Early in the morning though it was, Sherlock Holmes was engaged in two simultaneous and all-consuming tasks: reading the newspaper, and ignoring the cold plate of breakfast on the table before him. He could feel Mrs Hudson glaring at him from the kitchen, despite the walls which stood between them, and he turned the page of his newspaper with an exaggerated rattle, in much the same hope as a medieval priest might have rung a bell to drive evil spirits from the room.
From a distance, he heard the door open and close. A moment later Mrs Hudson issued a cheery "good morning," which was followed by the reply of a low gargle, reminiscent of that issued by dying persons.
Footsteps approached the dining room. Recognizing the tread, he raised the newspaper so as to avoid making immediate eye contact.
If Russell caught him smiling, a scene would ensue.
The door opened, and Russell took three heavy steps into the room. Arriving at the breakfast table, she pulled out a chair and sat down, and, though Holmes did not actually see her collapse into an exhausted slump, he did hear the distinctive thud made by a skull which has come into accelerated contact with a polished expanse of oak.
Unperturbed, he waited, and a moment later, she spoke. Her voice was low and hoarse.
"Russell," he said, cordially.
There was a long pause. Then again, she said: "Holmes?"
Holmes arranged his features into an expression of mild curiosity, then lowered his paper, only to find that he might have saved himself the effort; she was not looking at him. Seeking her face, he found only the bright crown of her head. Her long braids were coiled, like Danish pastries, on the table beside her.
"Russell?" he said again.
"Holmes, I'm dying."
Holmes narrowed his eyes at her, and she seemed to feel it. She lifted her head long enough to squint blearily at him through her spectacles. Apparently, what she saw did not invigorate her; she immediately shut her eyes again, and let her forehead drop to its former resting place on the table.
"Ouch," she said, after a delay of a few seconds.
Confident of not being seen, Holmes permitted himself a small grin. "Cheer up, Russell," he said, bracingly. "You aren't dying."
She groaned. "That diagnosis is not cause for i cheer /i , Holmes. Entirely the reverse, I assure you."
"If not for the expectation of my imminent expiration, Holmes, I should despair."
Feeling the threat of another smile, Holmes stood up. He wound his way around the table and disappeared into the kitchen. Mrs Hudson, with more prudence than mercy, had set out for the market already, but this was one recipe with which Holmes did not require any assistance.
Minutes later, he re-entered the dining room to find Russell precisely where he had left her.
"Here," he said, holding the tumbler out. "Drink this."
Slowly, Russell opened her eyes. She blinked at him twice, sideways, then straightened in her chair and took the glass from his hand. Her nose wrinkled as she peered down at its contents.
"I'm sorry," she said, "did you say I was meant to i drink /i this?"
"I suppose you could bathe in it," said Holmes, "but it will be most efficacious taken internally."
She looked dubious. "I warn you, Holmes. If this is a mean-spirited prank, the joke will be entirely on your dining room floor."
The corner of his mouth quirked helplessly. "Russell, I am too old a sinner to regard your plight without compassion." He nodded at the glass. "Trust me."
Russell gave a long and windy sigh, then screwed her eyes shut and lifted the glass to her mouth. Seconds later the glass met the surface of the table with a sharp crack. Russell was sitting bolt upright in her chair, fingers clenching the glass spasmodically. Her eyes were wide. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"Why," she said hoarsely, after a long moment in which she seemed to have difficulty finding her voice, "have you not patented this?"
"It is not my invention, sadly. I owe it to an acquaintance of mine. Brilliant fellow. Gentleman's gentleman. Entirely wasted in his line of work."
"He's a wizard," she said, and slumped back in her chair, the relaxation in her features expressing the utmost relief.
Holmes took his seat again on the other side of the table and turned a severe look upon his apprentice. A few beats later, he began to drum his fingers against the surface of his folded newspaper. He knew perfectly well that he was exuding reproof and disapproval, but Russell merely smiled at him with a bright flash of teeth. She positively radiated health and well-being.
"A responsible mentor," he said at last, "might ask how a respectable young lady of sixteen came by such a spectacular case of over-indulgence."
She was a moment answering, having discovered that the eggs in the chafing dish were still warm. She reached across the table and seized the clean plate under his newspaper with thumb and forefinger, then set about filling it.
After she had swallowed her first mouthful of eggs and was loading her fork for the second one, she said, "Like so many malefactors before me, I can only plead self-defense."
One eyebrow soared in the direction of his hairline. "I beg your pardon?"
Another pause to allow for swallowing. "You must know that my aunt never misses an opportunity to make a display of her nominal conversion to Anglicanism."
"I believe you mentioned that the day she attempted to remove the mezuzah from the door of your house," he said, a strange, sinking feeling in his stomach. In some part of his mind, Holmes realized, he had been waiting for Russell to say the words 'my aunt' and 'self-defense' in the same sentence for as long as he had known her. "Erm. Whatever became of that?"
