The Abominable Affair of the Charming Chiromancer
Nine months and a day after the events at Easton Court, my circumstances had changed beyond all recognition. If I add that it was not for the better, it may be correctly surmised that I was still suffering the effects of the case I shall ever refer to as that of Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife. A petty problem or a staggering failure, call it what one will, it was the reason my career was hanging in the balance that chill December morn.
That, and my having been beaten by Miles of all people, someone notorious for being a reprobate, a roué, and a dissipated sensationalist. Although not generally known, he was also possibly the cleverest thief in London. It would happen a number of times over the years that I would occasionally suffer defeat, once even at the hands of a woman, but the first time is the worst. The shock of the new makes it memorable. It remains, a dark and bitter stain on the soul, still festering when age and experience has tempered all else into vague memories.
Undeniably there was no shame in defeat when the opponents are equally matched, as Miles had told me, but I had my doubts that in this case that was true. He had been one step ahead of me throughout the affair, and had he been less sentimental, I would have drowned the night the chiromancer and his wife had heaved me into the well. He had saved my life – and then had done his level best to ruin it.
Thanks to Miles, any headway I had been making in my self-appointed profession had come to an abrupt halt. Lestrade had been as good as his word. As the year had staggered into autumn, I had seen his name mentioned in the papers in connection with several burglaries in Westminster. From what I read, he had struggled to make an arrest, and the case was still unsolved. I had hoped he would swallow his pride and consult me. But he had not come.
In fact, no one came, except for one notable occasion when the sullen breezes of June had blown a familiar face from my university days in my direction. Reginald Musgrave, a welcome visitor after months in the desert of ennui, was nevertheless one of that class of men for whom money is a sordid inconvenience and thus are largely untroubled by the everyday concerns that plague the rest of mankind. I had not liked to address the issue of my fee directly, although perhaps honesty would have been better, for my hints about my having to live by my wits fell on deaf ears.
I got personal satisfaction from the case in succeeding where others had failed, but precious little else. Given my circumstances, the opportunity to buttress my battered confidence could have been considered beyond price. A small consideration for my time, however, would not have gone amiss, especially with my funds running out and the rent overdue.
At one time, I would have turned to my brother for financial assistance. That I could not was due to our not having spoken since our last meeting at his fledgling club when he had expressed his disapproval over my handling of the business with Ricoletti, warned me against meddling with women of Miles's acquaintance, and asserted that he had been mistaken in suggesting me for the case all along. After Miles had left, he had written. I had sent the letter back to him, unread. Mycroft had not written again.
Whilst I did not begrudge our cousin his revenge, which I thought mostly deserved on my part, I did take umbrage at the thought that Mycroft had used me to put an end to Miles's less noble enterprises. I would not be manipulated, not by Mycroft, and not for purposes of which I was left ignorant. Cutting our fraternal ties seemed to be the only way to preserve my independence. Resentment and anger held my hand when it would have been better to have settled our differences, and by the time I could view the situation with greater detachment our lack of contact had become a habit hard to break, each believing the other to be at fault.
The problem with being one's own master is that the small, annoying minutiae of life, like money, suddenly take on a role above and beyond their relative importance. Rashly perhaps, I had returned the cheque the Prime Minister had sent me as payment for my services, on the grounds that failure did not deserve to be rewarded. I had the impression from the tone of the letter that had accompanied it that, although he had gone through the motions, he had not expected me to accept. His reference to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the demise of Lady Agnes struck a chord, and I was damned with faint praise with his consideration that I had "done the best I could in a difficult situation". My best had resulted in a death; it was hard enough living with my conscience, let alone accepting money for it.
I soon realised, however, that either I would have to adopt a more business-like approach to my affairs or starve. Since I had determined to refuse the small allowance Mycroft had been giving me, I was faced with the very real possibility of having to work for a living. In the event, I prevaricated for too long, unable to reconcile myself to the failure of my chosen profession and always hoping that another case would come to my door, with the result that shortly after Musgrave's visit, I returned one day to find my things piled up on the pavement.
