It was with a tempest of emotion that Holmes and I wrapped up our latest pair of cases, the most successful of which I might entitle, "The Stone Goose"—that is, if Holmes will let me alone long enough to put pen to paper. As it is, I find myself rather uninspired to venture out into our January-cold rooms and sit at my desk to work. Warm as the fire is, it can’t hold a candle to warmth of Holmes's bed, with his body pressed alongside mine.
But I get ahead of myself.
It all begun the morning of Christmas Eve. In spite of the approaching holiday I was feeling far from jolly; the winter thus far had been cold and miserable, on top of which the previous evening had seen us at the Yard’s holiday gathering—their invitation standing as thanks for our all our help over the year—and I'm afraid I celebrated a bit more heartily than was wise. So it was with quite a head that I finally dragged myself into the land of the living, grumpy and lacking in good will toward any man.
The windows were thick with ice crystals. Holmes's breakfast dishes had already been cleared away, which was just as well; I did not think I could handle Mrs. Hudson's Christmas cheer, or her kippers, after so enthusiastic a party. And so I grunted to Holmes’s back, bypassed the table entirely, and headed for the settee.
There was an unfamiliar hat laying on the side table, and it seemed it might prove an entertaining venture to deduce what it might be doing there. I turned the seat to face the fire before plucking up the hat and settling in with a blanket, feet toward the flames, to test myself. However, after only a few moments I felt the sting of failure. Though I turned it round and round in my hands, each time lit with the hope that the next revolution might bring me more information than the one before, I could find nothing helpful. Spots of wax marred the crown on one side, but that served only to illustrate that the man sat frequently underneath a dripping candle. The red silk lining was of good quality but stained, but that only demonstrated that the man frequently perspired while wearing it and that he often pomaded his hair. Additionally I noted that he wore two sizes larger than I, he had pierced the brim for hat-securer but had subsequently lost it, and the thing hadn’t been brushed in quite some time. It was discoloured in several places, and the unfortunate owner had attempted to cover those stains with ink. He had done a bad job of doing so.
Other than those obvious tells I'm afraid I could not lift any more illuminating facts from the evidence on display. Holmes was sitting barely ten feet away, bent over some project or other, but I refused to ask for his guidance. Instead of admitting to failure, I trained my eyes on the hat but allowed my inner vision to wander.
Holmes seldom wore hats such as this. By that I do not mean, of course, that he never wore dirty hats. I do not mean he never wore ill-fitting clothes, nor wore styles several years out of date. But those were all for disguise, whereas in his everyday life Holmes was fastidious as a cat and twice as lazy. Just the night before he had made us late with his fussing, prodding and pushing until each thread, each rambunctious curl, was tamed and set in place. I’d caught him staring at himself in the mirror with an expression of such ferocious seriousness as he tied his tie that I had wondered if he meant to burn holes in the glass. I swallowed down my laughter and shot my cuffs, and he spun from his furious contemplations to sear me in lieu of the mirror.
I have never been a fragile man. But I must admit, my fortitude was tested.
His eyes had dragged from head to toe and back as if he sought to burn me from the inside out and dared me refuse him. I couldn’t look away. The gaze was heat and light, a consuming fire as he took me in. The moment hung there, endless between us, and the world revolved entirely in the span of a heartbeat.
But then my heart had started again, and rather than shattering in the sudden flare of his gaze, I firmed my spine and reminded him that we should leave.
The look in his eyes, however, had stayed with me throughout the night.
It had been several years since I returned to our rooms at 221 Baker Street, and in that time we two had developed a curious dance between us which had not existed before my marriage. I wondered, then, whether I could interpret anything further from those glances. I knew very well that my craving for intimacy might be colouring my vision in much the same way darkened spectacles shade one's eyes from the glare of the sun. I knew I might be looking at the bright innocence of Holmes's affection, but seeing only something twisted and grotesque. And so I had enjoyed the brandy rather too heavily. This morning, I was paying the price for my contemplations.
Outside, a gust of wind rattled the panes. I tugged our second-warmest blanket higher about my shoulders; the first I had ceded to Holmes, for while my time overseas had rendered me more suited to the heat than the cold, truly my intolerance of winter was not a patch on Holmes's. The spareness of his frame and bird-like nature of his appetite meant he was constantly chilled, and even at that time I would have done anything to make him comfortable.
