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The Violet Hour

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The Violet Hour book cover




Wednesday, 15 June 1920

Dear Mr. Holmes,

I would be very grateful if you would allow me to speak with you about the disappearance of my daughter three nights ago. I must tell you I am a working woman and I haven't much to offer in return, but one of the girls in my current place of employment is forever going on about you and the work you did for her family and took no payment, and indeed I don't know where else to turn. People will say cruel things about a girl like Callie but I know my daughter and there is something wrong if she was not on her train. The police will do nothing until two weeks have passed and I expect not even then.  

Tomorrow is my half-day off from service and I will call on  you at your offices on Baker Street.  I hope to find you in.

Mrs. Bridget Summerson




"Tedious!" was Sherlock's initial verdict on the Summerson case. "Dull!" was his second. He continued to decry the unbearable dreariness at regular intervals all that morning, and odds are that if Mrs. Summerson had had more flexibility with her days off, or better access to the return post, or if the slow drip of correspondence at 221B had been upgraded to a trickle, she would never have been shown into their sitting room at all.  

Which just goes to show that lines of causality are sometimes too complex to trace, even for the great Sherlock Holmes.

Because even now, years later, whenever Dr. John Watson wants to take his partner down a notch, he need only mention Sherlock's stubborn reluctance to accept this particular case, and the detective's manic petulance will still into thoughtfulness, almost melancholy.  A useful trick, John thinks, though truth be told he usually refrains from using it. Subduing Sherlock sometimes seems oddly like breaking him.  

In those days, of course, brokenness was all around them. Everything was newly shattered in the aftermath of the Great War, gaping wide and not yet grown into the familiar shapes it would later take.  Three years before the Summerson case, John had spent his days choking and cursing, kicking paths through trenches glutted with flesh and thick with mustard gas. Some nights, asleep, he was still there, still Captain Watson caught in a gruesome parody of hospital rounds, chasing a thready pulse in cold after warm after cold comrade while the detonations sounded all around him. Other nights, more often, he was just John, sitting up with Private Daniel MacIntyre in a train compartment or a fetid tent of a field hospital, while Daniel ranted with tears in his eyes about gondolas and gold, and the dire responsibility of artists to feel, to recognise — "that's what no one bloody understands!" he had shouted — and John had run his fingers over Daniel's skin with numb perseverance, trying hopelessly to locate the source of the wrongness so that it could be pulled back out of Daniel's body, so that Daniel might recognise John or at least so that John, looking straight into his face, might recognise Daniel.

In comparison to the world around him, then, John Watson had escaped the carrion fields remarkably unscathed. He supposed he should feel lucky. He didn't. Most days, for months after the Armistice had been signed and he had been made his way home with a shrapnel wound to the shoulder, he succeeded in feeling nothing at all: which was probably, he supposed, for the best. He knew vaguely that the insulating gauze of his reprieve would one day wear through, and when this thought occurred a thin stream of dread would trickle down the inside of his skull and chill him. What had he become, under the dressings? He was easier in control, not knowing.

And so it was a stroke of luck that, just as those protective layers were thinning out, allowing jolts of surprise and rage and desire to spark unpredictably at John even during waking hours, he had been swept into the orbit of Sherlock Holmes — at which point the current in his own mind had been subsumed by quite another. Life with Sherlock was adrenaline and astonishment, magic revealed as manic logic, better living through the dead. A boyhood of reserved Scots pragmatism had fitted John well for the role of social anchor and foil to Sherlock's brilliant volatility. Together they were just dangerous enough to be elating, and just disturbing enough to seem real, and so captivating that John was almost able to block out certain burgeoning realisations. Things like: gauze was laughable shelter in an electrical storm. Like: every day in the presence of the voice and the skin and the long limbs of his friend was soaking him through with silver. Like: Sherlock was a cataract of current.




Bridget Summerson braved the lintel of Baker Street at two the following afternoon, a stocky black-Irish woman with skin scrubbed ruddy, twisting in her hands a straw hat with a battered red flower.  Sherlock, having agreed with ill grace to remain for her visit, stretched languidly on the chaise longue, then glanced over and quirked an eyebrow. "And you're positive, are you, Mrs. Summerson," he drawled, "that your husband is not responsible for your daughter's disappearance?"

Theatrics. John sighed, putting down his pen and reaching for the teapot; prepared to smooth the waters.

Mrs. Summerson's eyebrows rose, but her shoulders squared as well. "I don't know how you know about Michael, Mr. Holmes," she said, slight brogue to her voice, "but Edie's told me what to expect from you, so I mustn't pretend I'm shocked. Like a medium, she said, and no mistake."  

