From Doctor Watson’s Archive
It was a dank November morning. The oily yellow fog which had enveloped London for two days dispersed by ten o’clock, giving way to a murky light. Rain seemed likely and as always in such weather, my old shoulder wound, a reminder of my part in the battle of Maiwand, was aching persistently.
As I looked out of the sitting-room window of the lodgings I shared with Mr Sherlock Holmes at 221B, Baker Street, I was far from enthusiastic about taking the air. However, dismal though the prospect was, it seemed marginally more agreeable than the continued society of my companion. Holmes was in one of his taciturn moods and had spoken little for almost a week. As I prepared myself for an outing, he sat by the fire, staring moodily at the flames, his profile presenting what some people referred as an aquiline aspect. To my mind, vulturine was more accurate.
I donned my overcoat and departed, with a few brusque words to Holmes, who merely nodded. My return was delayed because I had to take shelter from a shower, and it was five minutes after midday when I opened the door to find Holmes sitting exactly where he had been earlier. However, he was fully clothed, whereas he had been clad in dressing down and slippers when I had left. “Ah,” I said, “I see you emulated me in venturing out, and that you got back less than three minutes ago.”
Holmes smiled. “You are right,” he replied, “and the walk has refreshed me, but however did you deduce that I had returned so recently?”
“I have noticed several times that when you have been out in the rain, it takes fully three minutes for the drops to cease falling from the earflaps of your deerstalker, which they are still doing. Also, your boots are wet and there is water on the rim of that ridiculously large calabash pipe which you smoke largely for effect.”
“Bravo, Watson,” said my companion. “We shall make a detective of you yet. It is true that I have been back here for about the length of time you state. Mrs Hudson intercepted me downstairs and gave me a note sent by Inspector Stanley Hopkins of Scotland Yard, together with this brown paper bag and whatever it contains, which the inspector says is one of two clues in a robbery he is investigating. He does not indicate what the other one is. I shall examine this at once. Hopkins wants my opinion of it and he intends to call here as soon as possible.”
Settling down in a chair opposite my fellow-lodger, I immediately dozed off. When I opened my eyes, our clock showed half-past twelve. Holmes, magnifying glass in hand, was just finishing his clearly lengthy perusal of Hopkins’s offering. “Well, well, Watson,” he said. I fear this does not help us at all. What do you make of it? Not much, I predict.” Smirking, he tossed over to me a tweed flat cap, much used, stained, discoloured and exuding a variety of odours.
I spent two minutes looking closely at the grubby object, turning it this way and that and sniffing at it, then threw it back to Holmes. “Headwear is occasionally informative,” I said. “However, that item is less so than many I have seen. I cannot infer anything beyond the obvious facts that it appears to belong to a Norwegian seaman who wears spectacles, smokes Mather’s black shag tobacco in an uncommonly short clay pipe, has visited the Limehouse area in the last day or two and has recently been in contact with a number of spices.”
Holmes stared at me. “Astounding, Watson,” he said.
“Elementary, Holmes,” I replied.
He shook his head in wonderment. “You never cease to amaze me, old fellow,” he said. “Pray tell me how you drew your conclusions.”
I explained my train of thought. “That the man’s eyes are below par is clear from the two indentations on the cap’s brim, which were caused by the frame of his eyeglasses resting there when not on his nose. I deduce that he is Norwegian because the cap’s lining has been torn and repaired with a length of thin twine, tied off with a knot known as the Bergen hitch, which is a fastening peculiar to the sailors of that town on the west coast of Norway. As for the tobacco, I have made a study of this, as you have, though mine was exhaustive while yours was superficial. The traces of that product are most distinctive, as the Mather company is the only one that puts a large amount of shredded Latakia in black shag.”
Holmes’s eyes widened as I spoke. “Extraordinary,” he said. “Kindly continue.”
“The handling of a clay pipe when it is new leaves some of the substance on the fingers and this has been transferred to two points, back and front, where the cap is most often held. The brim tells me that the pipe is very short, as the tobacco residue is particularly pronounced there. As for the man’s recent whereabouts, I have extensive knowledge of the soils of this city, and am convinced that the small piece of earth adhering to the back of the cap has come from a new excavation at Limehouse Reach. The fact that the man has recently been in contact with spices is plain from the pungent smells which are detectable at various points on the fabric.”
I had barely concluded my analysis when a know at the door heralded the arrival of Inspector Hopkins. As he joined us, his eyes went at once to the cap which Holmes was holding. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said, “I see my little trophy arrived here safely.”
“Yes,” said Holmes. “Please be seated and tell us how your investigation is proceeding.”
Hopkins sat, sighing heavily. “It is an awkward case,” he said. “In my note to you I mentioned a second clue, and based on that I have arrested two men. I am sure that one and only one of them committed the crime, but they are both obdurate in their refusal to admit involvement. The cap you have there is the vital evidence, as a witness saw it fall from the culprit’s head when he leapt into a cart and made off.”
Holmes stood to fill his pipe. “I would advise you to concentrate on the Norwegian seafarer with the defective eyesight and the clay pipe,” he said.
The inspector gasped in astonishment. “What sorcery is this, Mr Holmes?” he said. “It is true that one of the men fits that description perfectly, but how do you come to know about him?”
“It is my business to know such things,” said Holmes, ever the charlatan. He gave Hopkins a supercilious grin. I had become more than a little irritated by his attitude of condescension toward the official force, and to some of his other pretentious mannerisms, for which I had privately coined the word idiotsyncrasies.
“Well,” Hopkins replied, “with your permission I shall take the cap and get back to my duties. I’ll have a confession out of the man before nightfall.”
Holmes raised a forefinger. “One moment,” he said. “Would you kindly tell us exactly what the crime was and where it occurred?
“By all means. It was the theft of over a hundredweight of cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and it took place near the new building site at Limehouse Reach.”
The inspector left us and Holmes, resuming his seat, gazed at me. “Marvellous, Watson,” he said. “Whatever would my poor agency do without you?”
“Very little,” I retorted tartly.
* * *