After purchasing my practice at Kensington, my happily married lifestyle did not allow me to join my good friend Sherlock Holmes on many of his adventures. I would periodically drop by 221B Baker Street to visit my friend whenever the opportunity presented itself and Holmes would inform me of his latest triumphs or use me as a sounding board. It was during one of these occasions that I was able to assist Holmes in my own humble way. A house call to one of my long-term patients had me in the area for the third consecutive day.
"Welcome Watson!" Holmes yelled through the closed sitting room door, even though I had not yet reached the top of our stairs. With his acute hearing and extraordinary perception, Holmes can easily identify all of his regular visitors and clients by the sound and pattern of their footsteps as they climb the seventeen steps. I opened the door and said, "Hello, Holmes." To my surprise, it wasn't my hawk-nosed, well-groomed companion who was sitting in his armchair, but an elderly nonconformist clergyman with long gray hair, black robe, white tie, baggy trousers, churchman's collar, and a bulbous nose. It only took me a moment to realize my friend had assumed one of his favourite disguises. His outfit was not quite complete, so I knew he was preparing for a busy evening on one of his dozen or so active cases.
"Sorry Holmes," I said. "Looks like a bad evening to visit."
"On the contrary, I was expecting you," said Holmes. "Your patient is too seriously ill to have a sudden recovery, yet he is making steady progress. You are an hour earlier than yesterday. Your wife is out of town visiting a relative. Forgive me if I am being too bold, but I was counting on your assistance this evening on a small matter."
"Of course, you can count on me Holmes." I replied.
"Do you recall the Dundas separation case that we discussed last month?"
"The teetotaler who wound up every meal by taking out his false teeth and hurling them at his wife?"
"Precisely, there have been some developments." Holmes motioned me to take a seat. As he prepared the finishing touches on his disguise, he began his monologue.
"Initially, I was requested to clarify only a few minor points in the case. I merely needed to find evidence that Dundas was once a well-known thespian of another name. Normally, I would not consider taking such a case, but I was intrigued by the bizarre circumstances and a vague recollection of seeing a performance by Dundas. The evidence was trivial to collect and I went to Dundas himself to confront him with it. He refused an audience with me, despite my warnings that turning over the evidence may affect his upcoming separation.
"At this point, I thought my involvement in the case was concluded, but I was wrong. This morning I read that the Dundas was being committed to an asylum as a result of recent court proceedings. Concerned that my investigation may have been ill-used, I decided to follow up on the case. My worst fears were quickly confirmed and I am determined to correct the situation.
"Here are the particulars. Mr. Dundas has been retired from the stage for some time. He was a well-known adventurer and used his fame to become quite wealthy. Sadly, money and age affected his mind. He withdrew from society and now he barely ever leaves his bedroom. About ten years ago, he sold all of his assets, except for his London property, for cash. By all accounts, he was the worst of misers. Considering the fortune he must have amassed over his career, he could have lived in luxury, yet his house is small with sparse, utilitarian furniture. His house has fallen into a state of disrepair. His tiny garden grew wild because he refused to pay for a gardener. He did little to care for himself or others for he does not wish to spend his money.
"His only employee was a nurse. This nurse prepared his food and anything else required for his physical health and well-being. Dundas is not a friendly sort. He locked himself in his room and preferred to be in isolation. He typically ate all three meals in his room, often in his bed with his eiderdown pulled up over him, even on the hottest of days. Normally, mealtime was all that the nurse would see of him. That was sufficient for most nurses, for he did nothing but complain. He'd complain about the quality of the food, the price of the food, and that the nurse was paid too much. He'd work himself into such a rage that he'd end each meal by throwing his false teeth at the nurse as she was leaving his room with the tray of empty plates. The position did not pay particularly well and his nurses would leave for another position within a year.
"Once a month, he was visited by his solicitor who would stay for a scant fifteen minutes and leave. The solicitor charged a meager amount to oversee a small pot of Dundas' money that was used to pay the nurse and other essentials. If the nurse left the position, the solicitor would hire another the same day.
"The most recent nurse, Nurse Jenner, would engage the solicitor in friendly conversation over tea. She soon learned of Dundas' supposed wealth and that he had no known living relatives. Although she probed further, the solicitor did not reveal more information about her current employer.
