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Damsel in Distress

Damsel in Distress

By Scriptorius


Damsel In Distress

It was not quite noon but already the day qualified as a red-letter one for Rupert Swann. After breakfasting late, he had been about to fill a pipe when there was a light tap at his door and the housekeeper entered – it was standard practice that she did not need to wait for an invitation. She was smiling broadly as she walked over to Swann. “Good morning,” he said. “You seem to be pleased with life.”

“Good morning,” she replied. “I’m not as pleased as you will be in a moment. You have a visitor.”

She handed Swann a card. He looked at it and his eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw the name – Sherlock Holmes! He gaped at the woman. “You are not particularly noted for a sense of humour, Mrs Grimes. I take it this is not a joke.”

“No. It is the gentleman himself.”

Swann struggled to recover from his astonishment. “Well, we must not allow a man of such eminence to wait. Please ask him to come up.”

“I’ve taken the liberty. He is at your door now. I’ll show him in as I leave.” She departed and the illustrious caller entered.

Holmes, tweed-suited, stood by the door for a moment, removing his cloth cap as he took in the room and its occupant. Swann noted that apart from hair colour – his was mid-brown and quite thick, Holmes’s black and thinning – the two men were broadly alike in appearance, being about an inch above six feet in height and of slim build, Holmes somewhat the more slender of the two. Both had hawkish facial contours and piercing grey eyes. As to age, Holmes was the senior by a decade or so.

Swann strode towards his renowned southern counterpart. “Mr Holmes, you are most heartily welcome, though I never expected to see you.” They shook hands, Swann noting that Holmes’s fingers were at least as strong and sinewy as his own. He went on: “I am astounded and delighted in equal measure. May I ask to what I owe this honour?”

“To the railway timetables, Mr Swann. I fear that I have been poaching on your grounds by dealing with a case in the North Riding of your splendid county. While there I made the acquaintance of a police inspector who extolled your virtues. He said that you have been of great value to the forces of law and order in this part of the world. I happened to arrive in Leeds a short while ago and was faced with a wait of an hour and a half for the next London train. The inspector had given me your address and it occurred to me that if you happened to be at home, you might spare me a little of your time.”

“I’m very pleased to do so, Mr Holmes. If you could stay longer, I would be even happier.”

“Alas, I cannot do that. My presence in the capital is required early tomorrow. My companion, Dr Watson, is at the railway station here, keeping an eye on our luggage. However, I was struck by the thought that a man with your formidable reputation might be prepared to exchange a few words with me.”

Swann smiled. “Well, Mr Holmes, you certainly flatter me, as did your informant in the police force, though it is true that I have helped the constabulary at times.”

“Ah, yes. I suppose they come to you as they do to me, when they are at their wits’ end.”

“There are occasions when I think that is the case. But I hope you have time enough to take a drink and perhaps join me in a fill of tobacco.”

“Gladly. I can stay for half an hour or so, if that suits you.”

“It certainly does. Please take a seat by the hearth. Would sherry be to your liking?”

“It would.”

Swann poured the drinks and offered his tobacco jar to Holmes, who examined his host’s preferred brand with eyes, nose and fingers. “Hmn,” he said, “this dark flake is quite distinctive. Strong, with a touch of Perique and a whiff of Latakia. It is expensive, so you clearly do not need to practise economy, at least with respect to smoking.”

“No. I am fortunate in that way.”

Swann was inspecting the pipes on his mantel shelf, deciding which to select. He had not realised that his guest was looking in the same direction. “A nice array, Mr Swann, said Holmes. “I perceive that the one in the middle with the rounded bowl is your current favourite.”

What sorcery was this? There were seven handsome briar pipes lined up in the rack. How did Holmes know that Swann had for a short time been smoking one of them more than any of the others? “You are quite right,” he said. “No doubt I am somewhat dim-witted but it is not clear to me how you arrived at that conclusion, especially from what seemed like a brief glance.”

Holmes gave a dry smile. “Observation, sir. The pipes have their bowls turned outwards and six of them bear pronounced marks of recent reaming, indicating that you probably attended to all of them at the same time. It is surely a reasonable assumption that you also dealt with the seventh at that juncture, yet that one already has a decidedly thicker carbon deposit than any of the others. I therefore deduce that it has lately been used more than any of the others.”

