The Worst Landlady in London
The landlady stood in the deepest awe of him, and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem.
~The Adventure of the Dying Detective
It began one evening at the precise moment that I exited the cab onto the sidewalk in front of 221B Baker Street, having just returned from a most enjoyable evening at my club.
My pocketbook was a little leaner than when I had begun my night out, but such was often the case after a few rounds of billiards with Thurston. In fact, it happened about half the time that I chose to play against him, for we were evenly matched enough in skill that it was just as likely that I might return to my lodgings the poorer as the richer for our leisurely competitions. If I had the ability to catalogue all of our matches over the years, I suspect the ultimate tally of where the balance of funds stood might be somewhere close to dead even.
It was therefore that the small loss I had sustained that night gave me less concern than the pleasure I had gained from an evening spent in easy camaraderie, and it was with a light heart and a light step that I turned from paying the cabby who had delivered me to my doorstep, and began to rummage through my coat pocket for my house key.
Barely had I closed my fingers upon it, when a thunderous blast from overhead, accompanied by a burst of fierce orange light, forced me to duck involuntarily, frozen in place for a handful of seconds as some dark corner of my mind conjured up the nightmare that had been Afghanistan. Had my return from that horrid place been any more recent, I might have hesitated longer, but the realisation that the explosion had come from my own flat rudely shook the surprise from me, and I catapulted myself up the few stairs to the front door, unlocking it clumsily in my haste. Even as I managed to shove it open, I could see that my landlady had already made it to the half-way point up the stairs, and I launched myself up the flight to make it to the door to our sitting room at the exact same moment as she.
Mrs. Hudson, the long-suffering landlady of Sherlock Holmes, (and myself, at times, I fear) had tried that evening, as had I, to enjoy a leisurely night off and the company of several dear friends of hers: three matronly ladies who periodically took turns hosting tea or a casual dinner for one another, spending the time in each other's company reminiscing about late husbands, complaining about the rising costs of shoes and sugar, and speculating about the latest news in the gossip and society columns of the papers.
On that particular occasion, it had been Mrs. Hudson's turn to host the gathering, and her female confederates and she had been sipping sherry after dinner, (perhaps a little generously) and giggling like schoolgirls over the fact that it seemed, according to the Evening Standard, that Sir Thomas Colville had managed to find himself a bride, albeit in a rather unconventional manner.
Because my own reading was not confined strictly to the police reports or the agony columns, I too, had become aware of what the ladies had been discussing that very evening. For the third year in a row, the Evening Standard, catering primarily to their female demographic in an attempt to sell more papers, had sponsored a contest that it updated weekly in a feature column which highlighted a London gentleman of note who had not yet been married. The bachelor for each contest had been picked by the staff of the newspaper, having been chosen from nominations submitted by their readers, and Sir Thomas was the third of these gentlemen, after Ethan Rombauer, Esq., the previous year, and their predecessor Milton Chesterfield, of Burke and Chesterfield, well-known importers of fine wine, to have been given such an honour.
From my brief perusal of the column each week, I had been able to gather that once a likely candidate had been found and his name published in the paper, it was then up to any eligible and eager ladies to submit an essay in writing to the newspaper, describing in 200 words or less why they should be picked to spend an evening with the chosen bachelor. The newspaper staff, having read through several score of submissions each week, would pick the three they found most engaging and then publish them in the contest column. Once published, readers were to submit their votes by mail for the essay they most favoured, and the winner that week would have the honour of accompanying the designated bachelor for an evening out. This process went on for some six weeks, resulting in the introduction of the bachelor to six mystery ladies of all possible description and disposition.
While on the surface it was an entertaining distraction for readers, it certainly was a clever and successful ploy by the Evening Standard to outdo its competitors. The upcoming fourth year promised to be just as compelling for dedicated followers of the endeavour, for Sir Thomas, unlike the first two men, had actually found a handsome woman who was an excellent match, and their betrothal was the topic of all the society columns that week, as well as of the small gathering of women who sat in Mrs. Hudson's small parlour.
"I still say that it all has to do with his money," Mrs. Blagburn huffed suspiciously, joining in the current topic of conversation.
