The Sicilian Defence
It was in the spring of 1895 that Holmes and I first made the acquaintance of Major John Bartholomew, a meeting which was to lead to what Holmes later referred to as “one of the darkest and most perturbing cases” of his career. Winter had been distinguished by a dearth of criminal activity, and I had become accustomed to Holmes’s outbursts as he flung down the morning newspaper,
“The London criminal is a very dull fellow, Watson. One could be forgiven for thinking the earth had swallowed him up.”
“An event which Scotland Yard must pray for daily,” I replied.
“Their interest is merely professional. Mine is scientific. I must have materials to practise on.”
“Is there nothing at all?”
“An outbreak of cat kidnapping in Fulham, which the Courier has the temerity to put on the front page.”
He got up wearily and went to his room, closing the door firmly, a sign I had come to know well over the past weeks. The habit was becoming more regular. It was evident in the pallor of his skin and the dilation of his pupils. I had made up my mind to speak to him, though I knew from experience he would take little heed. And in any case, I was preoccupied with concerns of my own. I had lately lost more than I could comfortably afford on “the sport of kings,” and my small army pension now seemed smaller still. In addition to which, an unusually wet spell in January, aggravated my wound, robbing me of sleep. I have thought much of late how my brief military career, distinguished only by the receipt of a Jezail bullet has shaped my life – the meeting with Holmes, the struggle to be well, the struggle to be solvent. It is a strange, and not unwelcome, mercy that hides the future from us. As for my wound, an article in the Cornhill Magazine extolling the merits of exercise had recently appeared and I determined to follow its advice by walking five miles every morning, a routine which did not go unnoticed by Holmes.
“Your fascination for fresh air is becoming positively fanatical, Watson. You should have remained in the army.”
“You forget that I was invalided out.”
“Indeed. The recommendation as I recall was for rest and recuperation.”
However, even he could not help but notice the change in my demeanour. After only a few days I began to feel more energetic. The doldrums of the past months started to recede, and I found myself sleeping more soundly at night. Even so, I could not persuade Holmes to accompany me.
“It is mental, not physical, exercise, which I require,” he said.
One morning, in early March, I returned from my walk a little later than usual and found Holmes pacing round the room, smoking furiously.
“Where the devil have you been, Watson?” he broke out.
“Where I have been every morning, for the past two months.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “No matter. What do you make of that?” He pointed to a piece of paper on the table. Beside it was an envelope. I looked at him again. Gone was the lassitude and dullness which had lately been his constant companions. He was alert and eager-eyed.
“You have a case, Holmes,” I said.
He smiled and snapped his fingers. “I think I have. It came today just after you left. Read it.”
I picked up the paper. It was pale cream, with one careful fold exactly in the middle and an address in Surrey embossed at the top.
“Handmade,” Holmes said. “There’s only one stationer in London that produces paper of such quality. Allsop’s in Bond Street.”
“Expensive tastes,” I replied. “The sender is clearly a person of some importance.”
“Or some pretension. Observe the handwriting.”
I looked at the simple black script. Three lines of thickly formed letters, unevenly spaced.
“That is not an educated hand,” Holmes said. “It is bold and confident but lacks flourish. The writer has used a dip pen. The broad nib is unmistakable. The fountain pen has a finer point to it and the ink flows more evenly.”
“A simple fellow, then. A military man perhaps.”
“Excellent Watson. I believe you are on the right track. And what of the message?”
I read it out: “Dear Mr. Holmes, I must see you on a matter of some urgency. I will call on you this evening, if convenient, John Bartholomew. Blunt and forthright, I should say. He doesn’t stand on ceremony. Is there anything else to be gleaned from it?”
I looked pointedly at Holmes.
“No, nothing Watson. I believe you have wrung the missive dry.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Really?”
“There are a few minor points,” he said carelessly. “Our correspondent walks with a limp, has married above his station, and plays chess.”
I burst out laughing. “You can’t possibly have discovered that from this letter,” I protested.
“Of course not. It’s all in there, or most of it,” he replied, tossing a volume of Baker’s Military Register on the table.
“That is unworthy of you Holmes.”
“You must allow me my small joke, Watson,” he said, smiling. “You are constantly depicting me in your lurid narratives as some sort of magician. I am apparently capable of deducing that a man has two cats and lives in a basement with no heating, merely by examining his walking stick. What an absurdity.”
“Readers require entertainment,” I replied slightly nettled. “They are not interested in dry exercises in logical reasoning. I simply embellish the accounts a little. That is all.”
“And in so doing, destroy any credibility my methods of detection have.”
This was an old bone of contention between us and one which I saw it was pointless to pursue. But despite his disdain for my accounts, I knew he was not displeased by the attention they brought him. Why else would John Bartholomew have sought him out?
“You were correct in your suggestion that Bartholomew is a military man,” he continued. “Major Bartholomew served in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was badly wounded in the thigh in the Sudan.”
“Thus the limp,” I said.
He nodded. “Any man with such an injury must find his walking affected.”
“And what of marrying above his station? I am sure the Register would not venture to comment on the circumstances of his marriage.”
Holmes pointed to the letter. “Smell the paper, Watson.”
I put my face close to the sheet and sniffed. There was the most delicate aroma of vanilla. “Exquisite. What is it?”
“Tahitian vanilla. One of the most expensive perfumes in the world. I have only smelt it once before and that was on a countess. She wore it the day she was hanged for murdering her husband. Remarkable woman.”
“You are surely not suggesting the Major wears perfume, Holmes?”
He let out a roar. “I think not, though one cannot exclude the possibility altogether. No! He has used his wife’s notepaper. The expensive tastes are hers. A woman does not acquire such tastes overnight. Not if she is the wife of a humble Major.”
“And the chess?” I asked.
He motioned to the envelope. “There is more.”
I picked up the envelope, which had Holmes’s name written on it in the same sprawling handwriting and felt inside. My fingers touched a small wooden object. I withdrew it carefully and held it up to the light.
“A chess piece,” I said. “What on earth does it mean?” I tipped the envelope up hoping to find an accompanying explanation. But there was none.
“Precisely. A black pawn. From a Staunton chess set if I am not mistaken. It’s commonly used in matches. As to its significance, we shall have to wait for our visitor to enlighten us. I’m surprised that you haven’t heard of him, Watson. Before the Sudan, the Major was in Afghanistan.”
“It’s a big place, Holmes. Almost three times the size of the United Kingdom. And my time there was very short-lived. But one thing is clear. If the Major served in the Sudan against the Mahdists, he will not be consulting you about a trivial matter.”