"Look at it, Watson." Holmes gestured in disgust toward what little could be seen of the late October afternoon outside. Nasty tendrils of yellow fog pressed against the windowpane. Holmes flicked his fingers at the glass as if to dispel the pea-souper. "Foul weather, foul inactivity..."
"Foul mood," Gregson whispered to me. I was glad of his presence. Between cases as Holmes was, and confined to the indoors by the weather, he was likely to alleviate his ennui with a dose of cocaine. While the use of the drug was not illegal, few were so bold as to inject themselves with it in the company of a police inspector.
"Not a blessed thing to occupy my mind," Holmes muttered.
Except self-pity, I thought, but said, "Why not take your mind off the emptiness, then? Join Gregson and me by the fire."
We were quite comfortably ensconced in the armchairs either side of the hearth, away from the disheartening sight of the fog, and well-supplied with brandy and cigars—although Gregson was experiencing some difficulty with his.
I gestured to his bandaged left hand. "Does this sort of thing happen often?"
"Oh, yes. I've been punched, kicked, slapped, spat on, and once, an irate lady hit me with a purse that I could swear had bricks in it. Although this was the first time a suspect managed to slam a door on my hand." Gregson balanced his cigar in the ashtray and took up the brandy.
"The fingers aren't broken, though?"
"No, only bruised, swollen, and unusable. Quite a nuisance."
"You aren't left-handed, fortunately," I observed.
"That's what I told the police surgeon, but he insisted I take time off, anyway." He exchanged the brandy for the cigar. But for his obvious frustration, the rather minor disability would have been cause for amusement. "I never take time off. I don't like it."
"There's nothing to do," Holmes sighed from the window.
Gregson turned to him in eager agreement. "My point exactly."
"Oh, come now," I said, in no mood to commiserate with either of them. "Gregson, a change will do you good. As for you, Holmes, surely there is something here worthy of your much-vaunted mental powers." I picked up and slapped down the pile of unopened correspondence on the side table.
"Tales of lost trinkets and inconstant suitors," Holmes dismissed the letters.
"Better that than being sent home to take a nap, as if you were a child," Gregson muttered.
"This is ridiculous!" I snapped. "Gregson, you want work to do, but aren't allowed any. And Holmes, there is work you could do, but you insist upon moping at the window rather than doing it. You have diametrically opposed problems, which I intend to solve here and now. Gregson, choose a letter, please."
"But—" Gregson started to protest. Then, thinking perhaps of some entertainment value, however fleeting, he shrugged, and tapped a cream-colored envelope. "All right, that one."
I took up the envelope and broke the seal. "I will read it, and I will bet you, Holmes, that this letter contains some minor point of interest to you."
"It is of interest already," Holmes said, drifting over to join us. "Shall we attempt to deduce why Gregson has chosen this particular missive from the dozen at his disposal?"
"By all means," I said, handing it over.
Holmes examined the envelope, turning it over in his hands and holding it to the light. "A fine quality of stationery, I see, and decorated at its edge with a garland of roses and forget-me-nots. Blue ink, also good quality, and firm, distinctly feminine handwriting." He sniffed the paper. "Just as I suspected: a hint of lemon verbena. Our correspondent is a lady, young, financially well-off, and of a somewhat romantic, if not outright sentimental, frame of mind. I must congratulate you, Gregson. You have excellent taste, as such matters go."
"Thank you," Gregson replied, smirking. "But you couldn't be more wrong. It was the postmark."
At the look of dazed confusion that settled upon Holmes' face, I couldn't help laughing. "Surely, in your minute investigation of that envelope, you didn't miss so obvious a thing as the postmark, did you?"
With a scowl, Holmes turned the envelope over once more, this time to read it. "Ireland. What is the significance of that?"
"I've never been there," Gregson explained.
"Good Lord." Holmes tossed the letter down unopened. "Of all the banal motives— You disappoint me, Gregson. I had a faint hope of some interesting reason behind your selection."
"Aren't you going to read it?" asked the inspector.
"Then I will," I said, retrieving the letter and sliding it from its informative envelope. "It says, 'Dear Mr. Holmes-'"
"Letters addressed to me usually do."
Undaunted, I continued. "'I hesitate to write to you, as, having read what I must tell you, you may well believe that I have gone mad.' Well, that's promising."
"Hardly, Watson. The human species provides me with ample opportunities to believe that one of their number has gone mad."
I read the rest of the letter to myself, then presented its content in summary. "The lady—Miss Margaret O'Neill—writes that her brother has seen some sort of ghost. A dullahan, as she refers to it. Apparently, Irish folklore holds that to see this thing means one is marked to die. She claims that this has, quite understandably, upset her brother, who is of a somewhat nervous disposition. She, while apparently less fanciful by nature, finds that his fear is contagious. She lives in a constant state of anxiety regarding his welfare. Furthermore, she herself recently saw someone or something lurking about the family home after dark."
"The lady is correct; I believe she and her fluttering nincompoop of a brother have gone mad. This is 1881, Watson, not 1681, which was the last time such things as ghosts were taken seriously by rational people."
"She isn't sure what she, or for that matter, her brother, saw. Following the suggestion of her fiance, who seems a level-headed sort, she asks you to look into the matter and determine what it was."
"There is the slight matter of the fee, and of the fact that our rent on this flat is soon due."
Holmes flung his hands in the air. "To such drastic measures does impecuniousness force us! Very well—conditionally. You, Watson, having argued the case so persuasively, must go with me."
"Gladly," I said.
"And you, Gregson. Until you are permitted to return to police work, you may as well make yourself useful as a liaison. We may require the cooperation of the Irish Constabulary before this case is sorted out."
Struggling mightily, if vainly, to keep a straight face, Gregson asked, "Just what is it you expect them to do about a ghost?"
"Nothing," Holmes answered, "since obviously one does not exist."