“Oh, it’s impossible!” Watson threw his manuscript down onto the floor.
Kincaid looked up from flicking through the latest copy of the Strand and frowned.
“What case is it you’re writing up then?”
He put down the Strand and got up to pick up the sheet of paper.
“Oh, it’s not a case!” Watson stood up quickly from his desk and held out his hand for the paper. He laughed nervously. “Just a few notes, you know.”
“Really..? How intriguing.”
Kincaid grinned at Watson. He looked down at the paper and began to read aloud.
“‘A brief description and some thoughts on—’”
Kincaid’s eyes went wide.
“‘—my fiancée Miss Mary Morstan’..?”
He looked at Watson, his eyebrows raised high.
“You’re a dark horse, aren’t you? When did all this happen?”
Watson quivered. “Oh, for— Obviously, I’m not truly engaged to be married.”
He went over to the sofa and sat down, and Kincaid joined him.
“So what is going on then?”
“What’s going on is…”
Watson gestured despairingly at the Strand.
“It’s all that wretched Norman Greenhough’s fault! Now he’s got over the shock of my being the actual detective and you merely playing my creation Sherlock Holmes—”
“Oi! Less of the ‘merely’,” said Kincaid.
Watson held up a conciliatory hand.
“You do indeed play the part well. Which is why Greenhough has become so enthusiastic about the idea of my inserting even more fiction into my work.”
Watson’s shoulders sagged.
“He wants romance! For me to be in love! Hence…”
He waved vaguely at his notes, still in Kincaid’s hand.
“Hence your fiancée Miss Mary Morstan,” said Kincaid, scanning the notes with interest.
“Yes!” Watson slumped back against the sofa. “My wretched publisher believes that a romance will attract more female readers.”
Kincaid raised an eyebrow. “But he’s already got me for attracting the ladies, hasn’t he?”
Watson smiled tightly. “I would agree that you and I and the cases seem to have been enough so far to attract the feminine audience. But Greenhough will not be dissuaded. He wants me to have a fiancée for at least one story.”
“Surely that’s not too bad?” said Kincaid. “I mean, you’re used to adding any necessary… embellishments.”
“Yes! But unfortunately there’s more. He wants me to find a woman to take the part.” Watson put his head in his hands. “Be seen around town with her!”
Kincaid regarded him with concern. “One thing at a time, old boy. First of all, these are your ideas for the character?” He began reading out loud from the notes. “‘Born in India. Came over to England as a child. Mother dead. Father went missing—no trace of him ever found.’”
Watson removed his hands from his face. “Readers always like a touch of mystery.”
“‘Sweet face, refined and sensitive nature…’” Kincaid nodded to himself.
“So what do you think?” asked Watson cautiously.
“Seems to me like a character an actress could do a lot with.” Kincaid tapped the page. “But what about the name? Mary’s a bit dull, isn’t it?”
Watson looked at him. “It was my mother’s name.”
Kincaid shrugged. “All right. Fair enough. But what about ‘Morstan’? That’s pretty odd.”
“Well, I think it’s distinctive,” said Watson.
Kincaid was continuing to scan the page. He stopped and laughed.
Watson frowned. “And what is wrong with her being 27?”
Kincaid sniggered. “Oh, nothing wrong at all with a man of your age having a 27 year old lady friend.”
“For heaven’s sake!” Watson struggled to his feet. “I’ve seen you chasing after girls much younger than that.”
Kincaid held up a hand. “True.”
Setting the paper down, he stood up as well and faced Watson.
“However, Reginald Kincaid…” He opened his arms wide. “...is a philanderer and ne’er-do-well. And Sherlock Holmes…”
He tapped his own chest, paused and pointed to Watson too.
“...is above that sort of thing altogether. But Dr. John Watson, faithful companion of the great detective…”
Kincaid leant over and tapped on the manuscript.
“Now, he isn’t above that sort of thing, but he’s not just after a pretty face either. No, Dr. Watson would be looking for his soulmate.” Kincaid held up a finger thoughtfully. “And I think... I might just have the right girl for the job.”
Watson snorted. “I don’t doubt you do.”
Kincaid pointed the finger at him. “Oi. Don’t be talking about Lily like that. She’s a nice, respectable girl, Lillian Bell is. Or rather Mrs. Jem Aspinall now.”
He collected himself.
“I knew her when we were both on the stage, you see. Lovely girl. And she had a real talent. The stage was her passion. But she gave it all up for marriage.”
Kincaid spread his fingers and tapped the air for emphasis.
“She gave it all up for love. She’s perfect for the job whichever way you want to look at it. How about I get in contact with her?”
“Well, I don’t…”
He threw up his arms.
“Oh, this is all so ridiculous! Playing at being this woman’s devoted lover? I wouldn’t fool anyone for a minute. You’re the actor!”
Kincaid grinned. “Exactly. So why not let me help you? It need only be for a few days, surely? Before you write Miss Morstan out again.”
“I suppose so.” Watson looked over at Kincaid. “And you think your friend might do it?”
“Perhaps. If I asked her.” Kincaid gave a small smile. “I’ll send her a note, and your description of Miss Morstan, and we’ll see what happens.”
Watson stood nervously in the sitting room watching the door.
“So she’s definitely coming today? And she knows all about it?”
Kincaid rolled his eyes.
