A STORY FOR CHRISTMAS: `This is indeed a sad day. For I must confess that I have failed. I have neither Cup nor culprit'

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The morning of December 23rd 1895 was fine but very cold. As I made my way along Baker Street to the lodgings at 221B that I shared with Sherlock Holmes, the passing traffic kicked slush from the road, spattering the snow-whitened pavement with brown blotches. I was glad to regain the warmth of our apartment, where my friend greeted me, pushing away the last of his breakfast.

"You were out and about early this morning, Watson," he remarked, as I removed my great-coat and stamped snow from my boots. "Your business with Tompkins the glover in York Street must have been pressing."

"It most certainly was -" I began, and sat down at the table with a chuckle. "Really, Holmes. Will you not pause from detection even at Christmas?" He grinned wolfishly and started to fill his pipe. "Very well then. Since you were still abed when I left this morning, how do you deduce my destination?"

"Tiresomely easily," Holmes said. "The morning is bitter, yet you were not wearing your favourite leather gloves - even now, your fingers are blue. Your mission, then, must have been to a glover to have your apparel repaired. But which glover? There are several in the neighbourhood - but only one adjoining a butcher's shop." I furrowed my brow. "See, where a patch of snow stamped from your boot is stained pink with blood? Next door to the butcher's in York Street, then, lay your destination."

"Holmes, you are insufferable. You will next be recounting to me the life-history of the goose Mrs Hudson has laid in for our Christmas dinner by the condition of its beak." "It would not be the first time that I had made an interesting discovery in a goose. But you are right, Watson, and I sincerely apologise. Boredom, I am afraid, my mortal enemy, is to blame. Not a sniff of a case since that affair of the Bruce- Partington plans - why, almost a month ago now. In extremis, I am considering penning a short monograph on the different varieties of snow. You will have noticed, I am sure -"

There was a clatter on the stair, and Holmes leapt to the door and flung it open to snatch an envelope from a startled messenger-boy. "A case, Watson! A case for Christmas - what could be grander?"

Tearing open the envelope, he scanned its contents and dismissed the boy with a curt "No reply". He handed me the telegram. "Well, Watson, what do you make of that? Not a matter worthy of my consideration, I fear. A cup of some kind has been mislaid, but I hardly see why I should concern myself with such a trifle, even to defy boredom."

"FA Cup stolen in mystifying circumstances," I read. "Mr Holmes's help most urgently requested. Good name of club at stake. Will have all trains from London met today." It was signed "Joseph Jenkins, chairman, Aston Villa". "Why, Holmes!" I cried. "This is not some cup. This is the Football Association Cup, one of the most celebrated sporting trophies in the land!" Holmes raised a languid eyebrow. For all his proficiency atboxing and the martial arts, recreational sport for him was an irrelevance. "It is fortunate that you take an interest in such matters, Watson," he said with a smile. "Although I had you down as a rugby and cricket man. It seems that this cup is of some importance, and the case begins to interest me strangely. Come, you can complete my sporting education on the train to Birmingham. For once we may say with justification that the game is afoot!"

Mr Jenkins greeted us at New Street with warm handshakes and many expressions of relief at our swift arrival. He was a rotund man, with a ruddy but open countenance and sparkling, friendly black eyes beneath a worried brow. He introduced Inspector Boon of the local constabulary, a stout man with a great bush of a beard, which partially hid an habitually scowling mouth. "Your reputation precedes you, gentlemen," Boon said in the flat vowels of that part of the country. "But I fancy my lads and I could have cleared this matter up, given time."

"Time is what we do not have!" Jenkins interrupted, hurrying us in to a waiting brougham. "If the press should get hold of this - but come, let us hasten to the scene of the crime, while there is still a little light."

The premises of William Shillcock, bootmaker, stood at the corner of New Town Row and Manchester Street in the commercial heartland of the thriving city. Even as the light faded away into the smoky sky, street vendors gave noisy cry, hawking cheap Christmas knick-knacks to crowds of late shoppers. Mr Shillcock's shop was a substantial, double-fronted establishment, and one of the wide windows had been entirely blacked-out with a thick curtain.

Once inside, we saw that the curtain concealed the chamber set aside to display the trophy. There stood a grand oaken pedestal, conspicuously empty and illuminated by the beam of a powerful electric spotlight. Mr Shillcock himself, a reedy, nervous type, showed Holmes and me into the little room. "As you see, gentlemen," he pointed out, "there is but one door into the chamber, and it was locked all the time that the Cup was there. The key I kept on my own person."

