How It Started
The case began one summer day in 1898. Since the passing of my wife Mary I had taken to rejoining my old friend Sherlock Holmes at 221B, Baker Street for several weeks at a time, hoping a new and gripping adventure would once more arrive at his door. A barrel organ and the shrieks of street urchins combined with the clatter of Monday morning traffic woke me earlier than usual. In a fine mood I dressed and went downstairs. The sunshine through the sitting-room’s half-opened curtains lit up my framed picture of Major-General “Chinese” Gordon. My eye was on the well-polished, silver-plated coffee pot on the breakfast table. Before me lay the happy prospect of porridge, fish, eggs and bacon, followed by a stroll to the nearby Regent’s Park to benefit the constitution.
Holmes was in his chair in front of the fire grate, the Illustrated Police News in hand, the air thick with the fumes of a strong, coarse tobacco. A box of matches and an old and oily clay pipe refilled with yesterday’s carefully dried plugs and dottles lay within reach on the carpet. My co-lodger owned three pipes - the clay on the floor, a briarwood, and a cherrywood. The clay was his favourite because of its ability to provide a ‘pure’ smoke.
“You’re either up bright and early, Holmes, or you returned very late from the Royal Dock,” I remarked, remembering his destination when he set off the previous evening.
There was no reply to my cheery question, not even a polite lowering of the News.
“Cat got your tongue?” I asked, seating myself and reaching for the napkin. Beside the plate was a letter addressed to me with an eightpenny green and mauve British South Africa Company stamp on it. On the back the return address was to Frederick Courteney Selous, Essexvale, Matabeleland.
There was still no reply from Holmes. I glanced across at him.
“Have you heard,” I asked, “about the Congo? They’re expecting a large eruption of Mount Nyiragongo.”
Holmes’s face looking harassed appeared from behind the newspaper.
“For God’s sake, Watson,” he shouted, “we don’t have a cat, in case you haven’t noticed! And why you think I should take an interest in a volcanic eruption in the Congo is beyond comprehension! Haven’t you got anything better to do than burst into the room, invading my space, asking idiotic questions? Answer them yourself! You clutter your head with useless information, such as the sun goes around the earth or is it vice versa! The world is passing me by. How do you think I feel whenever I’m badly in need of a case! Even my chemical experiments have ground to a halt. Not even Lestrade has been coming over to visit us, brimful of gossip from Scotland Yard. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. Think of 1895, an annus mirabilis. You recall ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’? ‘The Adventure of Black Peter’? ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’? What was the other?” he spluttered.
“‘The Adventure of the Three Students’,” I replied.
“So it was,” Holmes responded. “It should always be 1895! I abominate the dull routine of existence. Such has been the triviality of the calls on my time since the case of the Dancing Men I fear my practice is degenerating into an agency for recovering lost lead pencils!”
“Holmes,” I replied, maintaining my equilibrium with difficulty, “it can hardly be called invading your space when I come into the room for the filling breakfast I believe our housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is bringing up the stairs even as we speak.”
“I consider this room my space, Watson, this early in the morning,” Holmes retorted. “You are in the habit of sleeping in, even in summer. I am in the habit of staying up all night. I expect you to make your entrance to the last rattle of my coffee-cup. I don’t recall you ever getting to the trough before 8 a.m. yet today you have chosen to pounce on me… (he looked across at the grandfather clock) before 7.”
The Illustrated Police News took up its position once more, like a fireguard protecting Holmes from the devilish flames. Mrs. Hudson entered the room, glancing at Holmes. She put my breakfast before me and left, giving me a sympathetic nod from the safety of the door. Dear Mrs. Hudson, I thought. Although she used the appellation “Mrs.” I had never heard mention of a husband.
I picked up my knife and fork. I tried once more with “Well, Holmes, what’s engrossing in the Illustrated Police News this week? ‘Another Execution at Wandsworth’? ‘Two Prisoners Flogged at Newgate’?”
The paper was lowered just enough to show the steely grey eyes.
“I’m reading a half-page on Catullus, Watson, if you insist on knowing.”
My fork came to an abrupt halt, the roll of bacon almost at my lips.
“Catullus?” I echoed, astonished. I turned to stare at my comrade. I knew he took a great interest in madrigals and 16th century Lassus chansons, but Roman poets...?
“Yes, Catullus. You know, Gaius Valerius Catullus, circa 84 to circa 54 B.C.”
Holmes pointed the News towards the shelf holding his Commonplace-book containing biographies in alphabetical order.
“You’ll find him between serial murderesses Mary Ann Britland and Mary Ann Cotton.”
“Holmes!” I began, ‘of course I’ve heard of Catullus but…”, immediately to be interrupted with “And next week we are promised a half-page on another ancient Roman. Again, you’ll know all about him, Watson. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, chronicler of scandal tales of the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire. I can hardly wait for that too.” “Seriously, Holmes?” I asked, gaping at this unexpected information.
At this, as if exasperated beyond measure, Holmes leapt up and started at a furious pace towards his quarters. He turned at the connecting door, shook the newspaper at me and exploded, “This, my dear fellow, in case you have forgotten, is called The Illustrated Police News. Note my emphasis is not on ‘Illustrated’, it’s on News. The word is there for a reason. It specialises in this week’s sensational and melodramatic reports of murders and hangings, not the goings-on in Rome 2000 years ago. That’s why I buy it. Now I shall go to my room and continue to read it in the hope someone has carried out a mystifying murder in Baden-Baden – or, even closer to hand, another at Lower Norwood – and at any minute we shall hear a Scotland Yard detective’s footsteps hurrying up our stairs.”
With an ill-tempered “Good-day, Sir!” he pulled the door hard behind him.