This and my reduced circumstances was the reason I was no longer residing in Montague Street, but in a rather less respectable quarter of the City. Smithfield with its meat market greeted its residents with the stink of blood and the clatter of wagons most mornings, save Fridays, when attention turned to the fish market, and Sundays, when the peel of church bells took the place of the shouts and cries of the workers. For me, its attractions were twofold: firstly, my accommodation was cheap, and secondly, St Bart's was just round the corner.
The good fortune that address was later to bestow upon me in the shape of an ex-army doctor in search of someone with whom to share lodgings was still some years in the future. In that winter of 1878, it represented drudgery. I had had to find work, for the rent on my rooms, mean as they were, still needed paying, and I had to eat. The best I could find was an assistant in the chemical laboratories, which in effect meant cleaning up after the students had had their classes. It was dirty, demeaning, and demoralising, and I hated every minute of it.
In its favour, when my duties were done, I was allowed to pursue my own interests, having satisfied the senior lecturer, Professor Barnard, that my experiments were neither criminal in nature nor dangerous. Long after the teaching staff had gone home, I spent many a happy hour among the retorts and flickering blue flames of the Bunsen lamps, surrounded by poison bottles and bubbling acids, furthering my knowledge with the aid of an old book and limitless patience.
It also had the advantage of being warm. Coal cost money, wood less so, but both were still beyond my means. My room was damp, draughty and unbearably cold. A cough had settled on my lungs in late September and had stubbornly persisted, worrying my sleep and leaving me wheezing on frosty mornings. Some evenings it was preferable not to return to my lodgings and, as long as I was gone before the students arrived for their classes, I was not discouraged from passing the night in the lab, either working or sleeping.
On this occasion, several days after Christmas, with the term ended and the students gone back to their homes, tiredness had got the better of me. I had nodded over a passage about reagents and fallen into a deep sleep. The book had made a comfortable pillow and I had remained slumped over the bench until Mrs Babbage, the cleaning woman, had shaken me by the shoulder and told me there was someone asking after me in the reception downstairs.
A good woman, if somewhat forgetful, all she could tell me was that he was a priest, although his name escaped her. What she could remember was it was a "funny sort of name" and he had "funny ways about him". Intrigued, I asked her to show him up. She assured me she would, and promised to return with a cup of tea because I looked "like I needed it". Stiff from the cold and in agony as a result of my awkward sleeping position, I was in no position to argue with her assessment and gratefully accepted this kind offer.
I could not imagine why I had been sought out by a clergyman, except that there might be a case at the end of it. The laboratory was hardly the place to conduct business, but faced with the option of taking him to my room, which was unlikely to inspire confidence, or the local public house, which was liable to create a bad impression, I had to make the best of a bad situation. As it transpired, I need not have worried, for my visitor was none other than my thin, severe, and eminently ecclesiastical cousin, Endymion Holmes.
If it is true that there is no genius entirely free of some spice of madness, then Endymion was living proof that some members of our family had been blessed with more than their fair share of eccentricity. I had met him once – and once was certainly enough – at the Turkish Baths, where he had spoken of me in the third person in the most disparaging terms and embarrassed me before a member of the press.
Why he wanted to see me now I could not fathom. I was learning to be wary of my cousins, however, and so it was that I approached our interview with a healthy degree of scepticism.
"Sherlock," said he, turning up his patrician nose both at me and the rows of bottled frogs, lizards and assorted body parts that lined the shelves. "I was told I might find you here. What is this place?"
"I would have thought that was self-evident," I replied. "What did you want, Endymion?"
His eyes flitted briefly to my face and then away again, as though the very thought of looking at me was heinous to his soul. "Jocelyn," he uttered. Ever one for the formalities, he steadfastly refused to refer to his elder brother by anything other than his despised Christian name. "He says you are… wise."
Coming from Miles, that was a compliment indeed. "How is your brother?"
"Wallowing in the fleshpots of Venice the last I heard. He has forsaken his family and given himself entirely over to dissipation. He is profane, Sherlock, profane! If ever a man was shapen in wickedness, it is my brother."
So saying, with his nostrils flaring as wide as railway arches, he grasped me by the shoulder and pulled me close to whisper in my ear.
