Authors: June Thomson
by Aubrey B. Watson LDS, FDS, D. Orth.
Those of you who are already familiar with the four earlier collections
of hitherto unpublished accounts of cases which Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H. Watson investigated will not need reminding of the curious circumstances under which they came into my possession.
However, for the benefit of new readers, I give this brief summary of how I acquired them through the Will of my late uncle Dr John F. Watson, a Doctor of Philosophy at All Saints College, Oxford.
Despite the similarity of the names, my late uncle
was not in any way connected with Dr John H. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ friend and chronicler, although it was because of this resemblance that he had made a study of his namesake’s life and background and had become, in consequence, something of an authority on the subject. For these reasons, a certain Miss Adelina McWhirter approached my late uncle in September 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, with a proposition which she thought might interest him.
An elderly and apparently respectable spinster, she claimed to be related to Mr Holmes’ Dr Watson on the maternal side of the family and had inherited a battered tin despatch box with the words ‘John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army’ painted on its lid. It was this box, she said, which had belonged to Mr Holmes’ Dr Watson and contained the papers relating to those cases which had not been published and which Dr Watson had placed for safe-keeping in the vaults of his bank Cox and Co. at Charing Cross.
Finding herself in straitened circumstances, Miss McWhirter wished to sell both the box and its contents and approached my late uncle, who agreed to buy them.
However, soon after his purchase of the Watson archive, war was declared and my late uncle, fearful for their safety during the coming conflict, copied out the papers and, taking a leaf out of Dr John H. Watson’s book, deposited the original manuscripts, still in the despatch box, in the main branch of his bank in London. Unfortunately, the bank suffered a direct hit during the bombing of 1942 and although the despatch box was recovered from the rubble, it was so badly damaged as to be unrecognisable while its contents had been reduced to a mass of burnt paper.
My uncle was placed in a quandary. While he still had his own copies of the Watson manuscripts, he had nothing to prove the existence of the originals except for the damaged box and its charred contents, which hardly amounted to proof. Nor could he trace Miss Adelina McWhirter. She had, it seemed, moved out of the residential hotel in South Kensington where she had been living without leaving a forwarding address.
Therefore, having no means of proving the authenticity of the Watson archives, and fearful of his reputation as a scholar, my late uncle decided not to publish and, on his death at the age of ninety-eight on 2nd June 1982, his copies of the originals were left to me, his only living relative, in his Will. As for the despatch box and its contents, no trace of them remained and I can only assume that, when he passed away at the Eventide Nursing Home in Carshalton, Surrey, the staff threw them out as so much rubbish.
I, too, have hesitated for a long time over the question of whether or not to publish these accounts but, having no one to whom I can bequeath them and having no academic reputation to protect, being an orthodontist by profession, I have decided to risk rousing the obloquy of serious Sherlockians by placing these accounts before the public, together with the footnotes which my late uncle added to his original manuscript copies.
However, I must point out that I accept no responsibility for their authenticity.
The Secret Files of Sherlock Holmes
The Secret Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes
The Secret Journals of Sherlock Holmes
The Secret Documents of Sherlock Holmes
The Secret Archives of Sherlock Holmes
(2012). Aubrey B. Watson.
In ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, Dr Watson writes: ‘Somewhere in the vaults of the bank Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin despatch box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.’ Strictly speaking, Dr Watson never served in the Indian Army but in the British Army serving in India. The despatch box was presumably army issue. Aubrey B. Watson.
It was a bitterly cold November morning, not long after my old friend Sherlock Holmes and I had returned to London from Devonshire following the tragic conclusion of the long and complex Baskerville case,
when a visitor, a Mr Godfrey Sinclair, called at our Baker Street lodgings. His arrival was not unexpected, for Holmes had received a telegram from him the previous day requesting an interview, but the reason for his visit was quite unknown, Mr Sinclair having failed to mention the nature of his business. It was therefore with some curiosity that we waited for Billy, the
boy in buttons,
to show this new client upstairs.
