The missive delivered by post on the morning of the 23nd August was curt, and to the point, even by my own standards:
"Wish consultation on most delicate issue. Will call Aug 23 at 0900. M.L.E. Rangaford."
The letter was handwritten, on thick, high quality paper bearing the watermark of an exclusive stationers in Mayfair. The pen used was in excellent repair, and the writers' own, judging by the uniformity of the thickness of ink. The ink itself had a peculiar violet tint, which is only available in three stationers of which I am aware; one in Mayfair, the others somewhat remote.
The handwriting was feminine, rounded and well-formed, suggestive of a firm, if inflexible character, but there was a suggestion of extreme haste in its composition - the dots to the i's and crosses to the t's taken with the faint impression where the paper had be folded over upon itself before it was fully dried suggested this. That my correspondent was not in habitual haste could be implied by the fussy little tail on the final 'd' – not the writing of a slapdash personality.
I turned my attention to the envelope. My direction was in the same hand, written with the same apparent haste. It had been crumpled and smudged, as if stuffed into a pocket with the ink still damp. The postmark was Harley Street, not nearby to the stationers, but a district one could contrive a reasonable excuse to visit.
So, my client was a young woman of high station with a strong character, whose brevity was quite likely the result of severe apprehension and time pressure, rather than a natural rudeness. It was likely the source of her anxiety was based in her home, as her stationary was presumably purchased locally and yet she concealed her missive about her person and posted it in an area distant from her house. I could also assume she was of a military family, in view of her use of the 24 hour clock.
Rangaford. The name was familiar to me. I had had a most unpleasant schoolmaster of that name; my encounters with that gentleman were still seared onto my memory and posterior. I had also read the name in the last few days, and it only took me a moment to place the memory. I gathered up The Times from the 21st of August and located the article I sought:
"Mysterious disappearance from Peer's Residence:
"Concern has been raised regarding the whereabouts of Mrs Emily Rangaford, 22, wife of Colonel George Rangaford of the 11th –shires, and daughter in law to General Sir Wilberforce Rangaford, well known for his part in the Crimean conflict. Mrs Rangaford was last seen departing Sir Wilberforce's house in Mayfair, where she and her husband are currently residing, at 9 o'clock in the morning on the 19th of this month. She was carrying only a large reticule, and her maidservant later described her conduct as 'agitated'. When she had failed to return to keep a luncheon appointment with a friend that afternoon, the family became alarmed, and a search was raised by members of the household. There was still no sign of the missing woman by night time, and the police were informed. There has been no sighting of her at any railway stations, and the hospitals have no patient meeting her description.
"We understand Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, one of our finest and brightest detectives, has been assigned to search for the missing young woman, and we have confidence in his ability to bring the affair to a successful conclusion. In the meantime, the public are appealed to for their assistance in this matter. Mrs Rangaford is a slim and fair young woman, 5'1" in height and of delicate appearance. She was last seen wearing a dove gray walking dress with lilac figure-work on the bodice and lapels with a sable-trimmed pelisse. Any person who has information regarding Mrs Rangaford should contact the authorities. A reward of £500 is offered to any person whose information may lead to discovering her whereabouts."
I folded the paper and waited with piqued interest for my visitor. I felt fairly certain my client was coming in connection with this young woman's disappearance, which suggested the affair would not be without its points of interest. I was removing the toast crumbs from my person when the doorbell rang. It was three minutes to nine; my client set store my punctuality evidently. There was a series of thumps from Watson's room above, and the good doctor arrived in the room, somewhat dishevelled, finishing the arrangement of his necktie and with one shoelace still untied, just as Mrs Hudson announced our client. Obviously a late night spent with a patient had left my companion willing to sacrifice breakfast, but not the opportunity of adventure beckoning which our doorbell had so often heralded.
The young woman Mrs Hudson ushered in was of just such a type as to appeal to my friends' chivalry. She was of above medium height, and her figure particularly fine. She had a determined set to her chin which bordered on the obstinate, a nose which tended towards the patrician, and a large pair of penetrating blue eyes, framed by disconcertingly large lashes. Dark, straight eyebrows completed the impression begun by my analysis of her handwriting of a resourceful and resolute woman.
"Mr Sherlock Holmes, I believe?"
"I am that gentleman. I surmise that you are Miss Rangaford, and that you wish to speak to me regarding your missing sister-in-law, and your fears that a member of your household may be implicated. I trust your route to avoid pursuit did not incommode you excessively, and that it was successful in its intention?"
Miss Rangaford's eyebrows shot up for a moment, then knitted together. Her eyes, straining and anxious on her admission to the room, crinkled with appreciative amusement for a moment.
"I presume you must have deduced me! I must be most impressed if you can work with so little material as a disgracefully curt letter – please excuse me for that – and my appearance today. I expect my liberal coating of mud may have informed you to some extent."
I was impressed by her perspicacity, and favoured her with a brief explanation
"Your note suggested an anxiety of being overlooked rather than a natural terseness, and betrayed your familial military connections, by which I anticipated you were connected to the most interesting story in the papers. You have indeed a liberal coating of mud, in veritable technicolour, upon your boots, suggesting you have progressed on foot for some distance. However, the sleeves of your coat suggests two hansom cab journeys, one shared and one alone. Why else should a young lady wealthy enough to be clutching a particularly handsome tip for my potential servant feel the need to walk long distances and take two hansom journeys if not to avoid the possibility of being followed?"
"Magnificent in its simplicity Mr Holmes, although I suspect it is not so simple in its application as it at first appears. I assume you are Dr Watson, sir? I have read your stories, and would appreciate it greatly if you also were willing to listen to my story. A medical man may be of great use. I trust you are both absolutely discreet?"
"You may rely on my discretion in all things, Madam, and I would be delighted to be of service to you" answered my companion gallantly. Watson's natural effervescence with the fair sex had been in sad abeyance in the two years since poor Mary Watson had died bearing their daughter, but it was returning gradually, and this specimen was just such as may be expected to draw him out. Miss Rangaford began her story, and I listened in my habitual attitude for when I am keen to absorb all detail. She was perhaps a little disconcerted by my apparent inattentiveness, but when Watson nodded encouragingly she commenced her tale, addressing herself largely to the doctor, initially providing me with peripheral amusement as I watched the obvious attraction between the other two persons in my room. However, as Miss Rangaford's story unfolded, I found myself sufficiently enthralled that all other considerations were forgotten. There was villainy here, complex, subtle villainy. There was no mistaking it, and I felt that part intellectual, part animal thrill that comes from untangling the creeping tendrils of the true criminal artist.