"Think yourself fortunate that you were spared his malign influence. I am glad to see that he did not succeed in your moral deflowerment."
"My moral what?"
" 'His words were smoother than oil, and yet they be very swords'," he hissed, peppering my ear with droplets of spittle as he spoke. "He is beyond redemption, I have long been convinced of that, ever since he locked me in the coal shed as a boy."
"Yet you were happy to take his money," I reminded him, thinking back to the time when he interrupted our afternoon at the baths pleading poverty after the loss of his bags.
"That was different. It was the diocesan dinner that night and it was imperative that I attend." The unctuous smile that spread across his features sat ill with the deeply-engraved lines of his usual expression of perpetual disapproval. "I am to have a parish of my own. The bishop has given me his word."
"Well, I'm sure he knows best."
"Of course he does," he said primly. "He was quite prepared to overlook that unfortunate incident with Mrs Albright—"
"Wasn't she the one you called a harlot for suggesting women would be better off without corsets?"
Endymion's smile faded. "Oh, you heard about that. Foul woman. How was I to know to that she was the Bishop's goddaughter? Still, if there is any cause for embarrassment in this family it is down to Jocelyn. Drink, gambling, fornication – there is no vice unknown to him, and now he has taken himself off to the Continent to indulge his… his immoral activities. Are we not cautioned to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul? I have tried to tell him, but he will not listen!" He emphasised his point with a resounding snort of contempt. "Very well, we shall manage without him. You and I, cousin, we shall prevail against the rise of this new Gomorrah."
I had let Endymion ramble on, but mention of our forming an alliance for some undefined purpose told me it was high time to put an end to the proceedings.
"I'm sorry," I interjected. "I don't know what Miles has told you—"
"He has told me you are a man of intelligence." He looked me up and down. "I have to say that the sight of you is not encouraging. I have seen men several years dead with more flesh on their bones than you."
Typically, my cough would choose that moment to put in an appearance. While I choked, Endymion took a step back and fluttered a handkerchief before his nose.
"You don't sound at all healthy. And you are so very young."
At only five years my senior, I thought his judgement presumptuous.
"Still, we were all young once, and foolish I dare say, but the measure of a man may be gauged by his choice of literature." An old, battered tome was produced from his inside his copious coat. "Jocelyn left this for you. He said you would appreciate it."
The title, 'Religio Medici', had been embossed in faded gold lettering into the leather. Underneath was the name of the author, Sir Thomas Browne. This then was the book of which Madame de Mont St Jean had spoken. The subject matter was not the fare one would normally choose for wooing one's lover, but then Miles was not the typical wooer. If he had wanted me to have it, clearly it had some deeper meaning.
"A fine thinker," said Endymion approvingly. "Such a work was wasted in the hands of a philistine like my brother. You'll notice it's a first edition, 1634 to be exact. I dare say it's probably worth something."
I did not disagree. More than likely it was worth a great deal if it had been in Miles's possession. Stolen too in all probability, for I noticed the stamp of the Oxford college on the title page to which it rightfully belonged. Inside, I found a letter sandwiched between two pages, one of which had been marked to indicate a certain passage, which described how 'a man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender'. The parallel with my own situation could not have been more apt. Even at a distance, Miles could not resist demonstrating his superiority.
As for the letter, it was much as I had expected.
'My dear Sherlock,' [it began], 'if you are reading this, then my brother Endymion wants something of you. I would not expect him to deliver this out of the kindness of his heart, for such is not in his nature. If it is money he wants, refuse him. If it is help, then that I leave to your conscience. I know, however, how you love a mystery, and so anticipate that you will give him your full co-operation.
'I trust you will forgive my little whim regarding the return of a certain item. You should not have meddled. Theo sent me a letter the day he died, detailing what passed between you that afternoon. A life calls for a life – and yet for all that you had done, I could not be your executioner. The difficulties in which I anticipate you now find yourself are repayment enough. We are equal, cousin; the debt is paid. As for you, if you are half the man I believe you to be, you will survive and I dare say do very well for yourself. You are a Holmes, after all. England expects and all that.
