It was March, 1881. I had only shared lodgings in Baker Street with Mr. Sherlock Holmes since January. For most of this time, Mr. Holmes's occupation as the world's first consulting detective was a mystery to me. I recently saw several demonstrations of Mr. Holmes's remarkable abilities in the Brixton Mystery, which I have documented in "A Study in Scarlet" where he bested the best from Scotland Yard. This adventure proved too much for my delicate health, and I soon developed a severe cold. It was because of this cold that I witnessed how much this man could accomplish without leaving his armchair.
We were reading on opposite sides of the fire after a fine dinner prepared by our housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. The combination of my cold, the warm fire and a satisfied stomach soon had me nodding off. I didn't even know I was asleep when a loud knock woke me from my slumber. Holmes opened the door and revealed a heavy-set man in his middle years.
"Oh, a client…" I mumbled groggily. I prepared to retire to my room, as was customary for me, so that Holmes could use the sitting room as his place of business.
"Please stay Doctor," Holmes remarked, "A man in your condition should not get up and down. I'm sure that the baker, who provided us with the delicious bread that we ate tonight, would not mind."
The baker looked startled that a stranger had discovered his occupation, particularly because he had changed into his best suit prior to leaving the bakery. The baker said "No, please don't get up. It is a minor issue, and I'm sorry to bother Mr. Holmes with it. Yet I see that what Mrs. Hudson said was the truth."
"So, Mrs. Hudson is now referring clients to me!" exclaimed Holmes.
"Well, I wouldn't say that she referred me. She often mentions you when she visits my shop. She tells us of the amazing things you know about people who you have never seen before. Then I saw your name in the newspaper as the amateur who assisted the two Scotland Yard officials"
"Ha!" Holmes cried out sardonically.
"- and I thought that an amateur like yourself might be able to help me with my problem. As an amateur, you do not charge, am I correct?"
"I am a consulting detective. I help private detectives and Government officials when they are lost and I get them back on track. Most of my other clients are referred by private inquiry agencies. You are my first client who was referred to me from an article in a paper. I charge on a fixed scale, except when I waive the fee altogether. Please, tell me about your problem."
The baker looked uncertain, but Holmes cordially guided him to a chair in a manner that he found difficult to refuse.
"As you somehow know, I am a baker. My wife and I work alone at the Baker Street Bakery. We make a modest yet honest living. It is hard but satisfying work. We've been in that location for over ten years now and never before has anything like this happened." The baker looked uncomfortable and hesitated to continue.
"Anything like what?" Holmes prompted.
"It is such a minor thing really, but it has been going on for so long and it is very bothersome. My wife and I are becoming obsessed with our mystery." Holmes's eyes stared intently, his eyebrows narrowed, and looked like a falcon searching for prey. The baker continued, "Starting about two months ago, once or twice a week, a loaf of bread would be stolen from our bread-box. Just a loaf of day-old French bread, nothing more. Not the pies or the pasties in our display cabinet. Not the money which we used to hide in the shop before this started happening. At first we thought it was our imagination and that we remembered the bread count incorrectly, but it happened many times and we began to take careful note of the excess bread we made. We kept a watchful eye out for a palmer, but no such bloke appeared. Eventually, we realized that the bread was disappearing at night when the store was closed. I came to the conclusion that someone had the key to our shop, for there were no signs of tampering on the door or locks and there are no windows accessible that a jumper could use. I added a dead-bolt to the rear door, where a thief might hide in the alley, but another loaf was soon stolen. Same thing happened after we changed the lock on the front door. I even tried to sleep in the shop, but those nights passed without incident. We could not figure out why only the bread would be taken and nothing else. My wife is superstitious in nature and she has become convinced that it was a ghost of a previous baker in the shop, for our shop has been the location of a bakery for several generations and one of the previous bakers was known to have died there. My wife always made sure that there was some bread available for the ghost, and I went along with it, thinking that I'd rather have bread stolen than anything else. I started to lay traps, but none of them worked and now I am beginning to wonder if she is right."
Holmes interjected, "So you sprinkled flour on the floor, hoping to find footprints of your night-time visitor. Evidently, no footprints were found, but the bread still disappeared."
"How did you know? Did my wife tell the whole world? No wonder the thief knew not to leave any tracks!"
