Isolation Tales 9: ‘The Lady Downstairs’
Sooner or later every writer is tempted to have a bash at a Sherlock Holmes story, even if just for fun. Conan Doyle’s style is very easy to imitate and his Holmes tales have clear rules that you simply need to follow without bumping into anything – it’s a bit like an Airfix kit. If you’ve half a brain you won’t end up gluing the wings on the wrong way around. The result will be bland and indifferent but not actively terrible.
Equally, they’re really easy to get wrong, and you can smell a bad tale within the opening lines. Writers insist on pastiching, and it’s tempting to add too many familiar elements. The Holmes stories are very single-minded – everything is designed to lead you to one point.
The BBC asked me if I had a Holmes story, so I wrote one and they did it as a radio play with Hannah Gordon reading beautifully. She also either read very slowly or had a producer who didn’t pace her up (as the mere writer I wasn’t invited to the session) so the story was cut in half for running time.
I’ve had to do the same here because I’m pushing the loading capacity of my site this week, so you get the full story but with the second half tomorrow…
What annoys me most is that he doesn’t notice.
There are so few females in his life, and the ones that he does meet are usually in distress or hiding something. They’re titled, or troubled, or – well, one wouldn’t use the word in polite company, but it also begins with a T, and may be preceded by the word ‘Bakewell’. I see them all, because I see all of his clients. I open the door to them, I send them away or ask them to wait, or show them up the seventeen stairs to his room. You don’t let a stranger into your house without noticing something about them, and there’s usually something to notice. The ladies may have red-rimmed eyes and damp handkerchiefs, or may adopt a disdainful air to make me think they are the mistresses of their situations. The gentlemen are more obvious still, their rage barely concealed as they hop from one foot to the other, their eagerness to see my lodger brushing aside the most common courtesies. Sometimes our visitors are fearful, and search the street to make sure they have not been followed. These ones rush inside as if they have been scalded, and once my door is safely closed behind them, apologise for their behaviour, wringing their caps and glancing to the top of the stairs, half-expecting him to pop out of his rooms and solve their problems right in the hallway, as if I would allow such a thing.
‘I’ve no objection to you conducting your business in private,’ I warn him, ‘but I will not have these types unburdening their woes in my thoroughfares, no matter how heart-wrenching they may be.’ He finds my attitude hard to comprehend; I know he would see anyone anywhere if their circumstances fired his imagination, just as a doctor might attend a patient if certain symptoms aroused professional curiosity.
I tell you this so that you understand; I miss little of what goes on in this house. I keep a respectable establishment by making sure that those within it behave respectably. But Mr Holmes does not notice. The doctor is kindlier, but in his own way is just as bad. He remembers to wipe his feet, and thoughtfully enquires after my health, but his main concern is the one patient whose symptoms he will never fully understand, the patient with whom he spends more time than with Mary, his own wife.
I shouldn’t complain, for a landlady’s life is rarely interesting, and the comings and goings are a small price to pay for housing such a famous London figure. There are annoyances, of course: the infernal scratching of that violin, the muffled explosions from unstable compounds in the laboratory he has rigged up in my back room (without my permission), the immovable stains that appear on the carpets, the ghastly burning-cat smells that waft down from the landing, invariably at teatime when I am about to tuck into a kipper, the unsocial hours kept by a man who finds sleep a stranger. Yet I am fond of him because his enthusiasm leaves him so unprotected. He knows the doctor is concerned for his well-being. But he never notices me.
Of course, he is the Great Detective, and I am only the landlady. To hear him pronounce judgement you would think no one else was born with a pair of eyes. We don’t all have to shout about it from the rooftops. But my job is to notice everything, though I get little thanks.
Allow me to present you with an example. Only last week, on a drizzling Tuesday night at half past ten, as I was readying myself for sleep, there came a knock at the door. The girl had gone up to bed, and I was left to greet the caller, a frantic lady of some forty summers, in a dripping fur hat, clutching a wet fox-collar about her throat.
‘Is this the house of Mr Sherlock Holmes?’ she asked, without so much as a good evening.
‘Why yes,’ I replied, ‘and I am his landlady, Mrs Hudson, but Mr Holmes has left strict instructions not to be disturbed.’
‘I must see him,’ said the lady. ‘It is a matter of the utmost urgency.’ I say lady, for I assumed her to be one though she was not wearing gloves, and the wetness of her clothes suggested that she had not alighted from her own carriage, or even a Hackney. She had a bearing, though, and a way of looking that I have seen too often when ladies look at landladies.