‘At least we know one fact about him. He is a man with a proper sense of the value of time. A businessman, would you say, Watson? Certainly not a dilettante,’ Holmes remarked when, on the stroke of eleven o’clock, the hour fixed for his appointment, there was a peal on the front-door bell.
However, I noticed when Mr Sinclair was shown into the room, that his appearance was not quite that of a conventional businessman. His clothes were just a little too well-cut and the gold watch-chain looped across the front of his formal waistcoat a touch too decorative for a banker or a lawyer, and I marked him down as having a connection with the theatre, perhaps, or some other occupation in which the fashion of one’s coat was of great importance.
He also had the bearing of someone used to the public gaze, an impression borne out by an air of social ease and almost professional
. And yet, beneath this social gloss, I fancied I detected a certain caution, as if he preferred to be the observer rather than the observed. Although only in his thirties, he gave in addition the
impression of a much older man, experienced in the ways of the world and consequently wary of its practices.
Holmes was also conscious of his client’s reserve, for I noticed his own features assumed a bland, non-committal expression as he invited Sinclair to take a seat by the fire.
In accordance with his punctual arrival, Sinclair came straight to the point in a pleasant but competent manner.
‘I know you are a busy man, Mr Holmes,’ he began, ‘and I shall not waste your time with a long explanation of my affairs. To put the matter briefly, I am the owner of the Nonpareil Club in Kensington, a private gambling establishment which is, of course, by its very nature against the law.
Two of its members are a Colonel James Upwood and a friend of his, a Mr Eustace Gaunt, who joined the club only recently and about whom I am less familiar. Although several card games are played at the Nonpareil, including baccarat
and poker, Colonel
Upwood and Mr Gaunt prefer whist. Both appear to be accomplished at the game and visit the club regularly on a Friday evening at about eleven o’clock for a rubber or two.
‘Generally speaking, the stakes are moderate and there is nothing in their play to arouse suspicion. Their gains and losses are more or less balanced. However, on two occasions in the past six months, they have won considerable sums, in one case of over
500, in another of
800. I noticed on these two evenings they were particularly careful in choosing their opponents, although it was subtly done and I doubt if anyone else observed this, certainly not the gentlemen they played against.’
‘Who were?’ Holmes interjected.
‘I would prefer not to name them, if you have no objections, Mr Holmes. Suffice it to say that all four of them were wealthy young men, scions of well-known aristocratic families and inclined to recklessness, who had on the evenings in question indulged a little too freely in the club’s champagne.
‘Their losses probably meant less to them than they would to some other members, but that is not an excuse for cheating at cards, if that is what Colonel Upwood and Mr Gaunt were doing, as I strongly suspect they were. However, I have no proof. That is why I have come to you, Mr Holmes. I would like to know one way or the other for my own peace of mind and for the good name of the Nonpareil. If they are
cheats, then my response is quite clear. I shall speak to the gentlemen in question, cancel their membership and warn the other clubs to which they belong of their activities. Are you prepared to take on the case, Mr Holmes?’
Holmes replied with alacrity.
‘Certainly, Mr Sinclair! Your card-players are a refreshing change from the usual run-of-the-mill criminals. But I cannot promise immediate results. If the two gentlemen in question are indeed cheating, then they will clearly not indulge themselves every week. You said they play regularly on a Friday evening. Then I suggest my colleague, Dr Watson, and I call at the Nonpareil next Friday at half past ten and the subsequent six Friday evenings at the same time. If nothing suspicious occurs on any of these occasions, then we shall have to review our strategy. By the way, I think it prudent if we assume false identities during the investigation in case our names are familiar to any of your members. Dr Watson will therefore be Mr Carew and I shall be Mr Robinson.’
‘Of course. I quite understand,’ Sinclair replied, getting up and shaking hands with both of us before giving Holmes his card. ‘Here is my address. I shall expect to see you both next Friday at the time agreed.’
