It was a dreary, cold, and rainy day in November 1901. I was visiting my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was busy on several cases in which I was assisting. I was nursing my rheumatism and reading the Journal of Medicine, when the bell on the door of 221B was rung. I heard Mrs. Hudson open the door, followed by authoritative, steady, stomping footsteps up the seventeen stairs.
Holmes looked up from the documents that he was examining and said "Scotland Yard by the sounds of it, but not one of our regulars. Two entered, but only one comes up the stairs."
A heavy knock at our door. "Enter!" said Holmes.
A stern-faced member of Scotland Yard entered the room. He began to reach into the inner pocket of his overcoat.
"A message from my brother Mycroft. How unexpected." The policeman looked perplexed. Without waiting for the man to speak, Holmes stated "You are from the Special Branch of Scotland Yard. Correct? Only my brother would be the source of a case involving political intrigue that is important enough for two members of the Special Branch to be trudging in here on a Sunday morning, but not present the problem to me personally. He has only visited my residence once, preferring not to vary his routine that takes him between his Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, and Whitehall. Pray, let me read the note for which you were reaching while you take off your coat and warm yourself by the fire on this chilly day."
"Inspector Finnegan, Special Branch, here to deliver a message from the Foreign Office," said the inspector formally while handing Holmes the note. Holmes read the short, hand-written note, folded it and put it into his dressing gown pocket. He sat down across from the inspector, who had done as Holmes had suggested, and I prepared to take some notes.
"It appears that you need assistance in investigating the incident of the man who was killed by an incoming train on the district line near Victoria Station last Friday evening."
"Yes sir, but there is nothing to investigate. The man probably slipped on the wet platform due to the heavy rains that we have been experiencing and fell onto the platform."
"My brother has reason to believe otherwise. So, the platform was wet? Isn't it covered?"
"There was a leak on the roof, causing a large puddle."
"Any footprints or sign of a struggle?"
"Such evidence, if it ever existed, was long gone by the time we investigated the scene, and the constable at the station did not have reason to suspect any wrongdoing."
"No. There were people present, but nobody saw the incident. The policeman did not take any names nor did he remember any description of those present."
"Well, what evidence did you find?"
"As I said, there is nothing to go on. We only found the discarded or lost rubbish that may be expected to be found at a busy station. Cigarette ends, a broken umbrella, and such. We thoroughly searched the scene, but found no evidence of anything suspicious. We gathered everything from the tracks and the platform within 50 feet of the location where the man fell from the platform."
"Does your colleague downstairs have these items with him?"
"Good. What can you tell me of the man who died?"
"He is an Englishman named Francis Gardner. He lives in France, working as a stockbroker, and came to London on business. He had his wallet and personal possessions on his body, so there was no reason to suspect any robbery. The autopsy confirmed that he was killed by the train."
"How was he dressed? What items did he have on him?"
"Normal business attire. A blue suit made by a French tailor, and an overcoat. His suit was ripped and dirtied from the impact. His personal belongings included a cigarette holder and lighter, a pocket watch, and a wallet containing twenty pounds."
"The porter was handling his small travelling case. It contained some papers and some clothes. The case and the papers were retained by the foreign office."
"Yes, my brother indicated that the travelling case held nothing of value. He has powers of deduction and observation that exceed my own, so I can trust that his evaluation was correct. What else can you tell me?"
"I'm afraid that's about everything. As I said, there is nothing to go on and nothing to indicate foul play. I'm not entirely sure why we need to be involved with this case, let alone an amateur, yet I'm instructed to tell you that the entire Special Branch is at your disposal," the inspector said, with a flustered manner.
Holmes was indifferent. "I normally prefer to work by myself on cases that stimulate my interest. This case, as far as the incident is concerned, is rather mundane, but my brother is hiding something and that is what has me curious. I will help you investigate this case, but I hope to keep my personal involvement to a minimum. I am very busy right now on another rather intriguing case that does require my personal attention. Now, where are those discarded items?"
