I had been recuperating in the country at the estate of Sir Cyril Thurston, an acquaintance of mine from my military days. Thus I knew nothing of Holmes’s recent cases, and when a ring came at the street-door I had no idea whom my companion might be expecting.
“Ah,” said Holmes, growing animated, “a case presents itself."
“Only a madman would come out on a night such as this,” I said.
Holmes replied, with a sly grin: “I’m counting on it."
A loud thumping footfall prefaced Mrs. Hudson’s more sedate step. I opened my mouth to ask Holmes who our visitor might be, and whether he did indeed expect a madman, but I did not speak soon enough. The door to our flat burst open, and a man with a horrified face stood before us.
“You must find her, Mr. Holmes! She is in grave danger!" Our visitor’s face was pale, and he perspired from his brow, his voice garbled and gabbling as though his teeth were too big for his face.
"Please do sit down,” said Holmes in his calm way, his melancholy having given way to the focus that accompanied his chosen profession. “My dear Mr. Dundas, you have no cause for concern — or almost none. Watson, you remember Dundas, don’t you?”
I quickly poured a brandy for our visitor, which he accepted with a shaking hand. Surely Holmes must be mistaken, because I had never seen this white-faced, stuttering man before.
“I perceive that you have forgotten where we last saw the gentleman,” said Holmes, “but it was not two weeks ago, upon the London stage.”
“The Mikado?” I queried.
"Just so,” he replied.
I recalled him then, from an evening we had spent together at the Savoy Theatre, and realized that Holmes had recognized him without his grotesque theatrical makeup, even though I had not.
“You may remove your teeth now, Dundas,” said Holmes with a smile.
He had gathered himself and was attempting to catch his breath. “Thank you, but no,” our visitor replied. “I am of a somewhat absent-minded nature, and fear that I may leave them behind, as has been the case on previous occasions. It is somewhat embarrassing, as you may imagine, to return to one’s erstwhile host and request the return of one’s teeth.”
Clearly he had left whoever was in danger in a great rush.
“So you feared you were followed?” I asked.
“Yes, three men, speaking in a foreign language I was unable to recognise.”
“And you suspect that the men who followed you are somehow connected with this event?” prodded Holmes. “Are you certain,” he added with a smile, “that they were not simply overeager admirers of your work? Tell us your tale, Dundas, while we take some refreshment."
“I fear the subtleties of Gilbert’s librettos would baffle the speaker of a language other than our own,” replied our visitor. “These were not admirers of my performance on the stage, I am convinced of it.”
“You don’t recall having seen these men before?” I asked.
“Never. They were Oriental in appearance. Perhaps Chinese, or Japanese or something of that nature.”
I settled down to listen to the man’s captivating voice, resigned to the fact that I would get no answers from my friend before his ideas were fully formed.
“It’s my sister, she’s disappeared!” said our guest.
“The famous contralto who also has appeared in The Mikado?”
Holmes sat forward in his armchair, fingers laced together and feet folded beneath him, intent upon Dundas’s tale.
“She was supposed to be waiting in my dressing room after the performance. Yet, Mr. Holmes, all that was left of her was her costume,” Dundas gasped.
“This was yesterday, Christmas Eve?” I asked, hoping to anchor the narrative to specific times.
“As you know, her costume in the performance is most spectacular, and incorporates a precious Oriental jewel. That jewel has now disappeared, and was nowhere to be seen when I examined the costume left behind. And now,” he continued, “both my sister and the jewel are missing! I realize it is Christmas Day and you must wish to spend it with your families, but can I prevail upon you, Holmes, to undertake this case?”
“Describe the jewel,” my friend said briefly.
“It was red,” said Dundas, gasping a little with emotion, “and, well, jewel-shaped. I am really not an expert on such things.”
“Like a teardrop or a circle?” I prompted, trying to help.
“Pray tell, Desmond,”Holmes said impatiently, “Why was this valuable jewel on a stage costume?”
“It is my family’s legacy!” he said emphatically.
“A legacy?” I could not help asking. “An inheritance, you mean, something an ancestor acquired long ago?”
Desmond Dundas looked at Holmes as a wave of pain washed across his face. “My great-uncle brought it back from a trading voyage to the East. It passed to my father, and then to my sister and myself after his death. It is said to be valuable, and to have a religious meaning, but I am unaware of the precise significance.”
“Very well, consider that I will undertake the case,” said Holmes. “Dundas, you may return to your stage. Watson and I will commence immediately.”
“Holmes, it is Christmas Day,” I pointed out. “Surely there are no theatrical performances tonight.”
My gaze shifted between Holmes and Dundas. Clearly I had missed something.
