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The House of Silk A Sherlock Holmes Novel
By Anthony Horowitz
Mulholland Books Copyright © 2011 Anthony Horowitz
All right reserved.
The Wimbledon Art Dealer
‘Influenza is unpleasant,’ Sherlock Holmes remarked, ‘but you are right in thinking that, with your wife’s help, the child will recover soon.’
‘I very much hope so,’ I replied, then stopped and gazed at him in wide-eyed astonishment. My tea had been halfway to my lips but I returned it to the table with such force that the cup and the saucer almost parted company. ‘But for heaven’s sake, Holmes!’ I exclaimed. ‘You have taken the very thoughts from my head. I swear I have not uttered a word about the child nor his illness. You know that my wife is away – that much you might have deduced from my presence here. But I have not yet mentioned to you the reason for her absence and I am certain that there has been nothing in my behaviour that could have given you any clue.’
It was in the last days of November, the year 1890, when this exchange took place. London was in the grip of a merciless winter, the streets so cold that the very gas lamps seemed frozen solid and what little light they gave out subsumed by the endless fog. Outside, people drifted along the pavements like ghosts, with their heads bowed and their faces covered, while the growlers rattled past, their horses anxious to be home. And I was glad to be in, with a fire blazing in the hearth, the familiar smell of tobacco in the air and – for all the clutter and chaos with which my friend chose to surround himself – a sense that everything was in its right place.
I had telegraphed my intention to take up my old room and stay with Holmes for a short while, and I had been delighted to receive his acquiescence by return. My practice could manage without me. I was temporarily alone. And I had it in mind to watch over my friend until I was certain that he was fully restored to health. For Holmes had deliberately starved himself for three days and three nights, taking neither food nor water, in order to persuade a particularly cruel and vengeful adversary that he was close to death. The ruse had succeeded triumphantly, and the man was now in the capable hands of Inspector Morton of the Yard. But I was still concerned about the strain that Holmes had placed upon himself and thought it advisable to keep an eye on him until his metabolism was fully restored.
I was therefore glad to see him enjoying a large plate of scones with violet honey and cream, along with a pound cake and tea, all of which Mrs Hudson had carried in on a tray and served for the two of us. Holmes did seem to be on the mend, lying at ease in his big armchair, wearing his dressing gown and with his feet stretched out in front of the fire. He had always been of a distinctly lean and even cadaverous physique, those sharp eyes accentuated by his aquiline nose, but at least there was some colour in his skin and everything about his voice and manner pronounced him to be very much his old self.
He had greeted me warmly, and as I took my place opposite him, I felt the strange sensation that I was awakening from a dream. It was as if the last two years had never happened, that I had never met my beloved Mary, married her and moved to our home in Kensington, purchased with the proceeds of the Agra pearls. I could have still been a bachelor, living here with Holmes, sharing with him the excitement of the chase and the unravelling of yet another mystery.
And it occurred to me that he might well have preferred it thus. Holmes spoke seldom about my domestic arrangements. He had been abroad at the time of my wedding and it had occurred to me then that it might not have been entirely a coincidence. It would be unfair to say that the entire subject of my marriage was forbidden, but there was an unspoken agreement that we would not discuss it at any length. My happiness and contentment were evident to Holmes, and he was generous enough not to begrudge it. When I had first arrived, he had asked after Mrs Watson. But he had not requested any further information and I had certainly provided none, making his remarks all the more unfathomable.
‘You look at me as if I were a conjuror,’ Holmes remarked, with a laugh. ‘I take it you have given up on the works of Edgar Allan Poe?’
‘You mean his detective, Dupin?’ I said.
‘He used a method which he termed ratiocination. In his view, it was possible to read a person’s innermost thoughts without their being spoken aloud. It could all be done from a simple study of their movements, by the very flicker of an eyebrow. The idea impressed me greatly at the time but I seem to recall that you were somewhat scornful—’
‘And doubtless I will pay for it now,’ I concurred. ‘But are you seriously telling me, Holmes, that you could deduce the sickness of a child you have never met, simply from my behaviour over a plate of scones?’
‘That and rather more,’ Holmes replied. ‘I can tell that you have just returned from Holborn Viaduct. That you left your house in a hurry, but even so missed the train. Perhaps the fact that you are currently without a servant girl is to blame.’
‘No, Holmes!’ I cried. ‘I will not have it!’
‘I am wrong?’
‘No. You are correct on every count. But how is it possible…?’
‘It is a simple matter of observation and deduction, the one informing the other. Were I to explain it to you, it would all seem painfully childish.’
‘And yet I must insist that you do just that.’
‘Well, since you have been so good as to pay me this visit, I suppose I must oblige,’ returned Holmes with a yawn. ‘Let us begin with the circumstance that brings you here. If my memory serves, we are approaching the second anniversary of your marriage, are we not?’
‘Indeed so, Holmes. It is the day after tomorrow.’
‘An unusual time then, for you to separate from your wife. As you yourself said just now, the fact that you have chosen to stay with me, and for a prolonged period of time, would suggest that there was a compelling reason for her to part company with you. And what might that be? As I recall, Miss Mary Morston – as she once was – came to England from India and had no friends or family here. She was taken on as a governess, looking after the son of one Mrs Cecil Forrester, in Camberwell, which is of course where you met her. Mrs Forrester was very good to her, particularly in her time of need, and I would imagine that the two of them have remained close.’
‘That is indeed the case.’
‘And so, if anyone were likely to call your wife away from home, it might well be her. I wonder then what reason might lie behind such a summons, and in this cold weather the sickness of a child springs instantly to mind. It would, I am sure, be very comforting for the afflicted lad to have his old governess back.’
‘His name is Richard and he is nine years old,’ I concurred. ‘But how can you be so confident that it is influenza and not something altogether more serious?’
‘Were it more serious, you would surely have insisted upon attending yourself.’
‘Your reasoning has so far been utterly straightforward in every respect,’ I said. ‘But it does not explain how you knew that my thoughts had turned towards them at that precise moment.’
‘You will forgive me if I say that you are to me as an open book, my dear Watson, and that with every movement, you turn another page. As you sat there sipping your tea, I noticed your eye drift towards the newspaper on the table right beside you. You glanced at the headline and then reached out and turned it face down. Why? It was perhaps the report on the train crash at Norton Fitzwarren a few weeks ago that disturbed you. The first findings of the investigation into the deaths of ten passengers were published today and it was, of course, the last thing you would wish to read just after leaving your wife at a station.’