“She’s definitely agreed to take the part. As long as it is only for a few days—she has to get back to help her old man with the business. We just have to pay all her expenses and buy some knick-knacks from their shop to compensate her for her time.”
“Fine! Fine!” Watson smoothed his hair and rearranged his cravat yet again.
Kincaid watched him with some amusement. “You aren’t really going to have to marry her, you know.”
“I know! I’m just…” Watson paced to and fro. “...feeling somewhat unsure of myself.”
He abruptly froze.
“That’s the front door!”
Kincaid listened too. “And there’s Mrs. Hudson bringing her up.”
He went across and opened the door, and a few moments later Mrs. Hudson and a small, blonde lady of forty or thereabouts stood in the doorway.
“A visitor for you, gentlemen,” said Mrs. Hudson tentatively. “The lady says you are expecting her.”
“Ah, yes,” said Kincaid. “Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. And could we trouble you for some tea?”
“Of course, sir.” Mrs. Hudson gave the newcomer a last curious look, and went to make her way downstairs.
Kincaid closed the door and ushered the lady towards Watson.
“Dr. Watson, may I introduce Miss Mary Morstan?”
The lady came forward, holding out her hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Watson,” she said in a cultured, well-modulated tone. “I have heard so much about you.”
Watson took the proffered hand. He smiled tensely. “And it is my pleasure to meet you… Miss Morstan.”
‘Miss Morstan’ grinned and the accent fell away to something a little less cultured and a little more akin to Kincaid’s usual way of speaking.
“So, what do you think, Doctor? Will I do?”
Kincaid was grinning too. “Didn’t I tell you Lily was good?”
He held out his arms to her.
“Thanks for coming, Lily girl!”
“Well, I had to come and meet ‘Sherlock Holmes’, didn’t I?” The lady embraced Kincaid and smiled at him. “I told Jem it was you, when we first saw you in the paper! But he said my memory was playing tricks.”
Kincaid smiled. “It’s so nice to see you again.”
“You too,” said the lady.
They looked at each other for a moment and then Kincaid shook his head. “Yes, I’d better do the proper introductions now.” He gestured to Watson. “Here’s the real detective—Dr. John Watson. Dr. Watson, meet Mrs. Aspinall.”
Watson beamed. “It is wonderful to meet you. An excellent performance, madam!”
He looked her up and down, holding up his hands in delight.
“What you’re wearing—the good taste but simplicity of your outfit… The muted colours… Just a touch of feather in the hat… It’s exactly what I would have imagined for Miss Morstan. The voice, the posture. It’s perfect! You have certainly passed the audition!”
Watson looked over at Kincaid.
“You know, I really think this might work.”
“Of course it will!” Kincaid was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Ah! That’ll be the tea.”
He opened the door and Mrs. Hudson entered. She moved over to the table and put the tea tray down.
Mrs. Hudson looked inquiringly at Watson. “Will that be all, sir?”
Watson beamed at her. “Yes, indeed. But don’t go yet—I must introduce you to Mrs. Aspinall.” He gestured excitedly at the lady. “She’s going to be my fiancée—just for a few days, naturally.”
Mrs. Hudson’s jaw dropped.
Then it closed with a snap and she beckoned Watson to one side. Watson joined her, brow furrowed.
Mrs. Hudson leant towards him. “Now you must know that I try not to be judgemental, Doctor. But I do try to run a good Presbyterian household here. And this is the sort of thing I would have expected of Mr. Holmes but—”
Watson waved his hands in abrupt embarrassment. “No! No, Mrs. Hudson! Mrs. Aspinall will only be pretending to be my betrothed. And she won’t be staying here. I believe she’ll be staying in respectable lodgings elsewhere.”
Mrs. Aspinall exchanged a glance with Kincaid and then stepped towards Mrs. Hudson, falling back into her Miss Morstan character. “I’m sad in a way that I cannot stay here. You have such a delightful establishment.”
Mrs. Hudson stared at her, and a soppy expression spread over her face. “Oh, aren’t you lovely.” She glanced at Dr. Watson. “Och, you know, I could almost wish—”
She exited rapidly, holding her apron to her eyes.
Watson sighed deeply but Kincaid patted him reassuringly on the back. “See? Even Mrs. Hudson’s getting all sentimental over this. You’re onto a winner here.”
He pointed at the sofa. “Now you two sit down. We’ll try to get Watson into the part straightaway.”
Kincaid took one of the sofa’s side tables and put in front of the sofa. Then he fetched the tray and set it on top of the table.
He gestured at the teapot. “Watson—you pour out the tea and gaze into Miss Morstan’s eyes.”
“Right.” Watson began to pour, and kept glancing timidly up and down at Mrs. Aspinall’s face. “Er… lovely weather, isn’t it?”
Kincaid rolled his eyes. “Bloody hell!” He slapped Watson’s shoulder gently with the back of his hand. “This is supposed to be the girl of your dreams! Look how beautiful she is! Look how charming!”
“Reg, you old flatterer,” smiled Mrs. Aspinall.
Kincaid gestured with his head towards the other side of the room, and Watson put down the teapot, got up and followed him over.
“It’s just…” Kincaid leant to one side, gave Mrs. Aspinall an awkward smile and then returned his attention to Watson. “Well, you seem somewhat uncomfortable being in close physical proximity to Lily.” He lowered his voice further. “This may be none of my business but…” He raised his eyebrows. “How well do you… know… women?”