‘If you’d care to wait in the front room I’ll see what can be done,’ I told her, and trotted off upstairs. I am nervous of no one in my own house, but sometimes Mr Holmes can be alarming. On this night he spoke to me rudely through the door, and finally opened it a crack to see what was amiss. As I explained that a lady waited downstairs, I could see my lodger hastily rolling down the sleeve of his shirt, tidying something away and complaining that it really was too bad he should be disturbed in such a manner. Knowing him, I took this to be an agreement that he would see her.
‘Is she in need of medical attention?’ he asked briskly. ‘Dr Watson is still away.’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘but she is quite distraught, for she has run here in the rain without stopping to dress for visiting .’ And I showed her up. As she passed me, I smelled essence of violets on her clothes, and something else I recognised but could not place, a nursery smell.
I stood on the landing, listening. She introduced herself as Lady Cecily Templeford, but then the door closed and I heard no more. Still, it was enough. I read the womens weeklies, so I knew that Lady Templeford’s son recently married beneath him. It was quite the scandal among the leisured classes, which I am not part of, but I make it my business to read about their small sufferings, who is engaged to whom, and why they should not be.
I went to the parlour and searched through the periodicals in the fire bucket. I soon came to the story. The Honourable Archibald Templeford married Miss Rose Nichols after a brief engagement. His mother refused to attend the wedding nuptials on account of Miss Nichols’ former profession, namely performing as a songstress in the twice-nigbtlies, where she was known as ‘The Deptford Nightingale’. Miss Nichols subsequently gave birth to a baby boy named Godwin. I was still reading this item when the door to Mr Holmes’ apartment slammed open.
‘If you do not help me, I do not know what I shall do,’ she said loudly enough to wake up the serving girl on the top floor. ‘I have no one else to whom I can turn, and need not tell you what this would do to our family should the news be made public.’ And with that she swept past me once more, almost knocking me flat, her grand exit marred only by her struggle with the front door latch.
‘Allow me,’ I offered, squeezing past to shove the lock, for the wood swells in wet weather, but for this help I received a look that could freeze a pond in midsummer.
‘The poor lady seemed very distressed,’ I ventured, wary of my lodger’s reluctance to discuss his clients. ‘I do hope you can help her.’
‘That remains to be seen,’ said Mr Holmes, ‘but it is nothing you should concern yourself with, dear lady,’ and with that he shut his door in my face. This does not bother me, for I am used to his ways, and I am just the landlady. I open the doors and close them. People pass me by. I stick to my duty, and they to theirs.
The next morning Mr Holmes went out, and did not return until five. He appeared haggard, in low spirits, and I gathered from his mood that the investigation he had undertaken was not going well. I knew he had visited the home of the Honourable Archibald Templeford because I heard him giving the cab driver the address, which was published in my weekly along with a fetching painting of the drive and grounds in Upper Richmond.
‘How was your day, Mr Holmes?’ I asked, taking his soaking greatcoat to hang in the hall.
‘Somewhat less productive than I had hoped, Mrs Hudson,’ he replied, ‘though I venture to surmise not entirely without purpose.’ He often speaks like this, saying much but revealing nothing. Most times, I have little interest in my lodger’s cases. He does not vouchsafe their details, and wishes to discuss them with no one but the doctor. But sometimes I glean a sense of their shape and purpose, although I see them through the wrong end of a telescope, as it were, the clients coming and going, the snatches of hurried conversation, the urgent departures late at night, the visits from policemen like Inspector Lestrade, full of cajoling and flattery, and when those tactics fail, threats and warnings. It is like being backstage at some great opera, where one only glimpses the actors and hears snatches of arias, and the setting is all round the wrong way, and one is left to piece together the plot. Like any stagehand I am invisible and unheard, but a necessary requirement in the smooth running of the performance.
My lodger spent the next morning locked in his rooms, banging about, the ceiling above my dining room creaking like a ship in a tempest. Resolving to see what caused his agitation, and knowing he had not eaten, I took him some beef broth, and was gratified when he accepted it, bidding me enter.
‘I worry you are letting this business with Lady Templeford tire you,’ I ventured, only to have him fix me with a wild stare.
‘What on earth do you mean, Mrs Hudson?’ he snapped, sipping at the broth before setting it aside with a grimace.
‘I noticed that because she arrived here in such agitation, you were compelled to deal with her case, despite being busy with other work.’
To my surprise he raised his long head and gave a great bark of laughter. ‘Well Mrs Hudson, you will surprise us all yet,’ he said. ‘First Watson, and now you. I shall start to wonder if my investigative technique is catching. So tell me, what do you discern about the lady in question?’
