This isn't an advent challenge, just a shameful theft of Scarper Gallywest's prompt: Mrs. Hudson once left a cherrywood-handled umbrella in the town of Leicester. Why?
Thanks to: Scarper, for the idea, and Rihanna, who unknowingly provided the title.
Stand Under My Umbrella
"Who can that be?" I muttered. The ring of the doorbell had interrupted my refreshing pre-supper nap by the fire. After nearly a year of sharing rooms with a detective, I was still unaccustomed to the stream of unusual callers at odd hours.
Holmes smiled at my attempt to stifle a prodigious yawn. "Your question will be answered, Watson, if you manage to rouse yourself enough to listen."
Sure enough, I heard quiet voices downstairs—Mrs. Hudson's, then Inspector Gregson's. I sighed with relief. The visitor was not a frantic client who would drag us out into the December cold. Of the inspectors I had so far encountered, I preferred Gregson, who was neither excitable nor given to acting on impulse, a welcome change from restless Lestrade and bombastic Jones.
There was an abrupt silence. Then Gregson raised his voice in urgent tones. "Dr. Watson!"
Instinctively I snatched my medical bag and raced down the stairs.
Gregson, white-faced, stood in the middle of the foyer, supporting the limp form of Mrs. Hudson.
I stumbled over a furled umbrella lying on the carpet. The small part of my mind that, in any emergency, insisted upon occupying itself with trifles, wondered why anyone carried an umbrella on this fine, clear evening.
By the time I reached her, Mrs. Hudson had come to her senses, blinking her eyes and trying to speak. Her pulse was steady and respiration normal.
"You've only fainted, Mrs. Hudson," I assured her. "I'll help you sit down."
Gregson nearly carried her into her little sitting room. I seated her in a rocking chair by the hearth, rang for the maid and ordered tea. By the time I looked for him, the inspector had gone. It occurred to me that the umbrella might be a bloodstained murder weapon, or some gruesome evidence from a crime scene. Only something greatly disturbing would have the power to make our landlady swoon.
"Are you feeling any better, Mrs. Hudson?" I enquired.
"I'm perfectly all right. Do stop fussing," she answered. Her voice was a weak shadow of its usual tartness.
"Here's a cup of tea." I took the tray from the wide-eyed young maid, who retreated as quickly as Gregson had. "You must try to drink it; you need nourishment. Have you fainted before?"
"I'm fine, I tell you."
"Would you like someone to stay with you? I could, or the maid—"
"Oh, will you go away!" Mrs. Hudson snapped, with tears in her eyes.
By now rather alarmed at her strange behavior, I returned to our rooms. Possibly Holmes had gotten what had happened from Gregson.
I was disappointed in my hope for clarification. Holmes and Gregson sat silently on opposite sides of the hearth, Holmes smoking a pipe, Gregson rolling the umbrella between his large, square hands.
Holmes looked up. "Watson, some of that brandy might not be amiss."
"I'll get it."
"Don't bother, old fellow." Holmes sprang to the sideboard, where he busied himself with bottle and snifters.
"I won't take up more of your time, gentlemen." Gregson spoke slowly, as if gathering his thoughts. "It seems there's no need to consult you, after all." He sounded uncertain, not wanting to leave.
"That's all right, Gregson," I spoke for both of us. "Holmes and I aren't occupied, are we, Holmes?"
"Not at the moment." My friend returned with our drinks. "Besides, you can hardly go before explaining why you have been sitting here without a word for ten minutes, staring at an umbrella."
"I intended to show it to you," Gregson said absently. "But there's no need."
"I must disagree with you on that point," I said. "There is something seriously wrong with this umbrella, if Mrs. Hudson fainted at the sight of it."
"Mrs. Hudson fainted?" Holmes demanded. "Why did no one tell me? Is she all right?"
"She'll be fine," I assured him.
"But what is the meaning of the umbrella?" Holmes asked Gregson. "Why did you want us to see it in the first place, and what has changed your mind?"
Gregson smoothed the umbrella's shredded pink silk and ran his thumb along its turned cherrywood handle. In his way, he was as shocked as Mrs. Hudson.
"Is it evidence of some sort?" I asked. "It looks quite old."
"Over thirty years," Gregson said. "I'd like to tell you, but I don't know where to start."
"At the beginning is generally a good starting point." Holmes' remark should have been sarcastic, yet its tone was gentle.
"All right." Gregson took a deep breath. "All right, then. My parents adopted me when I was a baby."
At this rate, we'd be here until midnight. I suggested, "When Holmes said 'at the beginning,' perhaps he didn't mean it quite so literally."
Holmes gestured for me to shut up. "Yes, I did. Go on, Gregson."
"When I was only a few days old, I was found in the Campbell Street rail station in Leicester." At my amazed look, Gregson added, "It's common enough even today. Some poor woman has a baby she can't keep for whatever reason, so she leaves it in a busy place and hopes kind people will take it in. Fortunately for me, that's what happened. I've always wondered who she was—my mother, I mean—and what drove her to it. And what she'd think of me now."
"I'm sure she'd be very proud of you," I said.
For once, Holmes was struck speechless.
"Some of them," Gregson said, rolling the umbrella again, "probably the ones who don't want to part with their babies, they leave some token. Maybe they hope to come back for the kids someday, and that's how they plan to identify them. Or maybe just for a keepsake, I don't know. This umbrella was left with me. I was going to show it to you and ask if you'd help me look for her."
"But you no longer wish to do that?" Holmes asked.
"He doesn't have to," I said softly. "He's found her."
"She recognized it." Gregson spoke more to himself than to us. "She must have. Strange, isn't it? She's let me into this house a dozen times and more, yet it never occurred to me."
Holmes' expression as he fit the pieces together was beyond description. "Well!" he exclaimed. "Well. Obviously, the thing to do is— Obviously, the..." He threw me a look that indicated this was my department.
"Her name is Martha," I said. "And the thing to do, Tobias, is go downstairs and return her umbrella. I believe she'll be glad to see you."