“Really, old boy!” Watson looked down and straightened his already immaculately neat jacket. He looked up again. “I’m not as innocent as you appear to think I am. I am intimately familiar with the female body.” He examined his cuffs with great attention. “I’ve dissected at least three of them.”
Kincaid rubbed his brow. “There is a little more to it, you know.”
He began ushering Watson back to the patiently waiting, and somewhat amused, Mrs. Aspinall.
“You need to get into the part more. Here.” Kincaid got Watson sitting down on the sofa again. “Let me help you to find the correct mood.”
He put his hands on Watson’s shoulders.
“I want you to think back to when I first moved in.”
“Yes..?” said Watson, somewhat warily.
“Think back to that very first day. I had just got over the threshold and you stared deep into my eyes and said…”
Watson nodded. “‘...That’s your room, you drunken lout. Now pray keep away from all of my belongings and do not talk to me for the rest of the evening.’”
“Precisely!” Kincaid slapped his hands together. “And then you went and sat with one of your experiments and didn’t say another word. Just sat there watching as a murky grey mixture turned into a murky green mixture.”
Watson frowned. “Well, I had spent days getting to that point! It was a most delicate and important experiment! I really do not—”
“Exactly my point.”
Kincaid gently turned Watson to face Mrs. Aspinall.
“Now I want you to think back to that experiment. Think back to how you felt. Capture that feeling! Hold onto it! And then…”
“I want you to look at your Miss Morstan as if she were that murky green mixture.”
“All right…” Watson furrowed his brow, closed his eyes. Then he opened them again and stared at Mrs. Aspinall.
Gradually a small, adoring smile began to appear, and Mrs. Aspinall demurely returned it.
Kincaid was smiling too.
“Excellent. I do believe it might be time to make your first public appearance together.”
Constable Brown was beaming at Mrs. Aspinall. “I am so pleased for you and the Doctor.” He dropped his voice. “If you don’t mind me saying so, he seems to have found the perfect lady.”
Mrs. Aspinall coyly waved away the praise. “Thank you so much.”
As Brown walked away back to Scotland Yard’s reception desk, Watson gave Mrs. Aspinall a shy smile.
“I have to say, I think that went splendidly! Brown thinks you’re perfect, Constable Rushforth thinks we’re wonderfully suited, and Sergeant Grady thinks I’m not good enough for you!”
“And Lestrade seemed completely won over,” said Kincaid, rejoining them.
“Ah, yes.” Watson tapped Mrs. Aspinall on the arm. “He told me in confidence that you are almost as lovely as his Lesley. High praise indeed!”
Kincaid frowned a little. “Is he still walking out with Miss Giles? I have to say I feel a bit uncomfortable now about playing that joke on him. Shouldn’t we tell him that Miss Giles is strictly speaking Mr. Giles?”
Watson cleared his throat. “Lestrade may not be in my league, old boy, but he isn’t a complete fool. I’m sure he’s worked it out by now.” Watson looked thoughtful. “Probably worked it out several times judging by that permanent smile on his face.”
Mrs. Aspinall hid her own smile behind her hand.
“Right. I see,” said Kincaid, somewhat flustered. He pulled himself together. “But anyway, the important thing is that he hasn’t worked out that your betrothal is simply an act. You’ve passed the first test. Now it’s time for the next one—Miss Morstan being involved in an actual case.”
“Blimey!” said Mrs. Aspinall. “I mean…” She smiled apologetically at Watson and the accent changed. “Good gracious.”
Watson furrowed his brow. “But is this a good idea? Naturally at the moment Lestrade thinks he sees romance everywhere. And Brown, Rushforth and Grady are hardly the keenest brains on the force. I can’t be certain of fooling everyone so easily.” He looked anxiously at Mrs. Aspinall. “Perhaps I should keep Miss Morstan more in the background.”
Kincaid shook his head. “Your reading public has to know her properly before you send her back into the shadows again.”
“I’m really not sure though—”
Kincaid smiled and held up a hand. “Be brave and trust your director. Here we go into the second act.”
The three of them were in the sitting room of a house in Camberwell, waiting for the lady of the house to receive them.
Mrs. Aspinall gazed around the room. “It’s a beautiful place.” She rubbed at the threadbare arm of her chair. “Seems a bit run-down though.”
“Are you sure this Mrs. Forrester can afford to hire us?” asked Kincaid.
“She emphasises in her letter that she is willing to pay the usual fee. But that is irrelevant. I picked this case because I feel it is most suitable for our current situation.” Watson pulled a letter out of his jacket and scanned it. “Mrs. Cecil Forrester. Widow of five years, adult children have all left home.” He furrowed his brow. “Believes that someone is breaking in repeatedly to interfere with a particular picture.”
Kincaid frowned. “Doesn’t sound terribly interesting.”
Watson nodded in agreement. “I have to say, in most circumstances I would probably have passed this request over without another thought. But the important aspect of this case is that Mrs. Aspinall could perhaps take part. You can suggest ‘Miss Morstan’ should stay in the house to keep watch, in the guise of a lady’s companion perhaps. I can always make up some interesting facts for the case afterwards.”
Mrs. Aspinall sat up straight. “Someone’s coming!”
Watson tucked the letter away and looked at Kincaid. “You know the routine. Do your full detective bit.”