The black curtain allowed no glimmer of light from the gas lamps in the street to penetrate. Above the top of the window on the inside was placed the spotlight, a substantial and bulky item partially hidden by the curtain's pelmet. Its illumination allowed us to confirm quickly that there was indeed no other means of access to the room. Holmes fell to his knees and, with the aid of his glass, minutely examined the walls and the floor of the chamber. Once, he gave a little exclamation and pocketed an object too small for me to discern. He concluded his search by standing behind the pedestal and, shading his eyes, looking up at the light. "Most instructive," he murmured.

"Now Mr Shillcock," he began, when we four were seated in the little office at the back of the shop, "I believe you discovered the theft shortly after 11 o'clock this morning." "That is so, Mr Holmes." "And the trophy was not on public display at that time?" "Why no, sir. The drapes were drawn as they are now. We - Mr Jenkins and myself - had asked the mayor of Birmingham, Mr Dodds, the manufacturer, you know, of Dodds' Dog Biscuits, to unveil the trophy to the public on the morning of Christmas Eve." "Tomorrow morning!" Mr Jenkins wailed. "And all the help the mayor has given us, arranging for the light, and council locksmiths and such... the shame of it!"

"Calm yourself, Mr Jenkins," Boon, the policeman, interrupted. "Mr Holmes, I am sure, will have some fancy theory that fits the facts. Myself, I incline to the view that some street scamp, attracted by a glint of silver, made away with the trophy, little knowing what he had." "Nonsense!" Shillcock exclaimed. "I tell you no one passed through that door without my knowledge. This is the devil's work!" Holmes rose suddenly to his feet, his lean features imperious and compelling silence. "Gentlemen, please. I must have facts, not fantasies. Mr Shillcock, who, apart from yourself, was admitted to view the trophy this morning?"

"I can answer that, Mr Holmes," Jenkins said, "for I was one of them. I brought with me three other gentlemen associated with Aston Villa to view Shillcock's arrangements. They were Mr Gartree, who is, like Mr Shillcock, in the footwear trade, Mr Smethwick, the steel magnate, who I am encouraging to back our club, and Mr Haywood, the silversmith, who was to value the Cup for insurance. We four viewed the trophy shortly after half-past ten, and along with the mayor, who I believe called shortly after ourselves, were the only visitors." "Even so, Mr Holmes," Shillcock agreed.

"Very good," Holmes remarked, with an encouraging smile. "Mr Jenkins, I would esteem it a great favour if you would arrange with your colleagues to visit me this evening, wearing - and this is most important - exactly what they wore here this morning. Shillcock, pray join us too. Watson, do you step round to the council offices, and ask if the mayor might attend on us this evening. I myself have a number of errands to run. Boon, we need detain you from your own enquiries no further. We lodge at the Grand, I believe, in Colmore Row?" Jenkins nodded. "Very well, then. Shall we say at eight?"

At a quarter to that hour, seated by the fire in red leather armchairs in our most comfortable rooms at the great hotel, I was able to ask my friend if he had constructed any theories of his own about the case. "There are several points of interest," he declared, "not the least of which is this." Holmes produced something from his waistcoat pocket and handed it to me. It was a length of long, fine fishing twine, cut and frayed at one end, and with a little lead weight at the other. "I found it on the floor of the display room at Shillcock's shop," he revealed. "This little clue told me immediately where the cup was to be found."

"Why, then," I said, "you have the solution to the problem?" Holmes shook his head with a rueful smile. "You run ahead of the hounds, Watson. My case is at present circumstantial. But you know my methods. Eliminate the impossible and what remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth."

"Then why do we tarry here? Let us go and recover the trophy!" But Holmes made no move, and indeed reached for his meerschaum, stuffing it with strong, dark tobacco. "I wonder if it is something in the Birmingham air," he mused. "The people here seem most excitable, and now you, Watson, are afflicted. Sit ye down, man, for there is work to do yet this evening, and we must conserve our energy. Now you mentioned -" he broke off to take a coal from the fire with the tongs, and hold it to his pipe, which soon wreathed his hawkish features in acrid smoke "- you mentioned that the cup, `the little tin idol', as they call it, has a lid?"

