“Well, Watson,” said Sherlock Holmes, “for once I am positively relieved to return to the comforts of Baker Street.”
“I could hardly agree more,” I said with feeling, for I was quite as exhausted as I have been in my life. To those who have not experienced it, there is little I can say to convey the fear and desperation of a night-time carriage ride at full speed on narrow country lanes. I had exchanged my rain-soaked coat for dry and comfortable clothing before we boarded the train in Southampton, but even collapsed on the sofa in our warm sitting-room I could still feel the chill in my bones.
Holmes let out a short laugh. “I am no great coachman, but even I can say with confidence that the dog-cart is not designed for such speeds as we reached last night. Well, never mind; the evidence was secured, Colonel Jameson was brought into custody, and I have every confidence that the police will make their case against him, thanks in great part to his own wife. I tell you, Watson, if half my clients exhibited such decisive curiosity as Marjorie Jameson, my job would be vastly simpler, and you would have far less to occupy your pen.”
“You have made good use of wifely intuition before,” I said, “and never more than in this case.”
“I think we may call it something more than that. Say that it is feminine intuition coupled with an almost masculine resolve. It is one thing for a woman to see her husband in a particular place at a particular time and realise with a pang of anxiety that he has no business being there; it is quite another thing for her to notice the cut of his riding-jacket and conclude that he has committed murder. In the first case she merely becomes jealous and resentful. She does not become afraid, Watson; she does not return home, pick the lock of his study door, and rifle his desk until she has found sufficient evidence to convict him of fraud. She certainly does not write an anonymous letter to a consulting detective to request his immediate assistance in proving her husband’s guilt.”
As he spoke, my eye fell on the letter itself. It still sat on the breakfast-table where we had left it in our haste to meet Holmes’ client. Since then, my attention had been entirely captured by the dramatic events of the case, but now I had the leisure to consider less urgent matters. “Holmes, you presented the facts of Jameson’s crimes quite clearly, but I am still in the dark on one point.”
He settled back in his chair with a sigh. “And what is that?”
“As you say, Mrs. Jameson wrote anonymously. She told us afterward that she was of two minds about consulting you at all, and only her conviction that she had no-one else to turn to persuaded her to write; but her natural reluctance led her to conceal not only her name but the nature of her problem. Yet the moment we met her, you not only addressed her by name but asked her what her husband had done.”
It had been quite in keeping with Holmes’ love of the dramatic, and Mrs. Jameson’s shock had been considerable. The gesture had done more than anything else we might have attempted to convince her of his abilities and win her trust. Now Holmes let out a low chuckle. “That surprised you as well?”
“I cannot begin to imagine how you knew the first thing about her.”
“No, indeed? But you read the letter, just as I did.”
I reached for it again, wondering if I had managed to miss some apparent clue on my first reading, but I could see nothing to suggest the writer’s identity or purpose. “It begs you most urgently to come to her assistance and gives the time and date of the meeting. She specifies a country road outside a village near Southampton. There is no signature at all.”
“But what can you tell me about the sender? Exercise your creative talents, Watson, and imagine you have never met Marjorie Jameson. What can you deduce?”
I glanced back over the letter. “This was written by a woman of good education.”
“That much is apparent from the handwriting alone. Nothing else? Ah, Watson, your assistance has proved invaluable on this case as on countless others, but I think it is just as well that I did not send you alone. You are quite right that the writer is a woman of good education, but you have failed to note that she is at the very least fifty years of age, that there is a good chance she is either a notable bicyclist or horsewoman—though I knew from the first that the bicycle was less likely—and that she is not at all certain whether she can trust me.”
“My dear Holmes!” These conclusions had been borne out on our first meeting with Marjorie Jameson, but I could not quite believe he had arrived at them all from the letter alone.
“Surely at least a few points are obvious? Well, then. You noted the quality and feminine character of the author’s penmanship. I noted rather more than that. Handwriting is a fertile subject of study, Watson, for not only does each hand say a great deal about the personality of the individual, but styles taught in schools and encouraged by governesses vary considerably with the fashion of the decade, even of the year. I was once able to identify a murderer whose attempts to disguise his writing could not cure him of the habit of curling his upper-case E’s in the manner taught at a particular boys’ school in the ‘70’s. This case was less instructive, but nevertheless I could make conclusions as to her age, as well as to certain aspects of her guardians’ attitudes toward education that were unlikely to pertain to the matter at hand.”
“And the bicycle?”
“No, as I said, the horses were far more probable. In either case, a woman of good breeding and education and reasonable means—I hope you did at least note the quality of the paper—may exercise considerable control over some aspects of her life, but in some respects she lacks the advantages of the professional woman of lesser means. This prospective client was not the sort of woman who could simply arrange to meet us outside a village in complete secrecy unless she had a hobby that might plausibly take her out of the house alone, and ideally one that might explain her presence on a country road. Either bicycling or riding would achieve this, but given her age and background I could say with confidence that she kept a good stable.
