Sherlock Holmes often disparaged my efforts to record in narrative form the details of those of his cases which I consider to be of more than passing interest. Therefore, I was somewhat taken aback when he remarked to me one morning, as we sat at breakfast in the rooms we shared at 221B Baker Street, “I see, Watson, that you have not as yet applied your literary talents to an account of the extraordinary events pertaining to The Grim Reaper.”
Before replying, I took my time cutting the kipper on my plate into bite-size pieces. After masticating a few mouthfuls, I said, “Surely, Holmes, with your superior skills at ratiocination, you have already deduced the reason why I have not yet done so.”
His ascetic face, with its deep-set and inscrutable eyes, crinkled with a smile. “Touché, Watson. If I have been remiss in revealing to you the full details of the case, it is because—until today—the ending had not been entirely satisfactory.”
“You were quite secretive at the time. Like a marsh hen concealing her chicks.”
At this Holmes laughed, a rare occurrence. “In the past I have been compared to what would, in their total, amount to an entire menagerie of creatures, but never I think to a marsh hen.” Replenishing the tea in his cup, he said, “When we have completed our meal I shall rectify the omission.”
Mrs. Hudson’s maid having cleared away the breakfast clutter, Holmes selected a pipe from the rack, tamped in a generous portion of the foul-smelling tobacco he kept in the Persian slipper, and sank into his favorite armchair near the fire. His mood was one of relaxation, a welcome change from his all too frequent restless pacing about the sitting room in a fever of suppressed energy, or nervously biting his nails, chafing against idleness.
For the next hour or so he enlightened me as to where he had been in that mysterious three weeks’ absence, why he had looked so haggard upon his return, and how it was he had at last succeeded in bringing to an end the brief but iniquitous career of that individual whom Holmes himself had labeled The Grim Reaper.
The adventure, if I may call it such, had its beginning on a midmorning in early summer, in the year 1886. Holmes had spent the past hour thumbing through the morning papers, in a fruitless search for any mention of a crime that might prove worthy of his attention. Failing to find one, he tossed the papers onto the floor in utter frustration.
“Have the London criminal class, the more clever of them, suddenly reformed, or have they all deserted the city for the salt air, cool breezes, and hapless prey of the popular seaside resorts? I swear that someday I shall retire to the countryside and take up beekeeping. At least then I shall have honey to compensate for my idle hours.”
Such outbursts were not unusual. Sherlock Holmes would rather endure the agonies of toothache than the tedium of inactivity. I was about to commiserate with the Great Detective when a commotion erupted below: the voices of two women in heated argument, prominent among them that of our landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Ah, thought I to myself, a distraction, if only minor in nature.
“Mrs. Hudson is generally possessed of a mild temperament,” I observed. “The last time I heard her engaged in such a row was when the fishmonger’s wife attempted to foist upon her a haddock that was past its prime. I’ll go downstairs to see what the altercation is about.”
Holmes, who had been standing at a window staring out, as if hoping that a mystery worthy of his talents would miraculously appear, made no reply, and so I left him to his thoughts and made my way to the ground floor, where I discovered Mrs. Hudson, arms akimbo, at the foot of the stairs, blocking the way of a stout, disheveled woman of middle age who was attempting to squeeze past her.
Hearing my tread, Mrs. Hudson asked over her shoulder, “Is that you, Doctor Watson? I apologize for the disturbance. I have told this woman repeatedly that Mr. Holmes is not to be disturbed.” Which I understood to mean, not to be disturbed by a woman of the lower class.
Knowing that in his present state of mind Holmes would welcome a visit from even the lowliest of street beggars, I assured our honest landlady that Mr. Holmes would not object to allowing the woman access to our rooms for a brief interview.
“If that is your wish, Doctor,” Mrs. Hudson grumbled, stepping aside.
“This way, Mrs. …?”