Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Mystery

A new short story by John Walsh
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The Independent Culture

When I called to see him in our old apartments, shortly after my morning surgery, I found Sherlock Holmes standing by the window looking out at the snow descending on Baker Street and its population of Christmas shoppers. His mood was hard to read. His long fingers, pressed together as though in prayer, tapped at his lips. He was sombre but alert, as though anticipating some event with keen interest.

"Five days 'til Christmas, Holmes!" I announced jovially. "I trust you have already purchased the goose, made the plum pudding and mulled the wine?"

"Your enthusiasm is charming, Watson," said he, "but I fear I am not cut out for the Yuletide convivium."

"Are you planning to dine with your renowned brother?"

He shuddered. "An hour in Mycroft's company is a trial. A whole day would be close to torture. And I cannot join in the general fondness for dining with elderly relatives, pulling snap-crackers and wearing comical paper headgear."

"Why Holmes," I said laughing, "I fear you are becoming Mr Scrooge from the celebrated Dickens story."

He was silent for a moment, as the strains of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" wafted up from a platoon of listless carol singers on the street corner.

"I share his contempt for the naivety of the season. Watching all this bustle and energy, I think of Christmas as the greatest triumph of idealism over experience. Despite the best efforts of those singers, peace on earth and mercy mild are as far off as ever, and God is no more reconciled to sinners than Inspector Lestrade."

"Have you any new investigations to inspire you?"

"Hah, Watson!" he groaned. "What has happened to the criminal fraternity? Where is their invention and creativity? Three months have passed since any singular crime came my way – you recall the Case of the Exploding Beehive? Since then, nothing but poison-pen letters and stolen bicycles."

Suddenly he stirred at the sight of something below. "But here, if I am not mistaken, is my noon appointment. An agitated lady is knocking at our door. You will stay to hear what she has to say?"

"With the greatest of pleasure," I said. So it was this for which he had been waiting.

Minutes later, our housekeeper ushered into the sitting-room a woman of the lower orders. She wore a white blouse fastened at the throat with a cameo brooch, a rough woollen cardigan with drooping sleeves, a full skirt and a black felt hat. She unwound a long grey scarf from her neck with looping gestures of her hands, then removed the hat. Fair, slightly greasy curls tumbled around her neck. She was a strongly-built, well-made, ruddy-faced woman, not unattractive. It occurred to me that, had she been born in different circumstances, her looks, and her buxom figure, would have been widely admired.

She sat on the sofa and looked round, taking in the clutter of the sitting room, the tapestry cushions, the mahogany bookcase, the Persian slipper. "I dunno if I can afford you," she said, "Because I dunno what you charge. But I been doing my nut lately and they said you was the best. So if you charge a fortune, you better say now ... "

Holmes raised his hands as if quietening a child. "Please do not concern yourself about payment. We may come to some agreement if I take the case on, but for now, Miss ..."

"Lane, Maudie Lane. I s'pose most of your clients are posh types, are they? I don't s'pose you get many like me." She smiled. "I don't s'pose you know much about people like me."

"Indeed not," said Holmes. "Apart from the obvious facts that you live in Lisson Grove, have a tabby cat, enjoy the music hall, work with metal implements and have recently fallen on hard times, I know nothing about you at all."

"Whaaat?" Miss Lane rose to her feet, her hand over her mouth. "Who's been telling you things about me? Don't you play games with me."

"I assure you," said my friend, "my conclusions are based on simple observation rather than received knowledge."

"How could you possibly tell I live in Lisson Grove?"

"My daily perambulations take in a wide radius of west London. I have noticed that workmen have lately been digging up the Grove to lay some new waterworks. In doing so, they have turned up some unusual, orange-hued, claggy mud which has spread across the street. Nobody can pass without some adhering to their shoes. When I see that your skirt features no fewer than three such orange stains, I conclude you go there a great deal."

"And the cat?"

"A quantity of grey hairs, hidden from your view, can be seen on your cardigan below the armpit, where a tabby cat habitually nestles while you are sitting in the evening."

"And the other things?"

"There is no magic about it. Your liking for the music hall I deduce from hearing you humming on the stairs a recent comic song at the Hackney Empire, 'If It Wasn't For the 'Ouses In Between'. I can tell you frequently work with metal because of the unmistakable odour of silver polish emanating from your left sleeve. Clearly, you have accidentally dipped it in the polish from time to time, along with the spoons."

"And how" – she cast down her eyes – "did you know I had fallen on hard times?"

