A Norwegian fir occupied a corner of Mrs. John Watson’s afternoon parlor, its scent green and resinous, its branches festooned with ornamental hot-air balloons and handmade horns of plenty. At the very pinnacle of the tree loomed a slightly tilted, plaid-clad angel. The angel, his expression rapturous—eyes closed, lips apart, face raised heavenward—embraced a large, and surprised-looking goose.
This farcical display would have drawn any visitor’s eye, were it not for Miss Charlotte Holmes, who stood next to the fir, clad with even less subtlety.
Her redingote was red on the top and brown on the bottom, open to reveal a seven-tiered white lace skirt underneath, each tier bearing appliqués of green spruce and golden candles. Moreover, the brown part of the redingote had been made to resemble a pinecone, rendering the entire outfit a literal representation of a Christmas tree.
The first time Lord Ingram Ashburton had seen Holmes in this dress, someone next to him had dropped a teacup. He himself had been incredulous that he not only knew this woman but corresponded with her—and had been thoroughly relieved that she had not walked up to him, obliging him to acknowledge her.
The next time he saw the dress had come four years and a lifetime later. By then he had become more or less inured to her taste in clothes. Another woman might have been swallowed whole by such an outlandish concoction. She, with her needlessly sweet face and her near indestructible composure, somehow subdued the insurrection of velvet and lace, reducing it to merely another item in her gaudy wardrobe.
In the months since her public fall from grace, which had obliged her to run away from home and start life afresh on her own, he’d thought more than once of this particular dress, buried in her parents’ house in the country, lonely and pining to be worn.
To be abroad in all its absurd splendor.
And he’d also thought, more than once, of the surprise and gladness he’d feel, if he should ever see it again. Of the smile that the sight would bring to his face.
He was not smiling now.
Nor was the other woman in the room. Under different circumstances, Mrs. Treadles, wife of Inspector Robert Treadles, Lord Ingram’s friend and Holmes’s sometime collaborator, would probably have grinned in good-natured appreciation at such sartorial hullabaloo.
But pale and stricken, her hands still clutched around Holmes’s, she only said, “Please, Miss Holmes, I don’t know who else to turn to.”
Lord Ingram, travelling from his brother’s country estate to his own, had stopped in London to see Holmes, with whom he shared a long, complex, and increasingly line-blurring friendship. He had intended to tell her that he was ready to erase the lines altogether. And as he’d waited in the afternoon parlor of Mrs. Watson’s house to be received by Holmes, trying to rein in his anxiety and agitation at the enormity of what he was about to do, Mrs. Treadles had arrived, with the news that her husband had been arrested on suspicion of murder.
Lord Ingram was still trying to digest her words, trying to move beyond his initial and nearly overwhelming belief that it had to have been a mistake, pure and simple.
His friendship with Inspector Treadles had grown out of their mutual love of archeology. This past summer, however, he had disappointed Inspector Treadles with his continued friendship with Holmes, given that Holmes was no longer a respectable young lady. He himself had been no less disquieted by this new coolness from Inspector Treadles.
But late in autumn, he’d had the feeling that the inspector was trying to see things from a different, less absolute point of view—and that their friendship was on the mend.
In the weeks since, he’d spent most of his time abroad. But all throughout that escapade, he had looked forward to returning home, seeing his children again, and hosting Inspector and Mrs. Treadles at some point after Christmas.
When Mrs. Treadles had first appeared in Mrs. Watson’s afternoon parlor, he’d been both surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see her—a man about to make a confession of an extremely private nature could scarcely wish for the presence of a third party. But his self-consciousness had quickly turned into pleasure: They hadn’t met in a while and her company had always been warm and thoughtful.
He hadn’t in the least anticipated the reason for her unannounced visit.
Now dread invaded him, sinking down to make him heavy, while swarming up at the same time, cripplings his voice cord.
Holmes gave her caller’s hands a squeeze. “You must be Mrs. Treadles. How do you do? Inspector Treadles has been a great friend to and champion of my brother Sherlock. In his hour of difficulty, we will of course make his welfare our overriding concern.”
“Oh, thank you, Miss Holmes!” cried Mrs. Treadles. “Thank you!”
She looked down. Her eyes widened, as if she’d just realized that she’d been clutching at someone to whom she hadn’t been properly introduced. With a clearing of her throat, she let go of Holmes and took a step back.
Holmes, who couldn’t possibly be unaware of the faux pas, managed to give a highly creditable impression of not having noticed. “I was just about to attend to my brother. Lord Ingram, would you conduct Mrs. Treadles to 18 Upper Baker Street in five minutes’ time?”
Inspector Treadles knew very well that Sherlock Holmes was but a nom de guerre for Charlotte Holmes. But apparently, he had not yet informed his wife of this fact and Mrs. Treadles still believed that a bedridden savant dwelled at 18 Upper Baker Street and imparted his wisdom via Miss Holmes, his sister and oracle.
And apparently, Holmes had decided that this was not the moment to dispense with all fiction.
When she was gone, Mrs. Treadles turned to Lord Ingram. “Robert was absolutely amazed at what Sherlock Holmes and his friends were able to do for you at Stern Hollow, clearing your name so decisively. I can only hope that—that he will be able to do the same for Robert.”