"Yes, indeed," I replied, settling myself once more into my chair. "The trophy is surmounted with a silver figurine of a football player, some three inches tall, which lifts off. He is the idol to which the popular nickname refers." Holmes nodded. "Then at least one matter remains to be resolved," he said. "It is not my custom, Watson, as you know, to conduct mass interrogations. But this case will not suffer for an element of the theatrical. Hush! I believe the actors are ready to make their entrance."

The Birmingham contingent arrived all together. Jenkins, grave yet eager, and Shillcock, nervy and pale, we knew. Then came Haywood, the silversmith, a saturnine, prosperous-looking sort in a high-buttoned pinstripe suit with a flamboyant black cape, hatless; Gartree, the other bootmaker, a humbler figure, ginger-haired and sallow, a greatcoat over his blue worsted suit; Smethwick, the magnate, six feet tall, bullish, proud-chested and magnificent in an astrakhan dress-coat and top-hat; and lastly the mayor, Dodds, an old-fashioned figure in plus-fours and tweed jacket, with a tall stove-pipe hat after the style of Brunel.

Holmes considered them absently, leaning on the mantelpiece. Suddenly, he seemed to awake. "Gentlemen! You will think me most remiss. Pray allow me to take your coats and hats..." And so he did, hanging them upon the coat-stand by the door. "Do be seated, please. I will not detain you long."

"I hope not so, indeed," the mayor exclaimed. "This business is deuced inconvenient. Even now I should be addressing a municipal Christmas dinner." "My apologies, sir. I assure you I shall be brief. May I introduce my friend and colleague, Dr Watson? You may speak in full confidence before him. Now, one or two simple questions.

"Mr Gartree, you are a vice-president of Aston Villa, I believe?" "That is so, sir." "And by trade, a boot-maker?" "Correct." "And yet the players of the club with which you are connected wear boots made by Mr Shillcock?" Gartree sighed, and a little colour appeared on his cheeks. "A hit, Mr Holmes, a palpable hit. I must confess that I was disappointed when the players chose Shillcock's boots over my own - but I would not let commercial considerations affect their performance in the final." "Your attitude does you credit," Holmes said. "And yet I dare say that to have the trophy displayed in your rival's window might rub salt into the wound?" Gartree drew breath to respond, but Holmes stilled him with a gesture.

"Now Mr Smethwick, to turn to you. You have amassed, I am told, a considerable fortune in the smelting trade?" The millionaire bridled. "So what if I have?" "Come sir, we all have the best interests of Aston Villa football club at heart, I am sure?" Smethwick grunted. "Well let us see," Holmes gently went on. "Have you invested money in Aston Villa?" "No sir, I have not." Mr Jenkins, the club chairman, became agitated. "Mr Holmes, I must protest, negotiations are at a most delicate stage -" Once more a stilling gesture from the detective. "More delicate than you may surmise, Mr Jenkins. Is it not a fact, Mr Smethwick, that you are on the point of acquiring a controlling stake in West Bromwich Albion?" Smethwick was dumbfounded. Jenkins, too, was thunderstruck. "Our greatest rivals!" he cried. "The very team from whom we won the trophy! Why, I begin to see it all..."

"Steady, sir." Smethwick had regained his wind. "Mr Holmes, I don't know how you came by that information. I cannot, in all truth, deny the alliance, but any implication that I would stoop to common burglary is monstrous, if not actionable."

"Mr Smethwick," Holmes spoke in calm, flat tones. "No such accusation has been made." He paused a moment. "Do you fish, sir?" "Fish!" the steelman exploded. "Fish! What manner of madness is this?" "Really, Mr Holmes," the mayor joined in. "Your line of questioning is most bizarre. I go after salmon myself. What possible bearing can it have on your case?"

"Trust me, gentlemen, please. I would remind you that Dr Watson and I could yet be at home by our own fire..." "I fish for trout, then, if you must know," Smethwick finally admitted, adding, "Fly fishing is my favourite hobby." Jenkins joined in with a chuckle. "Why, while we are in confessional mode, I too am a trout fisherman. Though what it profits you to know it I cannot guess."

Holmes allowed himself a smile. "You set a good example to your townsmen, Mr Jenkins. Now let us turn to our silversmith. Mr Haywood, were you able to come to a valuation of the FA Cup?" "Indeed I was, Mr Holmes. In my estimation it is worth twenty-five pounds." "A fair sum," Holmes nodded. "But it would be worth more, would it not, melted down -" the company gasped at his audacity "- melted down to provide plating material for medallions. The kind of medallions, say, that are displayed in the window of your shop in Manchester Street?"

