Death Haunts a Seance
It was now three months following the death of Mr Sherlock Holmes, the great English detective, who had fallen over the Reichenbach Falls at the hands of the evil Professor Moriarty.
Three months during which the indispensable Mrs Hudson, his now ex-landlady, had mourned his passing. In order to alleviate her melancholy she had taken up his position as a private investigator in a most humble manner, it must be said to assist those who still knocked at the door of his old lodgings at 221b Baker Street seeking his services, not knowing or not wanting to believe he was dead.
But she and her trusty, if disconcerting, maid, Miss Fanny-Annie Grubbins, with her gutter vulgarity and speech, had in that sparse passage of time established a reputation as female sleuths in their own right. Much to the displeasure of all their patriarchal male acquaintances, especially the London Metropolitan police force at New Scotland Yard on the Thames Embankment.
Senior Detective Hudson jokingly commented to Fanny-Annie that the doorknocker of 221b would soon have to be replaced if their callers increased. Unfortunately, Fanny-Annie didn’t understand irony, a word she would think was something to do with laundering clothes if asked.
‘Can I have the old one, then, Mrs H, mum?’
‘Whatever would you do with it, for goodness sake?’
The poor uneducated girl from Limehouse thought hard, then said:
‘Keep it under me pillow for good luck, I suppose,’ then added, with a sinister glint in her pale blue eyes, ‘Or use it to throw at some blooming murdering gezza trying to do you in, mum.’
Her mistress shook her head sadly and sighed, realising she should be grateful for having such a devoted, if wicked minded, maid-of-all-work, and now assistant detective.
The cases they got were a mixture of the serious and the superficially silly. For instance, they had had three in the past seven days. The first was from one of Mrs Hudson’s charity friends, Mrs Marchbank, who approached her in a state over the theft of an innocent keepsake of love letters from an old childhood beau.
‘And there is this dreadful blackmail letter, my dear Mrs Hudson, from whoever stole them. Stating they will be returned in exchange for a pair of exclusive and expensive tickets to a grand concert at the Albert Hall, organised by Sir Gideon and Lady Oswaldtwistle as the opening event of the London Season. A most desirable affair, as I am sure you are aware.’
Mrs Hudson was well aware, with a vengeance, for she had never been invited to any such events in all the years she had contributed her time and energy baking pies and cakes and making socks and scarves for the Women’s League for Improvement of Social Standards’ charity events, the leading light of which was Lady Oswaldtwistle herself.
She read the blackmail note and then said, ‘Please excuse my intimate questions, but a detective has to ask them in order to ascertain a full picture of a case. Are the letters of a compromising nature, Mrs Marchbank?’
‘No, certainly not, Mrs Hudson! What in heaven’s name are you insinuating?’
‘Only that the writer states if you do not comply the letters will be shown to your husband.’
‘Yes, well, George is of a jealous temperament, I have to admit, even after our twenty-nine perfectly harmonious years of a marriage. And even though the letters are an innocent reminder of my perfectly happy childhood, they would disturb him greatly, I know.’
Detective Hudson knew Mr Marchbank as a domineering fellow who manipulated life in order to bolster his self-centred temperament and she therefore instantly shared her client’s concern.
‘There are two pressure points being applied here, I notice,’ she said. ‘Not only do you risk losing your cherished memories in the form of the letters, but also your marital happiness if your husband flies into such a rage that may destroy your future relationship together.’
Mrs Marchbank sobbed that this was indeed the case. It was obvious to the Baker Street lady detective that her client was not in a frame of mind to think sensibly and she would have to be gentle with her.
She then asked her a number of logical questions including whether she knew how the love letters had been stolen and when. Had she any suspicion of who the thief could be? Was she not able to obtain two tickets and simply buy off this wretched blackmailer? although Mrs Hudson was loathed to see a villain get away with his crime. Apparently all the tickets had been bought for the concert. Mrs Marchbank had bought two for herself and her husband and she was terrified she would not be able to give him a reason that would satisfy his volatile nature if she gave them to the blackmailer and therefore had none for themselves.
‘And if he quizzed me too much I know I would break down and reveal everything!’
The letters were kept in an old music box, which had also been stolen and was itself a keepsake. It had resided amongst her other personal effects, which were stored in her bedroom chest of drawers. Nothing else was missing. She was certain their old housekeeper was not the thief.
‘She has been with us nearly twenty years. I naturally questioned her in confidence and she said she could not explain why the box was missing. Like my husband, she did not even know of its existence. I would know if she were lying.’
She quizzed cook and the scullery maid and was certain they too were not guilty. However, the Marchbanks had had a weekend party recently to which a number of strangers had accompanied their invited friends, but no one suspicious. Of this, the detective was suspicious.
Mrs Hudson studied the blackmail letter closely, which was scrawled in thick black ink on cream notepaper of middling quality; the matching envelope had a central London postmark. Neither revealed anything apart from the sleuth deducing that the letter was written by a nervous right-handed gentleman. Mrs Marchbank claimed she did not recognise the handwriting.
Detective Hudson gleaned a few more pieces of information and then led the distressed woman to the door.
‘Leave this to myself and my able assistant,’ Mrs Hudson told her. ‘We shall be in touch.’
‘There is so little time to accomplish your task, Mrs Hudson,’ was the tearful woman’s parting remark.
The senior detective immediately discussed the case with her subordinate, Fanny-Annie Grubbins.
‘What kind of person is it that would go to such extremes to attend a social event no matter how high-class or even medium class it was?’
‘Not me, mum, a hunderclass gel like what I is what’d stick out like a policeman at a secret meeting of the Finchley Branch of the Black Hand Gang.’
‘Quite so, Grubbins, quite so. Therefore it must be someone respectable-looking who is desperate to climb the social ladder by any means, including acts of criminality. By rights we should interview all the guests who attended Mrs Marchbank’s weekend party. But not only will it soon be the swank gathering at Albert Hall, leaving us very small widow to operate within, and if we discuss the stolen letters with them, it will inevitably reach the ears of Mrs Marchbank’s overbearing husband and put the poor lady’s future at risk.’
‘So, what we gonna do, Mrs H, mum?’
‘Think hard, Grubbins. Think hard.’
Thinking hard was very hard for the poor gutter girl, but over the next few hours they devised a clever ruse.
‘Cor, blooming blimey, Mrs H, this’ll be a bit o’ fun to take me mind off blooming housework, begging your pardon, mum. Though I knows it’s me job and I’d do anything for a kind-hearted, generous lady like what you is but I does so hate cleaning.’ She then added, looking ashamed, ‘I also hates not knowing what ‘ruse’ mean, begging your pardon, Mrs H, mum.’
She did so want to be the respectable and educated maid-of-all-work her bountiful mistress was encouraging her to be. Mrs Hudson willingly explained the word by way of a child’s basic alphabet primer and chalk and slate. She had been learning to pronounce her speech with greater clarity ever since Mrs Hudson had taken her under her wing.
‘The rain in Spain ain’t half a blinking pain…’
And as to the detective task at hand, using Mrs Hudson’s cunning deductive powers and Fanny-Annie’s criminal underworld contacts, forgeries were made of Mrs Marchbank’s tickets. With Fanny-Annie as the courier and dependable Joe their friendly cab driver as bodyguard, she took the fake tickets to the handover site stated in the blackmail letter and were exchanged for the music box of letters. The coup de grace was to mark the counterfeit tickets so that the blackmailers, a pair of obsessive man and wife social climbers, were discreetly exposed as they entered the Albert Hall.
Mrs Hudson then threatened to circulate their names and descriptions to all influential beau monde members of London and the home counties, thus blighting their social climbing ambitions for ever. This in exchange for a course in morality given by Reverend Jenkins of the Baker Street Primitive Methodists Chapel.
A second case was the one were a certain Foolish Girl had broken off her engagement and refused to return the ring.
‘It is an expensive one I spent much of my savings on,’ the distraught fiancé told Mrs Hudson. ‘Although it now has no affection for me, I cannot afford to lose it. I will redeem my outlay by returning it to the jewellers.’
During the Detective Ladies investigations, The Foolish Girl claimed she had given it back to him. He denied this.
‘Now then,’ Mrs Hudson cautioned them separately, ‘you have to behave honestly with me and yourselves or your futures will always be lived under a cloud of deception. As the Good Book says, “If the life you live is not honest, you’ll never get to Heaven as was promised,” don’t you know?’
