In the final part of our exclusive
The next morning found Holmes staring moodily out of the window. Although the first and second post had already been delivered, no further cards had arrived and it seemed that there was little we could do but wait.
‘Now there is a sad story,’ Holmes remarked.
‘A young man marries above himself. In order to support his wife, he takes himself to the colonies and there accumulates a certain amount of wealth.
‘He returns to London after a long absence only to find that the lady no longer loves him. Indeed, she has found someone else. And yet still he hopes Christmas will bring them together. He hopes, I fear, in vain.’
Sherlock Holmes deduces the link between the delivery of seven macabre Christmas cards, a burglary and a violent murder
I had been reading the newspaper but now stood up and joined him at the window.
There was a great deal more traffic today, with cabs and omnibuses, railway carts, tradesman’s traps and sundry other vehicles slicing into the snow and leaving behind them ugly brown scars as they cut through the white covering to reveal the mud below.
A man and a woman were standing close together on the pavement, waiting to cross the road.
He was carrying a great many parcels, recently purchased. She was dressed in a voluminous cloak, warming her hands in a muffler. But there was nothing in their appearance that suggested to me the narrative my friend had just described.
‘Have you met them?’ I asked.
‘I do not need to have met them to know them,’ Holmes replied.
‘Then how can you speak with such confidence?’
‘It is, as always, a matter of observation and inference, my boy.’ He turned back to the window.
‘That the man has been abroad is evident from the colour of his cheeks. He has recently been in the sunshine and there has been none in this country for many months.
‘The full-front frock coat and striped woollen trousers would suggest America to me, as they are very much in fashion there, as are his side whiskers . . . burnsides as they are called by our American friends.
‘Her cloak and hat, however, are clearly English – suggesting they have been apart.’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the original Sherlock Holmes
‘And his means?’
‘His attire is shabby. Despite the cold weather he had been able to afford neither cravat not galoshes. He has spent no money on himself, but see how many parcels he carries, how much money he has spent! Clearly he wishes to impress her.
And yet she keeps her distance from him. You notice that although the pavement is slippery, still she does not take his arm.’
‘I would like to think that there might be hope for them after all.’
‘Such sentiments do you credit, but I rather doubt it, Watson. The cloak she is wearing does not disguise the fact that she is expectant. Given the advanced state of her condition and the freshness of his tan, the child cannot be his.’
H e returned to his armchair and snatched up the monograph he had been studying. We were both in a state of some anxiety, the four Christmas cards taunting us with their grim warnings as they lay before us.
I had suggested to Holmes that we should return to the house of Hubert Smythe, the artist who had knocked me to the ground as he made good his escape in Shadwell, but he was convinced that there was nothing more to do until the final three cards had arrived — though whether they would appear at the same time was yet to be seen.
The day dragged on. The lunchtime post came and went, with nothing more delivered. The sun lost interest and sank behind the clouds, while gusts of wind sprang up, sending the snow scurrying across the street.
It was five o’clock and already growing dark when there came a double knock at the door.
By now, Holmes and I were alone in the building. He had insisted that, for her own safety, Mrs Hudson should not be present.
Born in Edinburgh in 1859, Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh between 1876 and 1881
‘I must ask you to step behind the curtain,’ Holmes muttered to me. ‘Come out the moment that I call. You have your revolver?’
I nodded. That morning I had returned to my own house in order to collect it. The weapon had accompanied and comforted me throughout the day. ‘Then we will see if I am correct in my calculations.’
He went downstairs and I hid myself behind the curtain as he had instructed. A moment later I heard two people return to the room and then Holmes spoke.
‘You have something for me?’
‘Some Christmas cards, I believe.’
‘There are three.’
‘Then your work is done.’
There was a silence, during which I longed to peer through the curtain and see who it was who was speaking. But I did not dare move.
‘I know you, I believe,’ Holmes continued. ‘You work at the General Post Office at St Martin’s-le-Grand.’
‘I didn’t think you’d seen me.’
‘Was it you who delivered the final cards to Sir William Mawson and to Mr Clifford Barrowman in Whitecross Street?’
‘It was, mister. And sorry I am that you should have interfered in my work. It was all going so very nicely. But you leave me with no choice . . .’
I heard the sound of a scuffle, a chair falling, a grunt of anger. ‘Now, Watson!’ Holmes cried, and at once I launched myself from my place of concealment in time to see Holmes struggling with a young man wearing the uniform of a postman.
Indeed, he was not a man at all but a boy of about 16 or 17 years — and a strangely ugly one, with curling ginger hair, an emaciated face and devilish eyes.
I saw that he was holding a pair of scissors, the wicked blades pointing to my friend’s throat, and but for the fact that Holmes had seized hold of the boy’s wrist he could have been horribly injured or killed.
‘Enough!’ I cried. I was already clasping my revolver and aimed it at the boy. ‘If you move, I will shoot you.’
‘Well done, Watson!’ exclaimed Holmes.
The boy could see that the game was up. In an instant, he went limp and Holmes snatched the scissors and hurled them across the room, still clinging on to the would-be assassin.
‘Let me go!’ the boy cried, real tears springing to his eyes.
The next morning found Holmes staring moodily out of the window. Although the first and second post had already been delivered, no further cards had arrived and it seemed that there was little we could do but wait. Pictured: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on holiday with his family
‘Tell me your name,’ Holmes retorted.
‘It’s Edwin. Edwin Griggs.’
‘Well, Master Griggs, you are going nowhere!’ Holmes glanced at me. ‘Be careful, Watson. Do not lower your guard for an instant. I have encountered wild beasts and poisonous snakes less fearsome than this dreadful youth.’
Unarmed and tearful, the postboy might have seemed almost pathetic but for the malignancy in his face and the hateful knowledge of his defeat. A moment later, the door flew open and Inspector Lestrade strode in with a uniformed policeman.
‘You have him!’ he said.
‘You saw him enter?’ Holmes asked.
‘I did exactly as you told me. I have been standing all day in the street, and there is not a bone of mine that is not chilled. Another hour and I think I might have died. But now you must explain this business to me, