A NEW SHERLOCK HOLMES TALE
THE ADVENTURE OF THE CRESSINGHAM DIAMONDS
Narrated by Dr John H Watson
My diary tells me it was in ’02 that Holmes and I were sitting in companionable silence in our sitting room at 221b Baker Street. It was an unseasonably cold February evening and every now and again the windows would rattle in protest at the raging wind and snow that battered against them. Despite the roaring fire and the inner contentment that derived from our lately having consumed Mrs Hudson’s excellent dinner of roast beef, Colman’s mustard and all the trimmings, my old Afghanistan war wound was playing up dreadfully.
Holmes had been very busy of late. Ever since his return from the ‘dead’ nine years previously, his fame had grown until now it extended from London to Lhasa and from Basingstoke to Burma. We had recently successfully concluded ‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty’ and ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ although Holmes had one of his rare failures in failing to find the culprit in the complex case involving the conspiracy to replace the Sultan of Amazonia with his second cousin. He had not now had a case for a week or so, however, and he sat moodily conducting some malodorous chemical experiment which apparently involved several items of Mrs Hudson’s best silver cutlery which, with an occasional ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ , Holmes had managed to turn into various colours of the rainbow. I knew better than to say anything.
The Lancet had fallen from my hands as I had dropped into a light slumber when, with a loud rat-tat-tat, our sitting room door abruptly opened and Mrs Hudson announced, ‘A visitor for you, Mr Holmes, Dr Watson – the Lady Cressingham.’
The lady in question – tall, stately, beautiful in what I would estimate to be about her 35th year, and dressed in a plain dress of dark blue silk– took an unsteady step forward. ‘Excuse me gentlemen – Mr Holmes?’ she said, looking from one of us to the other, ‘please help me – I am in the most terrible trouble!’
‘I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my trusted colleague and friend, Dr Watson,’ said Holmes, stepping forward and taking her hand. ‘Pray, Lady Cressingham, do take a seat. I can see that you have come a long way as you have travelled on the 4 o’clock train from Guildford which was delayed for half an hour at Clapham Junction and that you did not care for a man who was sitting with you in your First Class carriage. I am sorry you found the railway company’s attempt at a chicken basket completely inedible. That you had difficulty finding a cab at the station on this frightful night must have made your journey doubly fraught! Perhaps Mrs Hudson would be so good as to make us all some tea and you can tell me in your own good time how I may be of assistance to the wife of the Member of Parliament for Surrey South and, many believe, our next Foreign Secretary.’
Lady Cressingham did as she was bid and, as I often observed in similar occasions, seemed comforted and alarmed in equal degree by my brilliant friend’s observations. ‘But Mr Holmes!’ she said in an amazed voice, ‘I had heard of you and your brilliance but I think you must be the very devil himself to know all these things about my journey. How on earth…?’
‘Elementary, my dear Lady! It is my job to observe what others merely see and to know things others do not. Now, let us begin at the beginning. It is about your diamonds, is it not? Pray begin at the beginning!’
‘But nobody knows about the diamonds – except obviously you, Mr Holmes! No matter, I will start at the beginning of my wretched tale. It is briefly told.’
Lady Cressingham took a deep breath, then began. ‘As you rightly say, Mr Holmes, I am fortunate to be married to a wonderful man who I just know will one day give great service to his country. If he knew how foolish I have been, it would destroy him.’ Lady Cressingham took out a lace handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. ‘I am sorry, I will continue. As you may know, as you seem to know everything, Mr Holmes, I have been married for eight years now – and so very happy. To cut to the chase, last June I received a letter, unsigned, to say that some indiscreet letters that I had written as a young girl of 18 to a man I thought I loved, had been ‘intercepted’ but were available to me at a certain price. I was to watch the personal columns of the Times newspaper for further details…’
‘And you presumably did?’ asked Holmes. ‘What did they communicate?’
‘The next Tuesday there was a single sentence: ‘The Cressingham Diamonds’.
‘Surely not,’ I spluttered. ‘No, they are famous, a national treasure – almost beyond value and surely not worth swapping for a few lover’s letters…’
‘The letters, Dr Watson, Mr Holmes, were more than a little indiscreet. Although saying nothing I am ashamed of, I am convinced that their publication would undoubtedly besmirch myself and quite possibly ruin my husband’s career.’
‘So, this blackmailer suggested, no doubt in further anonymous correspondence, that you should give him the diamonds – including your famous sapphire and diamond necklace – and he would make paste copies which you could wear on important occasions. No suspicion would be raised provided that you allowed no-one to closely inspect them. In return, he would give back the letters. Am I correct?’ asked Holmes.
‘Absolutely correct in every detail, Mr Holmes. But how…?’
‘It is what any malicious but not terribly bright criminal would do. Furthermore, he has not given you the letters back, has he? Oh, dear Lady Cressingham you have been very foolish. If only you had come to me in the beginning!’
Lady Cressingham let out an agonised sob. ‘Oh, Mr Holmes, you are quite right, the situation is hopeless as far as I can see. But can you help me?’
Holmes reached for his pipe and began filling it with tobacco. ‘Oh yes, My Lady. I shall retrieve both your jewels and letters. It
can only be one man. I shall communicate with him.’
A ray of hope crossed Lady Cressingham’s face. ‘But how, Mr Holmes?’
‘Forcibly, my dear lady. Forcibly. Pray call back at this time in exactly two days. Good-day!’
And with that curt dismissal, he turned his back on both of us and lit the pipe, leaving me to usher the wife of a peer of the realm out of the front door.
The body was beautifully dressed. He was not dead, but had passed out following Holmes’ expertly directed punch. He had been an expert amateur boxer in his youth and still retained a profound knowledge of the noble art. We were in a notorious house of ill-repute in Cleveland Street, where illegal deals were made and pretty much anything you wanted on this earth could be obtained for a price. Toffs from all around the world, and a few members of our highest classes also, were known to frequent this building, bland and even a little tatty from the outside, but, inside, a riot of gilded mirrors, chubby golden cherubs, ruby-red carpets and fawning footmen.
How had we got here? Well, the night after Lady Cressingham left, Holmes had said we were to have a rare night out. ‘Where?’ I was very pleased that Holmes seemed to propose a night of frivolity and fun. I presumed the next day would be time enough to solve the matter of the Cressingham Diamonds, although I could not work out how. He had sent no telegrams or letters.
‘Never you mind, Watson. Just put on this fancy dress’. I did what he said, and found myself looking like a stocky, bewigged servant with a uniform of blue and red with gold buttons.
‘Hah! My dear Watson, you could almost be my servant!’
‘What do you mean, ‘ALMOST…’ Holmes, I muttered, miffed beyond measure at my ludicrous attire.
Holmes didn’t acknowledge my remark but, with a theatrical ‘Watch!’ rushed into the adjoining bedroom, to emerge a few minutes later totally and miraculously transformed. He was wearing the clothes of a French aristocrat – most beautifully tailored – and he was bewigged and powdered, with a black beauty spot artfully applied to his lower left cheek.
There was a tentative knock on our door before Mrs Hudson entered bearing sandwiches, something she was want to do mid-evenin . Putting the tray down she caught up her skirts and laughed out loud. ‘Oh, Dr Watson, you look so funny dressed like that’. She turned around to face Holmes. ‘Ah! I see you have a guest!’
‘Enchantez, Madame’, said Holmes bowing with such…such French effrontery that I could hardly restrain myself. ‘I am not too good with your language, but I am enchantez’d to meet such a beautiful lady’. He kissed the tips of his fingers and then, tenderly taking our landlady’s quivering left hand in his own, repeated the kiss on her. ‘I am the Comte de Patis D’or. I have come to see the famous Monsieur Holmes, but, alas, he is, as you say absentie…’
With that, the good Mrs Hudson shimmied out of the room, no doubt much enchantez’d judging by the rosy state of her face. She obviously had no idea whatsoever that she had been talking to her famous lodger.
‘Really, Holmes, really!’ I said. ‘That was unworthy of you. Our own dear Mrs Hudson, indeed, subject to your wiles! I am appalled, Holmes!’
‘Ah! As you have often remarked before, my dear fellow! But she is a happy lady, as she no doubt deserves to be. She is happy to have met the Comte de…whatever his name was. And I am sure that you will never tell her different. She is probably at this very moment about to compose a letter to her dear sister in Hove about the encounter.’
‘Holmes, you are insufferable!’
Holmes picked up a silver-topped cane. ‘Now, my dear Jacquard – for such is your name and you have been my faithful retainer for many years – we must go out on the Town. I hear the sound of a carriage stopping outside our door. Come! The Game is Afoot!’
Holmes turned round at the door. ‘And, Watson, bring your medical bag and army revolver.’
‘Where are we going?’ I asked, my dream of a hapless, innocent night of entertainment rapidly biting the dust.
‘To a particularly loathsome address in Cleveland Street, my dear Wat…I mean Jacquard.’
‘Very well, Holmes…’
‘Help me get him on the bed, Jacquard – best to keep in character, my dear chap – and affix his right wrist to the bedpost. Holmes produced a pair of handcuffs .There… good! Take off his jacket and shirt. Excellent! Now throw his clothes around the room.’
I did as I was bid, noticing for the first time the roaring fire in the exquisite marble surround which gave off enough light for me to marvel at the expensive trappings of the room. Our friend on the bed obviously lived here and Holmes knew as much.
‘You have your medical bag?’
‘Then prepare a syringe of Panthium Silvate. Good!’
