2500 words; PG for innuendo, but nobody does anything "onstage" to frighten the horses.
Perhaps should be subtitled "The Prisoner of Xenophobia."
"Really, Mr. Holmes, I can't make rooms appear merely by…waving my broom," Mrs. Hudson said. "My other tenants won't disappear in a puff of smoke. And as for your set here, there's the doctor's room. He keeps it nice as nice. Then there's your room, Mr. Holmes, and really I do despair. There's the sitting room, and I don't see how I ever shall rent it again after you leave. And now you say you need another room for those nasty stinks and things that might incinerate us all in our beds."
The good Mrs. Hudson must have been upset—my kipper was carelessly grilled and not lovingly jugged, and the porridge was, positively, burnt.
Holmes sighed. "Ah, Mrs. Hudson, how often does life present to us a simple solution to a problem, which yet we are forestalled from adopting! Whenever the most pragmatic measures are foreclosed, whatever remains must be…impossible."
There was a timid knock on the door of the dining-room. Mrs. Hudson, shaking her head at yet another buffet to her sense of propriety, permitted one of our Irregulars to enter. She did not care for the presence of urchins in her much-loved home, but she could not see a lad go hungry, so she whispered to him to come to the kitchen for a bowl of bread-and-milk once he had given his report to Holmes.
"Our Katey's on the move again," said the youth—one Aloysius McGreevy. He had the bright copper hair and pearly skin of the true Celt, although the one was hard to discern beneath the flat cap, the other beneath streaks of grime. It was pleasant to imagine him and his fellow urchins disporting themselves in the cleansing stream of a rock pool or waterfall. "Says she's on tour, but I says she give 'im the sailor's elbow."
Holmes glanced over at me. "He refers to the prima donna, La Marroquena," he explained. "Nee Katey O'Houlihan." He turned back to Aloysius. "I don't think a prime St. John's Wood property like that villa will go long untenanted," he said.
"Got let already," he said. "'Cept there wasn't no lady, nuffink but a load o'blokes in them comic-opera uniforms."
"Indeed?" Holmes said. "Could you describe those uniforms, more particularly?"
"Well, you know, sir, like a bonfire in an upholstery shop, lots of gold and ropes and them funny big fur 'ats."
Holmes took a sketchbook and pencil from beneath the saucer of his breakfast cup. "What colour were the uniforms?"
The young scamp contorted his features comically to denote thought. "Green, Mr. 'Olmes. And, would you credit it, one of the chaps had a bit of spotty fur thrown over his shoulder?"
"And the buttons on the uniforms…just one file of buttons, or two?"
"Both, sir. There was three, one right down the middle, two startin' up at the shoulders and comin' down all skew-whiff."
"Well done, young Aloysius," said Holmes. "Now, as for hats…" and Master McGreevy took off his cap and Holmes showered coppers into it. "Go along and see what Mrs. Hudson has for you in the kitchen."
"Bright lad, that," I said. "Plenty of go! Perhaps he should seek a position as a telegraph boy."
Holmes gave me an odd look. "I don't think that would be at all suitable." He withdrew to the sitting room. I poked my fork once more into the unsatisfactory kipper, abandoned it, and followed him, reaching the room just in time to see Holmes shut a book, return it to the shelf, and say, "Ha! How very interesting!"
It was a dull day, and I began to feel anxious about the possible effect of tedium on my friend. Fortunately, just before teatime—a yellow fog swirled through the streets, so any man's identity was as untenable as a ghost's—we had a visitor.
Although he wore a thick black cloak, his posture was that of a military man, and when he shed the cloak, he wore a green uniform with three lines of gold buttons.
I have often seen Holmes give the most piercing examination to a new acquaintance from his head to his boot-heels, memorizing every aspect of his accoutrements, bearing, and countenance. This time, the gaze was returned nearly as earnestly by our visitor. "I am Count Kirillov," he said, in perfectly sound though accented English. "Confidential emissary of…"
"The Hereditary Palatine of Meyerhold-Meiningen," Holmes said.
"Just so," said the Count. "Mr. Holmes, I have been given to understand that I can call on you for the most punctilious of confidentiality."
"To be sure, Excellency."