"Oh, Heddie, you're so cynical," Mrs. Hearst chided her companion. "The girl comes from enough money of her own to bother caring about his, isn't that right, Martha?"
"I suppose she does," Mrs. Hudson replied thoughtfully. "But I heard her family wasn't at all pleased at the manner in which they were introduced. A bit sensational for their liking, it seems."
Mrs. Blagburn chuckled a little. "It would seem as though the readers were pleased enough. I heard that the Evening Standard's circulation increased to a record number the week when the engagement was announced."
Mrs. Hearst had another sip of sherry and then grinned conspiratorially at her neighbour seated next to her on the small sofa. "Heddie, what say we submit your nephew as a candidate? You're always on about how he works too much and needs to meet a nice young lady."
"Thank you, no," Mrs. Blagburn replied with a light laugh. "Even I am not so desperate as to subject him to such an ordeal. The calibre of some of the women those poor men must have to put up with during the contest!"
Mrs. Hearst gave a little shudder. "One can only imagine."
Mrs. Franklin, with a sparkle of mischief in her eyes, then put forth an outrageous suggestion. "I have a better idea -we should all write essays this year and submit them!" This set the group of four women to giggling as the sherry was passed once again.
"You can't be serious, Lizzie!" Mrs. Blagburn scolded her in a way that said she thought the idea to be outstanding.
"Oh, my, aren't we a bit too old for that?" Mrs. Hudson asked, smiling nonetheless at the notion of the four widows submitting their writing efforts to the newspaper.
"What harm would it be?" Mrs. Franklin asked the other three. "It would be a contest to see which of us might be the most skilled at writing, should one of our essays be picked."
"And a chance at dinner with a handsome and interesting younger man," Mrs. Hearst chimed in, setting off yet another round of politely but barely suppressed giggles. The girlish laughter subsided after a moment, and Mrs. Hearst became more serious. "Would you do it?" she asked, looking around the group until her eyes met those of Mrs. Hudson.
"Write an essay?"
"No, be courted by a man again after all these years."
Silence fell upon the four women as each contemplated their answer to such a question, but it was a silence that was to last only a second or two, as overhead an explosion roared, and the walls of the house trembled a little with the impact. Mrs. Hudson's three guests screamed in unison, and Mrs. Franklin broke into tears even as her hostess sprang to her feet and grabbed up her skirts.
"Mr. Holmes!" she gasped softly in alarm, racing from her parlour and up the stairs to where tiny curls of black smoke were threading their way between the door and the jamb.
I hit the top landing one step behind Mrs. Hudson, and she stepped aside to let me shove the door open roughly, following hot on my heels into the fetid cloud that blanketed most of the sitting room before us.
"Holmes!" I shouted, my voice echoing the concern that was plainly etched on our landlady's face. No reply came and my heart sank, as no doubt did hers.
"Holmes!" I repeated again with no success, and I gestured for Mrs. Hudson to open the front windows as quickly as she could, even as we both began to cough in the poisonous, dark atmosphere of the sitting room.
It only took a moment for the smoke to clear enough that I could discern the prone form of my friend on the floor, and I flung myself to my knees at his side. His eyes were closed, his dressing gown covered in soot and God-knows-what, and a thin rivulet of blood crossed his forehead and dripped steadily onto the carpet. Its source was a small piece of glass embedded in Holmes's scalp, just below the edge of his dark hair, and there appeared to be a few more tiny fragments likewise implanted in his cheek and chin.
Mrs. Hudson was in tears as she joined me at his side, gasping and clasping her hand over her mouth at the sight of all the blood. As far as head wounds go, it was not much to speak of, but even small wounds to the scalp tend to produce copious amounts of haemorrhage, and the small laceration Holmes had sustained was no exception. A few sutures would put it right, but it was more his other possible injuries that concerned me.
My fingers upon his throat found a strong and steady pulse, and it must have been my touch more than my voice that prompted his eyes to suddenly flutter open, filling me with great relief.
For reasons that I shall never understand, it was at this moment that Mrs. Hudson, like any woman who might have been there in her stead, actually began to cry harder despite the fact that it appeared Holmes was not as gravely injured as we first feared.
