Authors: Carole Nelson Douglas
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical, #Women Sleuths, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages), #Literature & Fiction, #Private Investigators
The Private Wife of Sherlock Holmes
An Irene Adler story
by Carole Nelson Douglas
A WISHLIST BOOK
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Copyright ©2009 by Carole Nelson Douglas.
First Kindle edition ©January 2012
THE PRIVATE WIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was originally published in the
Sex, Lies and Private Eyes
anthology, June 30, 2009
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Cover design by Carole Nelson Douglas
Author photo by Sam Douglas
Cover image ©iStockphoto.com
IRENE ADLER ADVENTURES
Good Night, Mr. Holmes
The Adventuress (
Good Morning, Irene)
A Soul of Steel (
Irene at Large)
Another Scandal in
Irene’s Last Waltz)
Praise for Carole Nelson Douglas
woman is back! The dazzling Irene Adler returns to match wits with Sherlock Holmes himself in
’s newest tour de force. . .
has created an enduring treasure for connoisseurs of fine fiction.”
RT Book Reviews
“Irene Adler justly deserves the spotlight Carole Nelson Douglas shines on her.”
“Carole Nelson Douglas’s feeling for the milieu of later Victorian London is spot on and her dialogue crackles like Guy Fawkes’ Day. Brava!”—
Loren D. Estleman
“Drenched in atmosphere, rich in historical detail, and driven by the passions of
’s fascinating, intriguing characters. Welcome back, Irene!”—
Jayne Ann Krentz
“A rollicking and complex story brimming with Victorian atmosphere and details.”—
“To capture the attention of the misogynistic and asexual Mr. Holmes, a woman would need to be quite remarkable, and
’s Irene is beyond remarkable.”—
“clever wit, plot and fascinating characters.”
The Private Wife of Sherlock Holmes
Carole Nelson Douglas
A Shocking Visitor
limbing stairs is excellent exercise and it’s also handy to have an eagle’s-eye view of the street and forthcoming visitors.
So I stood in the bow window of 221B
eyeing the shiny crowns of cabbies’ top hats and the gleaming rumps of
’s many hackney horses.
When one of the pedestrian hat crowns paused before the entry below, I drew back from the window and contemplated where I wished to greet the visitor. How was not in question.
Should I meet him at the door or draw back to the mantel? Should I remain standing or seat myself in the basket chair near the fireplace? One of my profession finds setting the stage for an interview useful indeed. It determines that I will control the situation, however perplexed or distraught the visitor.
I decided to stand on the bearskin rug by the fireplace mantel, a suitable distance from the lofty aroma of tobacco shag in a Persian slipper and the cabinet photograph of a fashionable lady.
The elderly landlady had intercepted the visitor below and their conversation drifted up through the closed door. Mrs. Hudson subjected him to several adamant words. I smiled the smile few seldom saw. I guard against looking smug in public.
I amused myself by studying familiar elements of the somewhat bohemian scene: the VR of bullet holes punctuating the wall opposite the bow window, for example. Her Majesty Victoria Regina, one supposed, would
be amused. One wonders if the exercise scared the horses in the street, not to mention the doughty and no doubt much tried landlady.
Soon heavy steps challenged the long stairs as if climbing a slope of
, sturdy and determined.
I smiled again, and then composed my expression.
When the door burst open the indignation was not long in coming. “Of all the colossal nerve!” the man burst out as abruptly as the door had sprung wide. “I don’t know who you think you are,” he added, advancing on me.
Then he stopped. Stared. “But
“Perhaps . . . not.”
“Holmes—” he began, again indignant. Then he slowed his words. “Holmes was always damnably smug on that topic.”
“How else was he about me?”
“See here, madam. I’d far more welcome you coming back from the dead than conducting this absurd charade. You are not ‘Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,’ as you told our poor landlady when you demanded admittance to these rooms.”
I smiled again, this time for public consumption. “Can you really be sure, Dr. Watson?”
“Holmes has not denigrated the cleverness of women since he encountered you, madam, but he is a bachelor born and even one of your many and obvious attractions will not change that. Besides, you became Mrs. Godfrey Norton by the end of that unfortunate case six years ago.”
“So you reported,” Dr. Watson, “in your debut piece of fiction called ‘A Scandal in
.’ My emphasis is on the word ‘fiction.’”
I took out my Fabergé cigarette case and lit one of the slim dark cylinders inside, tossing the match into the hearth behind me. Dr. Watson frowned at my unladylike habit but would not be distracted, like all who scribble for print and sometimes even pay, from defending his writing.
“That account is as accurate as I dared make it, although disguising the names of the royals involved.”
“You were wrong to describe me as ‘the late Irene Adler’ and I would also contest the ‘of dubious and questionable memory.’
A woman seeks to defend herself against an arrogant and powerful aristocrat and you question
reputation. Mr. Holmes was never so foolish. Perhaps that’s why I married him.”
“Holmes has never been married! You’ll never convince me of that.”
