Isolation Tales 9: ‘The Lady Downstairs’ Part 2

Reading & Writing

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.

11 comments on “Isolation Tales 9: ‘The Lady Downstairs’ Part 2”

  1. Jan says:

    I remember reading this story ages ago Chris dunno if I would have played it through in quite the same way myself really…… daft as it probably was I almost felt a bit patronized by the concept itself.

    I was going through a pretty old photograph album the other day and discovered some pre digital photos I had taken of the old Abbey National premises in Baker Street when they were doing it up “repurposing” it to become luxury flats I think. I mean what else would it become – a hotel?

    The clock tower above it was maintained and kept in situ as it must have had some sort of listing…I would send the picture along to you because it is a bit of a startler this clock tower surrounded by scaffolding basically looking like it’s suspended above a building site….. looks very odd.

    The Abbey National building covered Sherlocks actual H.A. 221b and believe it or not the Abbey used to employ people in a specific office to reply to the thousands of letters received from all over the world requesting Sherlocks assistance. I heard at one point the Abbey employed a couple of X Met detectives to at least point folk in the direction of proper teccies if the situation merited it.

    Another little point to add here you know 221b was only Sherlocks HA don’t you? His Business address was in fact situated in a tiny little road off of Whitehall at the top there at the Trafalgar Square end not that far from Admiralty arch. Craig’s Court (which was also in REALITY this time a BT base and played a role in some covert ops way during WW2 ) was where his consulting offices were.

    I suppose to save a few bob when they made the Sherlock Holmes pictures they pared it down to one set and the BA was basically forgotten about. I only know about it cos I looked at a venue down there where I could have my job leaving do and there was a plaque on the wall in a pub/club venue down on the Left which outlined the story.

    Hope you are doing ok Mr F.

  2. admin says:

    The patronising is the point, Jan – Conan Doyle built Holmes’ inability to read women into the series. For a more extreme version of Holmes’s attitudes to females look to Sidney Grice, the detective in MRC Kasasian’s peculiar series.

  3. Jan says:

    No I didn’t mean that Chris Conan Doyle made his creation an extreme product of his age and the times he was in. I can live with that no problem. Everything is of its era.

    I (and don’t be getting the niggle at this ) felt more condescended to- and this is for me me only I daresay- that you’d seen fit to rework the story, and came up with this revision in order to give Mrs. H her big chance.

    I can see it was a clever and a unique slant but there were something about it that I didn’t much like at all. A bit of the look ladies I’m on your side. Didn’t sit that well with me.

  4. Brooke says:

    “…Doyle built Holmes’ inability to read women into the series… tosh. Holmes can “read women;” he can’t predict what they will do, as their decisions tend to rest with passions and emotions, which he has subdued. And he doesn’t much like unpredictability as it makes getting to solutions more complicated. E,g, The Noble Bachelor, The Problem of Thor Bridge, Te Second Stain and Scandal in B. When Holmes meets a woman on common ground as in the Naval Treaty, he enlists her aid and rather relishes her intelligence. However, Conan Doyle knows unpredictability brings a tension into the story, making it more interesting, one that men and women will read.

    Unfortunately, we’ve flattened out our reading of the Holmes stories; consequently the comparison with a silly character like Grice.

  5. Jan says:

    Brooke I must admit I don’t disagree with Mr. F. ‘re Sherlock Holmes inability to read women in the least.

    I think essentially that it was an accepted norm at the time Conan Doyle began to create these stories that women – and probably the lower classes- were led by emotions rather than by intellect or logic. Holmes appreciates certain women who don’t conform to what is regarded as the norm but it is made perfectly clear in the tales that these women are exceptional. So Sherlock’s regard for them is also an exception from his normality. In the tales when they are filmed or adapted for tv Holmes’ regard for such females is subtly rewritten into almost pseudo love affairs but this surely over eggs the pudding.

    Holmes is an ascetic bolstered by his drug use – perhaps this being his main form of release from this strange half life the life dictates solely by logic and deduction. In some strange way though Conan Doyle pushes his hero into being the antithesis of the female “norm” instead of living a life ruled by emotion Holmes lives a strange half life dominated by the cerebral. Holmes is dependent on intellect above all else. It’s like a weird counterbalance in a sense.

    I always think of Conan Doyle in later life devastated by the loss of his lad in WW1 consulting spiritualists, believing in those two young girls in Cottingley who photographed the fairies at the bottom of their garden. All very different from the heroic, ascetic Holmes and a set of ideas that began to erode in the first part of the 20C and have gradually faded over the subsequent decades.