"Perhaps you have seen, in the Court Gazette, that a marriage has been announced, between the Palatine and the Lady Valeria Zastropovna. The Palatine has reached the age of thirty-eight, and certain factions within the court of Meyerhold-Meiningen have prevailed upon him to wed. This has proven impossible in the past because his military and diplomatic duties are so time-consuming…"
"How fortunate, then," Holmes said, "That the Palatiness will have the company of her inseparable friend and lady-in-waiting, Baroness Milizia Palffy."
The Count clicked his heels and gave a slight bow. "How well we understand one another, Mr. Holmes. You see, the reason that I have approached you here and now, is that there are…certain photographs, and were they to become known, then the marriage would not go forward."
Holmes gave a slight smile. "Perhaps such entanglements are not entirely unprecedented. I take it that the lady…or other female…has been offered emoluments, and these have been refused?"
"The situation is more complex than that, Mr. Holmes."
"Ah!" Holmes said.
"And I repeat, how very well you understand me."
"I don't care for blackmailers," Holmes said.
"I believe that, at least at one time, there was a sincere attachment. The person in question may be under duress by certain factions of court intriguers, those who wish the discomfiture of the Palatine."
"Yes, that would fit in with certain information already in my position. Well, leave the matter in my hands, for I believe that already I have a few insights into measures that may be helpful."
Once our visitor had left, and we refreshed ourselves with a grilled chop or so, Holmes warned me to secrete my life-preserver within my overcoat before he sent me to fetch a hansom cab. The driver was not pleased by the humble direction that my friend gave him.
Holmes asked me to stand outside and stave off any marauders, and to whistle at the first sign of any danger.
There was nothing at all for me to do—no dacoits, or thuggees, or even footpads made an appearance. In the quarter-hour or so before Holmes emerged, I had ample leisure to memorize the tarnished brass plate, reading "Anglo-Provencal Distressed Clockmakers' Orphans' Association."
I searched Holmes' familiar, craggy features. He appeared, if anything, pleased by the outcome of the visit. I stretched my arms out automatically to relieve him of the brown paper parcel he carried. It was perhaps two feet in length, a foot in width; light in weight, soft and yielding. There was a small rip in the paper, near one corner, and a flash of vivid red showed through. An official-looking cream-coloured envelope was tucked firmly into the strings securing the parcel.
The next day, I was called out on an urgent case, and when I returned, I was disappointed to see that Holmes had gone out, leaving a note for me:
"WATSON: I shall miss you in this business, but surely your errand of mercy must take precedence. I have summoned young Master McGreevy to accompany me."
Later on, I heard the door open, but I was in my tub, before the bright fire. By the time I dressed, Holmes had retired for the evening.
"Oh, I say, Holmes," I said. "This is an interesting bit of news—I shall cut it out for your scrapbooks—seems that yesterday just when I was out on that case, there was a disturbance in St. John's Wood. The address even sounds like that place that young Aloysius mentioned. The neighbors say that a poorly-dressed man with unkempt hair and a long beard—must have been one of those anarchists, eh?—threw a bomb—you know, one of the round black ones that looks like a cannonball with a bit of string at the top. And half-a-dozen or so foreign officers rushed out the front door but couldn't find the malefactor, while a chap in a red uniform and a boy rushed out the back. Bomb turned out to be a dud, though. Lucky thing that."
"Oh, a commonplace enough incident," Holmes said. "I daresay we needn't save that clipping."
About an hour later, I thought of something. I went into the sitting room, where Holmes was writing down some notes. "Ought I to mention this matter in my observations? Errr, I don't mean to be tactless, but as there wasn't anything you could do for that Count Malvolio or whatever his name was…"
"On the contrary, Watson. I have every reason to believe that Count Kirillov will be most satisfied by the resolution to his problem. You will recollect that visit we paid to the Anglo-Provencal Distressed Clockmakers' Orphans' Association?"
"The dullest hour of my life, by Jove, at least since I completed my course of medical lectures."
"I am grateful that I was overly cautious, and that you were not exposed to any danger. The Association, you see…is one of the outposts of the great and secret war, and the insignificant man of clerkly appearance who runs it is worth two divisions to our Empire. The Palatinate…"
"Blasted foreigners," I said. "Don't see why they can't settle their own quarrels."