"We had a talk."
Yes, thought Holmes. Russell, cheerful, was definitely a worrisome sight. "A talk?"
"A certain envelope addressed from Downing Street may have featured in the discussion." She took a delicate bite of cold toast and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "Also, knives."
This did not allay his fears, but as the incident had occurred some months ago, and the woman was known to be alive as recently as last week, he did not pursue the line of questioning.
"You may have heard," Russell continued, "that my aunt has managed to so insinuate herself into the parish as to have secured a position of some responsibility in the Mother's Union."
"Indeed. I believe they warmed to her somewhat slowly, but there was simply no arguing with success."
Holmes started to say one thing, then changed his mind and said another. "Success?"
"Since my aunt's appointment to the head of the fundraising committee, the Mother's Union has tripled the profits from its tea-and-baked-goods sales."
"Ah." Holmes reached for the coffee carafe. "Success indeed."
"Yes. I fear, however, that in the flush of her success they have not inquired too closely into her methods."
"What methods are those?"
"Liberal doses of whiskey in the tea. Oh, and of late, she has taken to hosting bridge games at my house of an evening. Unimpeachable, but for the rather enormous betting pool."
Holmes fell silent, arrested by the mental picture of Susannah Klein greeting her guests at the door with a smile and an outstretched palm. This image was shortly replaced by that of Russell's aunt making visits after dark to the homes of her more impecunious guests, flanked by muscular men with clubs. Then a thought struck him.
"Is that the origin of your...indisposition?" Holmes inquired delicately. "Too much of your aunt's—tea?"
"Would that it were, Holmes," she said, a hint of remembered misery in her voice. "But no. No. You see, there was—an occurrence last night."
"An occurrence." It was news to him that one of the effects of over-indulgence was becoming uncharacteristically elliptical, but then, Russell was always surprising him. He was nonetheless tired of repeating each of her statements in the form of a question.
"Yes."An expression of exquisite distaste settled over Russell's features, and she pushed her plate away—a gesture which might have been more evocative, had she not already cleaned it to the last crumb. "One of my aunt's... i gentlemen callers /i chanced to be leaving the house last evening. Just as—another—was arriving."
Holmes blinked. Russell scowled at the table, continuing to look somewhat ill. Holmes blinked again, and searched for a phrase within that statement which he might contemplate without making himself unwell.
But there were none, so he swallowed, and said, "Your aunt has...callers?"
"Of late, yes. And they have effected a most startling metamorphosis in her, Holmes. I...once thought her endowed of i some /i common sense." She caught sight of his expression and frowned. "Really, Holmes. I may loathe the woman with the fiery heat of a thousand suns, but I am capable of detached judgment. I thought better of her than this, I truly did. But she has forsaken the dignity of respectable spinsterhood for coyness and affectations which would be only mildly less revolting in a girl my own age." She paused, considering. "Unless there's money on the table, of course. i Then /i she sobers quickly enough."
"I begin to understand why you claim motives of self-defense."
"I'm afraid that I'm not nearly to the end of the story yet."
"Fearful news indeed." Holmes took a fortifying gulp of his rapidly cooling coffee and considered for a moment whether Russell would take it amiss if he emulated the Klein woman and made a fresh pot of coffee, seasoned with some more bracing stimulant.
"As I was saying," Russell continued, "when Monsieur Sauveterre encountered Senor Rochas leaving through the back door, there was an altercation."
Holmes blinked, but chose not to inquire how Russell's aunt had managed to attract such cosmopolitan clientele to gatherings which were, at least nominally, church socials. "A jealous row?" he hazarded.
"Holmes." Russell peered at him over the top of her spectacles. "Does my aunt strike you as the sort of woman likely to engender jealousy in—anyone?"
"Ah." Holmes thought for a moment. "No. But then, I cannot say that your aunt ever struck me as the sort to—well, no. I don't suppose I can say that either."
"Precisely." Russell took a sip of her own coffee. "There was no jealousy involved. The conflict was over money."
"I see," said Holmes. It was a measure of the severity of the shocks he had endured that morning that this news came as a relief.. "Which gentleman was the debtor?"
"Monsieur Sauveterre. Unfortunately for Senor Rochas, he was also the more athletic of the pair, and managed to entangle Senor Rochas in his opera cape while he escaped into the house again and fled upstairs." Russell closed her eyes, strain palpable in her features. "To my room."
"My dear Russell," said Holmes, straightening indignantly in his chair.
"He accosted me in his panic, and once I had recovered from mine I came to understand that he wished to borrow some of my clothing. As I happen to own several hats and dresses which could hardly be put to any better use, I obliged him." Her eyebrows arched delicate, and her gaze grew distant. "He made a rather fetching girl."