  6. snowy says:

    For those who like the re-imagining of old characters but favour their yarns a little more ‘Ripping’ might try:

    [Ep. 2 Theseus Faversham: The story of Victorian Britain’s most respected detective.]

  7. admin says:

    What did anyone think of the BBC’s modern version?

  8. Jan says:

    Really liked it. Made Domino Cumcumberpatches career didn’t it? Did his mate no harm either.

    The really remarkable thing being that it fitted so well into the 21C. Watson returning back from Afghanistan. Sherlock bro’s role within government. All fitted in perfectly.

    In a sense the best turn was with Mrs H inspired to make her X some sort of major South American drugs dealer was such a clever idea.

    Best of all (For me) was that they started to incorporate certain London oddities namely the Leinster Fake house for example. Like the icing on the cake that was!

  9. Joel says:

    Really enjoyed the story, Mister Fowler, guv.

    Much of our perception of Holmes now is from visuals rather than the original stories. I first read the short tales as a kid, making my own image of Holmes – oddly not of Watson. Not so odd – he’s barely described physically. The only visual representation of Holmes which came close to my imagined character was Douglas Wilmer’s. Basil Rathbone was ok but the over-stylised scripts and sometimes preposterous tales never worked for me.

    I was always annoyed that Watson was depicted as an idiot – he was the teller of (most of) the tales, so he had some intellect; he was a practicing doctor so he needed some nous to earn a living from that. Nigel Stock gave a good idea of Watson visually alongside several Holmes actors but he was always scripted as the foil – perhaps he had to be as the stories were about Holmes. Having Watson on screen meant he had to be a secondary character, and they’re mostly made to be less than the star turn(s), thicker, funny folk or just more bumbling. And Mrs Hudson never had a look-in except as a C-list part, well-captured in the guv’nor’s tale here.

    Cumberbatch crowd were all ok – I particularly liked the Lestrade actor, who presented the same level of ineptitude as the tales. But later Sherlock episodes hurtled into the ridiculous – the fight in the swimming pool was beyond credibiilty and I never watched any more after that. The earlier episodes’ use of original Holmes stories also left a lot to be desired – my favourite Holmes short story has always been the Bruce-Partington Plans (favourite long tale is ‘The Sign of Four’, which I think has never been made for tv nor film – if kept to the story, it would be a great outcome), and what was lifted from that didn’t match London’s geography in either reality or original fiction. The Cumberbatch etc concept was great, it just went on too long and became more ridiculous with each series after the second one.

    What was exceptionally good was the early use of ‘surtitles’ [is that the right term?] showing Holmes’ thinking as cases developed. This took us inside his mind: those one-liners were creative excellence, wrong to discontinue it. Ultimately, much old and new television fails because it tells the audience what to think, what to see, which books do not. I’m not anti-tv, just opposed to bad, presumptions crash-bang-wallop tv (and films).

  10. Helen Martin says:

    One bit of the Cumberbund’s story that I really liked was the disposal of Holmes’ body. He had a hard rubber ball under his arm which cut off the circulation and gave him no pulse. I have no idea whether that would work but it acknowledged the fact that Watson’s first act would be to check for a pulse. I rather like the odd take on Mycroft’s character.
    I did not like Mr. Fowler’s story because it assumes that Holmes would naturally blame the child’s mother. That is the whole point of Holmes’ character, tht he does not assume anything. He particularly would not have missed the odour of laudanum or of the baby for that matter. He was all about observed facts and those are the sort he would definitely have observed.
    Mrs. Hudson would not have kept Mr. Holmes as a tenant for the twenty years as she did if she thought as little of him as she does in this story.
    I have a small problem at the moment as I’m reading Laurie King’s relating of Mrs. Hudson’s backstory and I’ve always liked her take on Clara Hudson.

  11. Penelope Keith says:

    Personally I think the best Watson I’ve ever seen is David Burke. It’s hard to play someone who is so well-meaning but so innocent, yet willing to take risks. As Agatha Christie said, Watson is a masterpiece. And Jeremy Brett! Magnificent. I loathe that American crap with Robert Downey. Yecch.

    To Jan: I just wanted to say that Conan Doyle was into spiritualism long before his son died. He was very interested in the paranormal. And to his credit, he had the courage to say he believed in things we can’t see. Can we see angels, God, or aliens? No, but many people believe in them. I respect his intelligence and his courage, even if he was (by modern standards). naive. He wasn’t stupid. If you want interesting, his relationship with that charlatan-buster Houdini makes for great reading.

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