‘That did indeed remind me of her journey,’ I agreed. ‘But the sickness of the child?’
‘From the newspaper, your attention turned to the patch of carpet beside the desk and I distinctly saw you smile to yourself. It was there, of course, that you once kept your medicine bag and it was surely that association that reminded you of the reason for your wife’s visit.’
‘This is all guesswork, Holmes,’ I insisted. ‘You say Holborn Viaduct, for example. It could have been any station in London.’
‘You know that I deplore guesswork. It is sometimes necessary to connect points of evidence with the use of imagination, but that is not at all the same thing. Mrs Forrester lives in Camberwell. The London Chatham and Dover Railway has regular departures from Holborn Viaduct. I would have considered that the logical starting point, even if you had not obliged me by leaving your own suitcase by the door. From where I am sitting, I can clearly see a label from the Holborn Viaduct Left Luggage Office attached to the handle.’
‘And the rest of it?’
‘The fact that you have lost your maid and that you left the house in a hurry? The smudge of black polish on the side of your left cuff clearly indicates both. You cleaned your own shoes and you did so rather carelessly. Moreover, in your haste, you forgot your gloves—’
‘Mrs Hudson took my coat from me. She could also have taken my gloves.’
‘In which case, when we shook hands, why would yours have been so cold? No, Watson, your entire bearing speaks of disorganisation and disarray.’
‘Everything you say is right,’ I admitted. ‘But one last mystery, Holmes. How can you be so sure that my wife missed her train?’
‘As soon as you arrived, I noticed a strong scent of coffee on your clothes. Why would you be drinking coffee immediately before coming to me for tea? The inference is that you missed your train and were forced to stay with your wife for longer than you had intended. You stowed your case at the left luggage office and went with her to a coffee house. Might it have been Lockhart’s? I’m told the coffee there is particularly good.’
There was a short silence and then I burst into laughter. ‘Well, Holmes,’ I said. ‘I can see that I had no reason to worry about your health. You are as remarkable as ever.’
‘It was quite elementary,’ returned the detective with a languid gesture of one hand. ‘But perhaps something of greater interest now approaches. Unless I am mistaken, that is the front door…’
Sure enough, Mrs Hudson came in once again, this time ushering in a man who walked into the room as if he were making an entrance on the London stage. He was formally dressed in a dark tail coat, wing collar and white bow tie with a black cloak around his shoulders, waistcoat, gloves and patent leather shoes. In one hand he held a pair of white gloves and in the other a rosewood walking stick with a silver tip and handle. His dark hair was surprisingly long, sweeping back over a high forehead, and he had neither beard nor moustache. His skin was pale, his face a little too elongated to be truly handsome. His age, I would have said, would have been in the mid-thirties and yet the seriousness of his demeanour, his evident discomfort at finding himself here, made him appear older. He reminded me at once of some of the patients who had consulted me; the ones who had refused to believe they were unwell until their symptoms persuaded them otherwise. They were always the most gravely ill. Our visitor stood before us with equal reluctance. He waited in the doorway, looking anxiously around him, while Mrs Hudson handed Holmes his card.
‘Mr Carstairs,’ Holmes said. ‘Please take a seat.’
‘You must forgive me arriving in this manner… unexpected and unannounced.’ He had a clipped, rather dry way of speaking. His eyes still did not quite meet our gaze. ‘In truth, I had no intention of coming here at all. I live in Wimbledon, close to the green, and have come into town for the opera – not that I’m in any mood for Wagner. I have just come from my club where I met with my accountant, a man I have known for many years and whom I now consider a friend. When I told him of the troubles I have been having, the sense of oppression that is making my life so damnably difficult, he mentioned your name and urged me to consult you. By coincidence, my club is not far from here and so I resolved to come straight from him to you.’
‘I am happy to give you my full attention,’ Holmes said.
‘And this gentleman?’ Our visitor turned to me.
‘Dr John Watson. He is my closest adviser, and I can assure you that anything you have to say to me can be uttered in his presence.’
‘Very well. My name, as you see, is Edmund Carstairs and I am, by profession, a dealer in fine art. I have a gallery, Carstairs and Finch on Albemarle Street, which has been in business now for six years. We specialise in the works of the great masters, mainly from the end of last century and the early years of this present one: Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable and Turner. Their paintings will be familiar to you, I am sure, and they command the very highest prices. Only this week I sold two Van Dyke portraits to a private client for the sum of £25,000. Our business is a successful one and we have flourished, even with so many new and – I might say, inferior – galleries sprouting in all the streets around us. Over the years we have built for ourselves a reputation for sobriety and reliability. Our clients include many members of the aristocracy and we have seen our works hung in some of the finest mansions in the country.’
‘Your partner, Mr Finch?’
‘Tobias Finch is rather older than myself, although we are equal partners. If there is one disagreement between us it is that he is more cautious and conservative than I. For example, I have a strong interest in some of the new work coming in from the continent. I refer to the painters who have become known as the impressionistes, such artists as Monet and Degas. Only a week ago I was offered a seaside scene by Pissarro which I thought to be quite delightful and full of colour. My partner, alas, took the opposite view. He insists that such works are little more than a blur, and although it is indeed the case that some of the shapes are indistinguishable at short range, I cannot persuade him that he is missing the point. However, I will not tire you gentlemen with a lecture on art. We are a traditional gallery and that, for now, is what we shall remain.’
Holmes nodded. ‘Pray continue.’
‘Mr Holmes, two weeks ago I realised that I was being watched. Ridgeway Hall, which is the name of my home, stands on one side of a narrow lane, with a cluster of almshouses some distance away at the end. These are our closest neighbours. We are surrounded by common land, and from my dressing room I have a view of the village green. It was here, on a Tuesday morning, that I became aware of a man standing with his legs apart and his arms folded – and I was struck at once by his extraordinary stillness. He was too far away for me to be able to see him clearly, but I would have said that he was a foreigner. He was wearing a long frock coat with padded shoulders of a cut that was most certainly not English. Indeed, I was in America last year and if I were to guess I would say it was from this country that he had originated. What struck me most forcefully, however, for reasons that I will shortly explain, was that he was also wearing a hat, a flat cap of the sort that is sometimes called a cheesecutter.