"For the next six months, the nurse tried to learn more about her employer's wealth. It was evident to her that he must have a large stash someplace, but she could not discover where. For the first time in years, the house was cleaned from top to bottom, but she could find no record of a bank account. She secretly listened to her employer's mumbling from outside his bedroom door, but did not hear anything to get her closer to her goal. Frustrated, she changed her tactics.
"Over the next several months, Nurse Jenner informed the solicitor that she had finally succeeded in breaking through to Dundas, and that he was actually a nice man deep inside. She talked about Dundas in familiar terms and mentioned incidents from Dundas's earlier life that she claimed she learned from Dundas himself, but were actually learned from her earlier investigations. She was very convincing. The following month, she informed the solicitor that she and Dundas were married and that his services were no longer required. The solicitor was instructed to turn over control of the money to her. The solicitor expressed disbelief but the ex-nurse produced a marriage certificate and his attempt to confirm her story with Dundas himself went nowhere. The money under the solicitor's control was only sufficient to cover her expenses for a year. Unconvinced of her sincerity, the solicitor was only as helpful as he felt legally obliged.
"At the time, her strategy was merely to divorce Dundas to obtain a share of his fortune. That was where I was brought in. Using my evidence, she was able to get control of a bank account in the name of Dundas's stage name. Again she was frustrated as the money was insignificant compared to her so-called husband's supposed worth. Once more, she changed her strategy. With the help of her previous employer, the Smythe asylum, she was determined to have Dundas declared insane, thereby legally obtaining full control of the whole fortune. With all of his eccentricities and Dundas refusing to help himself, Dundas was quickly committed.
"Nowadays, no sooner is an asylum built than it is filled with maniacs, suicidal melancholics, or senile dements in need of care and treatment. Nobody checks the qualifications of the private proprietors, who are often no better than crooks. The Smythes are no exception. They have been in trouble with the police in the past, although not convicted. Despite Dundas's condition being considered incurable, I am certain they will have already begun treating him with sedatives, stimulants, or possibly electric shock in an attempt to have him disclose the location of his fortune. Even without information from Dundas, I do not expect the treasure to be hidden for long. After the treasure has been located, I suspect that Dundas will conveniently pass away, so time is of the essence. We must act tonight."
With this statement, Holmes had completed his monologue and stood up to gather the remaining pieces of his disguise. I was impressed.
"You learned all of this today?"
Reaching for the Bible on his shelf, Holmes replied, "It was elementary. Most of what I described I gathered from the solicitor, who was a friend of Dundas before his mental health deteriorated. It was a simple matter of checking with the police to find out about the Smythes. I also examined a copy of the marriage certificate. The signature of Dundas is undoubtedly a forgery. The rest of the story falls into place with only minimal deductions ."
"How did you know the marriage certificate was forged?"
"Although the naked eye often cannot easily spot a forgery, one can even determine when the heartbeats of the writer occurred if handwriting is sufficiently magnified. In this case, a magnifying glass was all that was required to clearly see that the signature on the marriage certificate was slowly written, with frequent stops and starts. The signature was not written with the smooth hand of one experienced with the signature, but instead it was a poor copy. It doesn't take a trained eye to discover the fake, but nobody had thought to look. Unfortunately, this evidence may not be enough to bring the case to a close. It would be my word against those of the witnesses. With the admittedly doubtful state of mind of Dundas, my word may not be sufficient. In addition, I do not believe that Dundas would be alive long enough to survive the legal bureaucracy."
Having cleaned the dust from the Bible, Holmes went
to the closet to get the broad black hat and coat to complete
his clergyman's disguise. "The game is afoot. The cards have
been dealt and it only remains for our hand to be played. I hope
our strategy will be a winning one. I'll explain it on the way."
An hour later, our hansom arrived at the Smythe Asylum in Whitechapel. From the outside, it was a run-down four story establishment. Inside, a woman dressed in a nurse's outfit sat behind a reception area that separated the front door from the ground floor offices and the stairs that led to numerous small locked rooms. The rooms were silent. Holmes, wearing a simple-minded smile on a benevolent face, shuffled his way toward the woman. Halfway to the woman, Holmes was overcome by such a coughing attack that I, a medical man, was convinced that he was dying of tuberculosis. Eventually, the coughing subsided, and he continued, with my assistance, across the room.
Catching his breath, Holmes rasped "Good evening, we are here to see Mr. Dundas."
A momentary look of concern flashed upon the woman's face. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dundas can not be disturbed. It is very late."