"I see," said Holmes faintly, though in truth he was exerting every ounce of his mental discipline to block that particular image. He had nothing against androgynous boys in skirts, any more than he did against androgynous young ladies in trousers. But there were too many horrible implications arising from the fact that the boy in question was dallying with the Klein woman. And while Holmes had not actually eaten any breakfast, he had no wish to spoil his lunch.
"I offered to let him make use of my emergency exit, but he rather quailed at the idea of scaling down the side of the house. I assured him that the rope was perfectly secure, but he had already proven that physical courage was not among his attributes."
"And did his disguise enable him to escape the house unmolested?"
"Not entirely. There were...complications."
"Then excuse me for a moment," said Holmes, and, taking his cup and the coffee carafe from the table, he carried them into the kitchen. A few minutes later, he returned, cup and carafe full. If there chanced to have been a finger of whiskey already standing in his cup when he poured it, that was no one's business but his own.
"I may have forgotten to mention," said Russell, after raising her cup to her nose and inhaling deeply, "that Monsieur Sauveterre and I are more or less of a height. And build. And that our hair is of a similar color."
"A fortuitous coincidence for that gentleman," said Holmes, having drained half his coffee already, and thus feeling charitably inclined to the fellow, despite his outrageous conduct towards Russell.
"Thus attired in my clothing, Monsieur Sauveterre slipped out my door and back into the hallway. At which point he encountered my aunt, on her way to fetch me." Russell sighed. "She was...not, strictly speaking, sober."
"One could hardly expect her not to sample her own wares. For the sake of quality."
"Please keep your low jokes to yourself for the present, Holmes." Russell had returned to rubbing the bridge of her nose. He suspected that the health-giving effects of his tonic were wearing off. "She was not merely drunk, but more or less blind, having refused to don her spectacles in the presence of her—admirers, I suppose one must call them. There was the predictable outcome. Senor Rochas was in a foul temper, owing to his brief encounter with Monsieur Sauveterre, and as Senor Rochas is a principle contributor to the pot, my aunt was desirous that he be mollified. Charmed, even." She met Holmes' gaze with weary eyes. "And as I happened to be the only unattached female in the house..."
"If no murder has been done before the conclusion of this story," said Holmes, "I shall be disappointed."
"Not to give away the ending, Holmes, but I'm afraid the only inert body was my own. i Is /i my own," she added with a wince. "But I am getting ahead of myself.
"What Monsieur Sauveterre made of my aunt's remonstrations, I am unsure. But he allowed her to lead him into the parlor, where, as I later learned for myself, Senor Rochas was drowning his sorrows at an accelerated pace. I doubt he was nearly so intoxicated, or myopic, as my aunt, but he was rather preoccupied, and I do not believe he gave Monsieur Sauveterre much more than a glance. He was convinced, you see, that Monsieur Sauveterre was still somewhere in the house."
"With some justification," said Holmes.
"He began to insist that a search of the house be made. When no one would oblige him, he decided to undertake the task himself. And when the ground floor did not yield his quarry, he ascended the stairs. Where, like Monsieur Sauveterre before him, he discovered that the first unlocked door on the corridor was mine."
"I trust," said Holmes, quelling a second burst of indignation, "that you have learned your lesson, where the security of your person is concerned."
"In my defense, I was making preparations for flight, and did not consider the measure necessary. If he had tarried a minute longer, I would have been gone." She sighed again, gustily. "As matters stood, he came upon me dressed in my walking clothes. With my hair pinned up beneath my cap."
Holmes felt that interruptions would be unwise at this juncture—Russell had a strange, manic look about her, and he had no wish to provoke her—but he could not help musing to himself that he had seen a play rather like this once.
"He began to shout that he had found—well, not me, but you know—and then," a strange, guilty look flitted across her face, "he lunged at me."
Holmes coughed. "I hope you didn't hurt him very much more than necessary."
"Well, no. Not very much. At least—well, who's to say what's 'necessary,' anyway?" Russell waved her hand negligently. "At this point, Senor Rochas' cries had drawn the attention of the crowd downstairs, and several of them, my aunt included, came pelting down the corridor. They arrived to—what you might call an awkward scene."
"A delicate way of putting it."
"My aunt began to scream, and the rest of them seemed to have that peculiar, glassy-eyed fervor I have always associated with lynch mobs. And as my window was open, and my bag packed, I tell you, Holmes, without any shame whatever—I legged it."
"I hope," he said, "that you had the sense to cut the rope after you."
"I would have done, but most of them appeared to be too drunk to manage the climb. Tying it up again would have been such a bother, and the fall wouldn't hurt anyone much, anyway."
Holmes approved of her logic, but felt, obscurely, that it would be indiscreet to say so. "Where did you go then?"
