially a young male suppressed by Mr. Gilkes' stringent code of morality at school and by his mother's strict rules of propriety at home.”
“Quite the expert in psychology now, eh, Holmes?”
“Certainly not in psychology, Watson; but I will say that, even though I am also no expert in matters related to the female form, the young woman in question had quite beautiful features. Small in stature, to be sure, but bare breasts shimmering like pearl in the bright lights surrounding her.”
“Holmes!” I cried. “You go too far.”
“Mark my words, Watson. It is not an image easily forgotten - even if one were so inclined, which I am quite sure that young Raymond Chandler is not. Indeed, I suspect that the boy will retain the striking picture in his mind for many a year.”
I merely shook my head.
“On Thursday night,” Holmes continued, as if I had registered no outrage at all, “I persuaded a local constable to join me; and armed with a mackintosh to cover the young lady, he broke up the photography session, removing both participants to the local magistrate. I imagine that paying some sort of fine should cure the two of them of their Bohemian behaviour. At least, for now.”
“And young Chandler?”
“How curious you should ask. For while the policeman was performing his gallant duties, I found the boy outside still manning his position at the window. Even after the licentiousness had evolved into a simple police matter - the rounding up and arresting of the two culprits - those procedures seemed to fascinate him as well.”
“Go on,” I said, fascinated and repelled at the same time.
“I introduced myself to the lad, explaining that I was in the employ of his mother. At first he was quite incorrigible. He even denied his self-gratification; I imagine that he always will. But when he tried to bolt, I grabbed his arm. He kept trying to shake me off, but at last I managed to flag a hansom; and after a short, silent journey to Auckland Road, I was able to reunite the discomfited boy with his mother. I refused any remuneration, of course, and I explained to Mrs. Chandler in only the most general of terms what had happened. Actually, I told her that her son had been engaged in some school-wide pranks; and that while they were generally harmless, I nonetheless suggested that she consign young Raymond's free time to some more useful activity - perhaps in a trade or job of some sort.”
“Well done, Holmes,” I applauded. “At least, you spared a distressed mother the anguish of learning how low her disreputable son had fallen. Another case completed. I'm sure Mr. Bannister at the College will hear of your success as well.”
Only after I had registered this approval did I feel at ease enough to mop my perspiring brow with my serviette, sample a final biscuit, and make ready to depart. It was time I left for Queen Anne Street and my wife.
Sensing my intention, Holmes made a request. “Before you leave, do be a good fellow and be so kind as to ring that bell.” As he spoke, he pointed to the unfamiliar piece of crystal sitting next to the teapot.
“Waterford!” I exclaimed, observing more closely the iridescent sparkles that flashed from the gracefully cut facets. “That's not like you, Holmes.”
“A gift from Mrs. Chandler,” he explained, “she'd brought it from Ireland. But here at Baker Street it's become a newly instituted requirement - as you are about to see.”
With a mischievous smile, he again pointed to the bell.
I arched a sceptical eyebrow, but lifted the dainty instrument and tipped it back and forth. No sooner did the charming little ring dance through the air than I heard the tattoo of rapid footfalls ascending the seventeen steps to Holmes' sitting room.
I wondered; they were much too quick to belong to Mrs. Hudson.
The mystery of their ownership was immediately solved by the appearance at the door of a young man of medium height dressed in burgundy livery. He stood at attention looking very serious, his shining hazel eyes, however, unable to conceal his anticipation. With his thick dark hair combed straight back from his broad brow, he had a handsome, angular face marred only by a slightly misshapen nose that afforded him a kind of toughness.