“Despite the precautions she made in our meeting, she did not sign the letter. Why not? She made no attempt to disguise her handwriting—one can almost always tell, and her penmanship has none of the hesitant, stilted qualities that usually indicate this—so she trusted that her communication would not fall into the hands of the person or persons from whom she was so anxious to conceal it. This could only mean she did not wish to reveal her name to me. She was clearly desperate for assistance, but she had only contacted an outside party under considerable duress, and perhaps against her better judgement. She did not wish to commit herself until she had met me in person, but I suspected she feared I might begin my inquiries before meeting her, and she did not yet trust my discretion enough to believe I would avoid connecting the name of Sherlock Holmes with her own. And so she simply did not reveal it.”
“How perfectly obvious it is, once you explain it,” I said, “but I still do not understand how you did manage to discover her name, or how you realised she was consulting you about her husband.”
“As to the first matter, it was a stroke of luck that we received the letter in time to spend the night in that village. I have told you before; if you want to find the centre of country gossip, you should find a good public-house. And so we did. While you were enjoying the best sort of country hospitality—I recall the roast that evening was particularly fine—I was in the bar, introducing myself as a sporting enthusiast with a particular interest in horseflesh. It was the work of a few minutes to learn which of the nearby households possessed both fine horses and an independent mistress. Soon I had a name and some idea of the parties involved.
“As to your second question, if a married woman is in such trouble that she goes to extraordinary lengths to hide the fact that she is consulting me, it is simple enough to conclude that she is most anxious to conceal it from her husband. If she appears for our meeting with nothing about her to suggest guilt, as Marjorie Jameson did, but everything to suggest fear and anger, I will conclude that she and not he is the injured party in the case.”
“Quite marvellous!” I cried, as enthusiastic now as I had been at the time. “You were right in every particular, not least about his guilt. I shudder to think what might have become of her if she had not come to you, Holmes, or if she hadn’t known enough to suspect him. She should count herself fortunate.”
“Certainly there was an element of coincidence. If Marjorie Jameson had not been in the eccentric habit of taking solitary drives; if her left coupling rein had not broken on that particular morning; if she had not recognised Philip Rose’s riding-jacket, Colonel Jameson would still be a free man. But I think on further examination we may see how even those chance events were tied to the crime. Nothing occurs entirely by accident.”
“What can you mean?”
“Only that as the crime itself sprang out of Colonel Jameson’s villainous character, so too did its solution. Consider the sort of man who could risk his whole estate on illegitimate speculation, and then, when the whole affair threatened to collapse about him and he was desperately in need of funds, would secure a loan against the valuable and beloved stables she inherited from her first husband. A man who, to conceal this further deception, would murder a close friend and plot coldly to dispose of his remains.”
I waved an impatient hand. “Jameson would have thrown me from a moving carriage without a second thought. You hardly need convince me of his poor character. Still, I can’t see what it has to do with his wife’s driving habits.”
“She may have been a passionate horsewoman before her second marriage, but would she have been so eager to spend hours at a time away from his company if their home had been a happy one? He was a charming man, or he would not have persuaded her to remarry, but he could not hide his cruelty forever from such an intimate as his wife. The drives were not merely an eccentricity, Watson, but her most reliable source of refuge.”
I could not argue with this, and Holmes’ understanding of the criminal psyche had always far outpaced my own. Yet I was not entirely convinced. “The broken rein, at least, was an accident.”
“In the strictest sense, certainly; but it was accident borne of gross negligence. As Mrs. Jameson herself informed us, it is the most basic requirement of a coachman that he maintain the carriage and harness in a state of constant readiness, and a few weeks’ neglect of the leather may damage it beyond repair. She also told us that such incompetence would never have been tolerated during her first marriage. You remember she told us the Colonel had insisted on replacing not only her stable hands but the entirety of her domestic staff. I took that as proof, if more had been required, of his controlling nature. Show me a husband who robs his wife of her rightful role in the household, and I will show you a man determined to crush her spirit.
“The stable is a different matter, I grant you, and I know many men who would balk at receiving advice in that arena from even such an accomplished horsewoman as our client. But to turn away a handpicked coachman whose place in her stable had been unquestioned, and to hire instead a succession of blunderers who could not even keep a harness in good condition? That speaks as much of stinginess as of oppressiveness. Depend on it; Jameson was feeling the pressure of his failing business ventures, and an incompetent staff was the natural result.”
“Very well, I concede that point,” I said. “I cannot object to your reasoning at all.”
“I am glad to hear you say it.”
“Though I will insist I still find Mrs. Jameson extraordinarily lucky in one respect—her skill with the reins! If she had not been able to match her husband’s speed on the road—”
“We would never have recovered the body of Philip Rose, true, but you would likely have broken your neck in the attempt! No, Watson, I really think the luck was all on your side,” said he, laughing. “Now, I observe the delectable smell of bacon from downstairs, and I will venture one last deduction. Mrs. Hudson approaches with our breakfast. Never let me deny the value of the fairer sex, Watson. My life would be considerably poorer without it.”