‘It was this and the way that he stood there that first attracted my attention and so unnerved me. If he had been a scarecrow, I swear he could not have been more static. There was a light rain falling, swept by the breeze across the common, but he didn’t seem to notice it. His eyes were fixed on my window. I can tell you that they were very dark and that they seemed to be boring into me. I gazed at him for at least a minute, perhaps longer, then went down to breakfast. However, before I ate, I sent the scullery boy out to see if the man was still there. He was not. The boy reported back that the green was empty.’
‘A singular occurrence,’ Holmes remarked. ‘But Ridgeway Hall is, I am sure, a fine building. And a visitor to this country might well have found it merited his examination.’
‘And so I told myself. But a few days later, I saw him a second time. On this occasion, I was in London. My wife and I had just come out of the theatre – we’d been to the Savoy – and there he was, on the other side of the road, wearing the same coat, again with the flat cap. I might not have noticed him, Mr Holmes, but, as before, he was unmoving, and with the crowds passing round on either side of him, he could have been a solid rock in a fast-flowing river. I’m afraid I was unable to see him clearly, however, for although he had chosen a position in the full glow of a street lamp, it had thrown a shadow across his face and acted like a veil. Though perhaps that was his intent.’
‘But you were sure it was the same man?’
‘There could be no doubt of it.’
‘Did your wife see him?’
‘No. And I did not wish to alarm her by making any mention of it. We had a hansom waiting and we left at once.’
‘This is most interesting,’ Holmes remarked. ‘The behaviour of this man makes no sense at all. He stands in the middle of a village green and beneath a street lamp. On the one hand, it’s as if he is making every effort to be seen. And yet he makes no attempt to approach you.’
‘He did approach me,’ Carstairs replied. ‘The very next day, in fact, when I returned early to the house. My friend, Finch, was in the gallery, cataloguing a collection of drawings and etchings by Samuel Scott. He had no need of me and I was still uneasy after the two sightings. I arrived back at Ridgeway Hall shortly before three o’clock – and it was just as well that I did, for there was the rogue, approaching my front door. I called out to him and he turned and saw me. At once, he began to run towards me and I was sure that he was about to strike me and even lifted my walking stick to protect myself. But his mission was not one of violence. He came straight up to me and for the first time I saw his face: thin lips, dark brown eyes and a livid scar on his right cheek, the result of a recent bullet wound. He had been drinking spirits – I could smell them on his breath. He didn’t utter a word to me but instead lifted a note into the air and pressed it into my hand. Then, before I could stop him, he ran off.’
‘And the note?’ Holmes asked.
‘I have it here.’
The art dealer produced a square of paper, folded into four, and handed it to Holmes. Holmes opened it carefully. ‘My glass, if you please, Watson.’ As I handed him the magnifying glass, he turned to Carstairs. ‘There was no envelope?’
‘I find that of the greatest significance. But let us see…’
There were just six words written in block capitals on the page.
ST MARY’S CHURCH. TOMORROW. MID-DAY.
‘The paper is English,’ Holmes remarked. ‘Even if the visitor was not. You notice that he writes in capitals, Watson. What do you suggest his purpose might be?’
‘To disguise his handwriting,’ I said.
‘It is possible. Although since the man had never written to Mr Carstairs, and is perhaps unlikely to write to him again, you would have thought his handwriting would have been of no consequence. Was the message folded when it was handed to you, Mr Carstairs?’
‘No. I think not. I folded it myself later.’
‘The picture becomes clearer by the minute. This church that he refers to, St Mary’s. I assume it is in Wimbledon?’
‘It is on Hothouse Lane,’ Carstairs replied. ‘Just a few minutes’ walk from my home.’
‘This behaviour is also lacking in logic, do you not think? The man wishes to speak with you. He places a message to that effect in your hand. But he does not speak. He does not utter a word.’
‘My guess was that he wished to talk to me alone. And as it happened, my wife, Catherine, emerged from the house a few moments later. She had been standing in the dining room which looks out onto the drive and she had seen what had just occurred. “Who was that?” she asked.
‘ “I have no idea,” I replied.
‘ “What did he want?”
‘I showed her the note. “It’s someone wanting money,” she said. “I saw him out of the window just now – a rough-looking fellow. There were gypsies on the common last week. He must have been one of them. Edmund, you mustn’t go.”
‘ “You need not concern yourself, my dear,” I replied. “I have no intention of meeting with him.” ’
‘You reassured your wife,’ Holmes murmured. ‘But you went to the church at the appointed time.’
‘I did exactly that – and carried a revolver with me. He wasn’t there. The church is not well attended and it was unpleasantly cold. I paced the flagstones for an hour and then I came home. I have heard no more from him since, and I have not seen him again, but I have been unable to get him out of my mind.’
‘The man is known to you,’ Holmes said.
‘Yes, Mr Holmes. You go right to the heart of it. I do believe I know the identity of this individual, although I confess I do not quite see the reasoning that has brought you to that conclusion.’
‘It strikes me as self-evident,’ Holmes replied. ‘You have seen him only three times. He has asked for a meeting but failed to show up. Nothing that you have described would suggest that this man is any threat to you, but you began by telling us of the sense of trouble and oppression that has brought you here and would not even meet him without carrying a gun. And you still have not told us the significance of the flat cap.’
‘I know who he is. I know what he wants. I am appalled that he has followed me to England.’
‘Mr Carstairs, your story is full of interest and if you have time before your opera begins, or perhaps if you will agree to forgo the overture, I think you should give us the complete history of this affair. You mentioned that you were in America a year ago. Was this when you met the man in the flat cap?’
‘I never met him. But it was on his account that I was there.’
‘Then you will not object if I fill my pipe? No? So take us back with you and tell us of your business on the other side of the Atlantic. An art dealer is not the sort of man to make enemies, I would have thought. But you seem to have done just that.’
‘Indeed so. My foeman is called Keelan O’Donaghue and I wish to Heaven that I had never heard the name.’
Holmes reached for the Persian slipper where he kept his tobacco and began to fill his pipe. Meanwhile, Edmund Carstairs drew a breath and this is the tale that he told.