Especially at that time.
As if brought on by my thoughts on the subject, I shivered and pressed my hand over my shoulder. On such raw days not only did my old wound ache horribly, but I felt certain that it would snow. It was truly a poor method of divining the weather, sending young men into battle to fight older men's wars. To be true, though, I had been a lucky one. I'm sure any number of wasted young men should have loved the chance to predict the weather with twinges and pains rather than being cut down long before they'd a chance to reach another season.
"You are right, Watson," Holmes cut into my thoughts. "It does seem a preposterous way of settling a dispute."
I grunted in agreement. "Most preposterous." And then I suddenly realised that Holmes had done it once again. I rolled my eyes. "Oh, which was it this time."
"You were rubbing your wound," he said.
"It's cold." The ache was reliable, and what's more, he knew it.
"Yes, but that, in combination with the disgruntled expression on your face, suggested to me that you were becoming angry at the cause of the pain—the war, and the way it disrupted so many lives."
I scowled, annoyed as usual by Holmes's intrusion on my privacy. I was afraid that some day he might read something more telling, something more dangerous, and that in uncovering the truth he would ruin our intimate friendship for good. "I’m not exactly feeling up to scratch this morning, Holmes."
"And yet your eyebrows continue their semaphore."
For a moment I considered throwing myself down on the settee and facing away from him in a huff, but then I realised it was the very move he would have made. I thought perhaps it might tip my hand too far to emulate him whilst thinking of him, so instead I turned renewed attention to the battered old felt in my lap with the hope that would signal my dismissal of his parlour games.
Which, of course, it did not. "You first were concerned with inspecting the hat. Firstly you wondered why it was here in our rooms, then went on to studying it as I may have done. You could not form an adequate picture, however, but rather than ask for help you continued to follow your own thoughts. They led you back to me, then to the party last night, then, naturally, to your over-indulgences. The weather intruded on your thoughts at this point, and from there you became concerned about those subjects which I have already detailed for you." I must have been telegraphing something else with my expression, because he drew himself up short. His gaze flickered away from mine. "But enough of that; I am only making you more cross. Come, turn your attention instead to this little problem, which might provide more gratification for our sluggish brains than any little thought exercise that hat might provide."
He indicated the small cardboard box in front of him, of which I admit I had taken little notice whatsoever. I dragged myself from my louche position on the settee and looked over his shoulder, and I was only slightly shocked to find, nestled inside the box on a bed of rough salt, two human ears.
I blinked at them. "Well, Holmes?"
Holmes grinned at me like a cat who had brought its owner the gift of a wilted mouse. "Miss Susan Cushing was celebrating with friends when she opened up a box addressed to “Miss S Cushing”. She found, not a Christmas gift as expected, but these enclosures you see before you."
"That must have been quite a shock."
"Not as much as the shock I expect the previous owners had. That is, before they were killed."
"…Explain." Against my will, I found myself drawn in to Holmes's puzzle—not an unusual occurrence, when it came to him, but it certainly softened my irritation.
"I'd a note earlier from Lestrade, with this alongside it. The details are these: at an early Christmas party yesterday evening, Cushing found herself the unwilling recipient of this pair of unmatched ears. The bumbling incompetents at the Yard assure her it is a hoax, perhaps perpetrated by a lodger she'd had some time back, a medical student with whom she'd quarrelled and who thereafter had left on rather inharmonious terms."
"But you suspect otherwise."
"Obviously. Look at these cuts—they were done with a dull instrument, not the sharp scalpel you'd expect from a medical professional. The address was made with a broad-nibbed pen in very inferior ink, and by a man—it was certainly a man, look at the handwriting—who was uneducated. Or, at least, he was unfamiliar with the city of address. Look at the manner in which he spelled "Croydon". With an 'i"."
"That could easily have been faked, Holmes."
"Ah." He held up a finger to forestall any more of my interruptions. "But there is one chief clue which, when it is pointed out, can not but bring you round to my conclusion."
"And that is?"
"Smell these ears, Watson. Describe to me their scent."
Brimming with reluctance, I nevertheless leaned over and took a gentle sniff over the box. "I smell nothing I would not usually detect from a pair of ears lying in a box of salt."
"What you do not smell is something you would surely expect from a pair of ears separated from their owners by a medical man."