The girl then admitted she had thrown it away in a dudgeon. Fanny-Annie thought she said ‘dungeon’ and was scared Senior Detective Mrs Hudson would make her go down in the smelly darkness to find it. So finally, after much toing and froing and a small fortune in telegrams, many of which Fanny-Annie was given the task of handing over at the London Telegraph Company’s Marylebone Road branch round the corner from Baker Street and cheerily pocketing the change Mrs Hudson got them back together with some fierce conversation about taking seriously ones responsibilities on the High Road of Life with yet another worthy saying, “A happy marriage exists on trust, break it and the marriage will turn to dust.”
However, that was not all. Using her deductive skills, Mrs Hudson found the engagement ring but only after a new one had been purchased, and which did not entail anyone descending into the bowels of the earth to retrieve it although it did entail a certain junior detective putting her hand into a very unsavoury backyard privy. Yet the case had a satisfying conclusion when the recovered ring was given to Mrs Hudson as a sentimental reward along with the agreed detection fee. Fanny-Annie Grubbins, the poor hard done girl from the dockland gutters, always received a percentage of their earnings. Over which she always felt aggrieved because she never could understand how it worked.
‘But it’s always diff’rent, Mrs H, mum!’
‘That is because the payment we get for each case is different, you brainless worm, Grubbins.’
‘Garn,’ Fanny-Annie said, insisting on having the last word.
Fanny-Annie then wore it secretly when two days later Mrs Hudson attended one of her society functions. The following morning, a very contrite assistant detective and maid-of-all-work approached her.
‘Aow lor, Mrs H, mum, here’s the sitting room poker for you to beat me within a nosebleed of me life.’
‘What on earth are you talking about, you foolish donkey?’
‘I’ve gorn and lost it, mum.’
There is no record of how Mrs Hudson reacted and how much Miss Fanny-Annie Grubbins suffered.
And finally, yet another case of a missing cat, this time a Persian named Sebastopol which Fanny-Annie rescued from off the roof of an outhouse, and her showing her petticoats and more, for all the world to see, including a humiliated Mrs Hudson and their client, the shocked Miss Tilly Lemworth.
Plus her brother, the not-so-short-sighted-after-all, lecherous Grimston Lemworth, who was not humiliated or shocked in the slightest.
After receipt of two shillings payment, the said fellow not to be referred to as a gentleman was chastised most severely by the senior detective and his sister, but obviously not by the exhibitionist maid who delighted in the vulgar attention.
And then came a far more complex case for the two Detective Ladies of Baker Street.
They were busy in the basement kitchen one sunny morning.
Mrs Hudson was making two-dozen marzipan tarts, three-dozen chocolate cream fingers, and a large eel and oyster pie for the Disgusted Ladies League Against Drunken Policemen, another of the countless charities that she supported.
‘Aow, lor, Mrs H, there’s the front door again,’ said Fanny-Annie. ‘Shall I go or you, mum? Only I’m a bit of a mess with this here boot blacking stuff, so help me.’
‘If you would learn to apply it to my shoes and not your hands and face, there would be no need to ask.’ Then Mrs Hudson sighed in aggravation and continued, ‘I suppose I shall have to go and answer it, up to my elbows in flour though I am.’
Mrs Hudson rolled down her sleeves and climbed the stone steps to the hallway above, saying:
‘And keep away from my baking, Grubbins, or you’ll be back in the gutter and swept up with the other rubbish by the council dust cart.’
‘Garn,’ muttered the ex-dockland trouble-maker, clearing her throat and spitting in the blacking jar to give it extra body.
Upstairs, Mrs Hudson invited an elderly couple into the hallway.
‘I am Mr Emanuel Brenton and this is my wife Mary Ellen Brenton.’
Since taking up her first case within a couple of weeks or so following Mr Holmes’ demise, Mrs Hudson had studied more closely the ways of detecting. She knew of the Great Detective’s acute observational eye from overhearing him discussing cases with his colleague Dr Watson, and thereafter acquired more skill with her own work. She now made a number of mental connections about her new clients-to-be.
The heels of Mr Brenton’s shoes were worn beyond an acceptable social level, plus one lace had broken and had been repaired by knotting the halves together. They were shined but had a dull sheen a mixture of soot and saliva had been used, the poor man’s polish; something her own colleague, Assistant Detective Grubbins, obviously knew all about. And his collar and cuffs were frayed.
Mrs Brenton showed similar signs of poverty. Her hat was at least five years old, the dried flowers had lost their colour and a couple of feathers showed holes were some insects had nibbled; her skirt was homemade from velvet curtain material by the faded green appearance; her shoes too were not only years out of fashion but on one part of the stitching along the join of the toe cap and the vamp had unravelled, and the welt on the other shoe was split.