"Oh, nowhere in particular. I simply wandered. I had a book and the last of Mrs Hudson's hamper, and there was quite enough moonlight for reading. It was cold, however, and I was not able to stay outdoors for quite as long as I wished. Which is to say that when I returned, some of the guests were still present. I observed Senor Rochas through the parlor window, but as the rest of the crowd had dispersed, I thought it safe to enter through the front door. I did, however, take the precaution of letting down my hair."
"Your aunt did not comment on the lateness of your arrival?"
"My aunt was...indisposed." Russell shrugged. "At the baccarat table."
"Senor Rochas saw me, though. Smiled, in fact. At the time, I saw no reason not to smile back. Then I decided to take pity on the housekeeper and take a few stray glasses to the kitchen. When I came back, Senor Rochas was gone. And I made my way up to bed."
Russell refilled her coffee mug from the carafe. "I did not, at the time, think to wonder how Monsieur Sauveterre had extricated himself from the house. I simply assumed that he had slipped out while Senor Rochas was accosting me upstairs. Alas—I had overestimated his common sense.
"It seems that he waited in the parlor until Senor Rochas and the rest of the guests returned. There was a game of gin rummy just beginning when Senor Rochas embarked on his hunt through the house, and Monsieur Sauveterre, apparently realizing that his disguise was, for all intents and purposes, foolproof, decided to buy in." Russell stared into the depths of her cup. "No one thought to ask him for security, you see. It was well known at that table that Mary Russell was a wealthy young woman."
The corner of his mouth were once again twitching dangerously. "I see," he said, and took another sip of coffee, which was by now mostly whiskey.
"I did not know this at the time, however. I pieced it together later, after I went up to my room. Where I found Senor Rochas seated on my bed, still smiling."
Holmes choked. Russell ignored him.
"My Spanish is, I admit, rather weak," she said, "but eventually, I came to understand that he had come to collect on the rather substantial debt I apparently owed him from the night's gaming." Her lips pursed. "With a bit more effort, he also managed to communicate his willingness to forget the debt. Or rather, to consider it a bride-price."
"Apparently, he considered that a wealthy young woman who would be forgiving of his fondness for the gaming tables was precisely the sort of wife he was looking for." She shrugged. "To be fair, I believe Monsieur Sauveterre encouraged the notion."
"Nonetheless," huffed Holmes, not in the least mollified.
"I was, by that point, entirely too aggrieved to explain the situation to the poor man. I pleaded a pre-existing attachment, assured him that I would send him a check for the sum I owed him, and ushered him out of the room. And then," she said, with an air of finality, "I locked the door."
"I should hope so," he said, with more than a touch of asperity.
They sat in silence for several long moments, during which Russell discovered that her coffee cup was empty. She reached for the carafe, only to discover that it too had been drained. She pushed the empty cup away from her with a petulant frown, and stared through the window, past his shoulder.
Eventually, Holmes cleared his throat.
"It hardly seems relevant at this point," he said, somewhat cautiously, "but I confess that I am still unclear as to how you arrived at the condition you were in an hour ago."
"Oh, yes," she said, sounding surprised. "That. Well. There isn't much to it, I'm afraid. Only, after I locked the door, I sat on my bed and stared at the wall for a few minutes, trying to decide whether I wished to become hysterical or simply go back downstairs and kill my aunt. Slowly. With a poker chip.
"And at that point, I saw a strange lump lying on the seat of my desk chair. I got up to look at it, and I found that it was my dress, the one I gave Monsieur Sauveterre. You've never seen it, Holmes—it's a hideous piece of brown sacking, I gave it to him on purpose to get rid of it. Pinned to the dress was a letter from Monsieur Sauveterre, thanking me for my assistance that evening." Her voice, steady till then, rose suddenly in pitch. "And inside the letter was a five pound note, and a post script, advising me, with his compliments, to go and buy myself something pretty!"
The coffee cup she had been holding met the surface of the table with a sharp crack. Her shoulders heaved once, then twice; then she spoke, her voice again pitched normally.
"And it was at that point, Holmes," she said, "that I decided to become egregiously, offensively drunk." She looked at him with fierce eyes. "And I don't want to hear a single word about it."
Another silence fell, more profound than the first. Holmes felt a strange knot forming in his throat, while Russell simply sat with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at her empty coffee cup.
Holmes lifted his own to take another sip, but the volume of alcohol to coffee had become disproportionate, and the mixture, though undoubtedly bracing, tasted foul. He started to push it away, then looked at it consideringly.
Then he looked up at Russell, and smiled. "Here," he said, sliding the cup across the table. "You need this more than I do."
And at that, he left the table. If he lost control and started to laugh in Russell's presence, a scene would undoubtedly ensue.