‘It’s not my business to voice an opinion,’ I said, wary of incurring his displeasure.
‘Let’s say for a moment that it is your business. It would be intriguing to know the female point of view.’
‘I know she is upset by the marriage of her youngest son to a girl she considers to be of low morals,’ I replied, ‘and is shocked by the early arrival of a child. More than that I cannot tell.’
‘But you have said much, perhaps without even realising it.’ He inclined his head, as if seeing me through new eyes. ‘The night before last, Lady Templeford’s new grandchild was snatched from his cradle, and no one has seen him since. What do you make of that?’
‘Its poor mother must be quite mad with grief,’ I said, remembering the picture of Rose Nichols in my paper. Then I considered the enmity that existed between the bride and her mother-in-law, and how the son must be caught between them.
Mr Holmes was clearly thinking the same thing. ‘Then take pity on Archibald, trapped between them, Scylla and Charybdis. At six o’clock his wife Rose enters the nursery to wake and feed her son, and there where the child should be is only rumpled bedding. They search the house until half past six, when Archibald returns from the city, and are still searching when Lady Templeford arrives to dine with them.’
‘There will be a dreadful scandal if you do not find it,’ I said excitedly. ‘Lady Templeford would naturally suspect her daughter-in-law, for a woman who sets a son against his mother will always be blamed, especially when there is a child involved.’
‘Do you really think so?’ Mr Holmes’ eyes hooded as I continued.
‘Mrs Drake, the lady who keeps house at number 115, informs me that Rose Nichols had a long-time suitor in the Haymarket, and there is talk that the child might be his.’ I realised I had gone too far, offering more of an opinion than was wanted on the subject. ‘Well, I must get on with my dusting,’ I said, embarrassed. ‘The parlour maid is off today and the coalman has trod dirt into the passage.’
He showed me his back with a grunt of disapproval before I had even turned to close the door.
I know my place. Landladies always do. I cannot help but form an opinion when I see so much going on around me. And, dare I say it, Mr Holmes is so convinced of his abilities he sometimes takes the long route to solve a simple puzzle. The disguises, for instance. I have seen him enter this house as a tramp, a blind man, a war veteran, on sticks, with a funny walk, first hopping, then dragging, in hats, in beards, in rags and on one occasion with a wooden leg, and frankly I have seen better impersonations at the Alhambra. I wonder that his suspects are not put off by laughing too hard. What is wrong with simply keeping out of sight? It is what a woman would do, because women know the ways of men.
But Mr Holmes does not know the ways of women. Oh, he acts superior around them, opening the door in his smoking jacket, listening to their stories with his elbow on his knee and his hand at his chin, appearing the man of the world. Why, then, does he become flustered when Elsie offers to clean his rooms? Why does he watch her from the turn on the landing as she smoothes beeswax into the banisters? I shall tell you: it is because he sees the female form from afar, and puts women on a pedestal, because they have never been close enough to disappoint him, and he will not let them nearer.
But I am speaking out of turn again, for which you must blame a Scottish temperament. Let me describe the conclusion in the case of Lady Templeford.
The morning after I had spoken out of turn with Mr Holmes, Inspector Lestrade turned up on my doorstep. I took his coat and requested he wait in the parlour, for I do not want the police trampling mud upstairs. Mr Holmes came down presently. As my offer of tea was accepted, I stayed outside the door while I waited for the kettle to boil.
‘Well, this is a fine business, Mr Holmes,’ I heard the inspector complain. ‘A baby kidnapped from its cot and no ransom note! It has been more than two days now, and I cannot hold off my men any longer for your shenanigans.’
‘Your men will destroy any chance we have of uncovering the crime,’ my lodger replied with ill-concealed temper. ‘The answer lies in Rose Nichols’ house, and I cannot have the scene damaged until I have ended my investigations.’
‘But what have you uncovered? Precisely nothing, sir!
‘Not true, Inspector. Rose Nichols’ nursery is situated at the back of the ground floor. Its door was shut with keys belonging only to the master of the house, and the rear of the building is surrounded by flower beds. You will recall that rain has fallen constantly for the last few days, and the garden earth is soft. Yet not so much as a single shoe or bootprint has been left beneath any of the windows. Nor was any latch or lock on either the door or windows forced. I must conclude, therefore, that Lady Templeford has indeed been right in her suspicions, and that the crime occurred at home. It is now a matter of proving the wretched girl’s guilt before she brings further disgrace to her new family.’
Story concludes tomorrow