Swann laughed. “Good gracious,” he replied, “and I had thought of myself as fairly sharp-eyed.”

“Well, I could not have been entirely sure,” Said Holmes, “but the inference seemed permissible.”

“An amazing demonstration. Please help yourself to a fill.” Both men got their pipes drawing well and the conversation moved on to the way each went about his work. Too soon for Swann’s liking, Holmes announced that he needed to leave for the railway station. On departing, he said that he would be happy to receive Swann at Baker Street, if the Yorkshireman were ever to find himself in London.

As he watched Holmes climb into a waiting cab, Swann was thinking that whatever the future held, he had surely just experienced one of the highlights of his life. Dazed by what had just taken place, he felt the need for air. It was the first Monday in May, warm and sunny, so he selected a pipe – the round-bowled one which Holmes had singled out – crossed the street and sat on a bench in the Park Square public gardens. He was side-on to his rooms and happened to be looking in their direction when a cab drew up outside the building. The vehicle moved off, revealing a woman standing on the pavement.

The doctor who owned the house and occupied the ground floor received a large number of visitors, especially before noon, and Swann assumed for a moment that the woman was a patient. However, after pausing briefly to look at the two nameplates, she stepped into the short hallway and started to go up the stairs. As Swann occupied the whole of the upper floor, it appeared that the caller was seeking him, so he hurried to the house and found her tapping on his door. “Good morning,” he said. “Are you looking for me?”

“Yes, if you are Rupert Swann.”

“Guilty,” Swann answered with a smile as he opened the door. “Come in and tell me how I can help you.” He noted that she was about five feet five inches in height and of very slim build. She had short, light-brown hair, delicate features and a pale complexion.

A minute later the visitor had taken off her hat and topcoat and was seated by the fireplace, facing Swann. She declined the offer of a drink. “I must apologise for calling on you without giving notice,” she said, “but I came on the spur of the moment, hoping that I would find you at home and that you might be willing to speak with me. I have had a serious misfortune, Mr Swann, and I cannot think of anyone else to whom I could turn.”

Swann nodded. “Please tell me what is troubling you.”

“Well, I have never before had occasion to consult a detective, so I suppose I should say something about myself.”

“That is usually helpful.”

“My name is Lydia Cummings. My home is in Woodhouse Lane, only a short distance from here. I am thirty-eight years of age, single and have no siblings. I live alone in the house I inherited from my parents. Father died six years ago and mother left us early last year. I was passably well provided for and have a small income, which I supplement by giving private music lessons. I play in the Walmsley string quartet and beyond the time I spend with the other three members of that group I have virtually no social life. If you wish to know anything more about me, please ask.”

“You have introduced yourself admirably, Miss Cummings. Now, what has brought you here?”

“My violin has been stolen, Mr Swann. That is to say my best one. I have another, but the Stainer is incomparably superior to that.”

“A Stainer,” Swann replied. “I am no expert in such matters, but I seem to recall reading an article about high-class violins and that name was mentioned.”

“It would have been. Jacob Stainer – he later changed his forename to Jacobus – worked in the Tyrol at about the same time as the great luthiers of Cremona. He spent some time with the earliest of them and made violins at least as fine as theirs. In fact, for a long time many players preferred his instruments to those of Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, or any of the other makers whose names are now more widely known than his. It was only when virtuosi began to perform in larger concert halls that the fuller tones of the violins made in Lombardy became more popular. Nevertheless, Stainers are still much in demand and very valuable.”

“You are most informative, Miss Cummings. How did you come by the Stainer and how did you lose possession of it?”

The woman’s voice began to tremble as she answered. She was clearly on the verge of tears. “It was made in the mid-seventeenth century and came into my family four generations ago. My great-grandfather acquired it, handed it to my grandfather, who in turn passed it to my father, and he gave it to me.”

“I see. And in what way did it disappear?”

“On Saturday evening I visited my aunt in Dewsbury. She is my only living relative and is very ill. I took my violin because she loves to hear me play it, and she has very few other pleasures in life. I returned on the late train and when I left it, I had almost reached the exit before realising that I had put the violin in the rack above my head and walked off without it. No doubt that was stupid of me, but I was preoccupied with worry about my aunt, and the likelihood that I shall have to take her into my home quite soon. I do not relish that prospect because I have become accustomed to living alone and would have difficulty in sharing my house with anyone else.”