Yet they held themselves upright with the dignity of a couple who were once modestly well off but now lacked a stable income. It transpired later that he had lost money in a financial collapse.
‘Yes, how may I help you?’ Mrs Hudson asked.
Mr Brenton handed over an envelope.
‘It is from our neighbour’s brother who is a police officer at Scotland Yard.’
It was of business quality and addressed to her in official looking type. The letter was of the same quality and also typewritten. The typed name followed by the signature in deep blue ink, obviously a reservoir pen, made her heart flutter.
But she took a deep breath and mentally recited, “The flood of heart’s passion must be dammed, before it begins to get way out of hand.”
She began to read.
“My dear Mrs Hudson, this lady and gentleman are neighbours of my brother. They have a matter that I do not consider is for the police. Having had personal experience of your detective powers, I have taken the liberty of sending them to you. Please do not feel obliged to take them on, do so only if you consider their problem worth investigating. I do not envisage any undue danger otherwise I would not have considered asking you, as you know of my grave concerns regarding female detectives. Yours truly, A.T. Trengrove.”
A.T. She had no idea what Christian names they stood for. Her brief encounters with the Scotland Yard officer had never become so personal. But she lived in hope.
Highly intrigued, Mrs Hudson led them upstairs to the Detection Room, a small converted box room at the back of the house. It was close to Mr Holmes’ old study, kept intact on the sentimental request of his elder brother, Mycroft Holmes, who paid the rent.
She seated the Brentons on the two comfortable chairs while she sat at her desk on a hard chair, which helped to concentrate her investigative mind, all the while observing them both.
Mrs Hudson instructed, ‘What I would like you to do is recount exactly everything you can regarding your case, if you please, Mr and Mrs Brenton.’
They looked seriously at each other, and then Mr Brenton began, his voice quivering with emotion.
‘We attended our regular weekly seance gathering last Sunday at the home of Madame Zarkofski on Russell Street.’
‘It is in a very respectable area, Mrs Hudson,’ interrupted his wife. ‘And we have known Madame for well over a year and have every trust in her ability and authenticity. Have you ever attended one, Mrs Hudson?’
Mrs Hudson said firmly she had certainly not.
Mr Brenton continued speaking without taking any offence.
‘There were nine of us round the table. Madame Zarkofski the medium, my wife, myself, Miss Collington-Smith, Sir Carter Telford and Lady Telford, Letty Sinclair, Denby Knowles and a Charles Foster. All of them were known to us from previous psychic meetings. Madame went into her trance and the light dimmed. We were holding hands and letting our thoughts roam free as is the practice. We experienced the table shaking, the bell ringing, and Lady Telford felt a fluttering on her hair as did Mr Knowles who was next to her.’
‘This sort of thing are all part of the usual manifestations when a seance begins,’ explained Mrs Brenton. ‘Go on, dear.’
‘When the spirits had settled down they can be quite mischievous, you know,’ said her husband with a chuckle, ‘Madame began speaking in low tones and then up the scale to falsetto as she allows the communicating entities from the Otherside establish their personality. A spirit guide of the Cheyenne Indians had a message for Mr Foster regarding a business deal. Then a lady, who had passed over due to a bicycle accident in Coventry, wanted to speak with an old friend. None of us could help.’
‘This happens from time to time,’ said Mrs Brenton. ‘Souls not yet accustomed to being dead and are disturbed and even frightened. Go on, dear.’
‘We then had the attention of an old Tibetan sage who had a message for someone going through a particularly emotional time. That appeared to be for Miss Collington-Smith. She shed a few tears and afterwards said she felt a great weight lift from her shoulders.’
‘Were you in the dark all this time?’ asked Detective Hudson, making notes.
‘Oh, no,’ replied Mrs Brenton. ‘The ceiling mantle above the table grows in brightness illuminating all of us, but never increases to full flame. Just a soft glow bright enough for us all to see each other.’
‘So there would be deep shadows created?’
‘Yes, I suppose that is so. Don’t you, my dear?’ he asked his wife.
She said, ‘I have never really taken notice. Is it really important, Mrs Hudson?’