The Flat Cap Gang
‘Eighteen months ago, I was introduced to a quite extraordinary man by the name of Cornelius Stillman who was in London at the end of a lengthy European tour. His home was on the East Coast of America and he was what is termed a Boston Brahmin, which is to say that he belonged to one of their most elevated and honoured families. He had made a fortune from the Calumet and Hecla mines and had also invested in the railroads and the telephone companies. In his youth, he had apparently had ambitions to become an artist and part of the reason for his visit was to visit the museums and galleries of Paris, Florence, Rome and London.
‘Like many wealthy Americans, he was imbued with a sense of civic responsibility that did him great credit. He had purchased land in the Back Bay area of Boston and had already begun work on the construction of an art gallery which he called The Parthenon and which he planned to fill with the finest works of art, purchased on his travels. I met him at a dinner party and found him to be a huge volcano of a man, brimming with energy and enthusiasm. He was rather old-fashioned in his dress, bearded and affecting a monocle, but he proved to be remarkably well informed, fluent in French and Italian with a smattering of ancient Greek. His knowledge of art, his aesthetic sensibility, also set him apart from many of his fellow citizens. Do not think of me as unnecessarily chauvinistic, Mr Holmes. He himself told me of the many shortcomings of the cultural life to which he had become accustomed as he grew up – how great paintings had been exhibited next to freaks of nature such as mermaids and dwarves. He had seen Shakespeare performed with interludes by tightrope walkers and contortionists. Such was the way of things in Boston at the time. The Parthenon would be different, he said. It would, as its name implied, be a temple to art and to civilisation.
‘I was overjoyed when Mr Stillman agreed to come to my gallery in Albemarle Street. Mr Finch and I spent many hours in his company, taking him through our catalogue and showing him some of the purchases we had recently made in auctions around the country. The long and the short of it was that he bought from us works by Romney, Stubbs and Lawrence but also a series of four landscapes by John Constable which were quite the pride of our collection. These were views of the Lake District, painted in 1806, and unlike anything else in the artist’s canon. They had a profundity of mood and spirit that was remarkable, and Mr Stillman promised that they would be exhibited in a large and well-lit room that he would design specifically for them. We parted on excellent terms. And in view of what happened, I should add that I banked a substantial sum of money. Indeed, Mr Finch remarked that this was undoubtedly the most successful transaction of our lives.
‘It now only remained to send the works to Boston. They were carefully wrapped, placed in a crate and dispatched with the White Star Line from Liverpool to New York. By one of those twists of fate that mean nothing at the time but which will later return to haunt you, we had intended to send them directly to Boston. The RMS Adventurer made that journey but we missed it by a matter of hours and so chose another vessel. Our agent, a bright young man by the name of James Devoy, met the package in New York and travelled with it on the Boston and Albany Railroad – a journey of one hundred and ninety miles.
‘But the paintings never arrived.
‘There were, in Boston at this time, a number of gangs, operating particularly in the north of the city, in Charlestown and Somerville. Many of them had fanciful names such as the Dead Rabbits and the Forty Thieves and had come originally from Ireland. It is sad to think that, having been welcomed into that great country, their return to it should have been lawlessness and violence, but such was the case and the police had been unable to restrain them or bring them to justice. One of the most active and most dangerous groups was known as the Flat Cap Gang, headed by a pair of Irish twins – Rourke and Keelan O’Donaghue, originally from Belfast. I will describe these two devils to you as best as I can, because they are central to my narrative.
‘The two of them were never seen apart. Although they were identical when they were born, Rourke was the larger of the two, square-shouldered and barrel-chested with heavy fists that he was always ready to use in a fight. It is said that he beat a man to death in a game of cards when he was barely sixteen. By contrast, his twin stood very much in his shadow, smaller and quieter. Indeed, he seldom spoke at all – there were rumours that he was unable to. Rourke was bearded, Keelan clean-shaven. Both wore flat caps and it was this that gave the gang its name. It was also widely believed that they carried each other’s initials, tattooed on their arms, and that in every aspect of their lives they were inseparable.
‘Of the other gang members, their names tell you perhaps as much as you would wish to know about them. There was Frank “Mad Dog” Kelly and Patrick “Razors” Maclean. Another was known as “The Ghost” and was feared as much as any supernatural being. They were involved in every conceivable form of street crime, robberies, burglaries and protectionism. And yet, at the same time, they were held in high regard by many of the poorer inhabitants of Boston who seemed unable to recognise them as the foul pestilence that they undoubtedly were to the community. They were the underdogs, waging war on an uncaring system. I need hardly point out to you that twins have appeared in mythology since the very dawn of civilisation. There are Romulus and Remus, Apollo and Artemis and Castor and Pollux, for ever immortalised as Gemini in the night sky. Something of this attached itself to the O’Donaghues. There was a belief that they would never be caught, that they could get away with anything.
‘I knew nothing about the Flat Cap Gang – I had never even heard of them – when I sent off the paintings at Liverpool but somehow, at exactly the same time, they were tipped off that a large amount of currency was about to be transferred from the American Bank Note Company in New York to the Massachusetts First National Bank in Boston a few days hence. The sum in question was said to be one hundred thousand dollars and it was travelling on the Boston and Albany Railroad. Some say that Rourke was the brains behind their operation. Others believe that Keelan was the more natural mastermind of the two. In any event, between them they arrived at the idea of holding up the train before it could reach the city and making off with the cash.
‘Train robberies were still prevalent in the western frontiers of America, in California and Arizona, but for such a thing to take place on the more developed eastern seaboard was almost inconceivable and that is why the train left the Grand Central Terminal in New York with only one armed guard stationed in the mail car. The banknotes were contained in a safe. And by some wretched chance, the paintings were still in their crate, travelling in the same compartment. Our agent, James Devoy, was travelling in second class. He was always assiduous in his duties and had taken a seat as close to the mail car as possible.
‘The Flat Cap Gang had chosen an area just outside Pittsfield for the attempted raid. Here, the track climbed steeply upwards before crossing the Connecticut River. There was a tunnel that ran for two thousand feet and, according to railway regulations, the engineer was obliged to test his brakes at the exit. The train was therefore travelling very slowly as it emerged and it was a simple matter for Rourke and Keelan O’Donaghue to jump down onto the roof of one of the wagons. From here, they climbed over the tender and, to the astonishment of the driver and his brakeman, they suddenly appeared in the engine cab with guns drawn.
