The Old Woman
I was sitting listening to a sermon as it wound its dismal way to a conclusion. The church was by and large empty apart from myself and a few others there was a nary a sound heard apart from the occasional flapping of a pigeon at stained glass window, echoing hack from an elderly parishioner or slight sandy rush as the pages of a hymnal were turned again and again. A young woman was seated near the farthest pew from the alter; I had noticed her during the homily. She wore a black coat. Her chestnut hair fell about her shoulders and her white gloved hands held the back of the seat in front of her to keep her composure.
After the ceremony ended I stood rooted, unsure whether or not to make an entrance. But I mastered my hesitation and strode towards her as she was fastening the ribbons of her hat under her chin, “Hello miss, my name is John Watson. Would it be too much to ask your own?” “Oh,” she said surprised. I noticed her fine goose down of hair on her delicate neck, and I was about to make further inquiries into her situation before she interrupted my gathering thoughts, “Not the Doctor Watson from the publications in the Daily?” Her enthusiasm gave me pause. “Well, I suppose…” “Then you must be the man acquainted with the peculiar Mr. Holmes?” “I didn’t realize that my summaries of events had garnered any interest. It is a small newspaper after all that.” “Indeed, but Mr. Holmes is a rather fascinating character, is he not?” “Suppose.” “I only ask because I have an aunt who has been behaving very strangely, and I would have gone to the police but I doubted that they would have taken an interest. Really if you might make an introduction for me with Mr. Sherlock Holmes perhaps he might shed some light on the situation.” “Indeed,” said I, not with agitation perhaps, but only with some exhaustion. I looked up at the vaulted ceilings of the church and breathed a sigh, “Of course. Shall we share a cab back to Baker Street?” “You are too kind, Doctor. My name is Hannah.”
Holmes sat with a bored expression on his face and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon in his hand. It was nearly empty, but if it produced an effect upon him it was impossible for me to discern from his reflective gaze. Neither did the cigarette held between his fingers give him an air of dishevelment.
Hannah seated herself across from him on the old couch and began after giving a respectful nod to the infamous detective, “Mr. Holmes, I thought you might be able to bring some clarity to my strange tale; it involves my aunt living north of the Thames in an upmarket neighborhood bordering some darker patches of our fair city. Her house, although stately, well furnished, and even attended to by various gardeners and maids is only a short jog away from a variety of public houses and strange pubs that sailors and other squirming lot have reason to frequent at all hours. As such there is no small amount of crime that she must confront on a daily basis. Even so, she has lived in the house for almost two decades and has never been affected by the spilling over flotsam and jetsam of the underworld. Actually, as I already remarked, her own few blocks are quite well to do, where her house sits I mean.”
While I admired her elegant figure seated comfortably in one of our chairs with something more than medical admiration, Holmes took a swig of bourbon straight from his bottle and flicked his gaze between the young woman and the windows like a skeptical hound. But he didn’t interrupt the woman’s story as she unspooled it, nor did he ask for further details by interrupting and that was to his credit as a gentleman; his silence gave me the impression that he was engaged by her tale in an abstract way as she continued, “I always stop in to see her once a month as she has begun to age. Her husband, my uncle, was killed in a boating accident on the Thames six years ago as he was disembarking, smashed between the hulls of a whaler and a merchant vessel, sadly. This was rather a rare occurrence as he was an accountant, and was only aboard the ship to count the inventories. He was quite an unruly personage as the case has it. He would frequent the seedy aspects of their neighborhood often, and was fond of drink and gambling. He met his end in any event. I always felt sorry for my aunt who is a meek soul, but their marriage seemed to stand in any event.”
“It is not your uncle’s death that brings you here today?”
“No sir. It is the way that she has been behaving of late that has caused me alarm. I should most likely have gone to the police if her behavior had continued to deteriorate, although she is nearly seventy years old. But when Mr. Watson approached me at Saint Mary’s I was pleasantly surprised and thought why not make a shorter route to a solution and here I stand before you now.”
“And what is the nature of her strange habits?” asked Holmes.
“A week ago I made my monthly visit to her apartment and found her in a manic state. She was scrubbing and polishing everything in the house, most of which was already clean. I could smell that she was cooking very aggressive dishes in the kitchen, additionally. I went into the kitchen and saw an incredible array of dishes being cooling or sitting under napkin coverings.”
“Yes? She was expecting company?” Holmes set the bottle on the floor and reached for his cigarette case leisurely.