"No, it was you who told me, just as you told me you are a baker. Although you clearly changed your clothes at your shop before visiting me, you still carry the wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread. Furthermore, before you left tonight, but after you changed, you set your trap again. On your trouser-legs, below your knees, a light coating of flour can be observed, thicker on the bottom than on the top. Such a pattern could only be made by the intentional sprinkling of flour on the floor."
"Yes sir, it is exactly as you described. It is lucky that my wife is not here, for she would be convinced that you were a witch!"
"It is indeed fortunate that I was not born a hundred years ago, but even today, in the remote countryside regions, witch-hunts are not unheard of. But we digress. Although I have passed by your shop many times, I have never been inside. Please describe it to me in detail."
"Certainly. The shop itself is small. Our bakery mostly contains a display case for our goods that runs the length of shop. Customers stand between the cabinet and the front window with myself or my wife between the cabinet and the rear wall. A door leads to the back room, where we do the baking itself. In the back room, we have our large brick oven, a kitchen table and our cooking utensils. There is a back door and two small barred windows. There is also a small pantry. Left-over bread is stored inside a bread-box on the counter next to the oven for discount sale the next morning."
"I believe your case to be a simple one. Allow me two days, and I believe that you will have no more missing loafs."
The baker and I both sat up surprised. "That's it? You know the identity of the thief?" I asked.
"Who? Will you have him arrested?" asked the baker.
"I think that in this case, you will have to be satisfied in having no more bread disappear. Now, I'm afraid that it is rather late, and my friend is feeling under the weather…" said Holmes as he stood up.
"Oh yes, quite, I must be going myself. Thank you very much, Mr. Holmes. If you can do what you claim, I'd say that the article was not quite accurate. Scotland Yard should take lessons from you!" The baker gathered his coat and hat, and started to open the door to leave. Then he hesitated, as if he forgot something. "Mr. Holmes, your fee?" he asked tentatively.
"Ah yes, my fee. Next time Mrs. Hudson visits your shop, maybe you can give her an extra loaf of bread! I believe that, plus the salvation of a small boy, should be sufficient."
The baker began to ask a question, but Holmes shuffled him out the door as effectively and efficiently as he had induced him to stay, so he bid us a good evening. Holmes returned to his seat by the fire and resumed his reading. I attempted to go back to my yellow-back, but my mind kept drifting to the baker's problem.
"Really, Holmes! How can you possibly know who the thief is?" I finally inquired after several minutes of frustrated silence. "I cannot go to sleep without knowing. You must not treat a sick person this way."
"Isn't it quite clear?" Holmes reached for his pipe and started stuffing it with shag tobacco.
"No. The situation seems quite impossible. The thief materializes out of nowhere like a ghost, without leaving a footprint. He does not come through a window or a door and he only takes day-old bread! Impossible!"
"But when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth! You have practically solved the problem yourself."
"Yes, what other entrance to the bakery have you omitted? Furthermore, the entrance is within arm's reach of the bread!"
I thought for a second. "Surely you don't mean the oven?"
"A chimney sweep? Surely, any chimney sweep who went this far would steal more than just a loaf of bread."
"Any adult or apprentice flue faker, yes, but a hungry child who has still not lost all his innocence might."
"But I haven't seen a child sweep for years!"
"1875, to be exact. As you know, I have a working knowledge of the law. It was 1875 when the child labour laws cracked down on this abusive practice. However, the use of climber boys is still preferred because they are far more effective than the patent machines. This is especially true for the older chimneys, such as the one used by our baker. Children are still used, but not as openly. Furthermore, the children are often related in blood to the chimney sweep so no policeman is likely to make any arrest even if he were aware of the situation. I believe that the boy is an honest chimney-sweep's son and that would explain why the boy would take only what he could eat at night because he did not want to be caught by his parents."
"It does all fit together, but how will you locate the guilty boy?"
"I believe I already know the one. I was helping a policeman who was investigating the theft of some roof lead in the vicinity of the baker shop, when I saw a chimney sweep and a young boy on a nearby roof."
"What will you do now?"
"I'm owed a favour by several members of the police department. I'll ask one of them to visit our chimney sweep and to strongly discourage using his son in the future."
"I wonder what will happen to the boy. He may become one of those street Arabs of yours or a street sweeper."
"It could be worse. He is well on his way to
being a snakesman and a life of crime along his present course.
Maybe I'll have Wiggens introduce himself to the boy, so I'll
be able to keep tabs on him in the future."
Two weeks later, we received confirmation of Holmes's
deductions in the form of a delectable pie, courtesy of the baker's
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