‘They ordered the train to come to a halt in a forest clearing. They were surrounded by white pine trees that soared up all around, forming a natural screen behind which they might commit their crime. Kelly, Maclean and all the other members of the gang were waiting with horses – and with dynamite which they had stolen from a construction site. All of them were armed. The train drew in and Rourke struck the driver with the side of his revolver, concussing him. Keelan, who had not uttered a word, produced some rope and tied the brakeman to a metal stanchion. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang had boarded the train. Ordering the passengers to remain seated, they approached the mail car and began to set charges around the door.
‘James Devoy had seen what was happening and was in despair of the consequences. He must have guessed that the robbers were here for reasons other than the Constables. After all, very few people knew of their existence, and even if they’d had the wit or the education to recognise the work of an old master, there would have been no one to whom the paintings could be sold. While the other passengers cowered all around him, Devoy left his seat and climbed down, meaning to plead with the gang. At least, I assume that was his intention. Before he could say a word, Rourke O’Donaghue turned on him and gunned him down. Devoy was shot three times in the chest and died in a pool of his own blood.
‘Inside the mail car, the security guard had heard the shots and I can only imagine the terror he must have felt as he heard the gang members operating outside. Would he have unlocked the door if they had demanded it? We will never know. A moment later, a huge explosion rent the air and the entire wall of the carriage was blown apart. The guard was killed instantly. The safe with the money was exposed.
‘A second, smaller charge sufficed to open it and now the band discovered that they had been misinformed. Only two thousand dollars had been sent to the Massachusetts First National Bank, a fortune perhaps to these vagabonds, but immeasurably less than they had hoped for and expected. Even so, they snatched up the notes with whoops and cries of exaltation, not caring that they had left two men dead behind them and unaware that their explosives had utterly destroyed four canvases which alone were worth twenty times what they had taken. These, and the other works, were and are an incalculable loss to British culture. Even now I have to remind myself that a young and dutiful man died that day, but I would be lying to you if I did not say that, shameful to admit, I mourn the loss of those paintings just as much.
‘My friend, Finch, and I heard the news with horror. At first we were led to believe that the paintings had been stolen and would have preferred it had this been the case, for at least the works would still have been appreciated by someone and there was always a chance that they might be recovered. But such an unhappy accident of timing, wanton vandalism in pursuit of a handful of cash! How bitterly we regretted the route we had chosen and blamed ourselves for what had occurred. There were also financial considerations. Mr Stillman had paid a large deposit for the paintings but, according to the contract, we were entirely responsible for them until they were delivered into his hands. It was fortunate that we were insured with Lloyd’s of London or else we would have been wiped out, as eventually I would have no choice but to repay the money. There was also the matter of James Devoy’s family. I now learned that he had a wife and a young child. Someone would have to take care of them.
‘It was for these reasons that I resolved to travel to America and I left England almost at once, arriving first in New York. I met Mrs Devoy and promised her that she would receive some compensation. Her son was nine years old and a sweeter, more good-looking child would be hard to imagine. I then travelled to Boston and from there to Providence, where Cornelius Stillman had built his summer house. I have to say that even the many hours I had spent in the company of the man had failed to prepare me for the spectacle that met my eyes. Shepherd’s Point was huge, constructed in the style of a French chateau by the celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt. The gardens alone stretched out for thirty acres and the interior displayed an opulence beyond anything I could have imagined. Stillman himself insisted on showing me round, and it is a journey I will never forget. The magnificent wooden staircase that dominated the Great Hall, the library with its five thousand volumes, the chess set that had once belonged to Frederick the Great, the chapel with its ancient organ once played by Purcell… by the time we reached the basement with its swimming pool and bowling alley, I was quite exhausted. And as for the art! Well, I counted works by Titian, Rembrandt and Velasquez, and this before I had even reached the drawing room. And it was while I was considering all this wealth, the limitless funds on which my host must be able to draw, that an idea formed in my mind.
‘Over dinner that night – we were sitting at a vast, medieval banqueting table and the food was carried in by negro servants dressed in what you might call colonial style – I raised the subject of Mrs Devoy and her child. Stillman assured me that even though they were not resident in Boston, he would alert the city fathers who would take care of them. Encouraged by this, I went on to the matter of the Flat Cap Gang and asked if there was any way he could help bring them to justice, the Boston police having so far signally failed to make any progress. Might it not be possible, I suggested, to offer a sizeable reward for information as to their whereabouts and, at the same time, to hire a private detective agency to apprehend them on our behalf. In this way we would avenge the death of James Devoy and simultaneously punish them for the loss of the Constable landscapes.
‘Stillman seized on my idea with enthusiasm. “You’re right, Carstairs!” he cried, bringing his fist crashing down. “That’s exactly what we’ll do. I’ll show these bums that it was a bad day that they chose to hornswoggle Cornelius T. Stillman!” This was not his usual manner of speech, but we had between us finished a bottle of particularly fine claret and had moved on to the port and he was in a more than usually relaxed mood. He even insisted on funding the full cost of the detectives and the reward himself, although I had offered to make a contribution. We shook hands on it and he suggested that I stay with him while the arrangements were made, an invitation I was glad to accept. Art has been my life, both as a collector and as a dealer, and there was enough in Stillman’s summer home to keep me entranced for months.
‘But in fact, events took a swifter course than that. Mr Stillman contacted Pinkerton’s and engaged a man called Bill McParland. I was not invited to meet him myself – Stillman was the sort of person who must do everything alone and in his own way. But I knew enough of McParland’s reputation to be sure that he was a formidable investigator who would not give up until the Flat Cap Gang had been delivered into his hands. At the same time, advertisements were placed in the Boston Daily Advertiser offering a reward of one hundred dollars – a considerable sum – for information leading to the arrests of Rourke and Keelan O’Donaghue and all those associated with them. I was glad to see that Mr Stillman had included my name along with his own beneath the announcement, even though the money was entirely his.