"They are downstairs. I'll go bring my man up." The inspector excused himself and left the room.
"What do you make of it Watson? This is one case that I doubt your readers will ever hear about for it is destined for failure. After two days of Scotland Yard and the passengers trampling all over the scene, it is doubtful that anything useful will have remained undisturbed at the station. Mycroft also thinks that I am unlikely to succeed, for he tells me only the minimal amount of information that he thinks I need to know, and it appears that Scotland Yard is not aware of even that. His note only informs me that a spy for the English government, stationed in Paris, contacted the Foreign Office indicating that he was coming to London to deliver personally an important document. On the way to the Foreign Office, he was conveniently killed and no document of importance was found. Only two people knew of the visit, and these two, my brother states, are above suspicion."
"It doesn't look promising Holmes. With spies, trains and such, this case reminds me of The Bruce-Partington Plans. Hopefully, you will be able to bring this to a similarly satisfying conclusion," I said as two sets of footsteps could be heard coming up our two flights of steps.
The inspector entered the room with a young officer who was carrying a small bag. The inspector said "Officer McNeally has the items you requested." Officer McNeally, who had been staring at Holmes as if he was made out of gold, woke up from his stupor to hand Holmes the bag. Holmes took it and carefully emptied the contents out upon our table, which had been cleared from breakfast only an hour ago by Mrs. Hudson. Out came numerous items, the largest being a broken umbrella, but mostly being small items like cigarette stubs, burnt matches, newspaper fragments, pens and other writing utensils. Holmes took out his glass and began to examine each item intensely, one by one, placing each item as he completed back into the bag. Except for the occasional grunt, outburst of frustration, or humorous comment about the previous owner of an item, Holmes did not move from his chair or speak for over an hour. The two officers were forced to wait patiently in our lodgings and I returned to my reading. Eventually, the table was cleared off just in time for Mrs. Hudson to bring in some tea and biscuits for our guests.
"I congratulate you, inspector, on the unexpected thoroughness of your examination of the scene. It appears that you have finally realized the importance of trifles, but you have not yet learned what to do with them. I found only one item of interest, but it is a promising one." Holmes held out a button to the inspector.
The inspector examined and then silently returned the button, trying not to let the younger officer see his involuntary expressions of confusion.
Holmes continued, "You undoubtedly noticed from its condition that it only recently made its way onto the track. The button itself could be part of numerous pieces of clothing, but it is most likely from a breast suit or heavy coat. It has a tastefully imprinted design of Big Ben on it, so it is of English origin, and not likely to be one of those impersonal items that one could buy off the peg. As the button is not of French origin, it was not from the victim's clothing as you described it. One of the most interesting aspects of the item is not the button itself, but the thread that is attached to it. The button was evidently pulled violently from its source, and did not wear off. Notice how the threads were snapped at their weakest point, yet this button was securely fastened. It must have taken some force to remove the button from the garment."
After the explanation, there was a moment of silence, but Officer McNeally could not hold himself back for long, "But what are we supposed to do with the button?" After briefly looking relieved, the inspector looked sternly at the younger officer.
"Why, look for the tailor who uses these buttons, of course. You have over a dozen men at your disposal. Start with tailors located near Big Ben and then move out. Also investigate tailors with names like Ben."
"But that could take a week! The Special Branch has more important work to do than have its men look for the source of a button that has nothing to do with why a man slipped off the platform."
"Nevertheless," said Holmes, "we are
obligated to follow this thread as far as it will lead us."
After the hasty departure of the two members of the Special Branch, we heard nothing from Scotland Yard for almost two days. On Tuesday afternoon, we heard the heavy steps of three men climbing our stairs. In came the inspector, the young officer holding a large book, and a middle-aged, well dressed man.
"Ah, you have found the tailor."
