It never fails that when Holmes is engaged in one case that is quite drawn out, another arrives before the first is completely finished. Such was the circumstance when a letter arrived from a Mrs. White requesting an audience at our earliest convenience. Normally, Holmes would have dismissed the request in favor of the original case, but upon examination the letter proved most intriguing. The name was clearly an alias and delivered by a local lad who was told to wait upon our answer and return it to the lady without disclosing her location. He was paid handsomely for the task, but his long acquaintance with Holmes was enough for him to set aside his moral obligation to do as promised and to inform us that the lady in question was installed at the booksellers not two doors down from our rooms.
For a moment, Holmes looked torn, his eyes flittering between the mysterious letter in hand and the black leather case that contained the details of our current case. However, I knew the instant that he pushed the leather across the table that we would be changing course. Our current case was a matter of some importance but little urgency and Holmes had all but solved it. A telegraph or two to Devonshire and the matter would be taken care of. The lure of a new mystery was too much to resist when the last had proven little challenge to his intellect.
The lad was sent off with a missive requesting the lady come immediately. During the wait, Holmes quickly scribbled off the first of the telegraphs and sent Mrs. Hudson off to see it delivered so it was I that opened the door to our secretive guest.
The lady was, pardon my bluntness, very unremarkable. In her appearance, she was utterly without note. Her dress was a common brown, as were her hair and eyes. The fabric of her arraignments was not poor nor of great quality. Her hat was not new nor was it old. I fear that had she left our door in that instant the great city of London would have swallowed her entirely for not even a pickpocket would have given her a second look. It was perhaps this very trait that made Holmes sit forward and eye her with the intense scrutiny I normally saw reserved for his experiments.
For her part, she bore his attention without complaint and in fact gave it little notice. She spoke not a word as she took a seat across from Holmes, lowering herself somewhat stiffly onto the divan. Holmes raised an eyebrow at this and regarded her coldly.
“What, pray tell, brings you to my door, madam?” He asked hurriedly, his hand motioning for her to be quick in her answer.
The woman looked us both over carefully before setting her handbag next to her and slowly removed her gloves, clearly not at all intimidated by my companion’s behavior. “I require the guarantee of your discretion, and that of Dr. Watson.” Her voice was unwavering with a confidence I was unused to hearing from a woman of her age and apparent social standing.
“Of course.” Holmes’ mouth twitched. “Now, pray get on with your tale of woe.”
“It not so much my tale, Mr. Holmes, as my brother’s.” The woman closed her eyes briefly and let out a long sigh. “Today is the first day I have gone without the arraignments of mourning since his death three weeks past.”
“You cared little for him than, to abandon the trappings of mourning so quickly?” Holmes asked.
She shook her head. “Not in the least. But a woman in deep mourning is quite noticeable on the street and I wished to be as unnoticeable as possible.”
“I had gathered as much. Such an unremarkable appearance could not be on accident.”
She smiled softly. “Yes, I assumed my attempts at deception would be pointless with you, Mr. Holmes, but I had hoped they would cause you enough curiosity that you would grant me an audience. The boy was indeed known to you?”
“Of course, but anyone that has followed Watson’s ramblings can tell you that I keep the street children well paid for their troubles.” Holmes looked her over again carefully head to foot. “You are married, with at least one child - not an infant surely but neither is she grown. You are not wealthy by far but you are modestly comfortable. Your lack of finery is due more to a careful nature than any real financial austerity.”
“My daughter is ten next month.” She replied easily. “I see you noticed the crewel work on my handbag and recognized it as a child’s sampler put to some use. My age alone would be enough to tell you she could not be grown. But have you divined my purpose?”
“How can I when you have yet to inform me of any of the details? I need data, madam, data if I am to be of assistance!”
“Then data you shall have,” the woman paused and eyed my pencil and paper with clear distain, “if you can promise me that what I am about to tell you never sees the papers or is uttered to another living soul. There are lives at stake, Mr. Holmes, lives that you would destroy were this made public.”
“Go on.” Holmes nodded and I reluctantly put away my paper.
The woman looked down and away and for the first time I saw some hint of nervousness in her expression. “My brother passed three weeks ago,”
“As you have said.” Holmes interrupted “please get to the point.”