‘I spent the next few weeks at Shepherd’s Point and in Boston itself, a remarkably handsome and fast-growing city. I travelled back to New York a few times and took the opportunity to spend several hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a poorly designed building, though containing a superb collection. I also visited Mrs Devoy and her son. It was while I was in New York that I received a telegram from Stillman, urging me to return. The size of the reward had achieved its aim. McParland had been given a tip-off. The net was closing in on the Flat Cap Gang.
‘I returned at once, taking a room at a hotel on School Street. And it was there, in the evening, that I heard from Cornelius Stillman what had occurred.
‘The tip-off had come from the owner of a dramshop – which is what the Americans call a saloon – in the South End, a less than salubrious part of Boston and one that was already home to a large number of Irish immigrants. The O’Donaghue twins were holed up in a narrow tenement house close to the Charles River, a dark, squalid building on three storeys with dozens of rooms clustered together, no hallways and just one privy serving each floor. Raw sewage ran through the corridors and the stench was only kept at bay by the fumes of charcoal, burning in a hundred tiny stoves. This hell-hole was filled with screaming babies, drunken men and mumbling, half-crazed women, but a rough construction, mainly of timber with a few pressed bricks, had been added separately at the back and this the twins had managed to make their own. Keelan had one room to himself. Rourke shared another with two of his men. A third room was occupied by the rest of the gang.
‘The money they had stolen from the train was already gone, frittered away on alcohol and gambling. As the sun set that evening, they were crouched around the stove, drinking gin and playing cards. They had no look-out. None of the families would have dared to peach on them and they were sure that the Boston police had long ago lost any interest in the theft of two thousand dollars. And so they were oblivious to the approach of McParland who was closing in on the tenement, accompanied by a dozen armed men.
‘The Pinkerton’s agents had been instructed to take them alive if they could for it was very much Stillman’s hope that he would see them in a court of law, besides which there were many innocent people in close proximity making an all-out gunfight something to be avoided if at all possible. When his men were in position, McParland took up the megaphone he had brought with him and called out a warning. But if he had hoped that the Flat Cap Gang would surrender quietly, he was disillusioned a moment later by a volley of shots. The twins had allowed themselves to be taken by surprise, but they were not going to give up without a fight, and a cascade of lead poured out into the street, fired not just out of windows but through holes punched in the very walls. Two of the Pinkerton men were gunned down and McParland himself was wounded, but the others gave as good as they got, emptying their six-shooters directly into the structure. It is impossible to imagine what it must have been like as hundreds of bullets tore through the flimsy wood. There was no protection. There was nowhere to hide.
‘When it was all over, they found five men lying together in the smoke-filled interior, their bodies shot to pieces. One had escaped. At first it seemed impossible, but McParland’s informant had assured him that the entire gang would be assembled in that place and during the gunfight it had seemed to him that six men had returned their fire. The room was examined and at last the mystery was solved. One of the floorboards was loose. It was pulled aside to reveal a narrow gulley, a drainage ditch which sank below the surface of the ground and continued all the way to the river. Keelan O’Donaghue had escaped by this means, although it must have been the devil of a tight squeeze for the pipe was barely large enough to contain a child, and certainly none of the Pinkerton’s agents was willing to give it a try. McParland led some of his men down to the river but by now it was pitch-dark and he knew any search would be fruitless. The Flat Cap Gang was destroyed but one of its ringleaders had got away.
‘This was the outcome that Cornelius Stillman described to me in my hotel that night, but it is not by any means the end of the story.
‘I remained in Boston another week, partly in the hope that Keelan O’Donaghue might even now be found. For a slight concern had risen in my mind. Indeed, it might have been there from the very start, but it was only now that I became conscious of it. It referred to that blasted advertisement which I have already mentioned and which bore my name. Stillman had made public the fact that I had been party to the reward and to the posse which had been sent after the Flat Cap Gang. At the time I had been gratified, thinking only of my sense of public duty and, I suppose, the honour of being associated with the great man. It now occurred to me that to have killed one twin and to have left the other alive might make me a target for revenge, particularly in a place where the very worst criminals could count on the support of so many friends and admirers. It was with a sense of nervousness that I now walked in and out of my hotel. I did not stray into the rougher parts of the city. And I certainly didn’t go out at night.
‘Keelan O’Donaghue was not captured and there was even some doubt that he had actually survived. He could have been wounded and died of blood loss, like a rat, underground. He could have drowned. Stillman had certainly persuaded himself that this was the case by the time we met for the last time, but then, he was the sort of man who never liked to admit failure. I had booked passage back to England on the SS Catalonia, run by the Cunard line. I was sorry not to be able to bid farewell to Mrs Devoy and her son, but I did not have the time to return to New York. I left the hotel. And I remember that I had actually reached the gangplank and was about to board the ship when I heard the news. It was being shouted out by a newsboy and there it was, on the front page.
‘Cornelius Stillman had been shot dead whilst walking in the rose garden of his home in Providence. With a shaking hand, I purchased a copy of the newspaper and read that the attack had happened the day before; that a young man wearing a twill jacket, scarf and flat cap had been seen fleeing from the scene. A manhunt had already begun and would spread all over New England, for this was the murder of a Boston Brahmin and no effort could be spared in bringing the perpetrator to justice. According to the report, Bill McParland was assisting the police and there was a certain irony in this, as he and Stillman had fallen out in the days before Stillman’s death. Stillman had held back half the fee that he had agreed with the Pinkerton man, arguing that the job would not have been fully completed until the last body had been recovered. Well, that last body was up and walking, for there could be no doubt at all as to the identity of Stillman’s assailant.
‘I read the newspaper and then climbed the gangplank. I went directly to my cabin and remained there until six o’clock in the evening when there was a tremendous hoot and the Catalonia lifted its moorings and slipped out of port. Only then did I return to the deck and watch as Boston disappeared behind me. I was hugely relieved to be away.
‘That, gentlemen, is the story of the lost Constables and my visit to America. I of course told my partner, Mr Finch, what had occurred, and I have spoken of it with my wife. But I have never repeated it to anyone else. It happened more than a year ago. And until the man in the flat cap appeared outside my house in Wimbledon, I thought – I prayed – that I would never have to refer to it again.’
Holmes had finished his pipe long before the art dealer came to the end of his narration, and had been listening with his long fingers clasped in front of him and a look of intense concentration on his face. There was a lengthy silence. A coal tumbled and the fire sparked. The sound of it seemed to draw him out of his reverie.