The evidence is on the elbow of your cardigan, Miss Lane. You have darned it, recently. But the darn has two colours, indicating that you ran out of black wool and made do with blue. It seems to me that a lady who cannot afford to buy a new sixpenny card of black wool is in a poor state financially."

She was silent for a moment, then unburdened herself.

"Times have been hard, Mr Holmes. Me and my dad, we run the pawnbroker's shop in Lisson Grove, but it's been hard since my mum ran away with an Irish sailor three years ago. Dad, his spirit's not in broking no more, and he goes off on the rag-and-bone run sometimes and doesn't come back for days because he's on the grog. There's not a lot of cash in bric-a-brac, and people aren't as ready to pawn stuff as they once was ... "

"You have not, I assume, come to me for advice about conducting your business," said Holmes with asperity. "Please come to the point."

"The point is my friend has disappeared. Dan Garvey, he's just vanished. Every Friday for months he comes by, regular as clockwork, comes for supper, and then suddenly he stops."

"What does Mr Garvey do?"

"He works in Timothy Craddock's Music Shop in Bayswater. And he's a musician. Plays the violin. He's played down at Covent Garden and the Albert Hall – not inside, you understand, he busks outside 'em."

"You have heard him play?"

"Well, not actually heard him in person. But he's always got his violin case with him when he visits."

"Indeed," said Holmes. "And he is your sweetheart?"

"My sweetheart? No, he's more a – a friend of the family. He comes to see my Dad. Then he pops upstairs for a little chat with me. About the business."

"And when last he visited, did you have an argument?"

Miss Lane's ruddy cheeks were suddenly crimson. "Not an argument, no. It wasn't like he stormed out, never to return. He showed every sign of coming back in a few days."

"What did he say?"

"He promised everything would be all right." She paused. An awkward silence filled the room. "With the shop and all."

Holmes rose from his chair.

"Miss Lane, you are not being quite truthful with me. I cannot help you unless you speak the truth. I believe this Mr Garvey is a lot more than a family friend. And I believe that your conversations do not entirely concern bric-a-brac."

"Why do you believe such things?"

"Because, Miss Lane," said Holmes evenly, "I have also deduced something you have failed to mention: that you are in an Interesting Condition."

"Holmes!" I remonstrated at the insult to the lady. Common or not, she deserved to be treated with tact.

Miss Lane clutched the arm of the chair. "He hasn't deserted me. I know what you're thinking but he hasn't gone and left me with the baby. When I told him about it, a fortnight on Friday, he was anxious all right. But he came back a week later, like always, and promised it would be all right. I believed him. He's a good man. And now he's disappeared, and I'm doing my nut."

"Please do not agitate yourself, Miss Lane. I appreciate your frankness. But I fear I do not take cases of Missing Persons, so unfortunately I cannot help you."

A tear rolled down Miss Lane's plump red cheek.

"So I've got to just endure it, have I? The worry, the sleepless nights, and the tap-tapping and flashing lights and the voices ... ?"

"What?" Suddenly, Holmes was as alert as a pointer. "What noises?"

"Ever since last Saturday, there are these noises outside my window. It's always late, about 2 or 3 in the morning. Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. Then little lights flash on and off. And two voices."

"What do they say?"

"They don't talk for very long. A lot of low muttering I can't catch. But one voice always says, 'Any sign?' and the other says, 'No, they're all right.'"

"And what do you think is meant by that?"

"I haven't a clue, Mr Holmes. Why are these people meeting outside my shop? It's far too late to buy anything. The flashes, I suppose they're lighting cigarettes with a Lucifer. And saying 'they're all right', well it must mean that some people are safe from harm, I s'pose."

"How often has this happened?"

"Three nights. Sunday, Tuesday and last night."

"And why do you do not look out the window and confront them?"

She bridled. "I'm a woman alone in the house, in the family way, my dad's drunk in an inn somewhere, and you want me to tell two ruffians to clear off? They'd only curse at me. More likely, they'd break into the shop and violate me."

She did not seem, in my view, the type to submit to unwanted violation. But I held my tongue and we ushered the lady out. Holmes promised to visit her shop next morning and do everything in his power to clear up the mystery. We passed the day together, dined at the Garrick and, slightly the worse for wear, I stayed the night in my old room.

It was not, however, Mrs Hudson who wakened my friend, but Inspector Lestrade. He was at the front door at 8.30am. "Nasty murder last night, Mr Holmes, down Whitechapel. Young man been beaten so badly, it's hard to identify his features. Can you come down with me, see what you can do?"

"Is there any clue to his identity in his clothing?"

