[Narration by Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Esquire]
John stared at me in confusion.
“Pardon?” he managed at last, clearly thinking that he had misheard me. I was not the least bit surprised.
“We are going to Ulverston, Lancashire, on the edge of the Lakes. Because Mother has asked me to find some woman's missing pet.”
That I would be travelling some three hundred miles from London at a time when I was having to combat the vile Professor Moriarty may seem strange if not downright bizarre, let alone the cause of that journey, but there was it turned out a perfectly good reason. And not just that the professor had been shot at by a rival against whom he had to momentarily turn his attentions, but because of what I had just told John and which I knew he was going to find utterly incredible.
“You are trying to tell me”, he said at last, “that in this Nation of ours there are a number of ladies who read your mother's stories – and actually like them?”
He sounded like I was trying to convince him that the moon really was made of green cheese. There were of course some of Mother's stranger friends (and it was really wrong of John and Father to persist in calling them 'the Coven' even if they did favour black clothes) who also did something that they called writing, but I had assumed this was just one of those things. That there were a number of people elsewhere in this Nation who read that sort of thing and.... liked it? And worse, actually admitted that they liked it? I myself had disbelieved it at first and only when the offices of the efficient Miss Bradbury (who had hardly believed it herself for that matter, which was impressive when considering what she came across on a daily basis) confirmed it, had I yielded to the unimaginable.
“Mother has a number of people out there who communicate with her through both the telegraphic system and the general post”, I said, “and they find her stories most enjoyable. I recall you yourself commented on the one about the Viking warriors who found a rather unusual way to keep warm on a long voyage to Greenland?”
“That was mean of you, making me read that!” he grumbled. “I can never look at a history book from those times without thinking... those long oars!!”
“Since for some reason publishers like your own Mr. Brett and Mr. Burke seem disinclined to release her works on the Nation, she shares them with her admirers using the postal service”, I said. “And one of the ladies who is so inclined, a Mrs. Jefferson of Ulverston in the county of Lancashire, sent her a message yesterday bemoaning the fact that on top of everything else she has just lost her pet.”
“How did she lose it exactly?” he asked.
“I have no real details as yet”, I admitted. “However Mother has asked that we ride to this lady's assistance, and given her recent actions concerning a certain person recently released from hospital, I felt that we had to oblige.”
As I had known it would the reference to the recovering Bacchus had him smiling happily at the memory. We both definitely owed Mother a favour for that, even if I had managed to replace her broken walking-stick with an even better (and even deadlier!) one. Doubly reinforced this time.
“It is really neither one thing or the other.”
I could see what John meant as we traversed the streets of the town of Ulverston. For those unacquainted with the map of England, you should be. The county of Westmorland has a short coastline along the fringes of the wide expanses of Morecambe Bay, but enough to interpose between the main part of Lancashire with its great cities of Liverpool and Manchester to the south, and the Furness district where we now were centred around the ship-building town of Barrow-in-Furness. It was the Furness Railway on which we had completed our journey, a smart and rather unusual copper-coloured engine and train having just deposited us in this small town. It was as John said neither part of industrial Furness nor the beautiful Lakes to the north.
A beautiful area, I thought, but not as beautiful as the man beside me. Although he would have been mortified if I had used that word about him. But then he was even more beautiful when he blushed, the freckles that he so hated standing out like stars in the sky.
Mrs. Margaret Jefferson lived in Argyll Street in the southern part of the town, and on meeting her I did not need to be a detective of any ability to work out that my dear mother may have 'forgotten' to mention one small but arguably important fact about her. A well-kempt woman in her forties she was very heavily pregnant - and had just secured for herself the services of one of London's best doctors. Hmm.
“I can't believe you gentlemen came all this way from London!” she exclaimed. “Lady Holmes said you would when she sent her last story, the one about the tentacled sea-monster, but this is wonderful.”
Ah yes, the many-tentacled sea-monster which was able to 'pleasure' a whole life-boat crew at one and the same time. The 'highlight' of Mother's last Reading, to which the coward next to me had refused point blank to attend, although he had consented to a long session of manly embracing when I had come home still shaking.
“We are delighted to be able to be of assistance”, I said, wondering if there was something wrong with her eyes the way in which she was looking at me. Although John's subtle shuffling of his feet and a barely-suppressed annoyed cough suggested the reason for that. “My mother did not unfortunately provide me with any details of the case, so how may we help?”
I always noted the smile on John's face every time I said 'we' or 'us' at times like these. I could not have done my job without his steadying presence but I know he felt that he often contributed very little, and always looked so happy when I praised him for his work. Mrs. Jefferson looked between us curiously for some reason.
“Until last year we used to keep King Athelstan across the road.”
I stared at her. Had I unknowingly slipped into some parallel universe where that sort of statement actually made sense?
A scrawny young boy had emerged from the dark rear of the cottage where, presumably, the beds were. He looked around five years of age, a tad undernourished but in reasonable condition.
“She gets like this after she's read one of them stories”, the boy said with a put-upon expression on his face. “I'm George Jefferson. And King Athelstan was our pet pig; the land across the street used to be open but they built the cottages there last year.”
“That's right”, Mrs. Jefferson said. “And I do not get 'like this', George. You mind your manners!”
“Please!” the boy scoffed. “I had nightmares for a week after that one about the creepy black slime that ate people from the feet up while they slept. And every time you get another story in the post poor Father hares off down to the pub like his life depends on it!”
She scowled at him but, perhaps fortuitously, was distracted by a sudden movement from young George's soon to be sibling (presumably the stories were disturbing them even before their advent into the world, which would not have surprised me in the least). John immediately moved to make sure she was all right, and once she was settled she continued.
“Mr. Black who owns Leven Farm, he offered us a deal”, she said. “He was strapped for cash at the time so he couldn't buy King Athelstan, but he would keep him on his farm and buy him from us come Christmas. That was generous of him considering we had nowhere else to put him.”
“And the pig was taken from the farm?” I asked. She nodded.
“Last week they swiped him along with two others”, she said. “Bold as brass; the place is pretty cut off but they got them away somewhere all right. Probably on someone's dinner plate already. And with a new mouth to feed we need they money we would have got for him.”
I thought for a moment.
“This Mr. Black”, I said at last. “What can you tell me about him?”
“My husband knows him better than I do”, she said. “He works down in Barrow Docks where Mr. Black's brother is a foreman, I think. He'll be back this evening, though.”
“I see”, I said. “I saw a decent-looking old coaching-inn in own earlier, 'The Sun', so the doctor and I will base ourselves there. Should you need us you will be able to send George here to fetch us. We will talk to your husband this evening and then take things from there.”
“Do you think King Athelstan could still be got back?” she said hopefully.
“I do not know”, I admitted. “As you said, a thief would most likely get rid of the evidence via the breakfast table, a most effective way of covering their tracks. But if I cannot get your pig back I do promise I will endeavour to track down the thieves who stole him and make them pay you his worth at the very least.”