“A special command performance, for an exalted personage,” he stammered.
“Aha! Mycroft informed me of this. You must catch the train to Windsor very soon, then. But before you leave, perhaps you would undertake to make a rough sketch of the missing object.”
As Holmes spoke, I produced a piece of paper, and the man took it and rapidly drew the object, though he left a great deal to be desired as an artist.
“This is about the size of the jewel,” Dundas explained, “though I am unable to reproduce its shape. This damned stone has always been a source of death for my family. I beg of you to proceed with caution, Mr. Holmes.”
Dundas left, and it was just moments after his footsteps faded on the stairs, when Holmes turned to me and said,"Can you scrape up an invitation to Sir Cyril Thurston’s Boxing day shoot?”
“I suppose,” I stammered, my mind whirling. “But why?”
“As Dundas said, this is Oriental, and it has the appearance of a seal,” Holmes remarked. “I have a passing familiarity with the Chinese script, which is also used in Japan and other countries, but the majority of these characters are beyond my knowledge. “If I am not mistaken,” he added with a gleam in his eye, “we will find both woman and jewel at Sir Cyril’s house. Watson, if you paid more attention to current events, you surely would know that Sir Cyril is betrothed to Dundas’s sister,” he said as he shook yesterday’s broadsheet in my direction.
“Holmes,” I stammered, “do we know the name of Mr. Dundas’s sister?”
“You need only see the programme of the performance we attended,” he answered me shortly. “Watson,” my friend added, “do you not remember that our friend Dundas has been involved in scandal before now, when it became known that his wife had left him because he had fallen into the habit of throwing his false teeth at her?”
“Holmes,” I said coldly, “this is surely not the time to drag up Dundas’s drunken deeds from his university days.”
“Even so,” remarked Holmes. “You will find that a leopard never changes his spots. And the business with false teeth just now is surely of some significance.” My friend’s voice was curiously strangled, and I began to feel that he was indulging in the rarest of things — a Christmas joke at my expense.
Holmes jumped to his feet.“No need to be so priggish, Watson; come let us be on our way, for surely even we deserve Christmas dinner before we head out for tomorrow’s shooting,”he smiled.
“I will gladly do my part,” said I, “if I can manufacture an excuse to appear at Thurston Manor for the shoot. And do you plan to accompany me?”
“In my own fashion,” he replied, somewhat enigmatically. “I detest things of that kind, but I will endure it for the sake of the discovery. I am not as practiced a shot as you, dear Watson, but I can manage a firearm. I will come if you can first accomplish what I require. Can you arrange to sprain an ankle or sustain some minor injury when you are out with Sir Cyril?”
“My old wound can conveniently trouble me if you wish,” I answered.
Early Boxing Day, as snow swirled through the streets of London, found us on a train to Thurston Manor, where my old friend Sir Cyril had arranged for a shooting brake to pick us up at the station, a short few miles from the house.
Sir Cyril was a pleasant and benevolent host, and the party did not seem overly surprised to have two unexpected guests who had been invited by telegram only the night before. “Delighted to see you, Watson,” Sir Cyril told me. “And your friend is most welcome also. I have heard of you, Mr. Holmes, thanks to the literary talents of my old comrade-in-arms.”
Thurston Manor loomed in the mist and snow, its turrets jagged and dark, the surrounding trees close and claustrophobic. “A pretty place for a murder,” Holmes said softly to me, with a chuckle in his voice.
It proved that I hardly needed to feign an injury, for the cold weather made my war wound ache abominably, and within an hour I was limping noticeably.
“My dear fellow,” Sir Cyril said to me. “Do you wish to continue?”
I looked to Holmes for guidance, and with a gesture he indicated that I should ask to retire to the Manor to rest my damaged ankle. Sir Cyril sent one of his men back with me, and my friend remained with the shooting party.
Holmes had given me my instructions on the train, and I proceeded to carry them out to the best of my ability. Upon arrival at the house, I contrived to lose myself in a part of the mansion from which I heard faint female voices issuing, the ladies enjoying the absence of the males of the party. There was a sudden silence and a general intake of breath in the room as I leaned my shoulder against heavy wooden door of the drawing room. It was not quite closed and emitted a small squeak as it came open slightly. As quickly as I could, I surveyed each face, looking for the characteristics of Dundas’s sister that had been burned into my mind by Holmes, at the same time making halting greetings to my hostesses.
A kitchen maid, dressed in a black stuff shirtwaist, clasped her lace cap to her breast. “Oh sir,” she exclaimed.
