Standing in the lobby of the Prime Minister’s country residence, I was reminded of a case of ours last year, which Holmes solved before we’d even set eyes on anything that might be regarded as evidence.
“You are quite correct, Watson,” muttered my companion, idly running a slender finger along the hall table.
“Sorry Holmes, correct about what?”
“That dreary affair at Stepney Marshes last autumn.” He gave me a sidelong glance and smiled mischievously. “It was that very case you were considering just now, was it not?”
“Indeed it was, but how on earth did you know?”
He sniffed and held up his finger to examine it, before wiping it on his greatcoat. “When the maid took your hat, your eye alighted on the small, rather expensive brooch on her collar. Its resemblance to the one worn by Mrs Ellingham at Stepney is remarkable, is it not?”
I nodded. “I dare say it is, but…”
“And in that case the victim was also found stabbed to death, yes?”
“Ah!” said I, perceiving what I assumed to be his line of thought. “And you think in this case too, it is the lady of the house who is responsible for killing Charles Chastain?”
Holmes frowned and shook his head. “Of course not, Watson. I was merely observing that the maid cannot possibly afford such luxuries on her meagre salary, therefore she either has a second income or is helping herself to the family silver.”
At that point, the maid reappeared. “Come this way please, sirs.”
We followed her into what I took to be the morning room, where an elegantly-attired woman sat on a chaise longue. She stood up on our entrance.
“Mr Holmes, how good of you to call – my husband often talks of your adventures.” She took my companion’s hand and shook it gently, then turning to me, “And this must be your biographer, Doctor Watson?”
I smiled and took her hand. “Delighted, Mrs Charlemagne.”
When the maid had departed and the three of us were seated, our hostess looked at Holmes and adopted a more serious tone.
“I assume you’re here about that dreadful affair with Mr Chastain?”
Holmes kept his eyes fixed on hers. “News travels fast.”
The woman gave a little shrug. “I’m the Prime Minister’s wife, after all, Mr Holmes. I’d like to imagine I know almost as much as he does.”
“Then perhaps you’ll explain why you gave a small, ornamental knife to Chastain – the very knife that killed him?”
It may have been my imagination, but I could have sworn Mrs Charlemagne gave a little start. In any case, she regained her composure instantly.
“The knife you refer to was indeed mine, but alas it was stolen only a few days ago.”
Holmes pursed his lips and nodded. “How convenient. You reported the theft to the police, I suppose?”
“Hardly convenient, Mr Holmes – it was a very valuable item and I was sorry to lose it.” She looked out of the window for a moment before turning her attention back to my companion. “But no, I did not report it to the police. Such crimes are a cause of concern to myself and my husband, but it would do no good for the whole country to know our business.”
“And how did this – theft – come to light?” Holmes leaned forward, his small eyes taking in every detail of the woman’s face.
“It was taken from me in the street by a stranger.” She inclined her head to one side as if challenging Holmes to accuse her.
“A stranger? And this was some random chap who accosted you on the Old Kent Road, eh?”
Mrs Charlemagne stood up smartly. “I was lead to believe that you were a man of manners and good grace, Mr. Holmes, but I see that I have been misinformed.”
Holmes laughed gently. “My apologies, madam, I merely wished to test your mettle.” He smiled winsomely until our hostess eventually sat down again.
“Nevertheless,” she continued, “it happened as I have described – I was taking the item to a jeweller in order that it could be valued. A man appeared out of nowhere and snatched my handbag.”
“Which contained the knife?” said Holmes.
Holmes looked at her for a long moment then stood up. “Then I shall bid you good day, Mrs Charlemange.”
As the maid opened the front door for us, Holmes suddenly burst into a fit of coughing.
“I say, old man, are you alright?” said I, patting his back.
He waved me away, and produced a large white handkerchief with which to wipe his mouth. “I’m perfectly fine, thank you Doctor Watson, however,” and here he turned to the maid. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a glass of water?”
The young woman curtsied and hurried off through a door at the end of the hall. As soon as the door closed, Holmes set off a pace. “Quickly, Watson.”
We hurried through the door and down a narrow passageway, which eventually took us to the kitchen. The maid was in the process of turning around, the glass of water in her hand, when she saw us.
“Oh, sir, you gave me a start, there.”
“My apologies, muttered Holmes, taking the proffered glass and downing it in one gulp. “Now, rather than trouble you further, perhaps you could show us out via the back door?”
The girl made a face but did as he asked and a moment later we stood outside in a small yard area.
“What was all that about?” I said, only too aware that the great detective rarely did anything for no reason.
“Simple, Watson. I wish to go through the bins. The extraordinarily wealthy often possess an equally extraordinary lack of common sense when it comes to disposing of evidence. If Mrs Charlemange has anything to hide, I suspect we will find it here.” And with that, he crossed the yard to where half a dozen metallic rubbish bins sat.
“Surely we’re not going to empty all of these, Holmes?” I said.
“Certainly not, only that which has most recently been used.” He cast his eye along the line of dustbins and pointed to one at the end. As he lifted the lid, I noticed it was only half full. Holmes studied its contents, then reaching down, extracted something from among the detritus.
“What on earth is that?” I asked.
Opening up the small package, he held it out for me to see.
“Looks like the sort of thing a seamstress might use,” I said, peering at the array of needles, scissors and other sundry items.
“Or more precisely,” said he, “a tailor’s alteration kit.”
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