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Chapter VIII - Sherlock Holmes Investigates
In the wooded upper reaches of Stoke Newington, four miles from any other structure, sits the government office known as Gairstowe House. In all respects it appears to be an ordinary country estate, but for the two-storey row of offices jutting from its left wing. This oddly shaped building is surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence, at the entrance of which stands a uniformed guard. On the morning following our episode at the Diogenes, the guard on duty was named Ian Turks. Upon our arrival at Gairstowe, I found myself making this young man's acquaintance while Holmes immediately threw himself down on all fours and began crawling about the grounds of the estate.
I have no doubt that Turks had never before seen a well turned-out, middle-aged gentleman behave in such a manner. Holmes sniffed about like a bloodhound, examining patches of grass with his convex lens and occasionally lying prostate for several moments, evidently absorbed in the deepest concentration. Though Turks, like the Palace Guards, was obviously trained to remain impassive in unusual situations, at length the young man was unable to contain his curiosity.
“Pardon me asking, mate,” said he, “but what is that fellow doing on the ground there?”
“Looking for footprints, no doubt,” I answered.
“Footprints! But all the footprints are inside! The bobbies found 'em.”
“He is aware of that, but he tends to carry his examinations a step or two beyond those of the official detectives.”
“Who is he then?”
“Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”
Turks gave a low whistle and stared again at my companion who had now rolled over on his back to survey the soles of his own shoes. “That's who he is? Cor! He's better looking in the drawings, isn't he!”*
Before I could formulate a reply, Holmes leapt to his feet and shouted across the grass to me. “Come along, Watson! There is nothing more to be learned here!”
Together we climbed the marble steps which led into the large entrance hall. There our cards were taken by a butler - rather too formally dressed for the early hour - who returned in a moment to conduct us into the presence of Lord O'Neill, the Secretary for European Affairs.
We were shown through a narrow corridor hung with oriental tapestries and into a large study lined with oak bookcases. Behind a scrivener's desk sat the man whom I took to be Lord O'Neill, and across from him sat a very large gentleman of stiff bearing, whom I did not recognise.
“Sherlock Holmes!” cried Lord O'Neill, rising so hastily that he swept a small stack of papers onto the floor. “I was delighted to receive your wire this morning! I wanted to send for you myself, but your brother, Mycroft, he, well-” He trailed off nervously. “And you must be Dr. Watson! You are welcome here, sir. Ah! Forgive me! I have been remiss! Allow me to present the honourable Herr Nichlaus Osey of Germany.”
The German rose and bowed formally in our direction. “I am pleased to meet the famous crime specialist,” he said in well-praised English, “though I did not expect that you would look quite this way”, he added, looking askance at Holmes's dishevelled, grass-stained clothing.
“Mr. Holmes's methods are a bit unorthodox,” Lord O'Neill said quickly, “but his results speak for themselves I assure you, I assure you. I was telling Herr Osey of your invaluable assistance during that ugly business back in 1900.”
“Ah, yes,” said Holmes carelessly, “a simple case, but not without some features of interest. I have recorded it in my notes as 'The Adventure of the Discursive Italian'.”
“Holmes,” I asked, though I saw that Lord O'Neill was anxious to proceed, “do you mean to say that you keep your own records of your cases?”
“Don't look hurt, old fellow! At the time you had deserted me for Mrs. Watson. I could not allow your lapse to disrupt the flow of crime history.”
“Fascinating,” I said. “ May I-?”
“Gentlemen, please!” Lord O'Neill cried. “The affair before us is a most pressing one! We must attend to it. Shall I ring for tea? Yes, we must have tea.” He darted to the bell-rope and pulled it urgently.
“Tea!” exclaimed Herr Osey. “At such a time! And all of this talk about records and discursive Italians. It is a wonder you British ever accomplish anything!”
Herr Osey, please,” said Lord O'Neill anxiously. “I'm sure-”
“Who is this remarkable woman with whom the prince has been so indiscreet?”
Many times in my years with Holmes have I seen him produce a startling revelation from the mist of seemingly unexceptional circumstances, but never has one of the abrupt observations had such tremendous impact. It was as if the two diplomats had been struck by lightning.
“Mr. Holmes!” cried Lord O'Neill, leaping to his feet.