“Ah, but Watson, the lady has a point,” came a voice from an adjoining doorway.
A Loathsome Apparition
Into the front room stepped a ragged and scrofulous street beggar of the most repulsive sort. Any refined eye would avert itself from him, which was the idea.
“Your unexpected visit has caught me in
, madam,” Sherlock Holmes told me dryly in massive understatement. “Watson, would you be so good as to entertain the lady whilst I reassemble myself? There’s a good fellow.”
He ducked back into what I could glimpse of the chamber. I was pleased to spy a gramophone atop a table on the far wall.
“Do sit down, Dr. Watson,” I urged my speechless companion, delicately exhaling a veil of smoke. “It will take a few minutes to erase so much studied degradation. The picture of Dorian Gray was not painted in a day.”
“I will not sit in the presence of a
. . . lady,” he said stiffly.
I smiled and arranged myself in the velvet armchair.
June in 1894 was a thing of balmy weather for the English and a joy to revisit, although not as delicate and decorative as in my base of operations,
. I was dressed as a lady of the middling classes in anticipation of the role I’d play in Sherlock Holmes’ forthcoming case . . . provided he would take up my cause.
I’d visited these rooms before, in full disguise, but now felt free to examine them and the good doctor always so ready to support and admire his brilliant but bohemian friend.
“You have been well these past six years?” he inquired with a physician’s brusqueness.
“Quite well. And you, doctor? The leg still shows a bit of stiffness.”
“War wound,” he trumpeted.
“Ah,” I said politely.
, Mr. Norton?”
I did not contradict him. “Splendid, as always.”
well,” he added, a bit of gallantry peeking through his natural protectiveness of Holmes.
From his manner, it was clear that Dr. Watson had not been in actual residence at
for some time. I had the advantage of him by having arrived here today first. I looked around to discover that Holmes was not a proponent of ashtrays and flicked my small Egyptian cigarette into the fireplace with casual but unerring aim.
The good doctor’s eyes momentarily shut in despair. No doubt Holmes had the same cavalier way of disposing of any cigarettes he smoked between pipes. The air of the place mixed a chemical tang with the softer perfume of pipe tobacco, which I have always savored.
Holmes’s returning step ended our awkwardness. He was attired for the
streets, a well-worn dressing gown over his shirt and trousers but I glimpsed his vest and a round golden glint like a watch on a chain. His tall, lean form was as agile as ever, though he must now be about forty.
“Thank you for entertaining my ‘wife,’ Watson. I surmise that Madam Irene has delicate business to discuss. You might as well be off, old boy. She’ll never speak freely in front of you. She’s arrived on the boat-train from
just this afternoon, is attired for action of the City sort and has no use for a companion in addition to myself, or even your stalwart Army pistol. Am I wrong?”
I could only shake my head.
Watson stood, vanquished. “Very well, Holmes. I expect you to explain the lady’s astounding claim of wifehood later. I will call on you tomorrow.”
“Make it the day after.”
I tried not to look smug again.
“I’ll bid you both ‘Good Day,’ then,” Dr. Watson harrumphed in that way that Englishmen have mastered when under friendly fire. He picked up his hat, gave me a last, not unappreciative glance, and pounded down the long stairs in no good temper.
Holmes strolled to the mantel and selected a cigarette from a small box, eyeing me with raised eyebrows. I abstracted one from my case and accepted the lighted match he extended first to me and then his own cigarette.
We smoked in separate content for a few moments.
“Your self-advertisement must have taken a few years off Mrs. Hudson and Watson’s lives,” he commented.
“Surprise always gives one the advantage. I wished to wait for you here, not in the street.’
. Not for reasons of social discretion but because you don’t want anyone to suspect that you have consulted me.”
“I am aware that you have pursued delicate private inquiries from time to time on the Continent these past six years.”
“I am aware that your have pursued your same interesting array of cases here, thanks to the published accounts of your Boswell, who is mightily annoyed with the both of us at the moment.”
“He is annoyed that I have banished him from the case, but I merely follow your preference in that.”
“The always prescient Mr. Holmes,” I murmured.
“Not always, or I would have anticipated your arrival.” He strode to the round table littered with this and that and seized that day’s
. No. Ah. Here is an editorial screed against the scandalous numbers of houses of harlotry, etcetera, et cetera. I presume you announced yourself as my wife because you need a temporary husband on this island, not from any defection of Mr. Godfrey Norton’s.”
He eyed me quizzically over the folded and crackling newsprint, more interested in my reply than he expected me to notice. As an operatic performer, I know acting when I see it.
“Not from any defection,” I answered, watching his expression shift into either relief, or regret.
“You’re quite right,” I went on, “which is why I am applying to you. I have a most vexing duty to perform for an old friend and wished to both consult and enlist you in my cause. I’m in a far better position to afford your services now.”
“I take cases that intrigue me. The pay is . . . what you will.”
“I was of the hope that
still intrigue you.”