“I fully understand, Miss Cummings. I too live by myself and would not care to do otherwise. No doubt you retraced your steps when you noticed that you had left the violin.”

“Yes, I did. Leeds was the terminus for that train, so it was still at the platform. I rushed to the compartment in which I had been seated. I expected to recover my treasure, but it was not there. I was frantic. There had been very few passengers and by the time I discovered my loss, all of them had disappeared, apart from an elderly couple, walking very slowly and not carrying anything. The guard was still on board and I consulted him. He was as helpful as possible in the circumstances. The train was short. We looked all the way through it, to no avail. Next we went to the left luggage and lost property counter, but nothing had been handed in. I left my name and address there and called again yesterday and once more today, without success.”

Swann nodded. “I see. Now, was there anyone else in your compartment?”

“Yes, a man. He was in place before I boarded the train, so I don’t know where he got on. We did not exchange any words and I was the first to disembark, though he must have followed immediately and moved very quickly.”

“Can you describe him?”

“With regard to build he was quite thin. I cannot tell you his height because he was seated the whole time, but I got the impression that he was probably no taller than me. He was dressed in a dark-grey suit, very much the worse for wear, and black shoes, badly in need of polish. He had no hat, so I could see that his hair was black, rather long and unkempt, and I would say that he had not shaved for two or three days. His face put me in mind of a weasel. I think that is all I can say about him.”

“And a good picture it is, too. In a case like this, every detail is potentially important and your description may be helpful. Have you been to the police?”

“Yes. The sergeant with whom I spoke was very sympathetic, but I’m afraid he did not give me much cause for hope.”

“He and his fellow officers have a great deal on their hands, so I fear it is unlikely that they will be able to give your case the attention it deserves. A private agent is usually in a better position to concentrate on a single matter when necessary. Would you be able to recognise your violin?”

“Definitely. There are certain things peculiar to Stainers. They are somewhat different in shape from most of those made in Cremona at same time. The F-holes – those are the sound outlets – are also distinctive in that they are usually fully circular at the ends, which is unusual, and they are often slightly asymmetrical, the right-hand one a little higher than that on the left. However, those are general points. Fortunately I do not have to rely on them.”

“Good. How can you identify yours specifically?”

“In two ways. One is superficial, in that there is a gouge mark on the concave part of the left rib. It is three-eighths of an inch long and about half that in width, and cannot be removed or concealed. The story is that it was made inadvertently by my grandfather and that he was so distressed about the accident that he would not say how it had happened. The feeling passed down the family line is that he had somehow done the damage with one of his carpentry tools.”

“I see. And what is the second way in which you would know your instrument?”

“That is something I did intentionally and it would not be noticed by anyone carrying out a superficial inspection. To see it one has to loosen the A-string tuning peg to the point at which a tiny bore hole is revealed. I made that with a gimlet and filled it with a very small blob of black paint. I don’t believe there is the slightest chance that a casual thief would think of looking for that, and even it were discovered, I feel sure it would not mean anything to the finder.”

Swann scratched his jaw. “Good. That is another point in our favour. Now all we need to do is get our hands on the thief. Let us return for a moment to your train journey. Did you have a reserved seat?”

“No. I don’t think anyone ever has for that trip. It is only a short-distance one and there are never more than fifteen or twenty passengers. For what it is worth, I had a window seat, number four in compartment two, which had six seats. I was facing away from the engine. The man was directly opposite me.”

“So presumably he had seat three. Well, it is worth checking with the railway people, but if you are right about there being no reserved seats, we are hardly likely to get anywhere with that line. I will try to locate the guard and see whether he just happens to know the man, but that is a long shot. I think you have told me all I need to know for the time being, Miss Cummings. If you will give me your address and let me know at what times you are there, I will see what I can do.”

The lady handed Swann a visiting card and told him that she was always in her house apart from when making brief shopping trips on Friday afternoons, playing in the string quartet on Sunday evenings and visiting her aunt on Saturdays at fortnightly intervals, leaving home at four-thirty in the afternoon and returning on the late train.