Haywood leapt to his feet, crying "Monstrous!" and in an instant all was hubbub, as the Birmingham dignitaries inveighed against the London detective and his theories. Finally the mayor restored calm. "I think that you have insulted us enough, Mr Holmes. We are used to disparagement by Londoners, but this has been a truly extraordinary exhibition of bad manners."

Holmes displayed not a flicker of remorse. "Merely pursuing my commission, Mr Dodds. Please get along to your dinner. Your dog keeps well, I presume?" "My what? Impudence, sir, impudence, I warn you..." "A friendly enquiry, no more. And yet you keep a dog, I am sure, a bloodhound, I would venture, given the colour and nature of the hairs, and the height of their deposition on your leg." "Clever, Mr Holmes, very clever. But you would do better to apply yourself to the case in hand, rather than such conjuring tricks." "I shall indeed, in one moment. You feed the hound, no doubt, on biscuits of your own manufacture?" "Why of course," the mayor said, mellowing on his favourite topic. "For they are the finest in the land, and my hound, I tell you, has the finest nose." "Indeed, sir," Holmes mollified the mayor. "You are to be congratulated. Here, let me help you on with your coat, and your fine hat." The others donned their garments, and with grumbles and murmurs made their way to the door. "Gentlemen, good night, and thank you for your assistance," Holmes said. "If you will all meet me at nine tomorrow morning at Shillcock's establishment, I am sure I will have something to reveal. Goodnight!" He closed the door. "Goodnight to them," Holmes murmured. "But not to us. Watson, get your coat, and your revolver, and fetch also your largest valise. We have business in New Town Row."

Some few minutes later - it now lacked a little of ten - we crouched in an alley opposite Shillcock's shop, in the upstairs window of which a single light burned. The gas had dimmed, and the street-hawkers, like the shop-men, had long ceased to trade. All was silent - until on a sudden there was a great crash as an object of some kind shattered the window, not of Shillcock's, but of Messrs Jones, the greengrocer next door. Holmes held me back with a whisper. "Merely observe, Watson," he warned. Within moments, Shillcock had rushed out to investigate, fearing another burglarious entry. But as he passed next door and stood scratching his head, Holmes indicated a dark-clothed figure slipping silently into Shillcock's shop and then out again, and away up Manchester Street, keeping to the shadows and trailing behind a sort of tail made of rags. Once again I made to rise, but Holmes held me back. "In good time, Watson, in good time. When it suits us, we ourselves will steal the FA Cup."

Christmas Eve dawned grey and freezing cold, and fingers of yellow fog danced around the pale fires of the gas lamps in New Town Row as the cast of the previous evening, with the addition of the policeman Boon, assembled outside Shillcock's shop. The window of Jones's emporium next door had been repaired, but Boon informed us that the culprit had not been found. Then Dodds, the mayor, spoke up. "Well Holmes, you were free with your accusations last night. Do you have a culprit for us?" "Aye," Mr Jenkins joined in. "Have you our Cup?"

"Gentlemen," Holmes said. "This is indeed a sad day. For I, Sherlock Holmes, must confess that I have failed. I have neither Cup, nor culprit." I placed a comforting hand on my friend's shoulder.

"Why for shame, Mr Holmes," Jenkins broke out. "After raising our hopes so." "And asking all those deuced foolish questions," Smethwick added. "I told you we should puzzle it out ourselves," crowed Boon. "And so we shall," boomed Dodds. "Boon, fetch my bloodhound, Hercules, from my carriage. He'll not fail us, like this metropolitan nincompoop. There, boy," he cooed, as the long-eared, long-nosed beast was introduced into the chamber where the cup had once stood. "There, hi! He's off!" the mayor called, as the hound whipped out of the shop and galloped off down Manchester Street, tail wagging furiously. We all set off in pursuit, the mayor yelling "View Halloo!" as his champion veered down an alley.

At last the dog emerged on to a patch of rough waste ground beside a rank canal, and stood giving cry beside a grating-covered culvert. "There's your Cup, I'll be bound!" the mayor cried, staggering up to his hound. "Here, Boon, get the grating up. What a story, eh!" the mayor exclaimed as one by one the rest of us pursuers arrived at the spot. "What a dog! What a story! Well, Boon?"