“Yes, well,” said Kincaid. “Don’t you forget to do your young lovers bit.”
“Well, of course.”
Watson gave Mrs. Aspinall a cautious smile.
Mrs. Aspinall smiled broadly back and gave him a wink.
Watson cleared his throat, and he and Kincaid rose to their feet as the door to the room opened.
A lady in late middle-age entered, along with a younger man who bore an unmistakable resemblance to her.
“Ah! Mr. Holmes!” The lady adjusted her pince-nez. “Thank you so much for coming. I am Mrs. Forrester.” She indicated the young man. “And this is my youngest son, Horace.”
Kincaid gestured to Watson and Mrs. Aspinall. “A pleasure to meet you, madam. This is my colleague Dr. Watson, and his fiancée Miss Morstan.”
“Fiancée!” Mrs. Forrester beamed at Watson. “How wonderful.” She gave him a look up and down. “Better late than never, eh?”
“Mother…” muttered Horace, looking at the floor.
“I’m only saying, dear, that’s it’s lovely he’s finally found someone.” She addressed Kincaid. “You know, Mr. Holmes, I am so happy that all my children are settled and content. I don’t have to worry about them any more!”
She sat down, her son taking a chair near her. Kincaid and Watson resumed their own seats.
Mrs. Forrester addressed Kincaid again.
“Now, Mr. Holmes. I am grateful for you agreeing to see me but I’m afraid you’ve had a wasted journey.”
“A wasted journey, madam?” said Watson.
He exchanged a brief glance with Kincaid.
Kincaid gave a tiny nod of understanding and turned to Mrs. Forrester. “Perhaps you should give me the facts and let me decide that.”
Mrs. Forrester directed a small smile at her son. “Well, to be honest, Horace has rather convinced me I’m being ridiculous.”
Horace looked horrified. “I never said ‘ridiculous’, Mother!”
“Well, unrealistic perhaps.” Mrs. Forrester looked at Kincaid again. “You see, I have a small sewing room upstairs. My eyesight is not quite what it once was but I like to embroider most mornings for an hour or so. And recently I had thought that my sewing equipment was being interfered with.”
“One of your servants perhaps..?” asked Kincaid.
Mrs. Forrester shook her head. “I only have one—Susan. She’s been with me for years and I trust her absolutely. I asked her about the equipment and she insisted it hadn’t been her moving it around.”
“I see,” said Kincaid. “And the picture you mentioned in your letter?”
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Forrester nodded. “The picture on the wall facing my chair. Well, I had thought there was something different about it.”
“Something… different?” said Watson.
“Yes, indeed, Doctor.” Mrs. Forrester tilted her head to one side, gazing into the distance. She lifted a hand to touch the imaginary picture before her. “But what exactly…”
She brought her hand down again and smiled apologetically at Watson.
“...I couldn’t say.”
She leant over to pat her son’s arm.
“But Horace has examined the room and the picture and convinced me that there is nothing I need fear.”
She looked at Kincaid. “I must admit, Mr. Holmes—it does seem slightly foolish of me to have thought that someone would break in just to rearrange my needles and meddle with a picture.”
“No, no, madam. There are aspects of the case that intrigue me…” Kincaid leant forwards. “Mrs. Forrester, I wonder if you might not indulge my curiosity just a little.”
Horace spoke up. “Oh, I am sure there is nothing to worry about.”
His mother frowned at him. “Heavens, Horace. I can speak for myself.” She looked back at Kincaid. “What do you mean, Mr. Holmes?”
“I would just like to be certain everything is as it should be.”
Kincaid turned to smile at Mrs. Aspinall.
“Miss Morstan, would you be willing to do a little detective work?”
Mrs. Aspinall clasped her hands together. “Good gracious. How exciting!”
Kincaid addressed Mrs. Forrester. “Would you be prepared for Miss Morstan to stay here in the guise of your paid companion for two or three days? There would be no charge. As I say, it is merely for my own curiosity.”
Mrs. Forrester seemed taken aback. “Well, I suppose—”
Her son leant over to whisper to her.
“Horace, I will make my own decisions!”
There was a pause while Mrs. Forrester rearranged her expression into something a little less annoyed.
“Yes, that will be fine, Mr. Holmes.”
“Excellent!” Kincaid glanced at Mrs. Aspinall. “So are you happy to do this, Miss Morstan?”
Mrs. Aspinall smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
She looked at Watson, eyebrows raised high.
“It would be all right with you, dearest, would it not?”
“Oh! Well…” Watson coughed once or twice, and turned to Kincaid. “Will Mary be in any danger, Holmes?”
Kincaid shook his head. “I can assure you, she will be in no danger at all.”
“Then…” Watson smiled weakly. “...I give my consent.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Aspinall solemnly.
Kincaid grinned briefly at them both.
“The knick-knacks have arrived!” declared Kincaid, as Watson entered the flat.
Watson went to hang up his coat. “Knick-knacks?”
“Delivery from the Aspinalls’ shop.” Kincaid gestured widely. “Six plaster busts of Julius Caesar!”
“Great heavens...” said Watson coming back.
There was a bust in the display cabinet, another on the laboratory table, one on a side table by the sofa, one on their dining table, one on the desk, and finally one on the mantelpiece.
Watson crossed over to the mantelpiece and stared into Caesar’s eyes. “Why on earth did you choose plaster busts?”