“When I asked her whom she was preparing for she wouldn’t answer me, but became very irritated and prim. She has always conducted herself as a lady and her protestations rarely rise above the level of a pressed lip. But I could see that she was vexed beyond rationality, and it was a frustration that I had never experienced in her presence before. She only let me stay for about an hour before almost forcibly removing me from the house, a demonstration of brusqueness quite apart from my memory of her nature. But in that hour no one came to the door and it was getting on to about supper time. It seemed as though she were cooking for a ghost, or an army of ghosts. And I began to doubt her sanity quite reasonably.”
At this intelligence I became more interested in the problem and less so in the pointed and fragile looking chin of Hannah. I could see that Holmes too was letting this bit of data open the door of his mind just a tad to let some of the light of his genius shine out upon it.
“No one came to the door?” he asked.
“Not in the time that I was seated in the parlor watching her go about like a bird swirling down out of the sky. She kept checking the wall clock; she seemed eager that I should be out of the house before it struck the hour of seven. This is the last thing that I remember about my first encounter with her aberrant new patterns.”
“What happened next?”
“The next evening I returned although it was not my custom to visit her on consecutive evenings.”
“What did you do then?” I chimed in perhaps too innocently.
“Why she was back at her chores once more and even more frantically going through the motions if it can be believed. She was once more on her hands and knees scrubbing away polishing at the wooden end pieces of a chair, or straightening the portraits, and once more the smells of a veritable feast were wafting into my nose making me hungry, I daresay. But now the smells were so overpowering that I felt that there was a milieu of rot about the tableau that greeted me. It was nearly grotesque to watch her have this breakdown amidst the smells of cakes, meats, soups, breads. And I became nauseated by it.”
“Where does your aunt procure the funds to make such lavish dinner purchases on such a regular schedule?”
“She is quite wealthy, Mr. Holmes, and since her husband died she has had little to spend her fortune on. I asked her more probing questions about her behavior this second evening but she rebuffed me completely, and I noticed that she was very upset about the evening hour. As day became dusk I was afraid she may become nearly psychotic. Finally I let her show me out. The next evening I waited out on the street and didn’t interrupt her ritual but I could see her from the street.”
A silence had descended upon Baker Street then, nothing seemed to be moving outside such that I imagined I could hear a breeze rattle the shutters of the window pane on the third floor of our apartment houses. It gave me the chill of the tundra, of the Mongolian steppe as I always imagined it. It was a combination of ozone and dry air that deeply affected my curiosity. Along with the deeply flushed cheeks of Hannah I felt something that I usually kept in check swelling at the corners of my stomach lining. She was an attractive woman indeed.
Hannah’s story continued: “Her shadow was whipping back and forth as she made preparations for company that never arrived. There was never a guest that I could discern, Mr. Holmes, and yet she continued in these hasty and time consuming preparations as if her life depended on them. Do you not find that frantic behavior a bit strange? Of course it could only be the creeping madness of age, but it was so phantasmagoric that I thought you might tackle the issue with a more acute and dispassionate lens.”
Holmes sat looking at the young woman with half-interest now, but with his eyes I could see that he was scanning something in the newspaper at his heels with equal attention, thrown open to the Arts section of the Times of London.
“That is an odd behavior that she is displaying,” remarked Holmes, while eyeing me with perhaps some little suspicion. Of course I was always expected to be on my best behavior and had learned much in the way of chivalry and cordiality during my years of military service and apprenticeship as a physician. One woman in India, in particular, had given me some education in the ways of showing the proper attentions towards a lady. But I confess that Hannah’s, lips like the soft skin from a dewy rose, had me feeling dissonant. Of course Holmes would have surveyed my behavior without much trouble. He was a savvy reader of the human mind to be sure.
“I will look into this matter, Miss Hannah,” he said, “Tonight we shall meet you at your aunt’s house at six, an hour before the mischief should be upon her.”
With that he walked over and showed Hannah the door without much fanfare. And she was through the door and out onto the street. The old apartment lost its charm and seemed a bit dessicated and museum like in her absence but Holmes was smoking fervently now and my head tilted. Holmes rolled his eyes at me and struck a match to another cigarette. He offered me one from the case and I took it.
For the next few hours we lounged around. It was a Saturday afternoon in London and Holmes took up residence on the sofa; he had procured another bottle of bourbon seemingly from the folds of his long jacket. For my part there were some points about the human respiratory system that still had evaded my grasp as a resident and I was nervous about being called to form at surgeon’s meetings, so I sat in the corner and read medicine for the next few hours.
The hours fell away without my noticing them as they did whenever I was able to lose myself in study — always a privilege in my mind.
Holmes remained quiet on the sofa with his bourbon bottle dwindling. Eventually he took a long drink from a glass of water from a tray left by Mrs. Hudson.