The detective knew she had to tread carefully so as not to unsettle what she saw as a deluded old couple in the grip of a fraudster. She had often wondered in her capacity of a private investigator, why it was invariably older folk with all their accumulated wisdom who were more likely to be deceived by criminals. She could only deduce that when one gets older one regains the lost innocence of childhood.
‘Erm, well,’ she replied to Mrs Brenton’s question, ‘it is as much an observation as anything to help me build up a precise picture of the events that took place. Clues become apparent more readily once a detective has the facts laid out in order before him. Please do go on.’
‘It was after Miss Collington-Smith’s message that we received ours,’ Mr Brenton said.
‘Didn’t Mr Knowles…?’ interrupted his wife.
‘You are quite right, my dear. His Egyptian guide told him… Well, it was quite personal, Mrs Hudson, and it would not be appropriate to discuss it.’
‘Our group is sworn to keep confidential the details of a seance,’ corroborated Mrs Brenton. ‘Perhaps we have even said more than we should, Mrs Hudson, although I am sure my husband and I do appreciate your need to know details in order to help us.’
‘You are both being discreet and yet informative,’ said Mrs Hudson tactfully. ‘I am slowly getting the background of the meeting most distinctly. Please carry on, Mr Brenton, and I will try and keep my questions until you have finished.’
‘Well, my sister Bertha came through. She does quite frequently. She was very excited about a document or object that had been hidden in a wall for many years. Very valuable either in its intrinsic value or what it could lead to. We received information on how to find it.’
‘It was the most thrilling experience we have ever had at Madame Zarkofski’s,’ said Mrs Brenton. ‘Do carry on, dear.’
‘We had to go to a cemetery wall in the village of Crumpton Mead in Essex. We were unable to go the following day but on the Tuesday we took the train and then the porter’s trap to the church of St Michael. We arranged for him to pick us up in time for the late afternoon train back to London. My sister had told us to look for a certain grave stone with twin angels on either side and the name Masters.’
Mrs Brenton said in a hushed voice, ‘We had to be very careful, of course, Mrs Hudson, and we pretended we were genealogists tracing our family trees. This felt very deceitful and I was not enjoying the experience one bit. But we always believe in following anything the spirits impart to us, don’t we dear?’
‘It would be very disrespectful not to,’ said Mr Brenton, and continued. ‘We found the grave of the Masters family we had been told to look out for. Directly behind it was the cemetery wall I mentioned. On careful examination we found a loose stone and with great trepidation removed it. There was a cavity behind it. I reached my hand inside...’
Fanny-Annie, having scrubbed herself clean of the shoe blacking, had brought a tea tray, and let out a squeal of excitement, which Mrs Hudson cut short with her piercing glare of disapproval. She forced a smile of apology and nodded to Mr Brenton to resume.
It took Mr Brenton a moment to gather his thoughts before he announced dramatically:
‘There was nothing there. Just an empty hole!’
Mrs Brenton was quite overwhelmed at the memory. ‘I cannot tell you how upset we were, Mrs Hudson.’
‘I am sure that I can fully appreciate your feelings, Mrs Brenton. Did either of you notice any disturbance in the wall or on the ground? Footprints or dropped items?’
Mr Brenton looked most ashamed. ‘I must say we never noticed anything, did we, Mary? We were too engrossed in our search for the right place.’
‘I was in tears, wasn’t I?’ said his wife. ‘To have come all that way…’
He went on, ‘We were so overcome with disappointment that we came away, too disconsolate for anything else to register. We walked back to the station and caught an earlier train.’
Mrs Hudson studied her notes and said, ‘Have you any idea what you were looking for?’
They looked vacantly at each other and admitted not. Mr Brenton’s departed sister had not elaborated. Mrs Hudson considered this and then announced her thoughts, and her assistant Fanny-Annie, hovering expectantly on the periphery, wished she too could offer her own not that the poor semi-literate girl had formed any that would make sense.
The senior detective said, ‘We have a number of options to consider. One: if there was something hidden it had been removed some time ago. Two: a member of your seance group, envious of your good fortune, got there before you. Or three: and please consider this with an open mind, there never was anything there at all in the first place.’
This so put out the Brentons that the senior detective, with the awkward assistance of Fanny-Annie, spent some time consoling them, feeding them tea and a selection of freshly baked pastries.
What they were expecting Mrs Hudson to tell them was anyone’s guess, but she recognised them as a very sensitive and naive couple. She finally took charge and as diplomatically and gently as she could, asked further questions.