"Nothing with a name on it. But in his jacket pocket there's a scrap of paper from this pawnbroker's in Lisson Grove."

Holmes sprang into action. In three minutes he was dressed and pulling on his greatcoat. We took a hansom cab to that infamous part of London's eastern quarter, where savagery, want and immorality go hand in hand.

The body was laid out on a table, an ugly sight. The face had been pummelled until its bones had cracked and imploded, and the skin, where it was not broken, was empurpled and yellowed. Holmes whipped out a magnifying glass, pored over the brutalised physiognomy and paused beneath it.

"The lesion at the neck suggests this man was strangled with some form of wire. Did you find any such thing?"

"We found a string," said Lestrade, "the sort you get on a musical instrument. Horribly bloody it was. Cut right through the artery. I've got it here." He passed the disgusting object to Holmes.

"Catgut," said Holmes. "Wound round his neck twice and yanked with insane force."

"Holmes," I said. "Are we looking at the body of Miss Lane's missing paramour?"

"Indeed so, Watson. Lestrade, let me introduce you to Mr Dan Garvey of no fixed abode, a travelling musician with a pregnant girlfriend, who has transgressed against some villain and suffered a terrible fate. After being soundly beaten, he has been murdered with the E-string of a violin."

As we sought a cab home, I asked if Holmes could be quite sure of the body's identity.

"I would say without question, Watson," said he. "Except for one thing. Did you see the fingers, the untrimmed nails, the lack of callouses? The dead man has never played the violin in his life."

Miss Maudie Lane was distraught. Her considerable bosom heaved beneath her sobs. Holmes did his best to be gentle in breaking the news, but could not resist voicing the ironical thought that no missing person case had ever been solved so quickly. At the mention of the murder instrument, she let out a dreadful wail:

"Catgut? He was killed with the insides of a cat? Oh ... " She made a step towards her own pet, a sleek-looking tabby which arched its back suspiciously. "Oh my poor Rebecca!"

"It was a violin string made of catgut," said Holmes. "Some brutal revenge for his failure to deliver a violin."

"But who could have done this dreadful thing? Dan wasn't a saint or nothing, he seemed to know some dodgy people, but he wasn't a criminal. And he was doing his best to help us. I knew he was coming back."

"Why?" asked Holmes.

"Because he left his violin case behind. He'd never left it before. He was always on his way to perform in the East End. Then last Friday, he said he'd leave it here. I supposed he didn't have anywhere to play and was going to pick it up later."

"Is it here?" asked Holmes.

"In my bedroom," said Maudie Lane. "D'you want to see it?"

Holmes opened his palms in comic dumbshow. We rushed to her boudoir, a reeking midden of unwashed sheets, cheap perfume and unmentionable items of corsetry. From under the bed, she drew out the case and opened it.

Holmes lifted out the contents with reverence. The violin was old and slightly battered, but had once been a glorious instrument. The rich burnish it had previously displayed had become faded and worn. Towards the bottom of the soundboard, the letters "T.T." had been carved, then semi-obscured.

Holmes ran his magnifying glass over this last detail. "An Emery board has been employed to rub out the evidence of the owner's identity," he said. "That is singular."

He held the violin like a connoisseur, plinked the strings, adjusted the machine-heads, put it against his face, awkwardly fitting his chin to the chin-rest, and drew the bow across it. A terrible, reedy whine emerged. He tried another string, with the same result.

"Never mind, old boy," I said soothingly. "I expect you're just a bit out of practice."

Holmes looked at me with disdain. "I am not playing wrong notes, Watson," he said huffily. "There is something wrong with this violin."

"Mmm-hmmm," I said.

"Something is obscuring or muffling the sound. Unless I am much mistaken, there is something in here. Hallo, what's this?"

His fingers located something at the side of the instrument and a small compartment swung open. Inside its little drawer was a parcel of red felt. Holmes offered the violin to Miss Lane who unwrapped the parcel. A fiery red ruby, the size of a pigeon's egg, lay on her hand. It sparkled in the weak gaslight.

"My godfathers," she breathed. "Is it real?"

"Not just real, my dear Miss Lane, but infamous. I think we have here the legendary Tiger's Heart ruby. Until recently it was the favourite possession of the Maharanee of Jaiselmere."

"And you think my Dan stole it?"

"I am inclined to think he was merely a pawn in a line of thieves, and fell foul of the worst of them. You say he always had a violin with him when he visited you?"

"On every occasion."

"But he was not himself a player," said Holmes. "No – I fear it is true. I have found from examining his fingers that he was no musician. So what was he doing with one or more violins?"