"I understand, but we have come such a long way. We are old friends of Mr. Dundas. I practically raised him as my own son after his father, bless his soul, came down with brain fever. Now, Peter has the same affliction. Alas, it seems almost as if the devil himself has placed a curse upon his family. I fear that I myself may not have long in this world. I must see him."
"I'm sorry, but Mr. Dundas must rest. Please come back tomorrow when a doctor or my husband is present."
"It is indeed unfortunate. I won't be able to return tomorrow." Turning to me, Holmes said as quietly as his hoarse voice would let him. "I'm afraid that we'll have to entrust the key to the safe deposit box with his solicitor after all."
"Yes, no doubt that would be the wisest course given that you can't talk to Mr. Dundas." Turning to the door, we slowly began to walk back from whence we came.
The woman, who had overheard our conversation, spoke hurriedly. "Perhaps you can leave the key here. We can keep it with his other personal items."
Holmes faced the woman again. "I would very much like to. I don't like that other man very much, but I couldn't without first talking to Mr. Dundas in private."
"I don't think that would do much good. He is hardly responsive at all, when he is awake." She replied.
"What is the matter with him?" I asked.
"The alienist says that Mr. Dundas is a severe melancholic. As I'm sure you are aware, Mr. Dundas was a popular actor. Many great artists are beset by spontaneous melancholic moods. Their frenzied bursts of creativity result in over-exertion of the nervous system. Eventually, their excessive artistic productivity leads to a slow, irreversible, and progressive deterioration."
"Are you certain that I won't be able to see him? I would very much prefer leaving it with him than with his solicitor." Holmes requested again hopefully.
The nurse nodded thoughtfully. "Please be seated,
gentlemen, while I check on Mr. Dundas. I will be back shortly."
It was some twenty minutes later before she returned.
"I'm sorry. It is as I had feared. He is asleep and I have been unable to wake him."
"May we see him anyway. Perhaps if I see that he is well taken care of " Holmes let his voice trail off.
"I don't see any harm in it. Please follow me." The nurse started up the stairs again. With Holmes's coughing, it took us several minutes to climb the two floors to the room.
Before opening the door, she said. "Keep in mind that Dundas is a melancholic. We must protect him against himself. We had to remove him from a room with a window and had to chain him to his bed." She said, watching our expressions. "For his own safety, you understand." She added.
We both nodded sadly. Then she opened the door. It was a dimly lit room barely large enough to fit its small metal bed. On the bed, under a clean white sheet laid a thin man, dressed in an equally clean white night-gown. He was sleeping despite having his wrists manacled to the railing on the side of the bed.
With a peaceful smile on his face, Holmes said. "We would like to pray for him. Would you mind terribly if we were alone?"
"Of course not. I'll be right outside."
As soon as the door was closed, we sprang into action. As Holmes bent down to pick the lock on the manacles, I made a cursory examination of Dundas. He was mildly sedated. I applied a stimulant hoping to counteract the affects of his medication. Although rough treatment by attendants is not unusual in an asylum, his injuries were clearly excessive. The bruises on his wrists and body were severe, but he had no permanent injuries. Some of his wounds brought back distant memories of stories of torture that I heard during my time in Afghanistan. So far, their efforts had apparently been fruitless.
Dundas was beginning to regain consciousness when
we heard a knock at the door. I slipped out of the room and explained
to the nurse that Holmes was still praying, hoping to exorcise
the evil spirits from Dundas. I struck up a conversation with
the nurse about life in an asylum. Periodically, we would hear
Holmes have a coughing fit, but mostly the room was quiet. A quarter
hour passed quickly, for the nurse loved to talk. After a particularly
bad coughing episode, I excused myself and went into the room.
A minute or so later, I was assisting the clergyman out of the
room. As the coughing clergyman slowly made his way down the stairs,
I stayed with the nurse to hand her an envelope with a key inside
and apologized for our sudden departure due to my companion's
Later that evening, I had succeeded in putting Mr. Dundas to sleep in my old Baker Street room. The trip back from Whitechapel had not been pleasant. After briefly explaining to Dundas that we were there to get him out of the asylum, we challenged him to prove his acting abilities once again and assume the rather simple role of a coughing clergyman. Although disoriented, his finely tuned skills obtained from years of acting had served Dundas well. Dressing the part came naturally to him. Holmes removed the wig and muttonchops and applied them to Dundas. Then they exchanged clothes. The remaining disguise left Holmes an aged man with a bulbous nose. In the dim light, Holmes vaguely resembled the old man sleeping in the cot. A coughing spell that Dundas was able to imitate perfectly was a signal for me to reenter the room and arrange our quick exit. We waved over our hansom that we had earlier arranged to be waiting. Once inside the cab, Dundas's distrust of me became apparent. It was all I could do to prevent him from jumping from our moving vehicle. Although I tried to calm him, he was not thinking rationally and would not listen to me. He accused me of trying to take his money like everybody else. Eventually, he surrendered to his weakened condition. Exhausted, he became more cooperative but refused to say another word for the rest of the evening. With Mrs. Hudson's assistance, I was able to get him into my old room under the effects of a mild sedative.