We left the flat at five and a quarter. The sounds of horses being whipped, and men being ejected from the work houses and offices began filled the street with the busy noise of their commute.
We met Hannah at six sharp; we rang the bell, and gained entrance to the old woman’s house. It was certainly a tony lodging, with many stories, of rust color, and with a wrought iron fence and gate to keep passerby at their caution. It was just as Hannah had described it, just down the road a few blocks from shadier areas and there were a few dark looking fellows with their hats pulled low going to and fro among the wealthy set.
Her aunt was in a frantic state of cleaning and cooking as described and she barely noticed our company, perhaps because we were in the audience of her niece.
With nothing else to do myself I attempted to engage Hannah in conversation while I allowed Holmes to breathe in the data; but she seemed more taken in by the discourse transpiring between her aunt and the detective. I couldn’t make out the words that were spoken between them, but Holmes came over to me after a few moments and said “I believe that I will be able to help her, but I will require some privacy over the next several hours. Do you think that you could make yourself scarce. Perhaps you could take Hannah for a walk or to a cafe?”
“No walk for me” added Hannah; I have friends who are looking to meet in Portobello Road for some shopping near seven. You’ll have to excuse me, Doctor Watson.”
I won’t say that I wasn’t a bit disappointed at this news from Hannah, but it was merely the disappointment of rejection that I had learned so long ago as a schoolboy having lent so much mental energy towards her only to be declined in a refined and absolute fashion. It gave me succor, but only because I had a warrior’s blood. Thinking back on the highs and lows of a military career had not dampened my appreciation for the deeply emotional punctures of a woman’s disapprobation, it was the sweet sting of a rose thorn gaged in water. One of the many little digs at my bachelor ego. I had weathered many such slings and arrows as our English scribe might have said, a veritable beachhead of negativity during my years as a medical student with the voluptuous nurses caterwauling across the corridors of the hospitals with their voracious appetites, but never directed lustily in my direction. I sighed as I watched her cab turn a corner down the street towards her rendevous with friends.
When the clip clop of her cab had passed from my ear drums I turned and peered through the window of the kitchen at the players, Holmes and the old woman.
I stood there smoking a cigarette, watching as Holmes took a seat at the dining room table.
Before long I saw a young man came down the street, strolling lazily by the house and craning his neck like a bird at the passing phenomenon of London. He stopped and peered in at the table where Holmes was seated, having tucked into the lavish dinner that Hannah’s aunt had prepared for her mysterious guests with a hungry ferocity out of his character. I surmised that he was developing a character for the occasion. Holmes appeared to have finally engaged her in conversation; she was seated at the table with her elbows resting, her shoulders hunched with exhaustion as if in a Catholic confession.
The strange man was very smartly dressed in brown and black suit; he paused and gave a start at the vision of Sherlock and Hannah conversing on whatever topic Holmes had mooted at the dining table. The man stood there for some minutes studying them, before turning coldly and making a vicious scraping sound on the cobbles with his hard dress shoes. He jogged up to the door and rang the bell, jabbing with the end of his cane. He was young. Black hair tapering off with insouciant length.
I saw Homes use a calming hand to keep the aunt in her seat as he rose and excused himself from the table; he went to the door whereupon opening it the young man expressed surprise at Holmes’ presence, as if to teach the idea that he hadn’t been surveying the detective from the street for approximately a quarter hour. The subterfuge made my skin crawl, and I gripped my pistol and became grumpy under the barren limbs of a street tree, feeling the old aggressiveness of the Afghan campaign shutting down the machinery of my civilized persona and bringing back the sense memory and excitement of war.
It’s a funny thing how sometimes you forget the nature and extent of the compartments in your mind so that when suddenly the door is thrust open upon some aspect of your personality not touched upon in months, or even years, you are suddenly thrilled by a side of your nature that your environment has failed to bring out for a time. Not that it was a piece of you that you didn’t or shouldn’t have indulged, only that there was never a time or place for it.
When I was abroad in India and Afghanistan I forgot the London of reality; it existed only in my mind, a figment of my imagination dissipating, lacking the three dimensional texture of reality. It faded as the routines of soldiery and the elements of a foreign land molded me into something new.
But when I stepped off the train and filled my lungs with the London air after nearly six years of foreign terrain my memories of London surged back to the surface of my subconscious and I realized what I had forgotten, home. And I suddenly realized in what sense it had been taken from me over the past several years of service.