Some say Holmes was a cold reasoning machine. I saw differently, then, as his guard dropped and I espied terrible fatigue in the way his eyes flashed pain and his whole face seemed to age twenty years. ‘I have something to ask of you, my dear chap…’
I had an intuitive inking – sometimes they come upon us, don’t they? – of what he was about to say. I was sweating so much I wiped my brow, sending my powdered wig to the floor.
‘No, Holmes, I won’t! I am a doctor and preserve life…’
‘Oh don’t worry, dear chap, I am not asking you to kill him. I want only an injection to knock this reptile of a man out for a good while so we can do what we have to do. I merely wish to check that you are willing to assist me on one of our most dangerous missions. This could mean a long jail term for both of us if it goes wrong.’
I admit I panicked. ‘This man, Holmes is about as high in the social order as it is possible to be. If we are caught…’ I suddenly felt ashamed of my cowardice. More to the point, I had never let my friend down and was not about to start now. ‘We are in this together, Holmes,’ I said. ‘I don’t know why you ask this of me, but, if it must be, then we will face life imprisonment in the Tower of London together!’
Holmes took the syringe from me and checked it. I noticed that those fine long fingers that occasionally produced such sublime notes on his Stradivarius were shaking slightly. He handed it back.
‘Just below the right toenail, Watson. Very, very carefully… It will be undetectable in an hour. It will never occur to those imbeciles from Scotland Yard that he has been drugged.’
I was all a-tremble as I administered the drug. Afterwards I carefully put all the instruments back in my medical bag. The Comte de Patis D’or’s face appeared happy, even ebullient. The figure on the bed lay on his back, eyes closed, breathing heavily.
‘Right’ said Holmes, ‘smash everything!’
‘Why, what are we looking for?’
‘Diamonds’, Holmes replied, ‘Diamonds and letters.’
Ten minutes later the room looked a splintered mess. I had needed to use my revolver on some obstinate locks of what I suspected were priceless French bureaux.
Holmes looked at me. ‘You will never be able to publish this in your fantastical tales, but we know it, don’t we? And I would like to say something, my dear chap, because I never say it…I am a cold man by nature… now is the time, maybe, now may be the only time…’
I looked at this fine, utterly brilliant though flawed man. His eyes were blue – bright as if they had the sun behind them. I am not ashamed to say that I was desperate for what I knew would come next.
‘Watson, I…I want you to know…although I find it very hard to admit…I know I never give you enough credit… I want to say to you that…’
There was a terrific thudding on the door. Our room smashing, to say nothing of my shooting up the furniture, had obviously not gone unheeded. Then the door burst open. Put bluntly, we legged it. Charging straight at the bulky figures entering the room, Holmes and I fought and struggled out into the dirty air of Tottenham Court Road, and thence back to 221b Baker Street.
Next morning Holmes was in fabulous fashion. I, for one, was pleased to be back in the safety of our sitting room at 221B. Mycroft Holmes was preceded by the Prime Minister, who had both come in for one of their regular chats with the great man who was my housemate. All enjoyed the very best of Mrs Hudson’s kedgeree and scrambled eggs. After coffee, we were joined by Inspector Lestrade of New Scotland Yard.
‘Terrible business, this’, said Holmes, languidly perusing the columns of The Times. ‘And a Peer of the Realm, too! Caught in a house of ill repute like that! Apparently he practically lived there! Room smashed to smithereens! Dear me!’
The Prime Minister eyed Mycroft. ‘Nothing to do with you, Mycroft?’
‘Nothing – I was in the Diogenes Club at the time of what the papers like to call ‘The Smashing Incident’.
‘Interesting thing’, said Lestrade, ‘is that we cannot work out what the thieves were after. We are not as daft as the public think. Panthium Silvate was used, you know. NOT totally undectectable. There were traces. If the dose had been delivered only seconds earlier, it would have cleared the system. No, there was some hesitation in administering the dose. We may be looking for either a reluctant or nervous criminal. But we will get the thieves!’
‘Any other clues, Inspector?’ asked Holmes.
‘Yes – there was a wig left on the floor. Also we have an eye witness of the escape. A French aristocrat, apparently. And his servant who lost his wig – a chap about 5ft 9 inches, stocky, very English looking, with a fine moustache… No mistake, he will be apprehended. A very long jail sentence awaits this scoundrel!’
‘Good heavens, Watson’, said Holmes clapping his hands together and then helping himself to another cup of coffee. ‘That sounds like you! Put your hands up for the cuffs, my dear chap. You have been rumbled!’
It wasn’t funny, though they all laughed. I thought for an instant that Mycroft Holmes looked at me with an amused tolerance that was just a half second too long. But that was no doubt my conscience.
Holmes seemed to find the situation extremely ‘amusant’ as the Comte de Patis D’or might have said.
I felt sick.
A week later we received a charming letter and invitation from a certain very happy lady.
‘I hear, my dear chap,’ said Holmes, ‘that an early spring holiday on the Cressingham Estate promises excellent Trout fishing. What do you say?’