a/n: Got the idea for this while reading "Inside the Victorian Home" by Judith Flanders. It is subtle, perhaps, this story. Or perhaps not; it's all on how you see it.
It was a mild September afternoon; the windows were open as we ate lunch. I was starting on my sandwich, while Holmes had just begun to pour his tea. Nothing at all seemed out of the ordinary. It was a shock, therefore, when the door to the sitting room was flung open and banged loudly against the wall. We turned to find not some peppery gentleman, but a young lady, perhaps fourteen years old, with a hopeful smile and a lovely hat. She made no move to take off her hat, or the smile, but came right in.
Holmes finished pouring tea in silence, his eyes going from the water level to the girl who was looking about. When he had finished he turned his full attention to her. "It would seem my landlady made an unexpected trip to the market, for she did not send in your card, nor did I hear her calling as you entered."
"Cards! That's the exact reason I came today. You are wonderful, just as my brother has told me—he reads about you in the Strand."
Holmes and I exchanged a quick glance. Surely such an innocent girl would have nothing to do with playing cards?
"Young lady, can it really be about cards that you have come?"
"Yes, it is—oh, such a mystery. I only hope you can solve it." She sighed, and with a more sober spirit dragged a third chair to the table and sat down with us, seeming to melt a little in despair. She brightened when her gaze fell on Holmes' drink. "That tea looks delicious, may I try some?"
Without hesitation Holmes poured her a glass. After her inquisitive finger found the drink too hot to taste yet, our visitor leaned forward and began her story.
"I am telling the truth when I say: cards have been the worst torture of my life. It isn't anything sudden that made me come to you, sir, it's only I can't stand this mystery any longer. What is the mystery? The strange cards, of course! Most of my family is involved in cards, and so is all London. At least it seems that way sometimes."
I fumbled for the case notebook. "Young lady, are you inferring that there is a serious gambling ring about, and your family is one of the main perpetrators?"
"I don't know about gambling," she said doubtfully, reaching across the table and taking the sugar bowl, which she fairly emptied into her tea. "By the way, does your sugar have sand in it? Mother says to be sure that sugar doesn't have sand in it."
"I ran a test on it only last night," Holmes assured her, pointing to a glass of solution next to the butter dish. "It is quite safe. May I ask after your name?"
"Yes, it is Patience."
"Please go on, Miss Patience. You think gambling is not involved with this business of the cards; what more can you tell us?"
"Well, I've always known about cards, since I was very little. My mother has simply boxes of cards in her room, my older sister has cards too as does my father…my younger brother and I haven't any cards, which is rather strange, and all part of the mystery."
During the beginning of this little speech I was gripped with an icy horror. What miserable excuse for a mother hoarded playing cards in her room, moreover in plain sight where her daughter would find them? At the mention of the lad, however, things came into a better light.
"Yes, Watson, I believe our thoughts run in the same manner. Miss Patience, are these calling cards that find themselves such a ubiquitous guest in your home?"
"I believe that's what they're called," she agreed dismally. "So it seems you know of them too...I hope no one has been stealing them from you." Taking up my spoon, she began the studious task of stirring the layers of wet sugar, which had formed a sediment on the bottom of the mug and quite displaced half the tea onto the tablecloth.
I lay down the notebook; this was going nowhere but madness.
Holmes pressed the tips of his long fingers together. "It would appear your mother invests a little more time in social matters, perhaps, than she ought, judging from how many cards she possesses. But this is clearly not what's troubling you."
"You're right, of course." Patience gave a weary sigh and drank a spoonful of the tea. "It is something darker, and more confusing. I was very small when it happened for the first time. My mother took me to someone's house; I didn't understand what we were doing there. I do remember, though, that mother left a card at that house before we left. But our hostess! Mr Holmes, she did the meanest thing! Looking right at me, directly at me, with a smile, she took hold of a corner of my mother's lovely card and bent it! Oh! it was horrible--as if that corner was my neck and she was breaking it!" She paused, breathing rapidly in rage.
I choked on my tea and looked to Holmes; though he had a twinkle in his eye, he nodded gravely to our client. "This is a shocking case indeed; pray continue."
"Well, the same instance repeated itself in different houses, and I became convinced that there was some evil rumor going about, concerning myself. Also there must be a dark scheme, too evil to speak of: a scheme in which greedy folk try to get all these cards to themselves. I don't know what to make of it, neither can I understand why my older sister has these cards, and hers—Mr Holmes, hers are never bent!"
Holmes paused, finger to his lips, before sitting forward and meeting her gaze. "I believe I have solved the mystery: you have no idea what calling cards are for. Your speculations are fantastic, though based on excellent observation. Would you like me to explain?"
"Very well, let me fetch one of mine. Now, look. Here is my name, there my profession. In this right-hand corner would be the name of my club, if I had one. So you see a calling card is somewhat of--a miniature version of yourself, you understand. When your mother gives a card, or leaves it—she does sometimes leave a card without visiting? Well, this is how she lets friends know she was there, or if she has a visit it is the way they can remember who has been visiting them, and who they must return the favor. I do not visit much myself, but I believe what I've just told you is generally how ladies use their calling cards."
"But how about the turning of the corner?" she begged.
"Since you have no cards of your own, the corner is bent to show that you visited with your mother. Your sister has nothing to do with bent cards as she has her own."
"Well—and why don't I have my own?"
"Ah! that is easily attributed to your age. I should think you will be getting some cards of your own soon, perhaps you can talk to your mother about it."
"Your mind is already on a new problem."
She lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't have a card to give you when I came. Have I done something wrong?"
"Wrong?" Holmes leaned back in his chair. "I shouldn't think so. Different, unexpected, but certainly without ill intention. You will probably enter this room in a different fashion, if you do so again in future, but that does not mean the way you entered today was shameful. Do you understand?"
"I am not sure," Patience said slowly. "It is a little hard to see, but…I think it will be alright."
"It will." Holmes paused. "Does your family know you are out?"
"Perhaps I ought to be getting back home."
"It wouldn't do to worry them, would it. Yes, Miss Patience, you may keep my card; I imagine your brother would like to see it as well. I am glad I could be of help, good afternoon."
"Good afternoon! And good afternoon to you, too, Dr Watson!" She smiled shyly before taking her leave. She left the door open behind her and we heard her whistling her way down the stairs; the whistling paused and was replaced by the sound of a brief but determined struggle with the doorknob, and then she was gone.
After a time of silence, Holmes pointed to the tablecloth. "Do you see that colour, Watson? The colour of the tea on the cloth? Is it lovely, is it not, in its own way. But no one will leave it so. They cannot stand a stain, which is the name for an unexpected hue. No, it must be uniform—but why, Watson? Why?"
"I don't know," I replied. "Perhaps people will learn to see differently in the future."
Holmes sighed, returning to his study of the dark patch. "One can only hope."