"Oh I don't know," cried the girl. "I'm so confused. I can't believe my Danny would've lied to me."

"He was using the instruments to conceal stolen goods, and was ... a courier between the rich homes of Bayswater and the fences of the East End. Your shop seems to have been a convenient halfway post, where he could peruse locally pawned items of jewellery, and, if you do not mind my saying so, find a bed for the night, whenever your father was away with his rag-and-bone cart."

"But who killed him, Mr Holmes?" she wailed. "Who did my Danny in?"

"I cannot say at present. But it was someone who knew that Mr Garvey came to your shop. Dan kept a pawn ticket about his person, as a memento of you. The villains would have found it when he was attacked. But they cannot have thought he planned to pawn the ruby."

"You don't think it was something to do with ... those voices, do you?"

"I very much fear it is, Miss Lane." said Holmes. "Listen carefully tonight, in case they come again. But on no account speak to the voices' owners. We are in very dark territory here."

"Are we? But all they're saying is that everything's all right. Ain't they?"

Holmes and I returned to our quarters (I had told my wife not to expect me for a few days), ordered a light supper, smoked cigars and discussed the case. At 8pm, Holmes sent a note to a public house, directed to the head of the Bow Street Runners – a loose alliance of street urchins – asking them to find some information for him. Around 9pm, I fell into a light doze, leaving my friend gazing at the fire. Suddenly, I was jolted awake. Holmes's face loomed against mine. His wiry hands gripped my shoulders.

"Watson! I have been a dolt! How could I not have noticed before?"

"Noticed what, Holmes?"

"It was a left-handed violin! The one with the ruby inside. The chin-rest is on the right, therefore it's for a left-handed player!"

"I fail to see, my dear fellow ... "

"And every night, the murderous pair, having discovered that their courier has absconded with the Tiger's Heart, and having found a pawn ticket in his pocket, meet to see if their violin has been put in the shop window, so they can steal it. When one of them asks, 'Any news?' the other says, 'They're all right' – meaning 'all the violins in the shop are right-handed'! It means the violin they seek has not yet appeared."

"Can we apprehend them?"

"If we go this instant, Watson, possibly to save Miss Lane's life. Do not forget your service revolver."

When we arrived to tell her of Holmes's plan she readily agreed to display the left-handed violin in the shop window, as a baited trap. At 11pm, she retired to bed. By midnight, we were prepared – Holmes, Lestrade, two of his officers and myself, concealed behind the half-shut gate of a coaching inn. The night was crisply cold and foggy, three days before Christmas. I thought how dismal an occupation was that of the thief, coldly intent on larceny at a time when all men celebrated the birth of a saviour.

Our vigil was interrupted by a muffled noise across the street.

Tap-tap, it went, tap-tap ...

I held my breath as it drew nearer.

Through the fog a man appeared. I could see only his legs, and the fact that he limped badly. When his walking cane struck the ground, his heel gave a second tap as it touched the pavement. I suspected only a tin or otherwise metal leg could make such a sound.

From the other direction came a thick-set ruffian, more easily visible, in a cloth cap and muffler. His walk was silent, and he carried a knobbly stick and a small lantern. The pair met by the pawnbroker's door. The ruffian held up the lantern and slid back a tiny door. Briefly the contents of the window were illuminated. Then he moved two steps, and shone in another finger of light.

"Well?" muttered his lame companion.

"There's one I haven't seen before," said the ruffian, "right there."

The man directed the light, leaned into the window-pane and started as he recognised the violin.

"There!" he hissed. "At last! There it is!"

Instantly, the two men concentrated their attention upon the door lock. Lestrade looked at his officers. "Ready, men?" he whispered. Across the road, the door was swiftly jemmied open, and the men vanished inside.

A police whistle shrilled and we ran across the road. I confess I held back a little, reasoning that trained policemen were better able than middle-aged family doctors to deal with professional criminals. In the fog and the darkness, a melee of shouting and scuffles ensued. Sharp elbows barged me. Obscene curses assailed my ears. I found the lantern on the floor and opened the beam to illuminate the room.

The ruffian in the cap was held fast by Lestrade and his men. He continued to struggle until, with a cry of "Oh you would, wouldyer?" Lestrade poked him hard in the belly with a truncheon. Outside, Holmes stood gazing into the foggy distance.

"I couldn't hold him, Watson," he said. "And he has the violin. It is not only the Tiger's Heart he craved. He cannot bear to be parted from his violin. He is, or was, Mr T.T. And it has just dawned on me who he might be, this man who takes such revenge on polite society at Christmas."