“I didn’t,” said Kincaid. “I asked Jem Aspinall to pick. I suppose he sent what he was trying to get rid of.”
Watson gazed about. “But what are we going to do with six of them?”
“We could use them as Christmas presents..?”
Kincaid turned to Mrs. Hudson as she appeared at the open sitting room door.
“Mrs. Hudson! How would you feel about a brand new bust for Christmas?”
Mrs. Hudson just stared at him.
After a moment, she turned to Watson.
“Mrs. Aspinall is here to report to you, Doctor.”
“Ah, yes.” Watson looked at Kincaid. “It has been two days. I assume the poor woman’s had enough by now.” He turned back to their landlady. “Thank you, Mrs. Hudson.”
“Right you are, sir.”
Mrs. Hudson stepped aside to allow Mrs. Aspinall to enter, and disappeared off downstairs again.
“Ah! Any news, Mrs. Aspinall? Time to bring your undercover role to an end perhaps?” Watson escorted her to a chair.
“Thank you.” Mrs. Aspinall sat down and got herself settled. “Actually, Doctor, I have come with rather a strange tale to tell.”
“Indeed?” Watson raised his eyebrows and took a seat himself. “How intriguing. Do tell me everything, madam.”
“Well…” Mrs. Aspinall smiled over at Kincaid. “I suppose I may as well start from when you and Reg left. Once you had gone, her son Horace went too. And me and Mrs. Forrester got to talking and became better acquainted. In fact, she took me to see the picture that had been worrying her. It’s a beadwork panel, actually—representing a dove in flight.”
“Ah!” said Watson. “Something she has made herself?”
“I asked the very question,” said Mrs. Aspinall. “But no—she bought it some years ago as something suitable to hang in the sewing room.”
Watson steepled his fingers. “And what were your impressions of the picture?”
Mrs. Aspinall looked thoughtful. “Well, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Professionally done but not striking. Inoffensive might be the best description. I wouldn’t have said it was particularly valuable.” She held up a finger. “Oh, but in my brief examination, it did strike me that perhaps some restoration work had been done. Some of the larger beads did not quite match. Anyway, after showing me the picture, we went downstairs again and soon afterwards her eldest son Walter came round.”
“What, another of them?” said Kincaid, coming to sit down too.
Mrs. Aspinall nodded. “From what I can gather, Mrs. Forrester has four children: Walter, Cecily, Charles and Horace. She seems very fond of them all and talked so much about them with me and Walter. But eventually the conversation turned to more personal matters and Mrs. Forrester asked if I wouldn’t mind leaving them for the time being. And so—”
The bust of Caesar on the side table caught Mrs. Aspinall’s eye and she paused and picked it up. She gave Kincaid a grin.
“I see Jem’s parcel has arrived then.”
Watson smiled weakly. “You wouldn’t take them back? We’ll still pay for them, of course.”
Mrs. Aspinall laughed. “Gawd, no. We’ve been trying to get rid of them for years.”
Kincaid raised an eyebrow. “What do you think we’re going to do with them though?”
“You could use them for shooting practice?” suggested Mrs. Aspinall.
“No!” said Watson.
Kincaid frowned at Watson and then looked back at Mrs. Aspinall. “Watson isn’t keen on letting me have bullets.”
“Especially since the V incident,” muttered Watson.
Kincaid turned and glared at him. “It was an accident!”
Watson regarded him with narrowed eyes. “It’s only because I’m aware how absolutely hopeless you are with a gun, that I know you couldn’t possibly have deliberately shot into our wall the shape of two fingers making that vulgar V sign!” He calmed down somewhat. “As it was, I had to dedicate an afternoon to shooting an R to go with it, so Mrs. Hudson would only be extraordinarily angry, rather than irrevocably shocked.”
Mrs. Aspinall was thoughtfully handling the bust. “All right—no shooting. But these are all partially hollow, you know, Reg. You could put a dried pea in one of them and take them down to your Criterion Bar. Get patrons to bet on them and whoever picks the right one gets a prize. Make yourself some drinking money!”
Kincaid’s eyes lit up. “Well, now. That’s not a bad—”
“Absolutely not!” Watson wiped his face with his hand. “Mrs. Aspinall, I really don’t think busts and their possible contents have any bearing on the current matter. Could we perhaps get back to your story?”
Mrs. Aspinall shook her head.
“Sorry, Doctor. Where was I? Oh, yes!” She put the bust down again. “While Mrs. Forrester and her son were talking, I took the opportunity to slip out and examine the picture again at my leisure—and looking at it closely, I thought perhaps three of the beads were later additions. A little later on, I returned to mother and son to dine with them. After dinner Walter went off to smoke a cigar while we ladies took a cup of coffee each, and then Walter went home and I spent a quiet evening with Mrs. Forrester.”
“You know, it’s not the most fascinating of stories so far, Lily,” said Kincaid.
Mrs. Aspinall rolled her eyes. “Give me a chance, will you? Next morning, I sat with Mrs. Forrester in the sewing room. I looked at the panel again—and I could have sworn a new bead had been added, just on the edge of the wing! But Mrs. Forrester wanted to spend the day paying visits to neighbours and invited me to come with her. And once away from the house, I wondered if my eyes had just been playing tricks on me. When we eventually got back, we found Mrs. Forrester’s other children Cecily and Charles had both arrived and so there was no opportunity for me to look at the picture again and see if I was right or not.”