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "No need for spiritualism, Mrs. Summerson, just a series of simple —" but she cut him off with a raised hand.

"You're right that my husband has a temper. I won't deny it. And if Callie was here she'd tell you there was never any love lost between him and her. Things got downright nasty for a time last year, both of them in their cups and going at each other like wild beasts some nights. I tried to keep them apart, but most times it was no good. You see, Mr. Holmes, I haven't come here to play sly or cagey. You'd find out sooner than later about Callie's past, if you couldn't tell it just by looking in my eyes or at my knuckles or whatnot."

Sherlock, miffed at being deprived of an opportunity to air his deductions, offered no response.  So John slid into character: smiled, said they appreciated her forthrightness. Got her seated and offered her a cup of the Earl Grey. She sipped once, twice, before returning to the attack.

"A year ago, Mr. Holmes, I was in despair over my daughter. She'd got herself a factory position when she was sixteen, but two years ago she gave it up again sudden, no explanation. Hung about with actress types — well, we hoped they were actresses. Came home drunk more nights than not. I hate saying it, but that's the truth. I couldn't bring myself to ask about men she might've been seeing. And I don't believe," she continued sadly, "that Scotland Yard will think too long or hard about such a girl as that, do you? But they would be wrong, you see."

"Because of, what?" spat Sherlock. "The eternal possibility for human redemption? Don't waste my time."

"No," retorted Mrs. Summerson, colouring up. "Because a year ago, that all changed." She nodded emphatically; Sherlock rolled his eyes but gestured his permission to continue.

"A year ago, Mr. Holmes, I swear, Callie straightened up. I don't know what caused it but there truly was such a change, ask anyone who knew her. Suddenly I never saw her with her old friends; I seldom saw her drunk. What a blessed relief it was. But she said it was still so hard, with her father as he was, and everyone from that bad life around her, and she said — she said she just needed to make a fresh start. And she'd answered an advertisement for a position down in Sussex. West Lavington the village is called, you probably don't —"

"I am familiar with the area," interrupted Sherlock.

"Well then, you'll know it's a little country place, on the edge of the Downs. Not too far from London, but far enough to make a clean break. Of course I wished she'd stay close, but what could I do? I could see it was for the best. And so off she went, and she's been there ever since, kept on as girl-of-all-work at the church there. This was to be her first week home, but she never arrived."  Mrs. Summerson fished in her handbag, brought out a letter, passed it to John. He glanced at the note, which was addressed in a haphazard script and announced that Callie Summerson planned to arrive in London the previous Saturday, on the 6:40 train.

"They say she hasn't been seen in the village since Saturday, either. No one saw her board the train, but they might not have in the regular course of things, anyway. She wrote regular every few days all this past year, even sent a bit of money home," Mrs. Summerson continued earnestly to John, who passed Callie's letter to Sherlock. "I just can't believe she would have done that if she'd taken back up with her old —"

A sharp inhalation surprised her into silence; suddenly Sherlock was languishing no longer, but sitting upright, staring at the letter.

"Mrs. Summerson," he said. "You failed to mention that your daughter's given name is not Calliope or Caroline, but…"

"Caldonia," she supplied, looking a bit lost. "I know it's unusual. My aunt Caldonia is Callie's godmother. Now they hardly see each other, of course; we none of us have the money to make the trip."

"And does your family, by any chance, have a history in the South of England? No," Sherlock answered himself, scanning her face, "I thought not."

"No," she agreed, looking mystified. "As far as I've ever heard, my husband and I are the first to cross over. All my other family are still in Dublin. Why does it matter, then?"

Sherlock sprang from the chaise longue, hand extended. "It means, Mrs. Summerson, that I must thank you for bringing such an intriguing problem to my attention." Mrs. Summerson, flummoxed, let his hand hang in the air unshaken for several seconds before rising hurriedly to her feet and extending her own. Sherlock's smile widened, became the ingratiating mask John had sometimes seen before. "Good," he said, "good then."

And suddenly the detective was a flurry of movement and rapid speech. "May I keep this letter for the time being? Excellent. That way we have a record of your address should we need to reach you, and also a reminder of your daughter's place of work." He was herding her none too subtly back toward the front door, his hand on her shoulder. "Madame, we will be in touch."

Mrs. Summerson was still stunned by this sudden Holmesian about-face from bully to benefactor. She allowed herself to be bundled out of the flat with a minimum of effort from Sherlock, who waved her across the threshold with a flourish John thought frankly overdone. The detective reentered the sitting room buzzing with anticipation and self-satisfaction.