“Ladies, it was not my intent to disturb your conversation,” said I. “I could hardly add anything pleasant to your gathering. I am a great admirer of music and was simply hoping to catch a glimpse of Sir Cyril’s fiancée. I have never had the pleasure of laying eyes upon such a talented singer. Would she be among your number today?”
I found myself momentarily overwhelmed by the beautiful scents of the various perfumes that were being worn. Gathering myself, I refocused my thinking. I held out an arm to support the overcome maid, but as I did so, I realized, to my utmost shock, that her black hair and fine features were undoubtedly those of Maria Dundas. Her eyes begged me not to reveal her rather clever disguise. I nodded very slightly to indicate that I understood, and continued my limping way into the drawing-room, where the ladies insisted that I occupy a sofa where I could recline to rest my throbbing leg.
“Jane,” said a red-haired woman, whom I took to be Sir Cyril’s sister, “go to the kitchen and procure some tea for this afflicted gentleman.”
I was happy enough to have the tea, but reflected that I might now be trapped in this feminine company for some hours before Holmes returned from the shoot and indicated what I ought to do. Not that I was complaining. Surely I could gather some information that would be useful to Holmes. My friend had not anticipated Maria’s disguise, but instead had expected her to be openly among the party.
I realized that my ankle would be the perfect ruse to leave the room to rest before long, so I took the opportunity to surreptitiously study the women, attempting to use the methods of Holmes to determine information about them.
“We’ve not seen Maria in several weeks,“ explained one of the women.
“Oh! That is disappointing,” I said. “ what explanation has been given for her absence?”
“She left us to visit family in London,” said the redheaded lady, and I did not think she was being intentionally deceptive.
“She’s fully occupied with her role in The Mikado,” said one of the older women, primly. “Though I’m not sure I, or any of our family approve of actresses in general.” “What?” said Sir Cyril’s sister, who apparently had no idea her brother’s fiancée was anything as questionable as an actress, but just then, Holmes burst into the room.
“Quickly!” he called. “Watson, your medical skills are in demand. Sir Cyril has been shot!”
Abandoning the pain in my ankle, I rose and rushed to catch up with Holmes.
The ladies shrieked, and in the confusion I believe I was the only person who noticed a wink from Holmes, or the object he held clutched in his left hand.
“It’s no good, he’s dead,” I said, covering Sir Cyril’s face with my handkerchief.
The kitchen maid, who had brought the tea, had remained in the room all this while, and she looked as pale as a sheet at this pronouncement, which made me regret my deception.
“The question is who would murder Sir Cyril and why?” Holmes said in a serious tone as his eyes cut across the room.
“Murder?” the little housemaid screeched. “It was murder?”
“Watson, please arrange to have Sir Cyril’s body taken to his room,” Holmes said smoothly. Two of the men assisted me, and as we carried the man’s body from the room, I marveled at how fully Holmes had managed to mimic the appearance of death in him. I wondered again at my friend’s ingenuity.
Two or three of the ladies followed the macabre procession upstairs and into Sir Cyril’s suite, and I noticed that the housemaid — Maria — was bringing up the rear.
Holmes came a moment after, triumph written on his thin face. “Well, Dundas, what do you have to say for yourself? ”Holmes asked grimly. “I suppose it is merely by chance that this ruby was in Sir Cyril’s pocket when he fell?”
“Wha... what... do you mean?” Dundas stammered.
Suddenly, the disguised Maria stepped up. “It was me,”she confessed. “I put the stone in his pocket.”
“Whatever for?” asked Sir Cyril’s sister, the reality of Maria’s identity suddenly dawning on her.
“Dear lady,” I exclaimed. “You may have caused this poor man’s death.”
“The case is complete,” Holmes said smugly. “A family conspiracy, one might call it, to remove the ruby and, no doubt, offer it for sale in the new year.”
"Yes, Holmes, it is I,” and the corpse jumped up, “I am Dundas. Of course there is no command performance because everyone knows that the exalted personage and her family attend Balmoral for the Christmas holidays. I stole the jewel, for I will not have my sister marrying this poverty-stricken man, no matter how noble.”
There is little more to tell, for even Holmes, though he was disgusted by the proceedings, realized that Dundas could not possibly be prosecuted for stealing a gem from himself.
“Clearly,” said Holmes,“ Dundas came to me, hoping I would verify that the gem had been stolen, so that he and his sister could collect the sizable insurance it carries whilst retaining the gem and selling it, thus making double the money. Dundas and his sister were merely trying to take advantage of your friend Sir Cyril. I think, Watson, that we have never experienced an adventure quite like this one... and if Christmas is the season of forgiveness, how can we describe the season of Boxing Day?”
I smiled to myself. It had been a Boxing Day to remember.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2015