“Blimey,” said Kincaid, glancing at Watson. “All these visits. Her children are keen, aren’t they? Hoping for a big bequest perhaps?”
Mrs. Aspinall smiled ruefully. “I wouldn’t have thought so. Only one servant? And you’ve seen the house. It’s in some disrepair. And all the children look fairly well-to-do already.”
“I would agree with that assessment,” said Watson. “But please do continue, madam.”
“Well, anyway,” said Mrs. Aspinall. “Mrs. Forrester had apparently already arranged to spend one or two days with her son Horace before the three of us visited her about the case. I told her there was no reason to change her plans as long as she didn’t mind me staying in the house without her.”
She looked between Watson and Kincaid.
“I know you weren’t considering this a real case but I thought I should make my report and see what you think. And so this morning before coming here, I went to take one last look at the panel. And Dr. Watson, I swear that yet another bead had been added!”
A small smile had appeared on Watson’s face. “Well, now, Mrs. Aspinall. It looks like this case might be more interesting than it seemed initially.”
Kincaid pulled a face. “Are you sure? A few odd beads on a picture?”
“Nothing more important than trifles, old boy.” Watson looked thoughtful. “Mrs. Aspinall, would it be possible to have a look at the panel without alerting Mrs. Forrester?”
“I think so,” said Mrs. Aspinall. “She’s already left to go to stay with Horace and as I say, she’ll be gone for one or two days.”
“Then we have the night at our disposal as well!”
In the sewing room, Watson, Kincaid and Mrs. Aspinall examined the panel together.
Kincaid furrowed his brow. “Those odd beads are all extras, aren’t they? Not replacements.”
Mrs. Aspinall nodded. “That’s what I thought too.”
Watson smiled. “Have you noticed anything else about the beads..?”
But before either Kincaid or Mrs. Aspinall could answer, the door to the sewing room opened and a surprised man stared at them all.
“Oh! Miss Morstan! I thought you would have been with my mother at my brother’s house.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Forrester.”
Mrs. Aspinall turned to Kincaid and Watson. “May I introduce Mr. Walter Forrester? Mrs. Forrester’s eldest son.”
She turned back to Walter. “And this is Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his associate Dr. Watson.”
“Why, yes, of course.” Walter smiled cautiously. “My mother had told me she’d consulted you and been assigned the assistance of Miss Morstan. But what exactly are you all investigating here?”
“Your mother thinks that someone keeps breaking into her home…” said Watson.
‘Holmes’ pointed to the panel. “To meddle specifically with this picture.”
Walter laughed a little. “She has mentioned she thought that might be happening. But she agrees now it does seem rather unlikely! It really must all be a mistake. There’s surely nothing for you to do here.”
Kincaid raised his eyebrows. “Well, I was retained by your mother rather than you. And she has given me permission to finish my investigations...”
“Yes, of course.” Walter cleared his throat. “Well, I shall leave you to it. I just came to see that the house and Susan were all right while my mother was away.”
He hurried off, with Watson looking after him thoughtfully.
Watson addressed Mrs. Aspinall. “With you as a guide, perhaps I will just have a little look around to see if there are any signs of a break in. And then…”
He turned to look at a handsome scrap screen standing in the corner of the sewing room.
“Perhaps Kincaid and I could use that to keep an eye on the picture tonight.”
Mrs. Aspinall’s cheerful expression appeared round the edge of the screen. “You two all settled there?”
“Thank you, yes,” said Watson, politely.
“He means we’re cramped and uncomfortable,” said Kincaid.
Mrs. Aspinall laughed. “What a shame.”
Watson gave a weak smile. “Mrs. Aspinall, if you would like to retire to your room, I think we can take care of things from here.”
Mrs. Aspinall gave him a grin. “Should I lock my door?”
“It would do no harm, madam,” said Watson.
Mrs. Aspinall’s grin faded somewhat. “You’re making me a little nervous now.”
Kincaid attempted to shift slightly into a more comfortable position. “You will be in no danger. You can rely on me, Lily.”
“First time for everything...” But Mrs. Aspinall was smiling as she said it. “I’ll see you both in the morning then.”
Mrs. Aspinall’s head disappeared and there was the sound of her walking away.
Watson looked at Kincaid consideringly.
Kincaid looked away. “What?”
“You and Mrs. Aspinall,” said Watson. “In the past, were you..?”
“We were on the stage together, like I said.” Kincaid looked down. “And once upon a time, a long time ago, she… may have thought we were going to get married.”
“Ah. I see,” said Watson.
Kincaid twisted towards him. “There’s no need to make that face. When I was young and stupid I thought I was going to be a great actor. And love gets in the way of great work, doesn’t it? We both know that.” He looked away again. “Anyway, she’s far better off with the husband she did get.”
Watson sighed. “Yes. Perhaps.”
Kincaid rolled his eyes. “Oh, for Gawd’s sake. Let’s get off this subject and watch for your burglars.”
He glanced at Watson.
“Do you really think anything will happen tonight?”
“Perhaps,” said Watson. “But probably not. However, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” He smiled. “Wouldn’t you agree, old boy?”
Kincaid looked at him. “What a load of old rubbish.”
“Good morning to you!”
Kincaid woke with a jump, but Watson was still wide awake. “Good morning, Mrs. Aspinall!”