“My brother,” she insisted, her expression hardening, “passed three weeks ago in Africa. He worked for a shipping company as a minor clerk and had been sent there on business. He was only to be gone a little over two months, to deliver some paperwork and to come back again with the reply, but when he did not return as scheduled I knew some evil had befallen him. We had received a telegraph saying he’d arrived safely in Africa but not a word since. We hadn’t expected anything more but as time drew on we became increasingly concerned. My husband eventually called on the offices of the shipping company to inquire and they informed us that illness had struck the ship my brother was to return on. They were only three days out when the first crewman became ill. They made port at the first opportunity and the ship was placed under quarantine. They promised to keep us apprized of any news. The next day they sent a man to tell me my brother, along with a large number of the crew, was dead from yellow fever.”
“I am so sorry.” I said softly. “Such a terrible and unexpected loss.”
The woman nodded and blinked slowly, valiantly holding back her tears. “Yes, it was unexpected. But the worse is not yet told, Dr. Watson. My brother had on his person a collection of letters that had been written over the years between he and his lover. I believe he took them on the voyage to read over in his lover’s absence, to make the time pass more quickly. I would not be concerned had his body been returned and I could have retrieved the letters, but the ship, and all those who perished, were burned to stop the spread of contamination. I thought these letters destroyed with him, but yesterday a man came to the house and said he had the letters and if we did not pay him 500 pounds he would turn them over to the authorities.”
“Why would the authorities care for love letters? Adultery is hardly a crime they care to investigate these days.” Holmes shifted in his chair, his fingers going to the bridge of his nose.
“Because my brother’s lover was a man.”
Holmes sat straight in his chair and I could not help but stare at her in shock. “Surely you jest?” I managed to say after I had recovered.
“No.” The woman’s expression hardened once again. “So you see my concern, Mr. Holmes.”
“You wish to protect your brother’s reputation?”
“Not in the least. Reputation is of no concern to a dead man.” She huffed loudly. “No, Mr. Holmes, I wish to protect his lover.”
“So you agreed with his particular peculiarity?”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Agreed? It is not my business to agree or to disagree with another man’s emotions. I loved my brother sir, and he loved a man. I do not believe it should be the providence of the law what two consenting adults choose to do with their time or their affections so long as none are harmed by them. And none have been.”
“You care for this other man, your brother’s lover?”
“As if he too were my blood.” The woman stood up swiftly from the divan and paced to the far side of the room, her back turned to us. “I owe him my life, Mr. Holmes, and that of my daughter - a debt that cannot be easily repaid. He saved us out of his love for Richard and I accepted him, grew to love him as a brother and a friend. Had we the money to spare I would pay it, and more, to save his reputation. But I cannot raise such an amount and I fear this blackguard will not wait long to attempt to collect his fee. I came to you as quickly as I could.”
“But what does your husband say of this?” I asked, “He cannot approve of your brother’s behavior?”
The woman turned around to face me, her eyes locked on mine. “My husband is the man we speak of, doctor.”
“Interesting!” Holmes pronounced, standing up quickly and walking a circle around her. “You were with child out of wedlock, I take it, and your brother’s lover married you to save your reputation and give your child a name. You now feel some obligation to return this favor?”
The woman raised her chin, clearly defying the shame such a statement would normally illicit, her countenance that of unwavering determination of spirit. She did not remove her gaze from mine as she replied with a hard voice. “I was fifteen when our father’s close friend accosted me. My daughter was the result, yet no one would believe the nature of the circumstances, no one except Richard. As I am sure you both are well aware, such happenings are not uncommon but are never openly acknowledged, and generally blame is placed on the poor wretch that finds herself the victim rather than on the villain that has caused her unwilling disgrace. I knew at the time that Richard was particularly close to a gentleman friend that he’d gone to school with. When Richard brought Edwin to the house and the offer was made I did not hesitate to accept. By marring Edwin my child would not suffer the indignity of being publicly labeled a bastard, I could escape my family’s constant disapproval as well as the continued unwanted attentions of my father’s friend, and Richard and Edwin could live together under the same roof without the slightest hint of impropriety.”
“Hence why you do not employ any cleaning staff, seeing to the household entirely on your own. See, Watson, how she moves stiffly? You typically see such difficulty in maids that spend large amounts of time scrubbing on their knees, and her hands, see how they are chapped from time spent in water? She is clearly not so poor as to be unable to employ at least one household servant so the matter must be by choice.”
The woman finally took her gaze from mine to nod at Holmes as she turned and regained her seat. “Richard and Edwin roomed together and I kept a separate bedroom on the opposite side of the house with my daughter. We never wanted to take the chance of their discovery should we employ servants. The house is relatively small and I prefer to keep busy.”
Holmes frowned. “You take a great chance, exposing your brother and husband’s secret to two strangers.”