“Mein Gott!” shouted Herr Osey. “Can this be? How could you-”
“Your tea, sir,” announced the butler, rolling in a large tea-trolley.
Herr Osey thrust his fists into his pockets and turned to the wall. Lord O'Neill fell heavily into a chair, the colour draining from his face, but he managed to collect himself sufficiently to acknowledge the arrival of the tea. The butler then withdrew, and both men turned to stare at Sherlock Holmes.
“Gentlemen! It is perfectly obvious! Allow me to explain. Lestrade has been good enough to leave the room in order, so it is difficult to see that a conference of some sort took place on the night of the crime. The brandy snifters on the sideboard point to a late evening, very likely while the larger gathering was taking place downstairs. The desk calendar has not been advanced since the day before yesterday. As Lord O'Neill is rather fastidious in such details, we may assume that the room has not been in use since then.”
“Perfectly sound,” admitted Lord O'Neill. “But how-”
“That the conference was an important one is rather strongly suggested by the presence of the Prince of Wales. Here is a cigar stub bearing the mark of his private stock. Even more revealing are the contents of this ashtray beside the armchair. In it there are two cigarette ends stained red. Unless one of you two gentlemen has taken to painting his lips, we may infer the presence of a woman.
“What sort of woman is is who smokes in such company? A rather strong-willed woman, certainly. Also, it would seem, a familiar of the Prince. Yet, rather than make use of the cigarette case we see here upon the desk, this woman's cigarettes were provided for her by Herr Osey, whose own stubs we see here in the same ashtray. This fact is not without implication.”
Herr Osey took the cigarette from his lips and stamped it out peevishly.
“The woman is a German, involved in some sort of diplomatic unpleasantness. This much is obvious by the involvement of you two gentlemen. So, what is the scene we have evolved? A large gathering at Gairstowe House after the theatre. While they are entertained downstairs, a smaller party assembles in this room to discuss business. This business must concern the documents which have since vanished. The prince and this mysterious woman-” Holmes paused and looked to Herr Osey.
“The Countess Valenka,” the German provided.
Holmes nodded. “-would not customarily be present at such an interview. Therefore they are the principals and you gentlemen are their representatives.”
“What can be the unpleasantness which would induce two former intimates to employ diplomatic representation? Well, now. The Prince has certain… compromising tendencies which are well known. Perhaps he has placed himself in the awkward-”
“Mr. Holmes, please!” cried Lord O'Neill wildly. “We have followed your reasoning quite closely. Pray do not continue!” While Herr Osey had listened to Holmes' discourse with a fascinated detachment, Lord O'Neill had become increasingly anxious, and he was now unable to control himself. “You have perceived the nature of our difficulty, and can now appreciate that it is sensitive beyond my ability to speculate.”
“Letters,” confirmed Herr Osey.
“Confound it! There is no milk for this tea!”
“No matter, my friend,” said Herr Osey. “We shall take it dark.”
“Yes, quite right,” said Lord O'Neill with an embarrassed laugh. “It's a silly thing, I know, but my nerves-“
“Indeed. We are all on edge.” Herr Osey took a cup of tea. “It is as you say, Mr. Holmes. We had met to discuss a number of indiscreet letters of which the Countess was threatening to make use.”
“And it is this letters we are now missing?”
“Yes,” Lord O'Neill resumed. “She had turned them over to us, after much discussion and a promise of rather substantial remuneration. But when I returned the following morning, the letters were missing.”
“Did you examine the room thoroughly? Was it disturbed in any way?”
“Nothing was disturbed or missing save the letters. And the only evidence of an intruder was these footprints behind the desk.”
“The footprints! Of course, let us have a look at the footprints,” said Holmes, crawling behind the desk. “Humm. Most remarkable. Watson, would you step over here?” he asked, brandishing his convex lens. “Have a look, will you?”
Behind the desk was a muddy cluster of footprints which seemed to have been made by someone shuffling in place for a time. “We are told that these are the footprints of Mr. Houdini,” Lord O'Neill said.
“Quite Right!” Holmes agreed. “In fact, I've had occasion to examine his shoes recently and I recognise the tread. And yet, I must say that in all my years of practice I have never seen such unusual impressions.”
