A London Grip serial story for Christmas
THE ADVENTURE OF THE WELSH DRESSER – PART I
(a version of this story first appeared in Torriano Nights – a festschrift for John Rety (Acumen 2009)
My good friend Mr Sherlock Holmes was never, I fancy, a man to believe in the supernatural. His keen intellect required him to assume that every phenomenon is capable of logical explanation. For myself, service to Queen and Country in the East has taught me to recognize that our Western truths do not always sit squarely on events; and I retain an open mind, prepared for the inexplicable to hit me as undeniably and unexpectedly as did that tribesman’s bullet which invalided me back to England more years ago than I care to count.
All of which is but a prelude to my account of startling events which took place in Kentish Town in the spring of 18–.
It so happened that my dear wife was suffering from one of her periodic and dramatically convenient bouts of illness and had taken herself off to visit one of her numerous aunts in a more salubrious part of the country (I never troubled her by asking where it was). My unnamed locum was, as ever, entirely willing to take all my cases and so I was able for a few short weeks to relive past times and ‘rough it’ with my old companion in our former bachelor quarters in Baker Street.
“It’s a telegram, Holmes!” I exclaimed one morning at breakfast.
“What is?” he rejoined, a trifle surly after a lengthy session with his violin the night before.
“NEED YOUR HELP STOP THIS HAS GOT TO STOP STOP I CANNOT STOP HERE MUCH LONGER STOP
STOP ME AND BUY ONE STOP CANCEL I AM LOSING MY MIND STOP
SIGNED EBENEZER STOPP”
Holmes took the paper from me and studied it thoughtfully.
“What do you make of it, Watson?” he enquired.
“Beyond the fact that it was despatched early this morning from a North London Post Office and conveyed by a messenger boy who had been eating a jam doughnut it tells me nothing at all”, I admitted.
“For once I am as much in the dark as you, my old friend”, replied my companion genially. “I suggest we go and see the gentleman this very day and see if we can put him out of his distress.”
We engaged a hansom cab; and I for once refrained from making my usual little pleasantry. In truth I was assailed with a sense of dark and primitive foreboding that the bustle of civilisation all around us could do little to dispel. Even as we passed the great workings on the new Northern branch of the subterranean railway my admiration for our century’s feats of engineering was more muted than usual. I spoke something of my feelings to Holmes.
“I understand your anxiety old chap. Yet I would venture to suggest that the work of an honest Irish navvy will in the end prove more lasting than your unreasoning fears. Indeed I would speculate that even were you to return here a century from now you would find this great railway still here and very little changed from the spectacle it will present at its official opening next year.”
His optimism was reassuring; and as I looked out at the prosperous suburban streets of Kentish Town that we were now traversing I succeeded in persuading myself that my alarm was ill-founded.
Ebenezer Stopp proved to be a man in his late middle years. The manner of the furnishing in his house suggested that one would normally find him well-groomed and in correct attire. But in the present circumstance he presented an unkempt figure.
“Thank Heaven you’ve come”, he exclaimed shaking us both warmly by our respective hands. “I am the victim of dangerous forces!”
“Capital, capital”, cried Holmes, a little tactlessly I felt. “Tell me what has been happening; omit nothing.”
“I can do better than mere words” vouchsafed the unhappy Mr Stopp. “if you wait but five more minutes you will see for yourself the dreadful thing that has come upon me.”
We sat in tense silence. Then suddenly it seemed as if the earth was moving – a sensation that I had seldom experienced. A low rumble, like a giant’s mocking laugh, welled up all around us. Everything that was free to move began to vibrate: and in particular the bowls and dishes, that were arranged on some sort of sideboard to my left, were shaken so alarmingly that one of them fell to the floor. It lasted for perhaps two minutes and then died away. Our client practically fell on his knees before us.
“What am I to do?” he beseeched. “What is this nightmare? Have you any explanation, Mr Holmes?”
“I never theorize upon insufficient data,” he rejoined calmly. “I have of course been making certain observations since we entered this room: but apart from the fact that you have at one time been a sportsman and that you have spent a period of your life in Wales I have been able to make few deductions.”
The effect of Holmes’s statement was startling in the extreme. Our client jumped to his feet, looking, if possible, more distraught than hitherto.
“Mr Holmes, you must be in league with the devil! You may indeed have gone to the heart of the matter and put your finger upon the guilty secret that I hoped I should never have to disclose. Well, well it may all be for the best and perhaps I shall at least go to my grave with a clear conscience if I make a clean breast of things. But first,how did you light upon the truth so quickly?”
“I will not insult your intelligence Mr Stopp by explaining the sporting connection (although for your benefit Watson I would just indicate the cups and trophies on the mantlepiece). However the association with the Principality is a little more out of the common. You may not be aware of it but I have written a small monograph upon the subject of dining room furniture; and therefore I was able to recognize a certain item the instant I laid eyes upon it.”
Holmes pointed towards the heavy dark-oaked cupboard whose cargo of crockery had only recently been so rudely disturbed.
“That, as of course you know, is a Welsh Dresser of a very particular design only seen in the southern valleys of that country.”
Mr Stopp nodded his head. “You are right, you are quite right. Well I see that I must tell you all. But I implore you, gentlemen, not to let a word of what I am about to say pass beyond these four walls.”
“You may have complete confidence in us,” replied Holmes gravely. And so we sat back to let our client tell his story.
To be continued ….