The woman gave another long sigh. “At this point, Mr. Holmes, it is a calculated risk. Either you help us and we retrieve my brother’s papers before this blackmailer can make them public and my husband is taken to court as a sodomite, or you yourself turn him in. If we do nothing, he faces prison or worse. You take this information to the police, he faces the same. The only hope we have to avoid that ghastly outcome is if you agree to help us.”
“But why have you come?” I asked softly, still in shock over her confession and the bluntness of her manor. “Why not your husband?”
“He does not know I am here.” Mrs. ‘White’ blinked rapidly, a small tear forming at the corner of her eye. “When news of Richard came, Edwin was inconsolable. His health is not what it once was, Doctor, and I’m afraid the shock of being blackmailed might well spell his end. I was the one to speak to the blackmailer. I alone know of his threat. Edwin’s doctor recommended he be sent to the country to recover and I did so last week. His sister married well and her husband has a small house in Yorkshire. Edwin is there, thank God. The blackmailer seemed ignorant of this. At worst perhaps I can get Edwin on a ship to America, if all else fails. Although I fear his lungs would not be aided by the damp air at sea and thus make the voyage a dangerous one.”
“Ill advised I would say.”
“Watson, the man would likely prefer a long sea voyage over a trip before the magistrate, even if one spells certain death and the other only lengthy confinement at hard labor.” Holmes frowned. “You have yet to even tell us your real name.”
“Elizabeth St. Stephen. My brother was Richard Taylor.”
“And the shipping company?”
“Hart and Strom. They have offices in London.”
“Yes,” Holmes sprung from his seat to retrieve his missive on shipping companies from the bookcase. “Primarily a textile importer with some small investments in opium and a few other morally questionable items of some dubious legality- although that is not generally public knowledge.”
“Richard confessed that the company was not entirely legal in all their shipments.” Mrs. St. Stephen admitted. “Had Edwin not gone to their offices to complain I doubt they would have even bothered to inform us of Richard’s death.”
“That is likely the case. Shady characters seldom concern themselves with social niceties.”
“Will you take my case, Mr. Holmes?”
Holmes smirked. “Of course.”
“And your fee?”
Holmes’ expression turned quite serious. “Mrs. St. Stephen, there is no fee I could charge you that would not cause you more distress. With your husband ill and your brother’s income now lost, you will no doubt find yourself glad for your natural frugality. I will not compound your situation by amounting debt on your household, debt accumulated due to the vulgarities of this blackmailer. It is he that will pay our fee, dear lady.”
This time tears did make a brief appearance in the corner of her eye. “Thank you, Mr. Holmes.” She turned to me and took my hand, her moist eyes holding mine firmly. “And thank you, Dr. Watson.” She turned to her handbag and withdrew a calling card with her address and handed it to Holmes before retrieving her gloves and making her way in haste out of our sitting room and away.
I sat in my chair at loss for words for some moments after her departure. Holmes, for his part, did not seem at all fazed by her tale and was instead moving rapidly about the room scattering papers in his wake.
“Watson!” he flung several sheets of paper in my general direction. “I say, man, you act as though she’s dealt you a blow to the head. Gather yourself, old fellow, and help me find the paper from three weeks ago. I remember reading an announcement of her brother’s ship.”
I stood up, somewhat unsteadily, and began to hunt for the missing paper in the massive stacks of material that lay haphazardly placed around the sitting room. After several minutes of fruitless searching I could not contain myself any longer.
“Holmes, you act as though you are not in the least concerned with her confession!”
Holmes tilted his head to regard me with open curiosity, sitting down a folder of news clippings on the edge of the desk. “Why should I be? This is not the first case we have worked together where some impropriety has been committed and now there is concern for reputation or liberty. Why should the nature of this case be so distressing to you?”
“Why is it not to you?”
“I happen to believe that Mrs. St. Stephen is correct. It is not for the law to decide the morality of men when their infraction in no way harms society. If indeed their actions are a mortal sin then it is their souls that will pay the price.”
“If?” I sat down heavily on the divan. “If it is a sin?”
Holmes turned back to the desk and started rummaging again for the missing paper. “Yes, Watson, ‘if’. I am not so arrogant as to propose to know the mind of God. Men have, throughout history, made many claims as to His laws and His wishes, and in nearly every case it is man’s laws and man’s wishes that they impose. God, Watson, is a remote thing, if he exists at all. I prefer the logic I can see before me. And of all the crimes that plague London, sodomy is of the least concern to me except as means for blackmail or extortion. It does not steal food from the mouths of hungry children, it does not bring death early to the unsuspecting. It does not fling mother’s hungry into the gutter and it does not rob men of their good sense in any greater measure than attraction to the fairer sex. It is a victimless crime, Watson, and one I suspect will someday be stricken from the code.”
