Isolation Tales 9: ‘The Lady Downstairs’ Part 2
Perhaps all new Sherlock Holmes stories are doomed to be pastiches because they only work with selected elements of the originals. It’s why the Christie, Fleming and Wodehouse reboots feels so necrophilic. But the best Holmes stories are short, so it’s more fun tackling them. This is the conclusion to yesterday’s Sherlock Holmes story.
Well, when I heard this I nearly scalded myself. Entering with the tray, I set to providing some hospitality in that chilly room. ‘Hot tea, Inspector, and for you, Mr Holmes.’
As soon as I entered, my lodger ceased to speak. He was waiting for me to leave.
‘Will there be anything else?’ I asked.
‘No, Mrs Hudson, we must not detain you. Go about your duties.’ His long hands waved me aside impatiently Unable to find a reason to stay in the room, I took my leave. Now, as if suspicious of my whereabouts, Mr Holmes rose and firmly shut the door behind me, so that I could hear no more.
But I had heard enough. The ‘wretched girl’ was obviously a reference to Rose Nichols. Lady Templeford was accusing her of maternal neglect at best and murder at worst, suggesting she was solely responsible for the abduction of the child. I may know nothing of the criminal mind, but I understand a mother’s nature.
I thought of Rose, low-born and swept off her feet by a noble suitor. Soon she finds herself surrounded by new relatives who frown upon her profession and status in life, who doubtless try to prevent the marriage and stay away from the wedding, causing Rose great embarrassment. She is installed in a grand mansion, overseeing servants she has never before commanded. She is cut off from the theatre, forbidden to see friends from her old life. A child arrives with unseemly haste; the family cast aspersions on her honour – but what if the Honourable Archie Templeford has been forced to marry hastily to avoid a scandal? Even he would now be against her. No longer a star of the stage, admired by friends and suitors, Rose finds herself a prisoner in her strange new abode. Then calamity strikes. Perhaps she discovers poor Godwin smothered in his cot, and has hidden the body from shame – friendless and alone, she will be condemned by all those around her, including Mr Sherlock Holmes, who is himself in thrall to those of nobler demeanour, and believes all he has heard about women of Rose’s class.
When I passed my lodger on the stairs a little later, I found myself speaking out again. ‘I see the story of the missing baby has reached the noon papers, Mr Holmes. I heard the boy calling it out from the corner. I wonder if you have visited Lady Templeford in town,’ I asked. ‘Her husband is reported to be—’
‘It is common knowledge that Viscount Templeford is in poor health, Mrs Hudson, and does not welcome the attentions of strangers at his Devon estate. Her ladyship is presently staying in Mount Row. Perhaps—’ He turns and fixes me with an irritated look. ‘Perhaps it is best for us both to stick to our respective professions. On my part, I promise not to attempt to polish the silverware, nor wax the banisters.’
He was right to scold me. I had allowed myself to assume a role I was unfit for. I returned to the tasks of the day, preparing the luncheon menu and arranging payment for the tradesmen.
Still, I could not rid my mind of the suspicion that there was more to the case than Mr Holmes assumed. As I fulfilled the morning’s duties I thought the matter through most carefully. I myself am born of low parents, and have – to my shame – behaved poorly with women whom I regard as lower than myself. However, a mother’s bond is strong enough to cut through any ties of class, and I could not believe that Rose Nichols took the life of her first-born child in order to spite her husband’s family.
That afternoon, Elsie overturned a milk-can in the scullery, and we were forced to move the furniture to clear the mess before it curdled, so I missed hearing Mr Holmes’ return from what I assumed to be a further trip to Richmond. That evening, at the more respectable hour of seven, Lady Templeford called again, and I was on hand to usher her in. She removed a brown corded top-coat, and finding it too hot in the front parlour, unbuttoned a matching jacket, which I took from her and hung in the hall.
Her manner had changed. The almost theatrical panic in her eyes had given way to a steely composure. She was determined to see Mr Holmes, and would accept no refusal. Deciding to forego the rigmarole of ascending, awaiting a reply, then returning to the parlour, I sent Lady Templeford directly to the first floor.
But I stayed on the stairs, watching and listening.
This is what I heard. A creak of floorboards. Mr Holmes pacing back and forth. A stern, high voice. ‘How you could allow the press to be informed…breach of confidence…this brazen woman paid her fancy man to take the child…public knowledge…drag my family name into the mud…cannot stay at Mount Row a minute longer.’
This is what I saw. The polished toecaps of my lodger’s shoes, twisting past the gap in the door. The glint of his grey eyes. The swish of Lady Templeford’s dress as she rose and turned, her buttoned boots matching the detective’s pace. Her pale hand brushing at a mark on her blouse. Suddenly I had an inkling of the truth.