"There's no Cup here, Mr Mayor." "What!" said Dodds. "Impossible, why I -" Holmes interrupted him sternly. "Why don't you tell us what is there, Boon? The envelope that the dog has found - grab it, man, and see to the contents." Boon extracted a slim manila package from the dog's jaws, and gingerly took out a card. "A Christmas card for the Mayor, no doubt," Holmes declared. "Read it out, Boon." "I don't know sir, I don't know that I should." "Very well then, I will," Holmes strode up to the stunned policeman, and took the card from him. "It reads: `Here my master concealed the Cup for me to nose out. The Cup is safe, but bent. Pray make sure that my master is safely held as well.' Wise words, for a hound, and I've met one or two. See, where his master would leave us -" the Mayor was sidling away quietly "- do your duty, Boon, arrest the mayor for the theft of the FA Cup!"

Well, Mr Holmes," Jenkins said, when we three were seated once more by the fire in our rooms at the Grand, the sadly damaged trophy at our feet, "you certainly pulled off a coup there. But tell me, please, what the mayor hoped to gain by stealing the Cup?" Holmes sighed, and drew on his pipe. "Publicity, I am afraid," he pronounced. "The oxygen of commerce and the bane of the modern age. Dodds hoped that by arranging for his hound to `track down' the Cup, he would achieve nationwide fame for his brand of dog biscuits."

"The blackguard," Jenkins muttered. "To drag the name of our great club through the mud to further his own interests... but how, Mr Holmes? Was the Cup in the culvert all along?" Holmes grinned around his pipe-stem. "By no means. The Cup did not leave Shillcock's shop until last night. Examining the chamber, I discovered a length of fishing line - salmon line, not trout - weighted at one end, forming an invisible pulley. By this means the Cup was hoisted almost out of sight and hooked on a limb of the spotlight, and the line snapped with a tug - the work of a moment, as Shillcock preceded Dodds out of the room. The glare of the light obscured the Cup behind it, and any reflection of silver: yet I saw it there when I shaded my eyes. You recall how helpful the mayor had been in obtaining the light, and securing the services of the council locksmiths. Last evening, with Shillcock convinced that the cup was gone, Dodds distracted his attention by breaking the next-door window, entered the chamber by way of his council key and retrieved the cup with a bill-hook. Then he carried it off to the culvert - falling once as he went, and damaging the trophy, and all the while laying an aniseed trail for his hound to pick up this morning. It was short work for Watson and myself to follow, lay our message and bring the trophy back here. I hope that you will apologise, incidentally, for my wasting the other gentlemen's time. To tease out Dodds's plot, it was essential to convince him that my suspicions lay elsewhere."

"I will certainly convey your message," Mr Jenkins said, "although I may exclude the perfidious Smethwick. But I am afraid I must tell you that there will be no case against Dodds. Inspector Boon insists that your own conduct in this matter has been most improper, and he will not proceed. I am in a munificent mood, however, and relieved that no Villa man was involved, so I am resolved to allow Boon to pursue his fictitious scamp, and commission a new trophy. It would be convenient, Mr Holmes, if you would accept the damaged goods as a memento - I know I may rely on your discretion. And now, gentlemen, I wish you both, with a thousand thanks, a very merry Christmas."

"Well, Watson," Holmes said, relighting his pipe as the door closed. "This has been a most enjoyable Christmas. If we make haste now to New Street, we may be back at 221B in time for our goose."

"One moment, Holmes," I said. "There is one aspect of the case that I do not follow. If Dodds winched the Cup up with his fishing line to hook it on the light, surely the lid would have fallen off and given the game away?" "Excellent, Watson! That was the purpose of my costume parade. While hanging the gentlemen's coats, I searched them all for pockets that could have accommodated the lid. None had one of sufficient depth or breadth for the task, and I was stymied. Then I noticed Dodds' peculiarly old- fashioned stovepipe and the way was clear. The matter of the lid, my dear Watson -" and here he mimed the placing of first lid, and then hat, on his head "- was a hat-trick. See, you will make a football fan of me yet."

We took our presitigious keepsake back to Baker Street with us, where for many years it supplemented the Persian slipper as a receptacle for tobacco. Many visitors commented on it without recognising it for what it was, and until now, the tale was never told of how Sherlock Holmes won the FA Cup.