It hit me. "Carbolic."
"Bodies preserved for medical use are injected with some form of preservative fluid. If these were sent as a practical joke by a medical student, surely the preservative he would have chosen would be carbolic or rarefied spirits, something he had to hand. Not rough salt. Furthermore, it would have been far simpler to present a matched pair than an unmatched set. No, Watson, this is no practical joke. It is a serious crime."
Mystery quickened his eyes, and they shone through me almost more than my heart could bear. "What do you plan to do, then?"
"We, surely, Watson."
The cold was forgotten. The intrusion was forgotten. All I could do was smile back. "Yes, Holmes. Whenever you have need of me, I am there."
It was a curious thing: our conversation had come to its natural end, and surely Holmes must have been itching to move forward on his case. But we did not. In spite of his usual impatience, and in spite of my personal resolve to shield myself more firmly against his gaze, we smiled at each other fit to recommend us to Bedlam.
Our communion was broken by an interruption from Mrs. Hudson. She announced Commissionaire Peterson's arrival, with the warning that he seemed in a state of extreme agitation. Holmes hurriedly re-covered the cardboard box and its gruesome contents, and we received him as if nothing strange had occurred.
Peterson's face, when he finally appeared in our sitting room, was so pale I thought at first he had seen a ghost. Then he held up something between forefinger and thumb—something small and blue and glittering—and the realisation of what I was seeing knocked all other thoughts from my head. I had seen the articles in the paper, of course. Everyone had.
"That's—" I boggled. "That's the…"
"The Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle," Holmes announced to the room, and held out his hand. "May I?"
Several days earlier, the Countess had come back to the Hotel Cosmopolitan from her Christmas shopping to find a rude surprise awaiting her; the morocco casket in which she had kept the carbuncle for many years was laid open on the dressing table, empty of its precious egg. The upper-attendant of the hotel was a man by the name of James Ryder, and it was he who provided the chief evidence: John Horner, 26, a plumber, had been called in to do some small soldering job that day and was left alone in the room to do the work. Having been convicted once previously for robbery, Horner had been arrested immediately for the crime, though the papers report he continually protests his innocence in the strongest terms.
Peterson seemed reluctant to hand the gem over, but after a moment he did, and so we all three gathered round Holmes's palm to have a look. The way the carbuncle caught and refracted the light was a wonder. I forced myself to focus on what Holmes was saying, and not on how the miraculous thing was even bluer than Holmes's eyes; I chided myself for even entertaining the thought.
"It is unique in the world of gems and its market price is unknown," Holmes was saying. "However, the reward of a thousand pounds is surely only a fraction of its true value."
"A thousand pounds," Peterson breathed in shock. His knees buckled, and I hurried to help him to a chair. "A thousand pounds. My wife was only going to cook the bird, Holmes. She found it in its crop."
"Bird?" I asked, confused.
"Before you even arose this morning, Watson, I'd already had a visitor. Peterson suspected correctly that I would be in need of some small puzzle to preserve my mind from the stagnation of a dreary midwinter, so when he happened upon this hat and a fine goose, he engaged me on finding its owner."
"How did he—"
"On his way home from the commissionaire's Christmas party last night, Peterson broke up a small altercation—a fracas, I believe he called it—between the owner of those items and a band of roughs. However, when he went to return the old man's dropped items, Peterson found that he had fled. And so, he brought them here."
There was one mystery down, at the very least. "At which point, presumably, you deduced the owner?"
Holmes looked distinctly uncomfortable. He waved the question away. "I deduced many things about him, yes. That he is ageing is certain, as is the fact he anoints his hair with lime-cream. He had been a fairly fortunate man, but in the recent past has experienced some retrogression—likely drink has weakened his state in the world. It is this fact and the state of his hat which lead me to suspect strongly that his wife has ceased to love him."
I blinked at Holmes, blinked at the hat, then looked up at his smug face again. "This must be some sort of joke."
But he bowled right past my doubt. "And he is an intellectual. I suspect this is how he maintains a degree of self-respect in the fact of such ill-fortune."
"And why," I asked, rolling my eyes, "do you deduce that he is an intellectual?"
Holmes grinned at me in that mischievous manner which never failed to send a thrill to my stomach. "It is a simple matter of cubic capacity, Watson. A man with so large a brain must have something in it."