I hurried back downstairs as the door to Mr Holmes’ apartment opened. There was barely time to find what I was looking for; Lady Templeford was already on the top stair, about to descend. I went to the cloak stand and removed her jacket, hastily searching the pockets. I knew she would see me with my hand upon her personal belongings and my reputation would be ruined, but was determined to prove my theory correct.
Thank heaven Mr Holmes called to her from the landing at that moment. ‘Lady Templeford, I have decided to accede to your wishes and search the premises of this mountebank, if you truly believe him to be the mastermind of such a deception. I shall accompany you.’ Clearly the finger of guilt now pointed to Rose’s former suitor. But I had found what I sought, and knew the truth. It suggested one solution. I turned to speak, but Mr Holmes gathered the coats from the stand and helped his client into them before springing to the front door. Then the pair were gone in their haste to reach the Haymarket premises of Rose Nichols’ supposed lover, leaving me alone in the hall.
Once more, I was the landlady, made invisible by my sex and my station, a mere commissioner at the threshold of a more adventurous world. With a sigh, I returned to my kitchen. The potatoes would not peel themselves, and Elsie could not manage alone.
I heard the rest from the newspaper boy outside Baker Street station. The evening papers were full of the story. The missing baby had been found unharmed on the premises of one Mr Arthur Pilkington of the Haymarket, formerly of Clerkenwell. Neighbours heard the baby boy crying on the step of his lodging house. The former suitor of the Deptford Nightingale had been taken into custody at Bow Street, though he denied any knowledge of the infant. He was to be charged with kidnap. It was alleged that Rose remained in love with her former paramour. The police were hoping to discover whether the mother colluded in the abduction of her child. Mr Sherlock Holmes was to be congratulated for the part he played in restoring the infant to its father, the Hon. Archibald Templeford.
I pursed my lips as Mr Holmes passed to his room that night, unable to congratulate him. He failed to notice the withheld compliment, but I managed to hold my peace. He had reminded me of my place often enough for one week.
The case was called to mind just once more, when Lady Templeford came again, this time at ten in the morning. Her mood was one of jubilation. ‘I must speak with Mr Holmes at once!’ she cried, as if announcing her intention to the street, and pushed past me on her way upstairs, as though I were a ghost and she had intended to pass right through me. She met him on the floor above. ‘Happy news indeed! They have arraigned the blackguard and his mistress, and my son is preparing to commence divorce proceedings. None of this could have happened without your help.’
At the foot of the stairs, I trembled for what I was about to say. My sense of justice was strong, but so was the conviction that I would be going against generations of wealth and class. A woman of my position cannot afford to make mistakes.
‘Mr Holmes,’ I called out. ‘I must speak to you plainly.’
‘Mrs Hudson.’ My lodger was taken aback. ‘You must see that I am entertaining a most distinguished visitor.’
‘What I have to say concerns her too,’ I ventured, standing my ground, although there was a quaver in my voice. ‘I fear you have been deceived.’
‘What is this imposition?’ Straight-backed and frowning, Lady Templeford drew herself up to her full imposing height and faced me upon the stair. I took an involuntary step back.
‘On the night Lady Templeford arrived in distress, a smell clung to her fox-fur coat, something a mother would recognise. It was the smell of a baby. But there was something else, a chemical stronger than that secreted by an infant. When she returned, the second smell still emanated from her pocket. While this lady was in your rooms, I glimpsed something in the jacket she gave me.’
‘Really, this is too much!’ Lady Templeford protested. ‘Mr Holmes, why do you allow your staff to behave in this unseemly fashion?’
‘Laudanum, Madam,’ I cried, forgetting the correct form of address. ‘Every woman of the working class recognises its smell, a drink cheaper than gin and sadly in just as much use. An opium-based painkiller prescribed for everything from a headache to tuberculosis, fed to infants by their nursemaids in order to keep them quiet – often with fatal results. I hear the drug has found popularity among even the grandest ladies now. You cannot deny it – the bottle was in your pocket.’ I had seen the octagonal brown glass and smelled its contents. ‘It is my conjecture you paid one of your son’s servants to remove the baby from its cradle and deliver it to your lodgings in Mount Row. But there are many apartments around you whose occupants might hear an infant cry, so you silenced the poor mite with laudanum. Shame upon you!’
‘The woman is mad!’ cried her ladyship. ‘I shall not countenance such an accusation.’
‘Then this will do it for you,’ I told her, raising the bottle so that Mr Holmes could see it. ‘Your name is written upon the label. Your doctor will verify the prescription, I am sure.’
The look upon her face revealed the truth to my lodger. In that moment, she lost her most powerful ally.
No man can survive without the influence of women. But we live in a world that belongs to men. Even our own dear queen has withdrawn completely from British life, her strength brought low by the memory of her husband. What hope can there be for other women without her?
The truth did indeed come to light, although I do not know whether justice will be done. It is not my business to know. Certainly, Mr Holmes was not best pleased. How could he be in his position? Still, I look up to him. And he must look down upon me.
To him, I will always be the lady downstairs.