‘Well, well!’ Holmes declared after Mr Sinclair had left the room and we heard the street door close behind him. ‘What do you think of the affair, Watson? Gambling, indeed! A case after your own heart, would
you not say, my dear fellow, although, in your case, it should be horses or billiards, not cards?
How is your whist-playing, by the way?’
‘I play a little,’ I replied a little stiffly, for I was somewhat piqued by Holmes’ teasing manner.
‘Enough to win £400 at a sitting?’
‘Then we must not plunge ourselves too deeply in the game on Friday evening,’ Holmes rejoined. ‘A rubber or two should suffice, combined with a little stroll about the gaming-room to establish the lie of the land and to acquaint ourselves, if only at a distance, with Messrs Upwood and Gaunt. You know, Watson, or rather Carew, to accustom you to your new
nom de guerre
, I am quite looking forward to the assignment,’ Holmes continued, chuckling and rubbing his hands together. ‘It is not often one is paid a fee for indulging oneself at one of London’s better-known gambling clubs.’
The Nonpareil, as we discovered when we alighted from our hansom on the following Friday evening a little before ten o’clock, was not quite what I had been expecting. I had envisaged a more flamboyant establishment, its windows ablaze with a myriad of gas lamps and with a uniformed flunkey in knee breeches and a satin waistcoat to escort us inside.
Instead, we found ourselves mounting the steps of one of the tall, elegant houses which lined a quiet side street in South Kensington. The only decoration on its plain façade of brick and stucco was the rather severe iron railings to the first-floor balcony and the basement area. As for the blaze of gas lamps, only a subdued glow escaped round the edges of the tiers of heavily-curtained sash windows, lending the building a soft, shrouded air, like the proscenium in a theatre before the curtain goes up to reveal the stage.
There was no satin-coated footman to welcome us either, only a tall, pale-faced butler, dressed in black, who had the sombre gravity of an undertaker’s mute.
As he took our cloaks and silk hats, I had an opportunity to glance about me and was, despite the initial disappointment, impressed by what I saw, although the interior of the Nonpareil no more corresponded to my image of a gaming-house than its exterior.
The foyer was square and plain, floored with black and white marble tiles and, like the façade of the house, unadorned apart from two enormous gilt-framed looking-glasses, each accompanied by matching marble-topped console tables, which faced one another and created a bewildering profusion of reflections of Holmes and myself standing within a diminishing arcade of other gilt-framed mirrors, glittering under the lights.
When I had recovered from this momentary visual
confusion, I saw that a pair of double glass doors led into a drawing-room furnished, like a gentlemen’s club, with leather armchairs, ceiling-high bookcases and low tables on which were displayed newspapers and periodicals, meticulously folded. A bar, sparkling with crystal glasses and ranks of bottles, occupied one wall.
Another pair of double doors in the far wall allowed a glimpse of a supper-room beyond, where there was a long buffet table loaded with tureens of soup and huge platters of food, together with piles of plates and silver cutlery. Small round tables, covered with starched white linen, were scattered about at which several gentleman were already seated, making use of the club’s hospitality. More were occupying the leather chairs in the drawing-room with brandy or whisky glasses in their hands, while soft-footed waiters padded about carrying silver salvers containing more glasses of wine, champagne or spirits.
The atmosphere was hushed. There were no loud voices, only a subdued murmur of conversations and the tinkling of glass, while the air was fragrant with the warm scent of cigars and wood smoke from the blazing fires, the aroma of leather, rich food and the fresh flowers which decorated both rooms as well as the entrance foyer.
Mr Sinclair must have been watching for our arrival for, hardly had we divested ourselves of our outer garments, than he came forward to greet us.
‘Mr Carew! Mr Robinson! I am delighted to welcome you as new members!’ he cried, holding out his hand to each of us in turn before escorting us up the staircase to a broad upper landing and from there into a large double salon running the width of the house. This, I assumed, was the gaming-room, the heart of the Nonpareil Club.
