Chapter One: The Red-Headed Man
Autumn had come early to London. August was not yet over, but a storm of the most unusual ferocity was sweeping its way through the city, driving all those who had no pressing business outside to the comfort of their own hearth. Holmes had no cases to occupy him, and my old injury from Afghanistan was troubling me, so we were content to remain in companionable silence on either side of a roaring fire in our cosy sitting room in Baker Street, listening to the gale fling handfuls of rain to shatter against the windows and howl in the chimney, and busying ourselves with our landlady's excellent cinnamon toast.
There was a tap on the door.
"A visitor for Mr Holmes," she announced. "A Professor Weaselby."
"The learned gentleman's need must be desperate indeed to bring him out in such vile weather," Holmes remarked, brushing toast crumbs from his dressing gown and setting aside his book. "Very well – show him in."
The young man who entered presented an indefinably odd aspect. He was of no more than middle height, and dressed in a long, shabby travelling cloak that did not match his mud-stained army boots or his ebony and silver swordstick. A veritable bird's nest of bright red hair stood up from his head in wild disarray, framing a broad, freckled face. Nonetheless, his voice when he spoke was cultured and pleasant, despite an underlying note of panic.
"Mr Holmes?" he said. "Though to be sure, I would have known you anywhere – you are the very image of your brother."
"Indeed?" said Holmes. "I confess that you have me at a disadvantage."
"Ah yes… to be sure," said the professor in some confusion. "You would not know me, indeed... but perhaps I should begin at the beginning. My name is Giles Weaselby, and I am authorised on behalf of Hogwarts School to obtain your services in a most desperate matter – robbery, for certain, perhaps even murder!"
An extraordinary change passed over Holmes's face in the course of this short speech.
"Then there is nothing more to be said," he said, in a tone of cold fury I had hardly ever heard him use. "Kindly remove yourself from my rooms, Weaselby, before I take you by the collar and remove you myself!"
"Really, Holmes!" I exclaimed disapprovingly. "Professor Weaselby has come all this way in the middle of a storm to ask your advice. Even if you do not wish to help, there is no need to treat a learned man with such lack of respect!"
"My dear Doctor," Holmes replied in tones of the most ominous calm, "nobody can be more respectful of honourable professional titles earned through many years of hard work and devoted study than myself, but I would scorn to make use of an empty title granted as part of a sinecure. Besides, had this individual come to my door as an honest man should, on foot or even by cab in this weather, he would be dripping wet – and yet, as you see, his shoulders and boots are almost completely dry. Is that not so, professor? This man has nothing to say that we could possibly wish to hear. Now be off with you!"
The young man hung his head and made for the door.
"Very well… I had hoped perhaps… the school… but indeed it is too much to ask…"
"A great deal too much," replied Holmes, settling back in his chair and reaching for a treatise on the Plague Rats of Norway. "Shut the door on your way out. I do not bid you good day, sir."
The young professor (if such he was) bowed his head in defeat and turned to leave. Despite the man's obvious concern and distress, Holmes continued to ignore him with the most obdurate and inexplicable persistence. When the door closed to behind the unfortunate Weaselby I turned to my friend.
"For shame, Holmes!" I exclaimed. "I know better than any man the demands your profession makes on your temperament, but this is a step too far. This man has come in great haste from a school – an institution of learning and shelter for the young! – to consult you on a matter of urgency that could not be delayed. And yet you sit there, cool as a cucumber, and send him out into a raging storm without so much as a civil word. You do not even give him a chance to state his case! I confess I am disappointed. In all the years we have known each other, never once have I seen you turn your back on a woman or child in danger, or refuse your aid to the weak and helpless."
Holmes stared at me, fists clenched, mingled astonishment and fury contorting his face into a mask of rage. For a second I thought that he was actually going to strike me. Then his face and fists relaxed and he let out a strangled laugh.
"Truly, Watson, you are my conscience," he said with a wry smile. "You are in the right of it, as ever. Any school, however twisted its principles and unfit its staff, is indeed populated largely by the young and innocent… or at least they can generally claim to be such when they first arrive on the premises. Very well, my dear fellow, the innocent shall not suffer today if I can prevent it. That is to say, I shall give the man responsible for their care a chance to convince me of the rightness of his cause." He strode to the door and flung it open to reveal the quailing figure of the professor crouched by the door, where he had plainly been listening through the keyhole. "You heard all of that, did you not, Weaselby? Very good. You may cease grovelling in that undignified manner and go back to your master. Tell the headmaster that he should know that I do not conduct my business through underlings or intermediaries – if he has anything of significance to say he must come to me in person. Now get up and get out before I lose my patience!"
Weaselby flushed, scrambled to his feet and scuttled away down the stairs. Holmes and I listened in silence to his receding footsteps until we heard the slam of the front door behind him. I risked an enquiring glance at my friend.
He heaved a deep sigh and shrugged.
"Well, Watson," he said, "it seems that our little domestic interlude is at an end. You may as well get your hat and coat and prepare to be off."
"You intend to go, then?" I asked.
"I said nothing of the kind," Holmes retorted. "I merely agreed to listen to the headmaster's story, nothing more – for that school deserves no better from me and my kind. I tell you frankly, Watson, that after this afternoon's interview I find myself sorely ruffled – in need, in short, of the balm that only Mozart can supply. I believe that a very talented young viola player from Prague is playing the Sinfonia Concertante with the first violinist from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. If we make haste we should arrive before the curtain rises. And we had better make the most of it – if I do agree to undertake this case, it promises to have several features that will make a most sensational addition to your chronicles, but we are unlikely to be at leisure for some time."