I was somewhat surprised, for I assumed he was a man of some importance based on his attire. I regarded him carefully. I looked at his trouser knees and his coat sleeves, but these were both spotless and well-made with superior quality material and fit. Next, I considered his shoes, and noticed that they were not new and not up to the quality of the rest of his attire. "His shoes don't match his suit!" I exclaimed.
"Well done Watson, your powers of observation continue to amaze me. A tailor of a small shop must be well dressed to impress his potential clients with the quality of his work, but his shoes do not hold the same importance. His shoes, as you have noticed, have been resoled. I'm sure you also noticed that the forefinger and thumb of his right hand are worn from the continual use of a needle and that the thumbnail of his left hand is cleaner than the other nails due to wearing a thimble. Except for his left index finger, his hands are not rough like a labourer, but yet you can notice some tale-tale signs of pin-pricks. All these plainly reveal this man's calling."
Both the tailor and I were both rather flustered by Holmes's explanation, but he compensated for it by taking the coats and hats of our visitors and making them comfortable in our sitting room. Holmes offered them all a cigarette, and lit one himself.
"So, what have you discovered?" he asked.
The inspector spoke, "We systematically visited most of the tailors in London. We eventually found this man at Sampson and Co on Oxford street. They are the exclusive user of these buttons, and have used them on over fifty outfits in the past year. Their records are rather shoddy, with only 30 of these outfits associated with names. I don't know where you are trying to lead us, Mr. Holmes, but it looks like another dead-end after consuming the valuable time of the entire Branch."
Holmes did not reply to the inspector, but instead asked the young officer if he was holding the records. Next, he had the tailor explain what each notation in the records meant. They mostly pertained to the date of purchase and pick-up, price, style of clothing, colour, material, and measurements. The tailor also indicated which outfits were likely to have used the Big Ben buttons. This style of button had only been in use since last year, and only on mid-range outfits. As the inspector had said, there were over fifty outfits.
Holmes then requested the original button from the inspector and showed the tailor the threads. Through the colour, thickness, and tie of the threads, the tailor was able to reduce the candidate outfits to only seven. Of those seven, two were summer outfits, which were unlikely to have been worn in the cold weather we were experiencing, and two were from dinner jackets, which were equally unlikely to have been worn in the station. The remaining three were winter overcoats, two of which were purchased by regular customers of the tailor, and hence had their names recorded. The third was purchased in cash by an unknown individual. Holmes tried to jog the memory of the man, but as the purchase was over six months ago, he could not remember anything. He was certain that it was his handwriting in the order book and it was he who made the clothes.
"Thank you, you have been most helpful." Holmes said to the tailor after the tailor promised to provide an example of the overcoat, and he now turned his attention back to the inspector. "I believe that our next step is clear. Two of your men should interview the two known purchasers of the overcoats. I suspect that these men will be cleared, and that the man we want is about six foot four, over sixteen stone, left handed, and wears a tan overcoat. He speaks fluent French, but will not have much of an accent when speaking English."
The young officer looked at Holmes with astonishment. Holmes laughed, and explained, "By the dimensions of the overcoat, young man. I am over six feet tall, but the man wears a coat significantly larger than my own, in several dimensions. He is left handed, because his coat is left-breasted. The man he killed was arriving from France, and I have reason to believe that the murderer has strong connections with France yet can pass himself off as British. Now, you must go to Victoria station, and ask every coster, beggar, porter, constable and conductor who was there on Sunday evening if they can remember a man wearing an overcoat that fits our description. We must assume that he tried to find Mr. Gardner as his train connection from the continent arrived and followed him to the district line, where he took the important papers, probably in an attaché case, and pushed his victim in front of the train. If our unknown assailant did not know which train Mr. Gardner was to arrive on, he may have spent much of the day at or around Victoria station. Therefore, you must also question the employees and clientele at every nearby pub and tea house."
After the policemen left grumbling, I asked Holmes
if he thought that this case would have a successful conclusion.