'Convey my regards to your brother, if you can still tolerate the fellow's presence, and give him this book. He had the temerity to take it from me once before, and I couldn't resist retrieving it. It has been a friend to me for so very long, but as I leave one life behind and begin another, it is well that I shed old remembrances. Here it began, and so shall it end. Completeness in life is so very desirable.
I am, very sincerely yours,
"Anything of interest?" asked Endymion, craning his head to see what was written.
"Your brother says you want something," I said, stowing the letter in my pocket.
"Does he? Well, he's right as a matter of fact. I have… a problem, Sherlock." He edged closer. "We are alike, you and I. We should ally. We need to protect ourselves against a common enemy. We are both at the mercy of our elder brothers—"
"I am not."
"Dependent on the meagre handouts they see fit to give us."
"Endymion, I am not."
"Oh, there is not shame in admitting it, cousin. Had I not my stipend, I would be as wretched as you. At least if you died tomorrow you have your virtue intact, which is more than can be said for my brother. And die we most certainly may."
His eyes rolled and for a worrying moment I thought he was about to pass out.
"Armageddon is upon us!" he hissed. " 'Behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death.' And see there, the Mother of all Harlots!"
This pronouncement unfortunately coincided with the return of Mrs Babbage with the promised tea. The cups rattled on her tray as she came to an abrupt stop, her eyes wide as the curious figure of my cousin danced before her, gesticulating wildly in her direction. I am not without humour, but the fact we were related deprived the scene of any amusement for me. Before he could make a further spectacle of himself, I hauled him back to a stool, sat him down and explained that our visitor was none other than the cleaning woman.
"Forgive me, dear lady," Endymion said, releasing a heartfelt sigh as he slumped onto the nearest stool. "I have been somewhat overwrought of late."
"Oh, don't you worry about it, vicar," said the genial woman. "See, I've made you a nice cup of tea. You have that and you'll notice a world of difference."
"You are a blessing in disguise."
She blushed and giggled like a schoolgirl. "Why, I've been called many things in my time, but never that. Thank you, sir."
"My pleasure. And remember to say away from sin."
"I do, vicar, I do. By the time I'm finished here, I'm too tired for sin. Leastways, that's what I tell Mr Babbage!"
Endymion blanched. "Insolent woman," he muttered when she had gone. "You should report her and have her removed."
"Why don't you tell me what you want? If it's a crisis of faith, I don't see how I can help you. You would be better advised to speak to the Bishop."
"I cannot!" he said, grasping my arm so hard that it hurt where his fingers pinched my flesh. "I should warn him, certainly, for we all must prepare. Sherlock, the graves are opening! Why, only yesterday, I saw a dead man walking about, as alive as you or I."
"Perhaps you were mistaken."
He shook his head vehemently. "No, I recognised him, cousin."
"And you're sure it was the same man?"
"Yes, most certainly. His name was Vamberry."
The name seemed familiar, although I could not immediately think why.
"I was staying with a friend, you see. He's the chaplain at Postern Prison. Last week he was taken ill, and I offered to stand in for him. One of the prisoners I saw was this man Vamberry. I encouraged him to confess of his sins."
"No, he declared he was innocent, but of course they all do. Well, cousin, I thought no more of it until yesterday when I saw him in Jermyn Street, as bold as brass, in a gentleman's outfitters."
"What was he doing?"
"Buying a dressing gown, I believe."
It occurred to me to say that the newly-risen must have more pressing matters on their minds than the state of their wardrobes. Endymion was sincere in his belief, however, and I feared that undue provocation would bring about the return of his earlier hysteria.
"Have you considered that he might simply have been released?" I suggested gently.
"Released!" he screeched. "Sherlock, he was a condemned man. It was reported in all the papers that he was hanged two days ago for murdering his wife!"
Well, friends, readers and reviewers, we've reached the end of The Abominable Affair of the Charming Chiromancer. Thank you for all the reviews, comments and messages. I hope you've enjoyed reading this story as much as I have writing it.
And yes, there's going to be a sequel! Holmes will soon return for another of his early cases in…
The Particular Problem of Postern Prison!