"And what, Holmes," John said, when he was sure Mrs. Summerson was well away, "was that?"

Sherlock picked his way over to what was surely the least conveniently-placed of all the myriad piles of paper dominating the flat, and began to sift through it with great purpose. John supposed that these piles must represent some obscure filing system plain to Sherlock's eyes, though to him they remained baffling. He had occasionally, when things were dull in the flat, rummaged through the stacks in idle curiosity, but they seemed a random mélange. A pile topped with an 1883 bill of sale for a starter-flock of Blue-Faced Leicester sheep, for example, might go on to disclose a 1904 carte du soir from La Fermette Marbeuf in Paris (bisque de langoustine and tartare de boeuf featured prominently); clippings of reports on the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 (criminalised cocaine and smoking opium without a prescription), and a bound book of woolen suiting swatches (1912 winter season). John shook his head, clearing it as Sherlock rummaged.

"I have to thank you," Sherlock said from amongst the piles, "for insisting we see her. Her daughter's case is thoroughly self-evident, of course, but as a whole the problem is quite intriguing. Quite intriguing. Aha," he added, emerging with a worn and dusty bound volume, and collapsing with a huff in his regular armchair. John eyed him expectantly, gestured at the album, which Sherlock held on his lap and almost petted, but did not open.

"I think I told you once, that when we were children Mycroft and I would sometimes be sent to stay with my grandmother, in Sussex?"  John nodded. Sherlock went on, "She lived in the town of Horsham, not thirty miles from the village where Miss Summerson disappeared."

Sherlock looked more pensive than John would have expected, given the man's wild exhilaration of a minute before. There was a pause before he continued.

"My grandmother was remarkable, Watson. One of the only people in my childhood who. Well. She had a certain amount of insight. She was artistic, French originally, and she was good with. With people. Well-disposed toward them." He let out a rueful laugh. "She'd kept up with this album for years, her whole life really, so it wasn't made specifically for me, but she let me look at it when I was ill or I needed to be — occupied."

He eased the cover open, holding the weight of the boards so that the aged leather bindings were unstressed. Upside-down, John could make out a wide assortment of printed matter — plain yellowed paper in the early pages of the book, quickly supplanted by newsprint — that had been cut out of their original contexts and fastened into the leaves of the album. Sherlock turned the pages with the kind of tenderness he usually reserved for the addition of a catalyst to a reactive chemical compound.

"I pored over these clippings religiously as a child," he told John, as the pages turned. "I never saw the use of committing poetry or scripture to memory, but this — I could have been catechised on this book, from seven or eight onward."

"They're unsolved cases?" asked John.

"Of a sort. They're not all what you and I would call cases these days, more an aesthetically pleasing collection of small mysteries, curated with an artist's eye. My grandmother had a sense of narrative, of balance, of the suggestive power of details. Some of these clippings are more whimsical than criminal. There's one about the sudden appearance of several crates of unclaimed Scots Grey roosters at the Henfield train station in 1867, for example. Kicked up an awful racket, apparently. And some stories, I think, she chose for the simple force of their tragedy, like the one from 1875 in which a group of drunken Kirdford men froze to death one night, wandering about hypothermic less than half a mile from one of their homes."


"Other entries are genuinely unexplained, though. Those were always my favorites as a child; it won't surprise you that I tried to piece together what had really happened, though in most cases the evidence in the reports was frustratingly sparse or irrelevant.  Ah," he said, turning a final page and letting the album stay open at a point toward the chronological beginning of the clippings, just after the transition to newsprint. "Here we are." He turned the book toward John.

The clipping Sherlock was pointing out was dated 7 September 1841, and concerned the disappearance of a young woman named Charlotte Whitmore. To John's eyes, the report offered little to connect the event with Mrs. Summerson and her daughter. In 1837 Miss Whitmore, the younger daughter of passably successful York merchants, had traveled all the way to West Lavington to act as nursemaid and helper to an aunt whose health was in decline. The niece had been twenty-nine at the time; probably, mused John, the extended family considered they were doing the old maid a favour by offering her room and board in exchange for easy servitude. Acquaintances, the clipping said, reported that Miss Whitmore had seemed content, and had acted normally right up until her sudden disappearance. Her aunt and uncle bid her goodnight on the fifth of September only to find her bed empty and made up on the morning of the sixth. Her brief note contained apology and farewell, but no explanation.