Mrs. Aspinall smiled. “Any sign of burglars?”
“No,” said Watson. “But then I was never really truly expecting there to be.”
“Then last night’s vigil was pointless.” Kincaid rubbed at his face.
“You’re wrong there, old boy. The fact that no-one tried to break in is important in itself.”
Watson pointed at Mrs. Aspinall.
“You have the intuition of an actress and a woman. Quick! Describe to me how Mrs. Forrester’s children regard their mother.”
“Well…” Mrs. Aspinall shook her head. “They seem genuinely affectionate towards her. And concerned about her—I believe Cecily and Charles both had to travel a fair distance to come and see her.” She laughed a little. “They’re all still a bit in awe of her as well I think—not just Horace. She told Walter that a button on his waistcoat was undone and that he should do it up. He rolled his eyes, but he fastened it immediately.”
Mrs. Aspinall paused.
“Oh. But then isn’t it strange..?”
Kincaid clapped his hands together. “That he should simply discount that she had anything to worry about!”
Watson nodded at him with a broad smile. “I think perhaps Sherlock Holmes should send notes to all the younger Forresters asking them to meet us at Baker Street. There are some deductions I just need to explain to you, and then we really should discuss the case with them.”
Walter, Horace, Cecily and Charles Forrester sat facing Kincaid, Watson and Mrs. Aspinall.
After a long pause, Walter sighed.
“I take it you know all, Mr. Holmes.”
Kincaid looked calmly back at Walter. “I know all the basic facts of course. But perhaps you would like to fill in the details.”
Walter looked left and right at his siblings. Each of them nodded.
“Well, I suppose there’s no reason we shouldn’t tell you.” Walter rubbed at his brow. “Five years ago our father died. He left some money to Cecily, Charles, Horace and me, and he left the rest of it and the house to Mother, naturally.”
He paused and his sister Cecily spoke up. “However, it soon became clear that the house needed a great deal of work doing on it, and that our mother would need some assistance. But when we broached the subject, she insisted that she wouldn’t take any of our father’s money back. That it should be for us and our children, when we had any.”
Charles Forrester smiled ruefully. “We did try to point out that the house would be ours too one day, and so it seemed only right that we should take some responsibility for it now. We couldn’t have our mother living in a house that was falling apart.” He shrugged. “But she was firm. Wouldn’t be swayed on the point.”
He gestured to his youngest brother.
“It was Horace who came up with the idea and we, and our spouses, all agreed.”
Horace nodded. “You see, Mr. Holmes, I realised we could buy six excellent pearls and discreetly sew them into the sewing room’s beadwork panel—one at a time, whenever we were visiting. Then one of us would visit bringing a friend, and the friend would just happen to notice that some of the beads on the picture were real pearls. The pearls would go to be independently valued, and as they had been part of the panel which was our mother’s own property…”
“...she could sell them and gain the necessary money for repairs without worrying she was taking money away from us,” said Walter.
Mrs. Aspinall smiled round at all of them. “How very kind of you.”
She turned to Kincaid and Watson.
“And surely the plan could still be completed? Mr. Holmes could tell Mrs. Forrester truthfully that in his opinion there has been no criminal interference.”
Watson addressed the siblings.
“And perhaps you could also tell a small lie to your mother. That you have all been examining the picture in the sewing room closely but not wanting to raise her hopes until an expert could look at the picture? It might rid your mother of any lingering concerns about her belongings being disturbed.”
“Yes, that might be a good idea.” Walter laughed a little in embarrassment. “You must think we’re ridiculous, going through all this subterfuge.”
Kincaid glanced at Mrs. Aspinall and Watson, and smiled. “I think we are all aware sometimes a little subterfuge is necessary.”
“Watson! I’ve come up with something to do with these busts!”
Kincaid proudly gestured to them standing in a row on the mantelpiece.
Watson stared. “What on earth have you done?”
“I’ve been practising with my greasepaint on them!”
Kincaid pointed to them one by one.
“Here we have Julius Caesar as King Lear. Julius Caesar as Puck. Julius Caesar as Juliet—I made the wig myself. Julius Caesar as one of Macbeth’s witches. Julius Caesar as Romeo...”
“And the last one..?” asked Watson.
Kincaid gave him a bemused look. “Julius Caesar as Julius Caesar.”
Watson nodded in resignation. “Of course. How foolish of me.”
Kincaid moved Romeo next to Juliet and turned back to Watson.
“Time for you to take to the stage for one last scene now. I told Lily we’d see her off at the station in a quarter of an hour.”
The three of them walked slowly down the platform together—the porter a little way ahead, loading Mrs. Aspinall’s suitcase into a carriage.
“So this is our finale, Mrs. Aspinall,” said Watson.
“Yes, indeed.” Mrs. Aspinall raised an eyebrow. “How will you be bringing our engagement to an end, Doctor?”
“Well, it was Mrs. Forrester’s case that actually gave me the idea.”
Watson took out his notebook and read aloud.
“‘There is a last addition I must make to this tale. I am not at liberty to go into the full details but Mr. Sherlock Holmes uncovered the information that Miss Morstan’s father was indeed dead. However, these sad tidings were accompanied by some splendid news. Captain Morstan’s missing treasure had resurfaced and it appeared Miss Morstan was now a heiress to thousands. I rejoiced for her even though this state of affairs broke my heart. Naturally I had to release her from the engagement. A wealthy woman like Miss Morstan could not be expected to marry an impoverished doctor.’”