“What is so extraordinary about them, Holmes?” I asked.
“What? My good fellow, what about them is ordinary? Observe: In an ordinary footprint the greatest pressure is exerted by the heel and ball of the foot. In these impressions, the greatest weight has been placed on the direct centre of the foot, the arch. What does this suggest to you?”
Holmes turned to me with a look of surprise. “You never cease to amaze, Watson,” he murmured. “Indeed, one wooden appendage is possible, but two? I think it more likely that these prints were made by a hand bearing down on the centre of a show.”
“In order to implicate Houdini?”
“Obviously. But what is truly suspicious is that there are no footprints leading to or away from this cluster, Could our muddy-footed thief simply have appeared directly in the centre of the room? And as to the mud itself, that is indeed peculiar. You are aware, Watson, that I have made a little study of the varieties of mud to be found about London. It is a useful knowledge for tracing one's movements by the spots upon his trouser cuff. Yet I cannot place the origin of this mud.”
“Why, it is the mud from outside, surely,” volunteered Herr Osey.
“Surely. But where outside? Not on the grounds of this estate. Of that I am certain. When we have located the source of this mud we shall have gone a long way towards our solution, I assure you.” Holmes stood up and gazed vaguely about the room. “It was just the four of you, then?”
“No one else came in or out?”
“Just the serving man.”
“We had tea then, as well.”
“At that hour?”
“The Prince enjoys it.”
“Quite right. I had forgotten. And when your business was concluded, the letters were surrendered and placed in the desk?”
“In the lower drawer.”
“Pardon me,” I ventured, “but am I to understand that the letters were left in an unlocked drawer? We were told that they were placed in a vault.”
Lord O'Neill could not resist chuckling at my confusion. “Dr. Watson, this room is a vault.”
“I don't understand.”
“Let me show you,” said Lord O'Neill, leading me into the narrow corridor through which we had entered. “See here,” he said, pulling aside the oriental hangings to reveal, recessed into the wall itself, an enormous vault door and the rails upon which it ran.
“Exactly like a bank vault,” I said admiringly.
“Actually, my friend, it is considerably more secure,” said Lord O'Neill with pride. “There are three separate locking mechanisms contained in this door. One British, one American, and the third European, making this one of the most secure vaults in the Empire. So you see, as there are no other entrances to the room, and no windows through which a man might pass, any object left in this room is as good as in the bank.”
“Or so you thought,” remarked Herr Osey.
“Yes, or so we thought.”
“Well, do not despair,” said Holmes. “We have but a few questions and then Dr. Watson and I shall make every effort to bring the matter to a happy conclusion. First, may we assume that no one can leave or enter the grounds of the estate without being observed by the guard?”
“Yes. There is a guard round the clock, and they keep an admitting list.”
“May we have a copy of the list for the evening of the reception?”
“I'll have it drawn up immediately.”
“Please be certain that it includes any help you were required to lay on for the affair-kitchen staff, footmen, and so on.”
“As you wish.”
“Fine. Now then, do you have a portrait of the Countess Valenka?”
“No Mr. Holmes. I do not.”
Herr Osey cleared his throat. “This may be of some use,” he said uneasily. He drew out his pocket-watch and opened it towards us. There on the inner cover was an ivory miniature of one of the most striking profiles I have ever seen.
“The countess gave this to me some time ago,” Herr Osey told us. “I realise that a photograph would be of more use to you, but-”
“Not at all, Herr Osey,” said Holmes as he bent over the miniature. “True, a photograph would have been more practical for purposes of identification, but this is informative nonetheless.” He glanced upward as Herr Osey closed up his watch and replaced it in his waistcoat pocket. “Yes, well. Humph. Where may we call upon the Countess?”
“She is staying at the Cleland.”
“Very good. We shall be on our way, then. Our first order of business is to exculpate Mr. Houdini, then we shall call upon the Countess Valenka. Good day, gentlemen.”
“Mr. Holmes,” said Lord O'Neill, “we are considerably less interested in the innocence or guilt of Mr. Houdini than in the recovery of the stolen letters.”
“Yes,” agreed Herr Osey, “let that be your first consideration.”
Sherlock Holmes picked up his hat and stick, and, striding blithely past the vault door, affected not to hear.