Sometimes I experienced this in reverse though when on a case with my exceptional roommate, Sherlock Holmes, the perils of the back alleys and violent tumbles through the night air flared instincts I developed as a doctor at war. It was an interesting way the brain had of molding itself to its immediate environment, suddenly blossoming afresh a fiery wildflower from an old bud. The sense memory of the campaign suffused by the adamant doggedness of the blood borne sleuth whom had made my acquaintance in Baker Street.
I crept towards the window to get a closer look, and when I got fairly close I saw Sherlock rise nonchalantly from the table and walk over, and lift the window a few inches before retaking his seat to let in the London draft. Without attracting too much attention I began to smoke a cigarette carefully next to the window, not drawing too deeply upon the tobacco so as not to produce a milk cloud. From here I could just make out the conversation being held in the kitchen, faintly audible above the hissing of the gas jets.
Holmes, “As I was just telling you we have a second new painting being delivered to the club in several weeks; this one is a canvas by a young Spanish royal whom is begging to gain some reputation;” he was adopting the stodgy and trailing off aloof accent of the upper class, equal parts world weary and disdaining. But there was also a note of interest in Holmes’ voice, as if his new friend held his attention despite the virtuosity of his personality.
“Oh yes?” replied the stranger innocently, “Perhaps I have heard his name?” I saw the villain bring a forkful of fish to his lips and cleanly deliver it unto his gullet.
“I shouldn’t think so, he is only just being discussed by some of the better collectors, although his commissioned works are fetching a good price at auction already. Six thousand for only one of our new paintings.”
“Are you quite certain I wouldn’t have heard of him? There is rarely an old family that does not have some reputation in my memory.”
“I’m certain, although as I mentioned we have just received a duo of his new works and we hadn’t planned on putting them up for sale but a man of your means may recognize an opportunity to make an offer, or perhaps you might only wish to view the canvases. As you expressed you are affiliated with the Swan House of Austria, and I am eager to get your opinion of our new acquisition.”
I didn’t hear Hannah’s aunt speaking up for herself or engaging in the conversation in any way, although during a pause in the conversation I heard him say to her, “Linda, could you be a dear and go upstairs to fetch the gold cigar cutter and perhaps a fresh bottle of red would go well. I feel as though I have eaten my fill. Would you care for a cigar, Mr. Enright?”
The stranger chipped in with aristocratic malaise, “I wouldn’t say no to it.”
When the smell of cigar smoke was wafting outside the window Holmes said, “Let us sally forth to the gallery and I will show you the pair of paintings. I am supposed to meet my man out in front of the house in twenty minutes and then we can ride along together.”
“Oh yes, my slave, if you’ll pardon the expression. Thomas. Not really a slave of course although sometimes he acts the part I daresay.”
The alleged Mr. Enright chuckled, “Ah.”
“Yes just a college friend whom I keep around. He has bad debts and his wife left him. Therefore I like to give him a little income and generally have him see to little tasks.”
“Well I am eager to have a look at the paintings at any rate.”
“Very well,” remarked Holmes.
I heard the place settings being cleared away and stomped out my cigarette on the ground not sure of what would come next, although I checked the chambers of my pistol and took some succor in the sheen of the jackets on my rounds.
The door swung open and I saw the stranger’s shadow next to Holmes drawing up against the pavement like an oil painting. They came down the steps and I was introduced to Mr. Henry Enright, playing my part of the abashed and perhaps somewhat slow hand with the aplomb of total presence of mind. Combat had inculcated this gift in me.
We climbed into a hansom cab and Holmes cleverly positioned the gentleman between us in the middle seat for the ride. Although he was tall he was also thin and I was just a little bit gleeful at the prospect that he should attempt to eject himself from the seat, such that I could reach for the pistol and club him across the face if it came to it; although I am ashamed to admit it.
Something about the way he answered the doorway, a neophyte to Sherlock’s presence, the dark ministrations of Hannah’s aunt over the previous weeks, the seriousness of Holmes’ ruse; it all added up to something seriously ominous, and I didn’t let the man’s smooth temperament fool my senses for a moment. This was a dangerous eel.
We made a turn after a mile towards Central London; I had some inclination of what direction we were heading in, but Holmes had gone cold on his side of the hansom, and I couldn’t make out the glass of his eyes, so dark had his brow consumed the light from his brow.
Our fellow traveler seemed a bit uneasy suddenly, a bit of perspiration peeked out from his scalp. Perhaps he too had the same suspicion that I myself was beginning to entertain.
But no one said a word.
Perhaps Mr. Enright realized as he sat between us, and as Holmes seemed to grow into a darker stature on his side of the cab, and as he sensed my own muscular and heavy frame against his, and even discerned my hooked claw-grip on the pistol in my pocket, that his game was running to closure.