"It is not clear at this time," Holmes replied, "I
cannot give much credit to Scotland Yard for their reasoning ability,
but they are effective at performing systematic searches. As long
as we have some chance, no matter how slim, I feel obligated to
offer my continued assistance. Up to now, the efforts of Scotland
Yard have kept our hopes alive. However, it is unlikely that they
will uncover any more information until tomorrow, if at all."
The following evening, soon after Holmes and I had finished our dinner and were beginning to relax after an exhausting day traversing London in a cab on a wild goose chase, we heard the now familiar knock on the door and heavy footsteps again.
Listening carefully, I said "We have three visitors. Surely not the tailor again."
"No," said Holmes, "one man's steps are reluctant, while the other footsteps are forceful. I think our officers have found a suspect!"
The inspector entered our room with a swaggering gate, followed by a rather small unhappy man with his hands cuffed. The young officer guided the man in custody to a chair and motioned him to sit down.
"So, you think you have found a French accomplice," Holmes stated. "Tell me more, other than that this man obviously speaks very little English."
Inspector Finegan was very happy to fulfil his request and began his story. "We went to Victoria station and interviewed every constable, conductor, ticket clerk, porter, and useless beggar. This time-consuming process took us most of the day. With all the crowds, and hustle and bustle, nobody provided us with any useful information. It wasn't until we talked to the tea-time crowd at the refreshment rooms in the station that we had our lead. A man fitting our description sat in a chair near the window facing the platforms for most of the afternoon, slowly sipping tea. He periodically left for short intervals and, more importantly, for longer intervals that seemed to roughly coincide with the arrival of a train with passengers from the continent. Around six pm, the man returned to his seat again, but this time he was joined by another man. This man spoke rapidly and excitedly in French to our prime suspect. After five minutes, the two stood up, shook hands and parted ways. After we pressed the tea server, she remembered that the Hotel Metropole was mentioned. We also obtained a better description of our suspect, but this information failed to produce any more information when we reinterviewed some of the people we had talked to earlier in the day. He is a big man of the dimensions you described, around thirty-five years of age, brown hair, brown eyes, with a small white hairline scar above his left eye from an old cut. The tea servant did not notice a French accent, but he apparently also speaks French without an English accent. In addition, no buttons on his overcoat were noticed to be missing.
"Next, we went to the Hotel Metropole and obtained a list of French people who checked in between 6:30 and 7. Only this man, here, matched the description of the accomplice. We took him into our custody and we have questioned him for more than an hour. Although he has admitted having coffee with our man in the overcoat, he denies that he knows anything more and has been most uncooperative. It is obvious to me that he knows something! Mr. Holmes, you have the knack of guessing the truth, so we brought him here right away."
"I never guess, it is a bad habit that I avoid. Nor do I jump to conclusions based on circumstantial evidence, because a slight change of perspective can lead you down a completely different path. " Holmes replied. He then sat down directly across from the man in custody, and in a low soothing voice began talking in fluent French. Holmes has a way of putting people at ease and, after ten minutes, the man began talking excitedly and rapidly. In another ten minutes, we had his side of the story. He was from the French countryside and came to London to visit a well-off relative who works near Northumberland, and who reserved a room for him at the Hotel Metropole for his first night in London. The young Frenchman was not highly educated, but enthusiastic and hard working. He had never been to England before and, since his English is poor, he quickly became overwhelmed when he arrived in Victoria station. Eventually, a fellow countryman dressed in an overcoat took pity on him and told him how to get to the hotel. The young man felt very grateful to the man, and walked with him to the refreshment rooms. The conversation was decidedly one-sided, After the young man realized that his presence was not exactly welcomed, he excused himself to go to his hotel.
Holmes pressed him about anything unusual that he had noticed about his countryman's clothes, face, hair, shoes, and so on. Holmes queried the young man about each item individually and asked him to think carefully. When Holmes asked him about the unidentified man's hands, the young man thought for a second and then his face lit up.