Kincaid rolled his eyes. “Noble and stupid. I like it.”
Watson looked up from where he was tucking his notebook away again. “Well, if you think you could do any better—”
Kincaid glared at him. “I’m just saying—”
Mrs. Aspinall coughed discreetly.
Kincaid looked at her, and smiled apologetically. “Perhaps this argument can wait for later.”
“Yes, do excuse us,” said Watson.
“You don’t have to apologise to me.” Mrs. Aspinall grinned. “I’ve enjoyed it all so much. I only wish I could have stayed longer.” She smiled at Watson. “It’s a pity we didn’t get to perform a big romantic scene together.”
“Ah, well, it’s still not too late for that,” said Kincaid.
Watson looked at him. “What do you mean—’not too late’?”
Kincaid made a tiny movement with his head to gesture to one side. “Just look up ahead of us.”
Watson glanced over. His eyes widened.
“Great heavens.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Is that Uttridge, Langdale Pike’s agent?”
“Who?” whispered Mrs. Aspinall.
“Pike’s a gossip-monger for the London garbage papers.” Kincaid turned to Watson. “It just so happens I had a word with Wiggins, who had a word with Pike’s page, who managed to accidentally let his master know that Dr. John H. Watson and his former fiancée would be parting tearfully at this very station today.”
Watson attempted to loosen his cravat. “Dear God! Was that wise, old boy?”
Kincaid nodded with certainty. “Actors need an audience! It’ll add realism to your performance. Instead of Miss Morstan abruptly disappearing into the shadows, someone will actually have seen her leave. Word will quickly spread and everyone will believe that you were actually engaged.”
“But I can’t do a tearful farewell scene!” Watson’s expression was rather tense. “You know I can’t. You should have given me some lines to learn.”
Kincaid shook his head. “No. These things work best if they’re unscripted. If they come straight from the heart.”
Watson was quivering. “But really, old boy! I have no idea of what to say in these situations and—”
Kincaid put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Then listen and learn.”
He turned to Mrs. Aspinall.
“Perhaps, Watson, you could tell your Miss Morstan that you will always think fondly of her. And that although you might both feel unhappy now, it is the best decision for both of you. ” He glanced away. “Even if perhaps you might still sometimes regret it now and then.”
Mrs. Aspinall gave Kincaid a half-smile. “I’m sure Miss Morstan is made of strong stuff. She probably knows some people aren’t really suited to being a husband. And that people do get over this sort of thing eventually. ”
Watson looked uncertainly between Kincaid and Mrs. Aspinall. “Should I..?” He gestured to leave.
Kincaid shook his head. “No, of course not. Come on, it’s your cue—let’s get this scene started. I’ll wait here; off you two go. And make it good!”
Watson offered Mrs. Aspinall his arm. She took it, and with her other hand patted his arm reassuringly. She gave Kincaid a last grin, and then she and Watson continued on down the platform.
As they approached Uttridge and the train, Watson cleared his throat.
He turned to Mrs. Aspinall. “So… this is goodbye.”
“Yes, it seems it is.”
Mrs. Aspinall let go of Watson’s arm and climbed into the carriage. She closed the door, pushed down the window and leant out.
“Oh, but won’t you change your mind, John?”
Watson smiled tensely. “I think this is the best for both of us… Mary. Just think what you could do with that money. You could travel the world!”
“Go and have my own adventures,” said Mrs. Aspinall sadly.
Watson nodded. “I hope that you do.”
“I won’t ever forget you, John.” Mrs. Aspinall held out a hand and Watson moved closer to take it.
“I could never forget you. You were…” Watson furrowed his brow. “...an excellent fiancée.” He leant forward to whisper. “Er, do give my best to your husband.”
Mrs. Aspinall grinned. “I will.”
The whistle sounded and Watson let go of Mrs. Aspinall’s hand.
“Goodbye then, Mary.”
He took a step back, and the train began to move out of the station.
Mrs. Aspinall held up a hand in farewell.
Watson raised his hand in reply, and waved to Mrs. Aspinall until the train was out of sight. He turned away then, and with head bowed and shoulders artfully slumped, headed back down the platform towards Kincaid.
Watson stopped before his colleague, and Kincaid nodded once.
“Curtain and bravo. And Pike’s agent has just scurried off, so the reviews should be in shortly.”
He patted Watson on the shoulder.
“There you are, old boy. You’ve now got acting the lover as another string to your bow.”
Watson looked up and gave him a small smile. “It went quite well in the end, didn’t it? Bit of a strain playing the romantic lead though. Relieved I won’t ever have to do it again.”
“Well, what?” Watson regarded Kincaid warily.
Kincaid grinned. “It’s just—between your story and Pike’s report, you’re going to appear quite the eligible bachelor. Give it six months out of respect for your broken heart, and then you’ll be overwhelmed by female attention.”
“Great heavens! You can’t be serious.” Watson’s eyes were wide.
“I’m afraid I am,” said Kincaid, his grin getting wider.
“You know, I think I might just need a cup of tea…”
Watson staggered off towards the station’s exit.
Kincaid gave him an affectionate smile and called after him.
“My dear Watson! You could at least try and act pleased.”