A desperate hope glittered in her eyes, but it seemed more desperation than hope.
He went to her, took her hands, and made himself speak past the lump of fear blocking his airway. “Dear lady, you have come to the right place. Holmes will not let h—his friends down. You may depend on that.”
She smiled wanly. “Thank you, my lord. Thank you.”
“Now, is there anything I can do for Inspector Treadles? He saw to it, when I was in police custody, that I was treated as respectfully as possible. May I do the same for him now?”
She shook her head. “He has friends in the force—I’m certain they have seen to his comfort and dignity.”
She did not sound more than halfway sure. Of her husband’s current state of comfort and dignity, or of the stalwartness of his friends?
Lord Ingram chose not to question either. “Then is there anything I can do for you, Mrs. Treadles, as the inspector’s friend—and yours?”
“I—I can barely remain still now. Would you mind, my lord, if we took a walk outside while we wait?”
The day was cold and gray, the air so saturated with moisture it might as well be raining. Mrs. Treadles marched along the railing of Regent’s Park, her head down, her gloved hands holding on to her forearms. Her garments were black—mourning attire, but not widow’s weeds—he recalled belatedly that her brother had passed away in the summer, toward the end of the Season.
The pavement was crowded with hawkers, sandwich-board men, and children trailing in their governesses’ wake; he steered her by the elbow to keep her from colliding with a woman selling roasted chestnuts. At the nearest park gate, they turned around and made for 18 Upper Baker Street, where he rang the doorbell and said, “I will leave you here, Mrs. Treadles. I’m sure you would wish for some privacy for your discussion with Miss Holmes—and her brother.”
“Oh, no, please don’t go! If I hadn’t found Miss Holmes at home today I would have called on you next, my lord. And cabled Stern Hollow if you weren’t in town.”
She exhaled, a trembly breath. “I’d like to be prouder and not need anyone’s help. But it’s Robert’s life and our future at stake and I shall feel a lot better if I can have your counsel as well as Sherlock Holmes’s.”
In recent years he had begun to grapple with his own, sometimes overwhelming desire to serve. Unchecked, that urge to be someone’s knight in shining armor had led to an unhappy marriage—not to mention exploitation by a brother who understood his weakness. In fact, only days ago, Holmes had declared, her eyes boring into his, You are not a tool to be deployed at the whim of some reckless master, and you don’t have to prove your worth by leaping at every task other people are too afraid to do.
For that reason, he had offered his help here, but not jumped in to take charge. But he was glad that Mrs. Treadles wanted him to accompany her—and humbled that she would have called on him specifically for assistance.
“In that case, of course I’ll come up with you.”
“Thank you. Thank you, my lord.”
Perhaps because he had spent too much of his life helping those who either resented his aid or took it for granted, gratitude, the kind that misted Mrs. Treadles’s eyes, always took him aback.
As if flowers had blossomed before he had even planted seeds.
Holmes answered the door and led them up to the parlor of 18 Upper Baker Street.
He had been in the parlor a number of times and had come to think of it as Holmes’s office. But the room had been furnished with a homey ambiance, and to give the impression of a convalescent man on the premises.
The air held a whiff of tobacco smoke, mixed with the herbal, faintly alcoholic scent of tinctures. The magazines in the canterbury next to the fireplace were recent; the ironed newspapers on the occasional table had been delivered just that morning—seized from Mrs. Watson’s house, no doubt, on Holmes’s way out.
The only thing missing was the bouquet of flowers that usually sat on the seat of the bow window overlooking Upper Baker Street. In its place, a bundle of dried lavender stalks in a creamy white jar, which would have been the focal center of the room, were it not for Holmes and her Christmas-tree dress.
She poured tea and passed around gingerbread biscuits and slices of holiday cake, generously studded with morsels of glazed fruit and candied peel. And then, after another moment, she asked, “May I also offer you something stronger, Mrs. Treadles?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Holmes rose, went to the sideboard, and returned with a glass of whisky. Mrs. Treadles did not hesitate in downing a sizable draft, grimacing as she swallowed.
Holmes gave her a moment to recover. “Has Inspector Treadles mentioned to you, Mrs. Treadles, how my brother and I work together?”
“Yes, he has,” said Mrs. Treadles, sounding slightly hoarse. “I understand that Mr. Sherlock Holmes is beyond that door and that he can hear us in this room.”
“And see us, too, via a camera obscura. Which is why his door is shut to keep out light, so that our images, upside down and backward, will render more vividly for him.”
Mrs. Treadles gazed intently at the door, as if she could will the unseen sage to his greatest feat of mental acuity yet.
“We are ready to begin when you are, Mrs. Treadles,” said Holmes softly.
Mrs. Treadles took a deep breath. She had seemed eager to answer the question about how Sherlock Holmes worked, but now she hesitated. “I—I can’t be sure where to begin. As I look back at the events of recent weeks, I find myself wondering whether Robert—whether Inspector Treadles was where he said he was, doing what he told me he was doing.”
The tremor in her voice indicated more than trepidation for her husband. There was a fear that she might further incriminate him.
From Murder on Cold Street by Sherry Thomas. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkley. Copyright © 2020 by Sherry Thomas