He didn’t make a sound when we crossed through the gated entrance into Scotland Yard, although there may have been something of irony in the turn of his lips and the empty expression that suddenly flashed across his face.
His neck went a bit slack, and suddenly he had the appearance of a bird of prey, like an old vulture suddenly casting about for a fresh kill in an exotic environment.
It was full night in the Yard. Stars overhead.
I saw Lestrade swinging his keys next to an empty doorway looking bored but athletic; there was a man standing next to him, quite young and quite ugly and quite gigantic. Looked like Lestrade had impressed the cream of a London gang to my eyes. Well, the police could always use another ghoul on the payroll. The giant was bald and had scars on his face, and a very eager and mean expression on his face.
When we pulled the cab up Holmes kicked open the door and yelled “Lestrade, a word!”
Lestrade shoved his back off the wall lazily and approached the cab. When he reached the doorway he squinted up into the dark at the stranger’s face, “Don’t I know you from somewhere, lad?”
Mr. Enright turned with an unconscious piece of theater and remarked: “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Sure we know each other,” grinned up the eager yellow teeth of the constable. “You’re Sir Byron of the Devonshire family. Got in a bit of trouble with the working girls. Yes? I’ve had you on my mind at odd hours my love, be sure of that. Can’t believe Mr. Holmes has dropped you in my lap for a song, aye?”
With this insubordination the gentleman rose and place his hands forward, “Yes, you have me,” he said.
Lestrade chuckled and struck a match to a pipe, “Well as it could be he said,” and whistled at the ogre by the doorway who came over and place manacles on the outstretched hands of the stranger with the finality of a stupid grin. He led the stranger across the stone of the prison courtyard and through the abstract white light of the high doorway.
Holmes said little more but only redirected the cabman, “Take us back,” he admonished the driver who whipped at the black horse and hurried us at a gate out of the square and back into the traffic of the city.
“Well then?” I asked.
“Mr. Enright had enlisted Hannah’s aunt to draw in any gentleman who she had the reason and ability to do so. He preyed on her. Unfortunately the prospect of leading strangers into quarry and perhaps robbery and death seems to have set her nerves on end. I’m afraid she has gone quite mad over the past several weeks. Fear of Mr. Enright and of the prospect of murder, of course. The young nobleman fed upon her aged mind. Bedlam or a quick recovery I’m afraid for your prospective paramour’s loved one.”
“That’s a bit succinct,” I suggested.
Holmes remained quiet but only reached into his pocket and revealed a flask that he drew from and then handed over to me for sampling. A strong draft of vodka filled my nostrils and I filled my breath with it. My limbs, poised for combat, were suddenly released in a catharsis like bird flight from the eventuality of certain violent action. I knew this thrill. Surgery was the only placeholder for it. And alcohol one of the only palliatives. I took two strong drafts and a deep breath and calmed down thinking about Hannah and letting the image of her rich hair fade from my immediate memory. My hormones checked and the lukewarm moisture of London filled my consciousness as we traveled along the streets and passed the lights and commerce.
We finally reached the house once more and disembarked. I saw Hannah in the second story window fixing her hair and it filled me once more with hesitation and doubled longing. Holmes, of course, sensed my flight reflex and cocked an eyebrow. “Will you be entertaining Hannah this evening?” “I hadn’t made any definitive plans as all that; but why do you ask?” Sherlock breathed in a breath without judgment and said, “You should know that the only reason I decided to take this case is because I read in the Times that Sarasarte would play in the neighborhood only a fifteen minute walk from here at eight thirty. I intend to finish this flask, stop at a pub for a pint and a series of shots and then attend the concert. You are invited to join me, of course, unless you have made another arrangement in your mind.”
I stood rooted in place then like a dove who has heard a shotgun blast. I looked up at Hannah in the window, just returned from her errand in Portobello Road and I fancied, or felt, that I could feel the goose down hair on her neck. But this was Sarasate after all, and Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the most able detective in London. And then there was the prospect of a christening drink at a pub on the way. The exhaustion of medical school and residency suddenly filled my limbs and the understanding that I was still a debtor of my education. My teeth were set on edge at the crossroads. Holmes stood coldly in the evening air, waiting, I suppose, for me to assert the intricacies of my own mind. I looked at Hannah in the window and two words flashed across my mind in pure electric letters against a blank canvas, “Not yet.”
“Sarasate and the pub,” I said out loud into the evening air.
“Excellent,” said Sherlock.
And we made our way off into the evening with our spirits clenched for sensation, music, and death.