“Your bold appearance yet again on my doorstep certainly does,” he conceded, casting himself as casually and limberly as a boy onto the basket chair opposite me, taking a deep inhalation of smoke and closing his eyes. “Regale me, madam, with the particulars.”
“As you know, Mr. Holmes, my dark soprano voice made me difficult to cast in opera, yet I had managed a decent career until my ill-advised acquaintance with the Crown Prince, and then King, of
. I see that Dr .Watson turned first to that episode in cataloging your cases in fiction, and was in the dark about several aspects of the matter.”
“Good old Watson! I always find his direct approach to life invigorating and he much fancies himself as a vocational scribbler.”
“That is why I wish only you to know the circumstances I outline. This matter cannot ever be made public. A singer is an itinerant soul. Friendships wax and wane from capital to capital and opera to opera. Yet in those early days of my career I formed an attachment with a sister soprano, an English girl named Sophia Treadwell.”
“What of the formidable Miss Huxleigh, as much the soul of propriety as you are not?”
“Like your Dr. Watson, Nell came and went in my life during that time. Now she is with me in
, and the bane of all Parisian debauchery.”
His laughter was a rich bark of amusement. I always thought that Sherlock Holmes rather more appreciated Nell than he let on.
“The performing life is taxing,” I continued, “and not terribly profitable for all but international sensations like Sarah Bernhardt. Sophia was delighted to win the interest of a man from a prominent English family. Reginald Montague was twenty years older, but a ‘good catch,’ as the Society mamas put it in their mercenary way.”
“Montague.” He leapt up to consult a thick commonplace book on a shelf across the room. “A larcenous cloth merchant. Hardly. The nefarious thimble collector. No.
family dating back to the crusades. More likely.”
“The very one. Sophia and I have corresponded sporadically. Then, this spring, I began receiving distressed yet vague notes. Her last letter was nigh incoherent, so of course I came to see her.”
“You have the letter?”
I opened my reticule and gave him the envelope. “Sophie may be in emotional disarray but her situation, which she fully revealed only to me, is classic. She left the stage to devote herself completely to playing the society wife. She is spectacularly beautiful, masses of red-gold hair and a Pear’s soap complexion as dewy as clotted cream. Reginald has the money to dress her like a duchess. She’s been a major asset to his political career.”
“Many the beautiful wife is considered so, but she is also a liability.” Holmes was frowning and nodding as he perused the penmanship of Sophie’s letter. “Your friend has a warm but scattered character, not particularly bright but sensitive. As you say, the ideal Society wife.”
“And now she is a Society pawn.”
“Ah. Do I sniff the enticing aroma of blackmail?”
“Indeed you do. Sophie has done nothing wrong but Reginald has all the virtues, and vices, of his pampered position in life.”
“I don’t take cases involving unfaithful husbands.”
“I don’t fault you for that. A very tiresome though prolific problem. I’m afraid Sophie can live with Reginald’s infidelities. She takes dubious comfort that he expresses himself with ladies of professional standing rather than rival socialites, so she is not humiliated in public. Or would not be, except that an Eminent Personage has taken a commanding interest in
Holmes sat up. “A virtuous woman tried. We have the makings of melodrama here.”
“I find that when such things happen to others, they are melodrama. When they happen to you, they can be true tragedy. Sophie’s anonymous suitor is He Who Must Be Obeyed.”
Holmes nodded, needing no more explanation. The voracious sexual appetite of the beloved Prince of Wales, Edward Albert, known as “Bertie,” went beyond carnal gluttony to an unspoken
droit de seigneur
. Any woman his eye fell upon and he desired, from parlor maid to Earl of England’s wife, would be his. Given his equally prodigious culinary appetite, one wondered how this extraordinarily fat princeling could perform. Well,
wondered. I doubt Mr. Holmes would ever consider such a sordid trifle.
“Take her out of the country for a few months,” the consulting detective said. “His Highness seeks instant gratification.” Holmes’ keen eye fixed on me. “You have traveled in the same circles as he on occasion. How is it you’ve escaped his amorous orders?”
“How can you be sure I have?”
“Come, come, madam. The King of Bohemia was far more comely and you resisted him to his despair. My interest is not salacious but strategic.”
“I’ve convinced the Prince that he has already conquered me. Like many would-be rulers, his obsession is fresh territory.”
“And how did you convince him of this falsehood?”
I hated to admit my less than scientific method. “Mesmerism. Nell is most upset that I would let him even
such a thing.”
“That was a certain practical concession to royal reality that I doubt Miss Huxleigh would ever tolerate herself,” he agreed.
“To have been desired by the Prince of Wales is a mark of status in some circles,” I said demurely. “Actually, he can be a charming and good-natured fellow as well as a disgustingly greedy boy in these respects but one must never forget that he will be King.”
“Not for long,” Holmes said, pressing his forefingers to his lips as he thought. “This is all prologue, of course. Avoiding Bertie is no problem for the determined man or wife. Enter blackmail.”
“Correct. The indiscreet Reginald has gotten himself recorded listing his rather embarrassing preferences at the city’s most fashionable brothel.”