‘What was the opera you intended to see tonight?’ he asked.
It was the last question I had expected. It seemed to be of such trivial importance in the light of everything we had just heard that I wondered if he was being deliberately rude.
Edmund Carstairs must have thought the same. He started back, turned to me, then back to Holmes. ‘I am going to a performance of Wagner – but has nothing I have said made any impression on you?’ he demanded.
‘On the contrary, I found it of exceedingly great interest and must compliment you on the clarity and attention to detail with which you told it.’
‘And the man in the flat cap…’
‘You evidently believe him to be this Keelan O’Donaghue. You think he has followed you to England in order to exact his revenge?’
‘What other possible explanation could there be?’
‘Offhand, I could perhaps suggest half a dozen. It has always struck me that any interpretation of a series of events is possible until all the evidence says otherwise and even then one should be wary before jumping to a conclusion. In this case, yes, it might be that this young man has crossed the Atlantic and found his way to your Wimbledon home. However, one might ask why it has taken him more than a year to make the journey and what purpose he had in inviting you to a meeting at the church of St Mary. Why not just shoot you down where you stood, if that was his intent? Even more strange is the fact that he failed to turn up.’
‘He is trying to terrorise me.’
‘Indeed.’ Carstairs bowed his head. ‘Are you saying that you cannot help me, Mr Holmes?’
‘At this juncture, I do not see that there is a great deal I can do. Whoever he may be, your unwanted visitor has given us no clue as to how we may find him. If, on the other hand, he should reappear, then I will be pleased to give you what assistance I can. But there is one last thing I can tell you, Mr Carstairs. You can enjoy your opera in a tranquil state of mind. I do not believe he intends to do you harm.’
But Holmes was wrong. At least, that was how it appeared the very next day. For it was then that the man in the flat cap struck again.
At Ridgeway Hall
The telegram arrived the next morning, while we were sitting together at breakfast.
O’DONAGHUE CAME AGAIN LAST NIGHT. MY SAFE BROKEN INTO AND POLICE NOW SUMMONED. CAN YOU COME?
It was signed, Edmund Carstairs.
‘So what do you make of that, Watson?’ Holmes asked, tossing the paper down onto the table.
‘He has returned sooner, perhaps, than you had thought,’ I said.
‘Not at all. I was anticipating something very much like this. From the start, it occurred to me that the so-called man in the flat cap was more interested in Ridgeway Hall than its owner.’
‘You expected a burglary?’ I stammered. ‘But, Holmes, why did you not give Mr Carstairs a warning? At the very least you might have suggested the possibility.’
‘You heard what I said, Watson. With no further evidence, there was nothing I could hope to achieve. But now our unwanted visitor has most generously decided to assist us. He has quite probably forced a window. He will have walked across the lawn, stood in a flower bed and left muddy tracks across the carpet. From this we will learn, at the very least, his height, his weight, his profession and any peculiarities he may have in his gait. He may have been so kind as to drop some item or leave something behind. If he has taken jewellery, it will have to be disposed of. If it was money, that too may make itself known. At least now he will have laid a track that we can follow. Can I trouble you to pass the marmalade? There are plenty of trains to Wimbledon. I take it you will join me?’
‘Of course, Holmes. I would like nothing better.’
‘Excellent. I sometimes wonder how I will be able to find the energy or the will to undertake another investigation if I am not assured that the general public will be able to read every detail of it in due course.’
I had grown accustomed to such ribaldry and took it to be an indication of my friend’s good humour, so did not respond. A short while later, when Holmes had finished smoking his morning pipe, we put on our coats and left the house. The distance to Wimbledon was not great, but it was close to eleven o’clock when we arrived and I wondered if Mr Carstairs might not have given up on us altogether.
My first impression of Ridgeway Hall was that it was a perfect jewel box of a house and one well suited to a collector of fine art who would surely display many priceless things inside. Two gates, one on each side, opened from the public lane with a gravel drive, shaped like a horseshoe, sweeping round a well-manicured lawn and up to the front door. The gates were framed by ornate pilasters, each one surmounted by a stone lion with a paw raised as if warning visitors to stop and consider before deciding to enter. A low wall ran between the two. The house itself was set some distance back. It was what I would have termed a villa, built in the classic Georgian style, white and perfectly square, with elegant windows placed symmetrically on either side of the front entrance. This symmetry even extended to the trees, of which there were many fine specimens but which had been planted so that one side of the garden almost formed a mirror image of the other. And yet, at the very last moment it had all been spoiled by an Italian fountain which, though beautiful in itself, with cupids and dolphins playing in the stone and the sunlight sparkling off a thin veneer of ice, had nonetheless been positioned slightly out of kilter. It was quite impossible to see it without wishing to pick it up and carry it two or three yards to the left.
It turned out that the police had come and gone. The door was opened by a manservant, smartly dressed and grim-faced. He led us along a wide corridor with rooms leading off on both sides, the walls hung with paintings and engravings, antique mirrors and tapestries. A sculpture showing a shepherd boy leaning on his staff stood on a little table with curved legs. An elegant longcase clock, white and gold, stood at the far end, the gentle sound of its ticking echoing through the house. We were shown into the drawing room where Carstairs was sitting on a chaise longue, talking to a woman a few years younger than himself. He was wearing a black frock coat, silver-coloured waistcoast and patent leather shoes. His long hair was neatly combed back. To look at him, one might think he had just lost a hand at bridge. It was hard to believe that anything more untoward had occurred. However, he sprang to his feet the moment he saw us.
‘So! You have come! You told me yesterday that I had no reason to fear the man whom I believe to be Keelan O’Donaghue. And yet last night he broke into this house. He has taken fifty pounds and jewellery from my safe. But for the fact that my wife is a light sleeper and actually surprised him in the middle of his larceny, who knows what he might have done next?’
I turned my attention to the lady who had been sitting beside him. She was a small, very attractive person of about thirty years of age, and she impressed me at once with her bright, intelligent face and her confident demeanour. She had fair hair, drawn back and tied in a knot; a style that seemed designed to accentuate the elegance and femininity of her features. Despite the alarms of the morning I guessed that she had a quick sense of humour, for it was there in her eyes, which were a strange shade between green and blue, and her lips, which were constantly on the edge of a smile. Her cheeks were lightly freckled. She was wearing a simple dress with long sleeves, untrimmed and unbraided. A necklace of pearls hung around her neck. There was something about her that reminded me, almost at once, of my own, dear Mary. Even before she had spoken, I was sure that she would have the same disposition; a natural independence and yet a keen sense of duty to the man whom she had chosen to marry.
