One day this past summer upon returning to 221B Baker Street after an absence of several hours, Sherlock Holmes nodded to me, removed his deerstalker, and tossed it onto the acid-stained table top before proceeding to the mantel, where he stood in silence as he stuffed tobacco from the Persian slipper into his pipe. Applying a match to the tobacco he said, “I suggest that you not waste ink and foolscap on such a trifling affair as that which took place at Oldquay.”
Setting my pen aside I looked up from the desk where I had been furiously scribbling. “But Holmes,” I protested, “surely such a baffling mystery as presented itself is worthy of the public’s attention.” Then, taken aback I found myself asking, “But how could you possibly know that I have been recording ‘The Adventure of the Vanished Women’? I know that your eyesight is keen, but surely not so keen as to be able to read my less than admirable penmanship from across the room!”
Holmes chuckled. “Come, come, my dear Watson. My eyesight is keen enough to see that the pile of foolscap to your left is considerably smaller than it was yesterday afternoon, while that to your right is considerably larger. Last evening you spent at least an hour fidgeting in your armchair while leafing through your journal. As I passed to fetch my violin I observed that at the top of the page upon which you had finally settled were scrawled the words ‘Vanished Women.’ I also observed that, no longer chafing in your chair, you spent the remainder of the evening reviewing your notes concerning the matter. Therefore—”
“Yes, Holmes,” I interrupted rather testily. “You therefore deduced. Humph.” I confess that it always annoyed me when Holmes’s seemingly impossible insights turned out to be absurdly obvious—once explained.
Despite The Great Detective’s attempt to minimize, not the enormity of the crime itself, but his role in solving it, I have recorded it here for posterity.
For Holmes and me the adventure began on a sunny afternoon in August of 1896. As I stood at the window taking advantage of what little air stirred, I spotted a familiar figure approach the entrance to 221B Baker Street. As I have stated on more than one occasion, Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard is an energetic, gallant, and, within his limitations, capable officer. The serious cast to his countenance suggested that the reason for his visit was one of some urgency.
I was not proved wrong.
After admitting the Inspector and offering him a seat Holmes leaned forward in his chair, hands clasped before him, with an air of eager anticipation like that of a child hoping for a treat.
“Mr. Holmes,” Gregson began, “you have no doubt read of the tragedy that occurred Sunday last at Oldquay.”
“I fear that I have not,” Holmes confessed. “Consumed by a case which I have concluded only this afternoon, I have shamelessly neglected the newspapers.” He turned to me. “Are you familiar with this affair, Watson?”
“I have read an account of it,” I replied. “I would have called the matter to your attention had you not for the past several days been running around, as it were, like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off.”
Holmes nodded. “The case I have just completed—one worthy of your literary talents—has not permitted me until today a moment’s respite. As soon as the culprit is arrested and properly hanged I will tell you the whole story. But now let us turn our attention to the problem Inspector Gregson is about to present.”
“Thank you, Mr. Holmes.” The Inspector ran his fingers through his hair, as if deciding how best to begin. “You have, I trust, heard of the playwright Matilda Lempriere?”
“I have, but only what I have read in The Times. Her plays, I understand, are generally lauded by the critics and popular with the theater-going public.”
“The Flirtatious Baroness is still playing in London, after opening some eleven months ago,” I said, “and gives no indication of closing any time soon. That much I have gleaned from reading the account of her brutal murder.”
“The Public is clamoring for her killer to be apprehended,” Gregson said. “And the Prince of Wales—believed to have been at one time an intimate of hers—is putting undue pressure upon the Yard, demanding immediate results. To add fuel to the fire, her neighbor, a Mrs. Sarah Hawke, has gone missing and, it is feared, may well be a second victim, although no body has as yet been discovered.”