The article went on to note that Whitmore had been liked and respected throughout the town for her organizational leadership at the annual flower show, her volunteerism at the medical clinic, and her regular attendance at the church services of Deacon Manning, with whom she had apparently become something of a favourite. One village woman, indeed, seemed to blame Manning for Whitmore's disappearance — and here John's eyes stuttered to a halt. Widened. Raised. Locked with Sherlock's. John shivered.

Sherlock's grin was vulpine.

John returned his eyes to the page, read out the passage. "Many were surprised to learn that Mrs. Caldonia Shuttleworth, respected wife of Reverend James Shuttleworth of Midhurst village, holds Deacon Manning responsible for Miss Whitmore's disappearance. 'It is scandalous for a trusted authority to so abuse the confidence of an innocent soul like Charlotte,' the matron said. 'Her friends all know she has been horribly used in this business.' Pressed for greater detail, Mrs. Shuttleworth declined to comment."

"Quite a coincidence, isn't it?" Sherlock asked, eyebrow cocked. "Two disappearances of two seemingly unrelated young women from the same village — the same church —, eighty years apart, and in both cases a Caldonia was involved. Not exactly a common name. As I said," he repeated, leaning back in his chair, "quite intriguing."

"That's — that is something," said John, thinking it through. "Seems like in implausible coincidence."

Sherlock's mouth contorted, as if the sound of the word 'coincidence' left a bitter taste.

"But still," pressed John, "how do we go about investigating a disappearance when the trail has been cold for eighty years? I assume you must have researched any follow-up reports in your school days, if you found this album so riveting?"

"I did. Practically no word on Charlotte Whitmore appeared after this notice, even in the local rags. As she left a note, I doubt there was even a criminal investigation. Luckily, the yellow hordes have been less reticent about her esteemed Deacon."

"You want to look into the Cardinal Manning connection?"

"It is suggestive that a friend of the young woman in question saw fit to blame Manning for the disappearance, however vague her terms. An older man — a figure of religious authority — and a young, unmarried woman?"

John frowned. Henry Manning, object of Caldonia Shuttleworth's unexplained wrath in 1841, had certainly garnered greater fame than anyone else involved in the small-town mystery. By forty years after Charlotte Whitmore's disappearance, his history included defection from the Church of England, appointment as a Catholic Cardinal, and widespread recognition as one of the great social reformers of his generation. John could still remember, as a boy of six or seven, being lifted on his father's shoulders to peer over the crush of black hats and coats at the extravagant funeral procession inching through the frozen mist toward Kensal Green. The Watsons were Scots Presbyterians, not Catholics, but even so the family had risen before dawn and bundled themselves against a seeping January fog to pay their respects. Every cab had been taken and the underground was overrun, and so they had walked the eight miles from John's father's Stepney practice, where they had lived among the dock workers who were his patients, to stand in the press of onlookers in Harrow Road. John, remembering the atmosphere of adulation that day, considered the likelihood of locating a trustworthy enemy of Cardinal Manning's in 1920.

"Er," he said. "Yes. At this point, though, he's considered next door to a saint, isn't he? Champion of the working man. I mean, even if he did turn to Rome, which I know is a strike against him for plenty of people, it's not as if a biographer or a church historian is going to want to go into the circumstances of an obscure woman's disappearance early in his career. That type are a bunch of bloody hagiographers."

"Exactly," confirmed Sherlock. "An able summary." John raised his eyebrows, waiting for elaboration; Sherlock smirked. "We have no use at all for that kind of historian, not the Dictionary of National Biography sort. Luckily," Sherlock continued, getting to his feet, "we have another option."

"Oh yes?" asked John, bemused. "What's that?" Sherlock was gathering to himself that forcefield of exuberance that signaled a game afoot; he threw John's trilby at the armchair with a wide grin.

"Scurrilous gossip, John! Invaluable for our purposes. You must have been out of the city to have missed the fuss in the press over Eminent Victorians two years ago. 'The last nail in the coffin of Victorian sensibilities,' according to someone or other at the Times Literary Supplement. And our man Manning was first on the chopping block."

John's eyebrows rose further. "Since when do you keep up with the latest literary developments?"

"Only when they become scandalous or divisive enough that they might end in crime. And believe me, Mr. Strachey's work definitely qualifies."

"Does it." John was smiling, getting to his feet, Sherlock's enthusiasm catching.

"Had Mrs. Humphry Ward died of apoplexy brought on by writing her review, her heirs might have made a case against Mr. Strachey for endangering her health."

John chuckled. "Right, where do we find this scandal-monger? Are we going to Sussex?"

Sherlock checked the mantel clock. "After a brief excursion to Hampstead," he replied, "I believe we'll be just in time for an evening in Bloomsbury."