‘Perhaps you should begin by introducing us,’ Holmes remarked.
‘Of course. This is my wife, Catherine.’
‘And you must be Mr Sherlock Holmes. I am very grateful to you for replying so quickly to our telegram. I told Edmund to send it. I said you would come.’
‘I understand that you have had a very unsettling experience,’ Holmes said.
‘Indeed so. It is as my husband told you. I was woken up last night and saw from the clock that it was twenty past three. There was a full moon shining through the window. I thought at first that it must have been a bird or an owl that had disturbed me, but then I heard another sound, coming from inside the house, and I knew that I was wrong. I rose from my bed, drew on a dressing gown and went downstairs.’
‘It was a foolish thing to do, my dear,’ Carstairs remarked. ‘You could have been hurt.’
‘I didn’t consider myself to be in any danger. To be honest, it didn’t even occur to me that there might be a stranger in the house. I thought it might be Mr or Mrs Kirby – or even Patrick. You know I don’t completely trust that boy. Anyway, I looked briefly in the drawing room. Nothing had been disturbed. Then, for some reason, I was drawn to the study.’
‘You had no light with you?’ Holmes asked.
‘No. The moon was enough. I opened the door and there was a figure, a silhouette perched on the window sill, holding something in his hand. He saw me and the two of us froze, facing each other across the carpet. At first, I didn’t scream. I was too shocked. Then it was as if he simply fell backwards through the window, dropping down on to the grass, and at that very moment I was released from my spell. I called out and raised the alarm.’
‘We will examine the safe and the study momentarily,’ Holmes said. ‘But before we do so, Mrs Carstairs, I can tell from your accent that you are American. Have you been married long?’
‘Edmund and I have been married for almost a year and a half.’
‘I should have explained to you how I met Catherine,’ Carstairs said. ‘For it is very much connected with the narrative that I related yesterday. The only reason that I chose not to do so was because I thought it had no relevance.’
‘Everything has a relevance,’ remarked Holmes. ‘I have often found that the most immaterial aspect of a case can be at the same time its most significant.’
‘We met on the Catalonia the very day that it left Boston,’ Catherine Carstairs said. She reached out and took her husband’s hand. ‘I was travelling alone, apart, of course, from a girl whom I had employed to be my companion. I saw Edmund as he came on board and I knew at once that something dreadful had happened. It was obvious from his face, from the fear in his eyes. We passed each other on the deck that evening. Both of us were single. And by a stroke of good fortune we found ourselves seated next to each other at dinner.’
‘I do not know how I would have lasted the crossing if it had not been for Catherine.’ Carstairs continued the tale. ‘I have always been of a nervous disposition and the loss of the paintings, the death of Cornelius Stillman, the terrible violence… it had all been too much for me. I was quite unwell, in a fever. But from the very first Catherine looked after me and I found my feelings towards her growing even as the coast of America slipped away behind me. I have to say that I have always sneered at the concept of “love at first sight,” Mr Holmes. It is something I may have read in yellow-back novels but which I have never believed. Nonetheless, that is what occurred. By the time we arrived in England, I knew that I had found the woman with whom I wished to spend the rest of my life.’
‘And what, may I ask, was the reason for your visit to England?’ Holmes asked, turning to the wife.
‘I was married briefly in Chicago, Mr Holmes. My husband worked in real estate, and although in business he was well respected in the community, and a regular churchgoer, he was never kind to me. He had a dreadful temper and there were times when I even feared for my safety. I had few friends and he did everything in his power to keep it that way. In the last months of our marriage he actually confined me to the house, afraid perhaps that I might speak out against him. But then, quite suddenly, he became ill with tuberculosis and died. Sadly, his house and much of his wealth went to his two sisters. I was left with little money, no friends and no reason to wish to stay in America. And so I left. I was coming to England for a new start.’ She glanced down and added, with a look of humility, ‘I had not expected to come across it so soon, nor to find the happiness that had for so long been missing from my life.’
‘You mentioned a travelling companion who was with you on the Catalonia,’ Holmes remarked.
‘I hired her in Boston. I had never met her before – and she left my employ soon after we arrived.’
Outside, in the corridor, the clock chimed the hour. Holmes sprang to his feet with a smile on his face and that sense of energy and excitement that I knew so well. ‘We must waste no further time!’ he exclaimed. ‘I wish to examine the safe and the room in which it is contained. Fifty pounds has been taken, you say. Not a very large sum of money, all things considered. Let us see what, if anything, the thief has left behind.’
But before we could make a move, another woman came into the room and I saw at once that, though part of the household, she was as different from Catherine Carstairs as could be imagined. She was plain and unsmiling, dressed in grey, with dark hair tightly bound at the back of her neck. She wore a silver cross and her hands were knotted together as if in prayer. From her dark eyes, her pale skin and the shape of her lips, I surmised that she must be related to Carstairs. She had none of his theatricality but was more like the prompter, for ever cast into the shadows, waiting for him to forget his lines.
‘What now?’ she demanded. ‘First I am disturbed in my room by police officers asking absurd questions to which I cannot possibly know the replies. And that is not enough? Are we to invite the whole world in to invade our privacy?’
‘This is Mr Sherlock Holmes, Eliza,’ Carstairs stammered. ‘I told you that I consulted with him yesterday.’
‘And much good did it do you. There was nothing he could do; that was what he told you. A fine consultation, Edmund, I am sure. We could all of us have been murdered in our beds.’
Carstairs glanced at her fondly but at the same time with exasperation. ‘This is my sister, Eliza,’ he said.
‘You reside in this house?’ Holmes asked her.
‘I am tolerated, yes,’ replied the sister. ‘I have an attic room where I keep myself to myself and everyone seems to prefer it that way. I reside here, but I am not part of this family. You might as well speak to the servants as to me.’
Excerpted from The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz Copyright © 2011 by Anthony Horowitz. Excerpted by permission.
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