"Yes," he said in French, "when we shook hands, I noticed that he had heavy calluses on his palms, yet his hands were not rough. In fact, they were rather soft, smooth, and well taken care of. I thought it unusual at the time, but it soon slipped my mind."
"That's it! Watson, that's it!" Holmes was excited and vigorously thanked the young Frenchman. "Inspector, please release this young man and have Officer McNeally escort him politely back to his room at the Hotel Metropole with our thanks. He is quite innocent and has, in all likelihood, led us to the murderer! We may, however, require his services again, along with the tea server, to identify our man."
The inspector nodded to the officer, and the latter escorted the young man out. When they had left, I reluctantly expressed my ignorance, which was obviously shared by the inspector, "Holmes, I don't understand. How has our man been identified? "
"Watson, you of all people should understand! What occupation results in the hands that were just described? A masseur of course! You are a frequent visitor of Nevill's Turkish Bath, but you have not noticed this pronounced trait of those long in the trade?"
"Yes, the baths are therapeutic for my rheumatism, and you too have a partiality for them, but I never noticed -"
"Quite. But I have. However, I have not noticed any masseur who matches our man's description at Nevill's in Northumberland. It must be some other nearby establishment. We must quickly dispatch a message to my brother to find out if any known spy is a masseur or if the two members of government who my brother considered above suspicion recently took a Turkish bath together."
"But Holmes, why would a masseur kill a businessman arriving from France?"
"Because it is the perfect cover for a spy against the government. Haven't you and I held what could be considered private discussions at the Baths? One of the purposes of going to the baths is to relax, and as you relax, you let down your guard. Just as it is easy to forget a waiter at a nearby table at a restaurant or the boys who handle the towels or the boots, a masseur is easily forgotten at the baths. When a conversation is ongoing, it is part of their job not to disrupt it. And it is apparent that affairs of state have been discussed in this manner between two government officials who my brother considered above suspicion! Mycroft did not sufficiently consider the possibility of an accidental leak of information. Even if these officials thought they were careful by talking in obscure terms or vague references, it is a spy's job to connect seemingly unrelated pieces of a puzzle into a complete picture. In this case, he was able to determine that one of our own spies against France was arriving on Friday with some important information. The masseur sought to intercept it. He did not discover on which train he was to arrive, but apparently he knew enough to identify him once he arrived. Perhaps this information, and some indication of the meeting place was discussed. So, the French spy searched for the English spy on every train arriving with connections from the continent. He waited at the refreshment rooms for much of the time between trains. That was one mistake. Another was not resisting the temptation to help out a fellow countryman. On the last train of the day, the English spy arrived. The French spy followed him to the district line, where he was probably going to get off at Westminster for the meeting with our two officials. The French spy was able to determine the likely location of the documents, probably an attaché case that the English spy held in his hand. When the train was arriving at the platform, the Frenchman pushed the Englishman off the platform in front of the train, while grabbing the attaché case. The Englishman made an attempt to save himself by grabbing for something, and tore off the decorative button. The obvious strength of the Frenchman easily won this confrontation, and the Englishman fell to his death when the threads holding the button in place snapped.
"We must now act quickly; I am unsure how long the material in the attaché case will remain in the Frenchman's hands, but if we are lucky, he still has the documents in his possession. Agents like him work independently, so it is likely that he will return the material to France himself. We must visit the baths near the government buildings and find the masseur who fits our description. He should be one of their long-time masseurs, and he did not work on Friday. We can hope that Friday is his regular day off, and that he plans to take the information back to France then. Watson, let's go! First we must try to contact my brother. Failing any additional information from him, we should start at Nevill's as these are open late."
"So that's how it is now! I've heard about you Mr. Holmes," said the inspector. "You have us do all the difficult work, while you formulate your fancy theories, and then you swoop in at the last moment to gather all the glory."
