Chance Encounter: a vignette

a Sherlock Holmes fanfiction by Beth Einspanier

Disclaimer: I do not own either Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson. They are the property of the Doyle estate. I'll put them back when I'm done, I promise.

Author's note: This is just a little scene I've had bouncing around in my head for some time, theoretically part of a bigger story the details of which still elude me. I don't know if they had cafes in Victorian England, so feel free to correct me on that. Thanks.


As I entered the small cafe where I had asked Watson to meet me, I saw at once that it was unusually crowded for that time of day. As I searched in vain for a table with two empty chairs together, I noticed a young woman sitting by herself at a table for two, reading a recent issue of the Strand. Her molasses-brown hair was up in a loose coif, though a few locks had come free. Her apparel was fashionable, but not extravagant, and her boots were of a style not frequently seen in London. She wore a delicate pair of reading glasses as she perused the magazine.

I stayed where I was, intending to wait until she had left before claiming the table, but presently she glanced up and caught my eye. She indicated that I should approach, though I did not recognise her and she gave no indication of recognising me. Out of curiosity, I walked over to the table.

"I will be leaving shortly," she remarked once I had arrived, "So you needn't worry that you or your friend will be left standing."

"What led you to believe that I was expecting someone?" I asked, my curiosity piqued by her comment.

"If you expected to remain alone," she replied, "you would have simply taken one of the solitary seats in the cafe. As it was, you hesitated in the doorway and scanned the entire dining area, apparently looking for a table with two or more chairs together. It isn't usually this crowded at this time of day."

"I hadn't noticed you here before," I said as I sat across from her.

"I haven't been here before. You glanced at your pocket-watch as you came in, and you looked annoyed at the crowd. Hence, you were expecting it to be empty enough now for both of you to sit."

Not to be outdone, I observed, "You're very keen, for a left-handed, unmarried American-born secretary who hadn't the foresight to take a cab here on such a windy day."

She arched an eyebrow at me. "How do you know all that?"

"The indentation of a pen is plain upon the second joint of the middle finger of your left hand, though even had I not observed that, one can see that you turn the pages of your magazine with your left hand rather than your right. You also do not wear a wedding band, nor is there the shadow of where one might otherwise be. The skin on both hands is overdry, as might be expected when one handles a lot of paper in their profession.

"Your American accent is quite faint, but even before you spoke I noticed your boots, which are of a style manufactured chiefly in America, which told me that you had certainly been there when you purchased the boots. I could see you had walked here, as there is road-grime splashed on your boots, and the stiff wind has blown some of your hair free of its pins."

"Hum!" she said when I had finished, and she sat back. A slight smile played at her lips, similar to the one Mr. da Vinci painted on the Mona Lisa. "Well, even a left-handed, unmarried, American born secretary - whether or not she has the foresight not to walk in the wind - can easily spot someone who smokes tobacco, favoring the pipe when he is feeling meditative; who is a deep thinker on many puzzling issues and has a very keen eye for the minutest details; who is a lover of classical music and in fact plays the violin himself; who is a bachelor but takes a roommate; who takes a great interest in chemistry; who is a master in the art of theatrical makeup and disguise; who is a pugilist and fencer; who takes little interest in anything which he finds boring or irrelevant or which does not otherwise engage his intellect; and who is quite disinterested in romance or in fact in women as a gender outside of the necessities of his line of work."

She picked up the magazine and continued reading as I sat, slightly stunned. Finally my curiosity overcame my pride, and I said, "That is quite a detailed catalogue. Perhaps you might explain how you came to these conclusions."

"Well, there are two possible answers to that question," she said, "A long answer and a short answer."

"The long answer first, then."

"Certainly," she replied, "The smell of pipe tobacco is dreadfully difficult to get out of one's clothing, particularly if one smokes heavily at a stretch, so it has quite permeated your clothing, defying all efforts to remove it.

"Your powers of observation were quite clear from your own remarks about myself, but as they were quickly deduced it was clear that this process takes very little time at all. Nonetheless, there is a pronounced furrow between your eyebrows which naturally forms when one knits the brow in deep concentration.

"Your choice of musical instrument is evident by the broad callouses on the pads of the fingers on your left hand where they would touch the strings, and the narrower callouses on the fingers of your right hand where they would grasp the bow, and the slight indentation on the underside of your chin where it would rest on the body of the instrument. One who plays the violin could hardly be uninterested in classical music.

"The lack of a wedding band indicates that you are not married, but your clothing is well-worn, indicating that your income has not been substantial enough for you to afford new clothing for some time. The only way a gentleman in such a financial situation might afford reasonable living quarters is by going halves with a roommate.

"Your interest in chemistry is as plain as the chemical-stains and acid- burns on your hands, though I daresay a home laboratory would cause your roommate no little annoyance.

"Your lean frame is not indicative of a sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore, your upper body appears to be well-muscled, as would be necessary in boxing, and your right arm is slightly more developed than the left, which would occur in someone who practiced in fencing or played singlestick.

"Your interest in theater is evident by the slight smell of cold cream, used by professional thespians to clean off their greasepaint. All the same, there is a thin line of greasepaint at your hairline - hardly noticeable, mind you - which might result if you had washed it off your face in poor light.

"Your selective interest in most topics underlies most of these, particularly the fact that you have a keen interest in such diverse topics as chemistry and theater. It would be difficult and frustrating to cultivate such a level of expertise in all topics, so you pick and choose those which are most interesting and useful to you. The fact that this list does not include women was indicated by your bachelorhood, the lack of any indications - such as the use of cologne - that you are courting anyone, and your apparent reluctance to approach this table in the beginning and ask me if the seat you are now occupying is taken."

She thus concluded her explanation, and returned to her magazine. I sat silent for several minutes, digesting her essay on my personal habits, until I could no longer contain my curiosity.

"The long answer covers every detail," I said, "So what could be the short answer?"

She glanced up at me over the edge of her magazine, and silently folded back one half of it to reveal the full-colour title page of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," which depicted me thrashing away at a rearing adder with my stick

"Occam's Razor," she said quietly, "How quickly you forget your own fame, Mr. Holmes!" With that she got up and left.

I was still laughing when Watson joined me and asked me if I was quite all right.