Over six weeks elapsed following Lydia Cummings’s call on Rupert Swann. The month of June was well advanced and she had given up all hope of seeing her beloved Stainer again. She was haunted by the thought that Swann had been devoting all of his working time to her case and that at some point she would be presented with a horrifying bill and a report of his failure. At eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning, she was in her home, giving violin tuition to one of her younger pupils, when a telegram arrived. She opened it with trembling hands, suspecting that it would be news about her aunt. She read the following message:

Please call on me before 1.30 this afternoon. Swann.

Not knowing what to expect, the somewhat flustered musician got through what remained of the lesson and arranged a further one for the following Saturday. Her house was less than a mile from Park Square, and as soon as she was free, she set out on foot, arriving at Swann’s lodgings shortly after midday. On hearing a shouted invitation to enter, she walked into the living room, where Swann stood in front of his fireplace. He flicked a finger to his left. Following the gesture, Lydia Cummings saw, on the dining table, a violin case. “Oh, Mr Swann,” she cried, “don’t tell me you have . . .” She interrupted herself and rushed over to the table, opened the case, took out a violin and after the briefest look at its left rib, hugged it and turned to Swann. “It is a miracle,” she said, her voice barely audible. “However did you do it?”

Beaming, Swann replied: “Please take a seat. Telling you that will take a little time, which I hope you have available.”

“Indeed I have. However, before you start, I must say that I have been worried about your charges. I mean, you have been working for me such a long time. I hope I shall be able to pay you.”
“Please don’t be too disturbed about that. I have not been acting only on your behalf since you last called here. Most of the time I have been otherwise occupied while waiting for a break in the clouds with respect to your problem.”

The two sat by the hearth. Bearing in mind that his client had not wanted a drink on her first visit, Swann didn’t offer one on this occasion. He assumed his explanatory position, fingers steepled, eyes at times on the client’s face, at others contemplating the ceiling, and began to tell his story:

“When you left me, I gave a good deal of thought to your trouble. It seemed obvious that the thief was the man with whom you shared your compartment in the train. You returned to it so quickly that the chance of anyone else carrying out the theft was too remote to be of any concern to us. I felt that the man must be a local and that he probably lived fairly close to the city centre.”

“What made you think that, Mr Swann?”

“I was by no means certain, but it turned out that my conjecture was accurate. The fellow has lodgings close to the corner of Hyde Park, so he is almost a neighbour of yours. I reasoned that he probably lived in Leeds, since that was the terminus of the train you were in and there was no other departure from the station for quite a long time. I felt sure that he would not have caught a cab, because the drivers are observant and a shabby-looking man carrying a violin case would have been remembered, as would his destination. If he had wandered very far on foot in the city, he would have run a high risk of encountering a policeman on the beat. They are much in evidence at that late hour, especially on Saturdays. I therefore assumed that he probably did not have far to go.

“I checked with the cab companies and satisfied myself that our man did not use their services. Next, I went to the railway station in an attempt to interview the guard who was so kind to you. He was not immediately available, so I returned later to catch him between journeys. He recalled you well enough and remembered the man who had travelled with you, but had not seen him before or since that evening.

“My next step was to visit the two main dealers in musical instruments in the city. As I expected, they had not lately seen a Stainer. They promised to let me know if anybody offered them one. I thought it most unlikely that our thief would show them his booty, as they would surely have asked searching questions, which he might have found difficult to answer satisfactorily. I did not hear anything further from either of the firms.”

Lydia Cummings had been looking straight at Swann and following his words. Suddenly her attention moved to a spot above the fireplace. “Please excuse the interruption,” she said, “but I see that you appear to be a pipe smoker.”

Swann nodded. “Yes I am. I’ve had the window open since breakfast, but if the air in here disturbs you – ”

“Quite the contrary. The rack on your shelf reminds me of my father. He loved his pipes. I was about to ask whether you might be kind enough to smoke one of yours. That would bring back fond memories to me, irrespective of your kind of tobacco, as daddy used various sorts.”