"Who, Holmes?"

"Tomorrow," he said, taking my arm, "Tomorrow we shall know."

"But why," I asked my friend as we rattled through the East End, "are we visiting Fowler's Music Hall? What or whom is it we seek there?"

"Seeking a violin player in London is a fruitless enterprise," said Holmes. "There are more than 100 shops in London that sell violins, and seeking the performers who play them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But looking for a man with a prejudice – a passionate hatred – one needs special information. I asked the Bow Street Runners to ask around their all-knowing, all-seeing fraternity: did they know of any violin players with odd, perhaps furious, habits of behaviour or temperament? It took an hour this morning to hear their report, but it struck gold.

"There is, they said, a man who reacts with fury to Christian salutations. He plays in this very music-hall, on stage and in the street. During the applause last week, someone shouted, 'God bless ... !' and the musician turned on him. His curses and foul language were dreadful to hear. He even aimed a blow at the well-wisher. That is our man."

"But Holmes, you speak in riddles. Who ... ?"

The old palace of varieties glowed richly in the gas-lit darkness, its name picked out in vertical letters. Low desperate men hung about in shadows, smoking furtively. Holmes and I strode in, took our seats and the little orchestra struck up a jaunty tune. Then it was the turn of the ingénue singer, the tuxedoed droll, the Memory Boy from Margate, and then Tim Craddock the Demon Fiddler.

He limped on stage, but moved with surprising speed for a crippled person. When he played, his eyes shut in rapture and his face contorted into an expression of painful dreaminess. As he angled the violin this way and that, I could see from my vantage point the position of the chin-guard and the faint mark of "T.T." still visible on the body. He played, I thought, as if his life depended on it. Then it was over. Craddock vanished from the stage and did not return.

"Quick!" said Holmes. "Let us go and get him."

We hurried backstage, scattering comic turns and make-up girls in our headlong rush. He found him trying to clamber through a window, and hauled him back in.

"Mr Timothy Craddock," cried Holmes, "or should I say, Mr Tim Cratchit, formerly known as Tiny Tim, as immortalised in a short story. You rob households in west London, conceal gems inside violins from your music shop which your couriers take to professional fences in east London. Dan Garvey was a trusted violin-carrier, until he needed money to marry a Miss Maudie Lane. He stole your violin containing the Tiger's Heart, knowing what a pretty sum it would fetch in the less-reputable corners of Hatton Garden, and concealed it at Miss Lane's, hired someone to beat him up and insisted to the fence that he had been attacked and robbed. The fence didn't believe him, and killed him with the violin gut. Ever since, you have striven to retrieve your violin, waiting for the day when Miss Lane would, all unthinking, offer it for sale in her shop. Why? Why have you done all this?

Craddock/Cratchit's face had crumpled as Holmes told his story. He now spoke with a terrible weariness.

"All my life I've been Tiny Tim," he said. "You've no idea how terrible it's been. Mr Dickens saw me in the street one day, asked for my name and put me in A Christmas Carol. And everybody knew it was me. As I grew up, I'd be pointed out at school and in shops, and people would shout 'Oi! Tiny!' and always, always, there'd be someone saying, 'God bless us, every one,' in a stupid, simpering voice, and I grew to dread it.

"I grew to hate Christmas. I got sick of the condescension. I started to dislike the quality, who looked down on me and said, 'Poor little cripple boy, shall we give him a florin?' And after rickets took my leg when I was 14, I practised on my metal leg until I was strong enough to climb and run again, and then I turned to crime. I dealt in violins because I played one well, the one that was given me at 14 with 'T.T.' for 'Tiny Tim' carved on to it. I tried to scrape it off once but couldn't. But I like the fact that they're emblems of pathos, and I'm filling them with the sparklers of the rich. Who I hate."

"I shall not judge, Mr Cratchit," said Holmes gently, rising to his feet. "But Inspector Lestrade has apprehended your murderous associate and will soon have you as well. I shall not hand you over, nor wish you a happy Christmas, but leave you to reflect on where a lifetime of resentment has brought you. Perhaps there is a place for kindness, mercy and Christian forgiveness after all."

"Well Holmes," I said as we left him. "You've certainly changed your tune. Where will you go now?"

"Back to Baker Street to read some Schopenhauer," said he. "I was merely toying with festive sentiment in order to provide a good exit line. And you, Watson, will doubtless make your way to Lisson Grove, to inform Miss Lane, whom you clearly admire, that she may claim a £500 reward for the safe return of the Tiger's Heart."