"'What ish my nation?'" Holmes said, in an accent so thick that I suspected inebriation, until I realized that he was referring to our national Bard. "Once again, you have put your finger on the crux of the matter, Watson. The Palatinate of Meyerhold-Meiningen is, perhaps, unimportant in and of itself. But it serves as a useful bulwark against the ambitions of the Tsar. Were the court party intriguing against the Palatine to succeed, the risk is that his successor would be less friendly to Our Imperial Majesty. And if Meyerhold-Meiningen were to fall, then what would become of Hentzau, or even Ruritania itself? So you see, I appealed to my friend at the Association, and he provided me with a commission, seconding the young man in question to a crack Guards regiment. Where, I daresay, he should fit in very well."
All that political nonsense just went in one ear and out the other, like water off a duck's back. Still, I expected that sooner or later Holmes would give me a clearer explanation. I hate to point out a fault in one I respect and esteem so much, but at times, Holmes can be rather egotistical.
The apothecary's boy brought me a note, and his master's handwriting was so illegible that I was forced to venture out to consult with him about the particular nasty draught to be administered to my patient of the previous day.
When I returned, I observed that a vulgar fur-trimmed overcoat, such as no English gentleman would wear, had been hung on the hatstand. The door to the drawing room was partially open. As I began to ascend the stairs, I saw that Count Kirillov had returned. I saw him open a square box, and put something over Holmes' head, coming to rest with his hands on Holmes' shoulders. I bit back an oath.
"So, now my princely master has expressed his gratitude to you. To me, he has awarded a fortnight's holiday in his dacha in the Forest of Glaciers. It is a small yet luxurious place, and perhaps I may make bold to invite you there? Because, you see, we understand one another so well."
Holmes' voice cut like a whip. "My life has been one of discipline and austerity. It has never been my practice to engage in bestial self-indulgence."
An impulse I didn't understand sent me stumbling to my room. Knowing that I must get away before my secret was discovered, I opened my portmanteau and threw articles into it, almost randomly.
I heard the front door slam (or perhaps I felt its vibrations). Then Holmes was at my side.
"My dear Watson--*John*--I am glad that you have at last seen fit to share my chamber."
"I've got to get well away," I muttered. "I shall never trouble you further…"
"John!" he said reprovingly. Then he paused for a moment in thought and said, "When I heard you rush up the stairs—it has often been worthwhile to defer repair of that loose board—I concluded that you must have anticipated my next statement to the Count."
"Sent him away with a flea in his ear," I told Holmes.
"Because—had you waited a moment longer—you would have heard me tell him that the noble passion that bound together the heroes of Thebes, the sacred affection that joins two beings who share far more than a single instant of trivial pleasure, who are partners in a great endeavor. The feelings that run too deep for words, as they blossom over a lifetime."
Mrs. Hudson appeared in the doorway, wringing her hands in her apron. "There's a carter here, Mr. Holmes, three men have unloaded a pantechnicon and he's just opened up a crate in the parlor, shavings all over everything, there's some sort of—machinery—in there, and he wants to know where it's to go."
"In here, Mrs. Hudson," Holmes said. "The doctor has kindly agreed to permit me to fix up this room as a laboratory. Perhaps you could arrange for someone to shift some of this furniture to the attic, and help me set up the new apparatus as well as that already used in my studies?"
"You're not leaving us, are you, Doctor Watson?" she said, in some alarm.
"Indeed not, Mrs. Hudson," Holmes said. "My good friend has agreed to share my chamber. In the interest of—science."
"Now that's what I'd call a real gentleman!" she said. "Always willing to put himself out for others. What's that around your neck, Mr. Holmes?"
Holmes lifted a large, ornate Maltese cross, hanging around his neck by a purple-and-gold ribbon. "Ah, this. I had quite forgotten. It's the Order of St. John of the Palatinate of Meyerhold-Meiningen, presented to me by a grateful client." (I later found out that a more concrete remembrance, in the form of a banker's acceptance for a thousand guineas, had also been presented.) "And see, Mrs. Hudson…" (Holmes gestured toward a silver-framed photograph—an official portrait, boldly autographed in green ink) "… that is my noble client."
"Foreign!" she said. "I don't hold with it myself."