"Watson," Holmes croaked, wincing as he raised a hand to the source of the pain in his head and then drawing away slender fingers covered in blood. He stared at them for a long moment, and then his eyes met mine again.
A slow, shrewd, sly grin wound its way gradually across his soot-blackened lips, and his eyes glittered with keen anticipation from his smoke-covered countenance like diamonds among coal.
"I have him, Watson," was what he said, lying there still upon the carpet.
"Have who, Holmes?" I asked, thinking that he might be delirious from the impact of the explosion that had taken place.
"Renfield," he replied, his expression taking on that manic, determined look that it so often did when his net was closing upon his prey, despite the fact that he still lay flat upon the now somewhat bloodied carpet.
"The arsonist?" I asked, and I admit I did so with some trepidation. Not because of any danger that closing in upon the elusive Renfield posed, but because my observant and experienced landlady was about to recognise what I just had –Holmes had induced this explosion within the confines of our rooms intentionally.
The one word she spoke informed us that all was known to her.
"You mean to say that you meant to create that...that...explosion?" she gasped in disbelief. "Indoors!"
Holmes, too preoccupied with his now-imminent victory in a case, missed the dangerous tone in her voice as well as the sudden disappearance of tears.
"I have discovered the precise reaction which afforded him the delay that he needed, Watson! Although I admit that I somewhat misjudged just how little reagent it would take to produce such a substantial…"
"Misjudged?" Mrs. Hudson demanded. "Misjudged? You blew a hole in the table, and frightened my ladies half to death; why they're still in the foyer downstairs crying!"
Indeed she was right –the sounds of three very distraught and concerned widows could be heard as they mulled about at the foot of the stairs, uncertain whether to rush from the building or up the stairs to aid their dear friend.
"I do apologise if I startled any of your guests," Holmes began from where he still lay.
"Startled?" Mrs. Hudson cried, her manner becoming slightly unhinged at the suggestion that she and her women friends had been merely startled. "You nearly gave me heart failure! Again!
"Not only have you managed to nearly blow yourself up...just look at you lying there with glass sticking out of your head...you're lucky you didn't lose an eye...but there is blood all over my carpet!
"Oh! And have you seen my ceiling?" she demanded, suddenly craning her neck to look at the expansive and evil black soot flower that had bloomed across the white plaster.
"Nothing a little elbow grease can't remove, my dear lady," Holmes replied in an attempt to sound unconcerned, gesturing calmly at the charred ceiling from where he remained sprawled on the bloodied carpet to which Mrs. Hudson had just referred. Unfortunately, (and probably correctly) Mrs. Hudson interpreted Holmes to mean her elbow grease, and she actually stomped a foot in indignation.
"This is absolutely the last...oh! Why I put up with you I'll never..."
She didn't finish as she turned and stormed from the room and down the stairs. A slamming door followed by muffled and agitated female voices suggested that the foursome had sequestered themselves in Mrs. Hudson's parlour to commiserate with her over more sherry about just how awful her famous tenant was.
"Well, old man," I said, sliding an arm under Holmes's shoulders and helping him to stand up, "let's get you a whiskey and soda and then take that glass out of your head."
I tended to Holmes's wounds, cleaning them and picking out all the small pieces of glass that I could find, using his own magnifying lens, and neatly put four sutures in the small gash along his temple. After he had got himself washed up and into un-charred clothing, it would have been my preference to keep him under my supervision for at least the next few hours, but I knew better than to hope for so much. Once I finished wrapping the bandage in my hands around his head, I knew he'd be off and out into the night, tracing the newest thread of his investigation to its conclusion despite the hour.
"I shan't do anything significant without you there!" he called from the stairs, pulling on his coat as he reassured me that I would be in at the kill when it happened.
I settled for making an attempt at cleaning up the shattered glass that was the aftermath of Holmes's latest experiment, and as I listened to his energetic step leave the final stair and head out into the street, I found it a queer thing to recognise that I was hearing a great deal of muffled ladies' laughter emanating from Mrs. Hudson's rooms.