Holmes stopped. "You have been gravely misinformed. As with many of the cases on which I have assisted Scotland Yard, I want no credit for this case. You and your men have performed admirably on this one, and I expect that you can handle this effectively and quickly, as this case requires. My role here is to help plan the capture of this murderer!"
For the next twenty minutes, Holmes and the inspector planned the details and discussed the contingencies of how the resources of the Special Branch would be used to identify and capture the spy. As the inspector was leaving to gather his men and execute the plan, he turned and looked at Holmes, and said "I apologize for misjudging you Mr. Holmes. The way you have helped track down this criminal on only a thread of evidence should be recorded for all time in the annals of Scotland Yard. I hope that one day you'll consider joining Scotland Yard where your skills could be used to guide many others in their investigations to ensure their successful conclusion, instead of handling only one case at a time that you are at this time."
"Thank you for the compliment, inspector. While
the thought is an interesting one, I am a difficult man to work
with, with many peculiarities, and likes and dislikes. I'm afraid
I do not have the temperament nor the inclination to do the work
you describe. Now go capture our man."
The French spy was captured that night along with the documents, much along the lines laid out by Holmes and the inspector. The spy had not left for the continent as the masseur had appointments with key members of the government during the week, and did not want to raise any suspicions or miss other opportunities to learn information. To my surprise, Holmes did not seem pleased when we heard the news of the capture from the inspector the next morning.
"Aren't you happy that Scotland Yard will bring the murderer to justice?"
"If he is ever brought to justice. No, I am
most displeased at this investigation. Much time was wasted when
Mycroft withheld information from me. Come Watson, I must talk
We took a hansom to the Diogenes Club, where we found Mycroft waiting for us in the Stranger's Room. The Diogenes Club is the most unusual club in England, where the members do not communicate with each other, and discussions, typically with non-members, occur only in the Stranger's Room. As we entered the room, I saw Mycroft in a chair across the table from the entranceway, with a glass of port in his hand.
"You know why I'm here," Holmes said, more as a statement than a question to Mycroft.
"Germany is the objective."
Sherlock sat down across from Mycroft, and began to stuff and light his pipe with a thoughtful expression on his face. Suddenly, he looked up sharply at Mycroft and stared at him with a stern look.
Mycroft stared back at my companion with an expressionless, patient face. Sherlock looked away briefly, withdrew his pipe as if to speak, and then put it back again. Sherlock shifted his weight forward, and again stared at Mycroft. Mycroft, looking uncomfortable, shifted his large mass awkwardly in his chair, took a sip of his port, and regained his composure. Returning the port to the table, Mycroft looked at my friend with resolve, and deliberately shook his head. Sherlock looked away, languidly exhaling bluish-gray smoke from his lips. Returning his gaze back to his brother, Sherlock slowly nodded his head. Finally, Mycroft broke the silence, which by now had lasted several minutes.
"Of course. Come Watson, we can go now."
We returned to Baker Street in silence after Holmes refused to answer my questions about that silent conversation. I felt that I had witnessed some type of argument, sibling rivalry, and battle of wits all rolled into a few bizarre minutes. It was not until recently, some two years later, that Holmes referred back to this case and our meeting with Mycroft. It appears that the invasion scares promoted by publications over the last few years were not completely off the mark. France indeed had extravagant plans to invade England while she was distracted by the South African war. Our spy in France was watching for shipments of ammunition and messages from the Continent to the Boers, and was responsible for carrying out inquiries referred from South Africa. His investigations uncovered proof of one of these invasion plans. After Holmes's analysis of this case led to the recovery of the invasion plans and other material from the French spy, this evidence was used as a catalyst that led to the eventual peace between England and France that we now enjoy. The sensational stories of imminent invasion by France have now been replaced by sensational stories of imminent invasion by Germany. With my newly obtained knowledge of the political climate in which we live, I am taking these stories far more seriously.
One unfortunate footnote to this story is that the
French spy was never brought to justice. As part of the unofficial
negotiations that led to the peace with France, the spy was quietly
expelled from England and returned to France.
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