“Well, smoking a pipe while delivering a virtual monologue might prove a little more difficult than recovering your violin, but I will try.” He filled one of his fine briars, got it going and sprawled back in his chair. A dreamy look came into his client’s eyes and she smiled as he continued: “My last call that day was on Heptenstall & Sons, the art dealers and auctioneers, whose premises are just around the corner from here. The owner, Josiah Heptenstall, is a friend of mine. He knows something about Stainers but not surprisingly had no news of yours. We agreed that it was unlikely that the thief would try to sell an artefact of that kind barely half a mile from where he had stolen it.

“I asked Josiah if there is such a thing as a current price for a Stainer. He said that there is not, and that the only sensible way to dispose of one would be at an auction. As you may know, he conducts by far the largest and most prestigious company of his kind in the city and was confident that nobody else in his line of work in Leeds would handle an item as rare as your instrument.

“Bearing in mind your description of our man, I concluded that he was simply an opportunist who saw his chance, and that he would hardly be so sophisticated as to send the violin to a leading London house. I obtained from Josiah a list of the leading firms in the same kind of business as himself within a wide radius around Leeds, and wired all fifteen of them, explaining that I was interested in buying a Stainer, should one be offered at a forthcoming sale.

As Swann had expected, his pipe ceased functioning, so he restarted it and went on: “There was no further development until early this week, when I heard from Ross & Sons of Huddersfield that they had received a Stainer, which they intended to sell at their auction on Friday. There was to be the usual viewing period from one o’clock until four-thirty on Thursday afternoon.

“I visited the company on Thursday and spoke with the owner, James Ross. He conducts the auctions himself. I gave him the real reason for my interest in the Stainer. He was not a great authority in the field of violins, but had no intention of trying to sell a stolen one. We examined the instrument and found both identifying features you mentioned. I told Ross that I would return on Friday, accompanied by a senior police officer. I further told him what I would like him to do during the sale, and he agreed to cooperate.”

Lydia Cummings was fascinated. “Listening to this is like reading a thrilling book,” she said. “I can hardly wait to find out what is coming next.”

“There is little more to tell. I returned to Huddersfield yesterday, accompanied by Inspector Crabtree of our police force and one of his constables. I had asked Mr Ross on Thursday whether he thought the man wanting to sell the violin would appear at the auction. Ross said he considered that to be almost a certainty, as the fellow had not given any details of how he could be contacted, and had seemed very anxious to get his hands on the sale proceeds. His story was that he had urgent need of funds to deal with a family emergency.

“Ross proceeded with the sale in the usual way until he came to the violin, at which point he did as I had requested, saying that he regretted to announce that he was withdrawing the instrument from the auction, as it had been ascertained at the last minute that it been stolen. He added that the police anticipated laying hands on the culprit very shortly.

“Ross had barely finished his statement when a man near the rear of the room got up and hurried to the exit, where he ran into the arms of Inspector Crabtree’s constable, who held him until the inspector and I joined them. The man answered the description of your travelling companion on the train. He made quite a fuss for a while, but Crabtree is accustomed to that kind of thing. He arrested the suspect and we all caught the next train back to Leeds. It did not take long for the inspector to break down his detainee, who is now facing the appropriate charges. Crabtree might have insisted on impounding the violin as evidence, but he allowed me to keep it, so that I could hand it back to you. You may or not be required to appear in court to testify, but if you do, it will be for only a few minutes.”

Lydia Cummings was overwhelmed and close to tears as Swann ended his story. She said she would never be able to find a way to thank him enough for recovering the only material thing she cherished. Swann found her delight touching. When it subsided to some extent, he held up a finger. “Now, Miss Cummings,” he said, “having got back your pride and joy, I feel a compulsion to tell you that as far as I know I have never heard music played on a famous make of violin. Would you oblige me for a few minutes before you leave?”

She flushed. “Well, I am not considered a great soloist, but I’ll see what I can do. Is there anything for which you have a special liking?”

“I am very fond of Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs. Is the work in your repertoire?”

“It is supposed to be for violin and orchestra, but I am familiar with it and will do my best.” She proceeded to enthral Swann with her rendition of the piece and he thanked her profusely. Still concerned about his fees, she raised the point again and was greatly relieved when he gave her a rough verbal estimate of what his bill would be. Much reassured, she left, clutching her precious instrument.

* * *

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17 Oct, 2018
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