Concluding the London Grip serial story for Christmas
THE ADVENTURE OF THE WELSH DRESSER – PART III
(a version of this story first appeared in Torriano Nights – a festschrift for John Rety (Acumen 2009)
“Brandy, Holmes!” I cried. “And one for that poor fellow on the floor, as well!”
In but a few minutes our client had regained consciousness.”You have been most frank with us, ” declared Holmes. “You must now be patient and leave matters in our hands. One more question, however. You were able to predict when these strange vibrations were going to take place. Do you expect a second visitation today?”
“Indeed I do Mr Holmes. These fearsome outbreaks occur three times a day – at about eight am, at noon (as you heard for yourself) and at around four in the afternoon.”
“Have you observed any variation in this pattern? Think carefully before you answer, and tell me of any circumstance, however trivial, that comes to your mind.”
“The times, Mr Holmes, have been exact to the minute. But now you cause me to think carefully it does seem to me that the intensity of the experience has altered somewhat. In the beginning it seemed to get worse by the day; but latterly I have suspected that it is becoming somewhat less violent. But then again, ” (and here his face fell) ” it may simply be that I am deluding myself or becoming hard of hearing!”
Very soon afterwards we excused ourselves, promising to return as soon as we had any light to shed upon the matter. Outside the house Holmes looked about him and then began tapping the pavement with his foot. Thinking that he might be going to pose as a street entertainer I quickly removed my hat, ready to receive coins from passers-by. But I had mistaken his plan, evidently, for he quickly gave a little grunt of satisfaction and began to walk briskly up the street.
“Where are we going, Holmes?” I asked, hoping that he was going to make some cheerful remark about the need to have lunch.
“To the Town Hall, Watson”, he replied. Mystified I followed him. But before we reached our destination, my friend indicated an adjacent public house.
“I’ve a job for you Watson”, he said. “Slip in there and keep your eyes and ears open to the gossip. See if you can catch any rumours about suspicious strangers carrying bunches of leeks, men dressed in long robes draped in ivy, massed choirs roaming the streets singing Men of Harlech. Small things, Watson, but suggestive and I am relying on you to miss nothing.”
Swelling with pride I entered the public bar and ordered a double whisky and what proved to be an excellent chop with potatoes and carrots in my favourite kind of brown gravy. I chose a well-placed table where I could command a good view of the entire room and set to work to enjoy a well-earned lunch while keeping all my senses on what our French cousins would, in their quaint fashion, call the “qui vive”.
I felt it necessary to preserve a plausible appearance and so I replenished my glass several times to avoid arousing suspicion. And then a strange thing happened: an inexplicable drowsiness began to settle over me, my senses reeled and I was suddenly aware of strong hands grasping me ….
When I awoke, Sherlock Holmes was standing over me.
“I’ve been drugged!” I exclaimed. “My presence must have been noticed. Holmes, we must be on the trail of the persecutors of poor Mr Stopp.”
“You are right in part, Watson,” smiled Holmes. “We are indeed close to being able to relieve our client of his anxieties. Come, Watson! I have something to show you.”
My head was still heavy from the effects of the drug: and I was a little hurt that Holmes — in my opinion not quite rightly — seemed to take my plight rather lightly. But I followed him obediently, as had been my wont these many years. To my surprise he led me to the Municipal Library — a type of building I seldom frequent for I have heard that unwashed vagrants are in the habit of lazing away their days among the periodicals. Holmes proceeded to a small side room that he had apparently been using previously, for papers were spread in confusion over the whole table. The largest sheet was covered with the most perplexing hieroglyphics.
“Some might say so my dear chap. But I think they would be recognized by an expert as being plans of the Northern Subterranean railway.
“But Holmes, we came by cab and you said I could ride outside on the way back!”
“Don’t worry old friend; we shall not be riding on this railway today. Observe, it is not yet built: and there lies the answer to our mystery.
“You recall that I took some rough soundings in the street outside Mr Stopp’s house. I am, as you know, something of an authority on the various kinds of London soils and I knew at once that the echo returned by my footstep was not that characteristic of the chalk substratum which gives this district its name. Something below ground, Watson, was not as it should be.”
My mind raced, trying to grasp the enormity of what Holmes seemed to be implying.
“You mean that an entire Welsh sporting club has been burrowing its way around these islands in an attempt to overtake and gain vengeance on our client?”
“It’s possible my dear fellow that some of the labourers who are digging this tunnel are indeed of Welsh persuasion”, he acknowledged. “But I think that we have to assume that we will find the main motivation for this civil engineering endeavour in the purely commercial interests of the railway company.”
“Of course, Holmes! How stupid you must think me! Naturally the RFU would not have the resources for the job. They must have bought shares in the company, and by subtle pressure on the directors have caused them to direct the route directly beneath Mr Stopp’s residence.”
Holmes held up his hands.
“Enough, watson, enough! Let me give you my humble theory. The Welsh connection is, as they say, a red herring — or perhaps a red dragon!” He permitted himself a small smile. “The sound that has so disturbed the good but thoughtless Mr Stopp is the mighty boring engine which in a few minutes loosens so much soil that it takes a team of navvies up to four hours to clear. No harm threatens our client, except perhaps some small risk to the crockery that he persists on maintaining in public display.
“I have already been in comunication with the directors of the Northern (while you were performing your sterling duties in the public house) and they tell me that the engineering works should be out of Mr Stopp’s earshot inside a fortnight. Come, let us go and break the good news to him. But you look puzzled; is there any aspect of the affair that you would wish me to explain further?”
“Yes Holmes, there is. If indeed there are no Welsh conspirators in the area, who was it that tampered with my drinks?”
“That may forever remain a mystery, Watson”, chuckled Holmes, patting me affectionately on the hand. “A man in your position may make many enemies.”
There remains little enough to tell. And yet there proved to be one last twist in the story. As we made our way home, having advised Mr Stopp to take a month’s holiday while also giving him the solemn promise that all would be well when he returned, I felt bound to tax my old friend with a certain lack of candour.
“Why was it, Holmes,” I ventured, “that you did not tell Mr Stopp about the tunnelling works? It seemed a little less than frank for you to imply that you had made contact with the RFU and assured them of his contrition with such eloquence that even their hard and elliptical hearts had been touched and that they had abandoned all thoughts of persecution in the future.”
“I am morally certain”, he rejoined, “that the RFU in fact entertain no malice towards him — and in that respect therefore I have been guilty of no untruth. I would go so far, although this is by the way as regards our present investigation, to predict that one day the two codes will lay aside their differences in pursuit of the shared rewards of simple sportsmanship.
“But to understand my selectivity with the facts of the case you must turn to the works of a promising young doctor in Vienna, whose learned papers have only recently come to my attention. Mr Stopp is a man who feels guilt, Watson; and he needs that guilt to be recognized and dealt with. He will be far happier to feel he has paid some penalty and has now been forgiven than he would have been had I told him that his youthful indiscretion is in fact remembered by nobody but himself!
“And there is one other point, Watson, that a practical man such as yourself will surely appreciate. You and I, Watson, you and I we have done our part to bring rescue to the injured and retribution to the guilty. And yet our opportunities for doing so depend quite simply upon reputation — the perception among the Great British Public that we are capable of astounding feats. On this occasion we have had to do nothing except to make deductions. Are we therefore to gain no credit, no kudos?
“No, my friend, we shall leave things as they are and bask in a little undeserved glory. Mr Stopp may, in time, let others know we have been of use to him, even if he remains reticent about details which embarrass him. After all, to him we shall seem to be those welcome rescuers who have allowed him to take back control of his own life and have miraculously made his plate rack strong and stable once again!”