Unlike the discreet apartments on the lower floor, this huge chamber was sumptuously furnished and brilliantly lit. Four large chandeliers hung from the coffered ceiling, their radiance enriching the already flamboyant splendour of the gilded leather chairs, the ormulu and silver mounts on the furniture and the towering swags of scarlet and gold brocade which hung at the windows. The walls were painted with scenes from an Olympian banquet at which gods and goddesses, draped in diaphanous robes and crowned with gilded laurel leaves, dined to the music of lyres and flutes.
It was all much too extravagant and elaborate – a deliberate effect, I suspected, designed to create an atmosphere of excitement and hedonistic pleasure in order to encourage the players seated at the baize-covered tables placed about the room to indulge themselves more freely than they might have done in a more decorous setting. Although there were no overt signs of excitation, no raised voices or boisterous behaviour, the atmosphere was vibrant with an almost inaudible ebullience, like the faint humming from a
hive of bees or the trembling left in the air after a violin has played its last note.
Mr Sinclair paused with us in the doorway, as if to let us, as new members, grow accustomed to our surroundings, murmuring as he did so, ‘Look to your left, gentlemen, at the table nearest the far wall.’
We moved on, Sinclair stopping now and again to introduce us to those members who were not engaged in play, and both Holmes and I took the opportunity to glance covertly towards the table he had indicated.
Colonel Upwood was immediately identifiable by his military bearing. A bulky man, he sat stiff and upright in his chair, his tanned, weather-beaten features suggesting he had served in the East. During my own service in Afghanistan,
I had seen many faces similar to his. The flesh becomes dry and lined, like old leather, particularly about the eyes, where the effort of continuously squinting into the bright tropical light forms a myriad of tiny wrinkles in the skin, the inner crevices of which remain pale where they have not been exposed to the sun. These tiny lines created the impression of a jovial man, much given to laughter, but the eyes themselves were cold and watchful, while
the mouth, under the clipped white moustache, had a grim, humourless twist to it.
His companion, Eustace Gaunt, who faced him across the table, was, by contrast, a thin, weak-chinned man, with reddish-brown hair and moustache. Although generally of a very undistinguished appearance, his most striking feature was his brilliant, dark-brown eyes, which were never still but were constantly darting to and fro. His hands were delicate, like a woman’s, and had the same restless quality as the eyes, fluttering over the cards laid out upon the table or moving up to finger his cravat or the white rose in his buttonhole. The rest of him remained curiously immobile, like a dummy on display at a fashionable tailor’s.
They made a strange, ill-assorted couple and, as Mr Sinclair drew our attention to them, I saw Holmes give a small start of surprise, followed by a stifled chuckle of amusement.
‘Most interesting, Watson!’ he murmured in my ear – a reference, I assumed, to their incongruous partnership. But there was no opportunity to follow up his remark, as Sinclair was arranging for partners to join us in a rubber or two of whist.
It was an uneventful evening. Holmes and I won a little and lost a little, our gains almost cancelling out our losses to our final disadvantage of three guineas. However, after the initial excitement of the novelty and sumptuousness of our surroundings had worn off, the occasion became rather prosaic. Because of his
phenomenal gift of storing information which he can later recall at will,
Holmes was potentially an excellent card-player, for he could remember exactly which cards had been played and which remained in our opponents’ hands. But the mental challenge was too trivial to keep him occupied for long and his attention soon strayed from the game, his gaze wandering from time to time in the direction of Colonel Upwood and Mr Gaunt. Neither man, however, seemed aware of his interest.
I, too, am not a dedicated card-player. After the excitement of the race-course, where the physical prowess of both horse and jockey can send the blood tingling through the veins, I found whist too static for my taste. I missed the roar of the crowd and the thunder of hooves on the turf. Even billiards had more allure, for in that sport the players at least have the opportunity to move about the table, while the co-ordination of hand and eye calls for real skill. In comparison, card games seemed quite tame.