The evening's adventure had taken its toll on me as well. Although I intended to wait up for Holmes's return, I quickly fell into a deep sleep in the armchair by the fire. I was awoken the next morning by Holmes. He had arrived in the early morning hours to find me asleep. He had sent a messenger to my wife to inform her of my whereabouts and that I would be returning this evening.
"Is Dundas still asleep?" I asked groggily.
"Yes, but he shows signs of waking" Holmes replied.
At that moment, a scream came from my old room. We ran there to find Dundas cradled against the back wall, yelling incoherently and rocking from side to side. If we approached him, he would yell loud and incoherently in a state of extreme panic. I offered him some brandy to soothe his nerves, which he swiped away with his hand, spilling it on the floor.
Holmes was the one who finally broke through Dundas's hysteria when he calmly stated during a moment of silence ,"Your money is safe."
Dundas stared at Holmes as sanity slowly and visibly returned. "You don't fool me. You won't get me to reveal where my money is."
"There is no need. Your gold coins are still in the hollowed spaces of your brass bedposts. I have an acquaintance, an ex-boxer, standing guard at your house. He is unaware of the fortune that he is protecting."
"How did you find out where it was hidden?" Dundas asked, sounding exhausted and defeated.
"It was an elementary deduction really. Where else would a miser who would not leave his bed hide his money? I was not the only one to come to that conclusion, for your bedroom was thoroughly ransacked. Fortunately, they did not find the combination of well hidden latches that are necessary to open up the top of the bedposts. Fine workmanship. The solid construction of the brass bed had the looters searching for easier prey. The searchers had ripped apart the mattress, the eiderdown, and the pillows. They had emptied out the wardrobe, and even poked some holes in the wall before giving up for now. They would have been back after their other theories proved false. It was only a matter of time before the gold would have been found."
Dundas crouched quietly in the far corner of the room. He began to rock back and forth again. I indicated to Holmes that I thought it was best for us to leave.
Holmes stated authoritatively. "Your solicitor, Mr. Carlton, will be here shortly to take you home. He was most instrumental in regaining your freedom. Some of your clothes are on the chair near the bed. I hope you will find them suitable."
Dundas nodded solemnly and we exited the room.
Within a half hour, Mr. Carlton had arrived. He was a stout man with the pleasant nature of one who enjoys his success. Although he greeted us with the serious formality appropriate for one in his profession, he could not hide his genuine concern for the health of Dundas. We went to my old room where we found Dundas dressed and presentable. Soon, Mr. Carlton was escorting Dundas from our lodgings, promising to return later in the day to settle other matters. When he did return, he was in high spirits.
"Welcome back, Mr. Carlton." Holmes greeted him. "Is Mr. Dundas doing well?"
"Yes, quite well, thanks to you. He is doing much better now that he is back in the familiar surrounding of his room. I was able to rehire one of his better previous nurses, at a much higher salary I may add. She was successful in cleaning up most of the mess by the time we arrived. I have also retained the boxer for the next couple of weeks, if you don't mind. Mr. Dundas is now peacefully sleeping in his bed. I have to admit that I had my doubts that your scheme would work. I should know better than to doubt the great Sherlock Holmes! Did you also succeed in getting the signatures?"
"Yes, I have the papers right here."
"Splendid! Then this nightmare has truly come to an end. You must tell me the whole story."
"There is not much to it. No deductions, no challenges."
Mr. Carlton persisted. "Surely Mr. Holmes, there must be some dramatics when you confronted those leeches for their signature."
"So, you would like to hear the sensational details! You are an avid reader of the tales written by Dr. Watson, I take it."
Mr. Carlton did not note the sarcasm in my friend's voice. "Yes, I find them most exhilarating."
Sherlock Holmes frowned. "Very well. I will endeavour to do the stories of Dr. Watson justice. You are familiar with the events up to the time that Dr. Watson had departed with Mr. Dundas?"