Glad that her company had put her in better spirits than she had been in half an hour before, I finished with the glass and headed for my own room, knowing better than to wait up for Sherlock Holmes.
It took me as quite a surprise the next morning when Mrs. Hudson showed up with a mop and a bucket and began not only cleaning up the after effects that were left from the previous night's events, but did so cheerily, prattling on about what a nice visit she'd had with her three guests, and how lovely the weather appeared to be. She'd turned down my offer to help in any way, insisting that I enjoy my breakfast and newspaper instead, and most surprising of all, when Holmes showed up sometime just before lunch, she actually seemed glad to see him.
"Can I fetch you something for lunch, Mr. Holmes?"she asked pleasantly, and I swore I saw a brief look of surprise flash across Holmes's face.
"I'm afraid not, Mrs. Hudson, but thank you. I must, however, steal Watson away, for our case has nearly run to its conclusion."
The meaningful look he shared with me told me that he was closing in fast on Renfield, and I vacated my chair to join him for the final chapter in his current case.
Mrs. Hudson merely smiled as we left, and wished us both to be careful as we went out.
When we arrived back at Baker Street several hours and one captured arsonist later, we met Mrs. Hudson at the door where she had just sent a messenger boy back off up the road.
"How did things go?" she asked, walking into the foyer as we did.
"Splendidly," was all Holmes said with a quiet smile, and he trudged up the stairs to disappear. I knew it would probably be late the next morning at least before I saw him again.
In fact, it was well after tea by the time Holmes, exhausted from his frenetic pursuit of Renfield of the past few weeks, had finally risen, dressed, and made his way into our sitting room, an unlit pipe hanging from between his lips as he searched the mantel for matches. At last finding some, he draped himself with apparent satisfaction across his chair, contentedly smoking and looking like a cat who had managed to consume a particularly plump canary without anyone having been the wiser. Although it could at times be a little irksome, his few moments of self-indulgent crowing and preening over being more clever than his opponent were really the only reward and recognition he allowed himself; no mention of his name, as far as he was concerned, need ever appear in the papers concerning such matters.
"Where shall we dine tonight, Watson?" he asked, his fine mood and apparent thoughts of a celebratory dinner contagious. "Café Caldesi or Café Royal?"
"Why not Marcini's?" I suggested just as Mrs. Hudson knocked upon the door and then entered.
"The paper, gentlemen," she said, handing over the Evening Standard to me with a charming smile. "Shall you be dining out?"
"We shall, Mrs. Hudson," I said back cheerfully, and she nodded amiably, knowing already that it was our custom to do so upon successful conclusion of an important case. It was likewise her custom to visit with her lady friends on such evenings that we didn't require anything of her, and she offered Holmes a particularly engaging smile, and then retreated to the company of her arriving companions.
"Well then," Holmes said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "let us hear what the papers have to say about our friend Bradstreet's success in the Renfield arson case."
I opened the paper to find the correct article, indulging in another of Holmes's queer whims –his preference that I read the report aloud to him rather than reading it himself the first time. Once again it mattered not that it would be Inspector Bradstreet's name and not his that appeared on the page; it only mattered that the case he had solved would be reported as a success.
It was therefore that my surprise at seeing Sherlock Holmes's name in the bold print of the headline before me must have been very readable in my expression.
"What is it?" Holmes asked, a little impatient with me for not beginning.
"Nothing, it's just that Bradstreet must have decided to let you...Good Heavens!" I cried, uncertain how such a thing as I was reading could have ever come to pass. I stared at him and then the paper, completely baffled.
"Watson, pray do read on," Holmes said, gesturing at me insistently with his pipe.
"I think you'd better read this one for yourself, old chap," I said, acutely aware of the distant sounds of muffled feminine laughter from downstairs.
It was then with great reluctance that I handed over the headline that had nothing whatsoever to do with the latest captured arsonist, and everything to do with the Evening Standard's newest eligible bachelor.
A/N: While I originally wrote this as a one-shot, I am considering expanding it into a multi-chapter story, so there may end up being more affectionate torment for the good detective. :)
A huge thank you to damse-in-stress for help with British spelling again!