“At least it is no longer a capital offense. Perhaps if it were treated as an illness there would be less opportunity for such blackmail.”
“Illness?” Holmes kept his back turned but I could hear the disapproval in his voice. “While I would often call love an affliction I would not think it so different from the affection held between a man and a woman.”
“But it is unnatural!”
“Really?” Holmes started to shift another stack of papers. “Perhaps it is nature’s way of curtailing population growth. Since sodomy is generally considered to be a crime of urban nature, it would be conceivable that the large numbers of living souls pressed so closely together would trigger an environmental response limiting procreative efforts. You see it in animals, Watson. There is always some biological safeguard in place to keep numbers in check with resources. Perhaps this is humanity’s answer.”
I did not have a response to that, so I remained silent and when Holmes proclaimed victory, having found the missing paper tucked under a cold pot of tea on the sideboard, I simply nodded.
“As I thought. The ship was burned at sea and a list of crew, both dead and surviving, was published. If these letters were found and are now in England, it would stand to reason they are in the hands of one of the survivors.” Holmes smiled broadly and collapsed into his chair. “There now, Watson, we will make quick work of this.” While his words were jovial, I detected a hint of some hidden emotion beneath them.
“I doubt the blackmailer will pay our fee, as you suggested to the lady.” I frowned, knowing better than to press him for his underlying thoughts, instead choosing to focus on the more immediate concern that another case without payment would bring. “I realize, Holmes, that your bank account is not depleted as yet from that matter with the viscount, but if you continue to take cases without payment it soon will be.”
“And another equally imprudent royal will do something scandal worthy and I shall be paid just as handsomely. For every case we work for free there are five that will pay.” Holmes waved dismissively. “It is the thrill of the chase that matters, Watson.”
“I fail to see much thrill to this matter.” I pointed at the newspaper where it rested on his knee. “You have a full list of suspects there.”
“A list of false names.” Holmes leaned back, his eyes dancing. “That ship was not what it seemed. The lady was correct and the company in question is well known to the criminal underworld. I dare say her brother was likely not as wholesome as she would have us believe, his perversion aside. He must have known the company he kept. It is likely that none of the names of the living are true and a good number of the dead may also be alias.”
“The poor families.” I shook my head in grief. “To not know of your son’s death would be quite hard.”
“hmm.” Holmes made a small sound of dismissal. “That does leave us with the question of who exactly these three surviving men are. Out of a crew of twenty and a list of five passengers, only three returned alive.” Holmes bounded out of his chair, still clearly keeping some revelation private. “Do not wait up, Watson. I shall make a few inquires and it is unlikely I will return until morning.”
“Shall I accompany you?” I stood up to retrieve my coat and revolver but Holmes waved for me to retake my seat. I sighed at being once again kept in the dark as to his true action but never the less did as he bade me.
“Not this time, my friend. I’m afraid that where I am going you would be quite conspicuous.” He offered, his voice hinting at an honest remorse and I offered a weak smile in return.
Holmes moved off into his rooms to change for his outing. I was expecting to see him return dressed for the dockyard or in his customary disguise as a beggar - or even for him to slip from his window as he was want to do. To my great shock, however, he emerged in his best evening dress, freshly shaved, and with his top hat brushed clean.
“Holmes, where the devil do you plan to go dressed like that?”
“Out.” He went to his desk and retrieved a good amount of coins. “I do not believe it would do your night’s rest well to know the details. I shan’t be in any danger, I assure you. This case does require a certain amount of discretion, Watson, and I must be careful where and how I make my inquires.” Holmes retrieved a pair of crisp white gloves from a drawer. “Of all the disguises I posses, I always find this one the most uncomfortable.” He complained as he pulled them on.
“I must admit I am somewhat surprised to see you so turned out.” I eyed his figure, clothed head to toe in what must have been the most expensive suit I had ever seen him appear in. “I was unaware you even owned such clothing.”
“It does occasionally make a rare appearance, when there is a necessity.” Holmes sighed. “I would much prefer to be spending the evening scurrying about the docks as I suppose you had thought I would be. But the trouble with this case is that the easy answer is unlikely to be the correct one. If one of the regular crew had known of Mr. St. Stephen’s deviation they would have made trouble for him in life and not waited for death to extort him. No, Watson, there is something else here afoot. Something more sinister than simple blackmail. After some consideration on the matter, I have come to suspect that the culprit was another passenger at best or perhaps even a stowaway.”
And with that Holmes was off, his voice calling for a handsome loudly from the street before I could raise my own to question him.