"Then that is where I will start." With a look of resignation, he took a deep breath and began his narrative. "After I had switched places with Mr. Dundas, I pretended to be asleep. I was left alone for several hours in the dark, before I heard rapid footsteps of some people climbing the stairs. I determined that there were two women and one man. The differences in weight, bearing, and shoe style make the sexes easily distinguishable. The door to the room burst open, pouring blinding light into my dark room. The asylum's nurse, Mr. Smythe himself, and the alleged Mrs. Dundas, also known as Nurse Jenner, entered.
"Smythe roared 'Where is the safe deposit box located?'
"This told me everything I needed to know. They had not yet located Dundas's hoard. I rolled over into a sitting position on the cot. The handcuffs which were unlocked around my wrist, flew down and clanged against the railing. My visitors were taken back by my unexpected quick movement and stopped dead in their tracks. Recovering first, Smythe was about to pounce on me when he noticed the small pistol in my hand.
" 'Who are you?' he demanded.
" 'Sherlock Holmes.' I replied.
" 'No you're not. Sherlock Holmes is much younger. He worked for me!' asserted Nurse Jenner.
" 'You're the old clergyman. He can barely walk a step without coughing!' added the other nurse.
"I could not hold back a chuckle as I removed the plaster from my nose. 'Even without the plaster, my nose is a rather prominent feature, don't you think?'
" 'It is Sherlock Holmes!' gasped Nurse Jenner.
" 'Yes. The game is over, and you have lost. I hold all the cards. I have evidence that the marriage was a fake and that the signature on the certificate is a forgery. You no longer have Mr. Dundas under your control and his mistreatment is obvious. The police will be here shortly unless you cooperate and accept my proposal. I simply request your signature on the following legal forms prepared by a solicitor. These documents release Mr. Dundas from your care, declare him sane, and annul the marriage. You will have no future claim to Mr. Dundas's property. You will have my word that we will not pursue you any further. You may keep the money that you have already stolen from his accounts as long as we hear no more from you ever again.'
"These adversaries were leeches, cowards who feed on the weak and helpless. As cowards, they gave in to my demands without further discussion. I left the asylum and met the boxer whom I had instructed to wait outside in case of trouble. We proceeded to the Dundas house, where the boxer stood guard while I located the hiding place and ensured the treasure was still safe as expected. On the way back here, I arranged for the telegrams to Mr. Carlson and Mrs. Watson.
"That about sums it up." Holmes concluded.
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Mr. Carlson.
"No. It is embarrassing. I should have prevented this. I had suspected Nurse Jenner was not telling the full truth. That was why I tried to talk to Dundas before giving the information to Jenner. I should have done more."
Mr. Carlson sympathized with Holmes. "It has also been a professional embarrassment for me as well. I was unable to prevent him from being committed."
I had been quiet up to now. "You have both corrected a terrible wrong. You ought to be congratulated, not condemned. If you are still not satisfied with the outcome, perhaps you can do more to prevent future cases like this."
Both expressed interest in my idea. After some deliberation,
we decided upon a large anonymous contribution to the Alleged
Lunatic's Friend Society, a society whose charter was to protect
the alleged insane from abuse.
The Editor has excerpted the following related text from "A
Case of Identity" from the original canon that took place
the previous month:
"I can quite understand your thinking so," I said.
"Of course, in your position of unofficial adviser and helper
to everybody who is absolutely puzzled, throughout three continents,
you are brought in contact with all that is strange and bizarre.
But here"-I picked up the morning paper from the ground-"let
us put it to a practical test. Here is the first heading upon
which I come. 'A husband's cruelty to his wife.' There is half
a column of print, but I know without reading it that it is all
perfectly familiar to me. There is, of course, the other woman,
the drink, the push, the blow, the bruise, the sympathetic sister
or landlady. The crudest of writers could invent nothing more
"Indeed, your example is an unfortunate one for your
argument," said Holmes, taking the paper and glancing his
eye down it. "This is the Dundas separation case, and, as
it happens, I was engaged in clearing up some small points in
connection with it. The husband was a teetotaler, there was no
other woman, and the conduct complained of was that he had drifted
into the habit of winding up every meal by taking out his false
teeth and hurling them at his wife, which, you will allow, is
not an action likely to occur to the imagination of the average
story-teller. Take a pinch of snuff, Doctor, and acknowledge that
I have scored over you in your
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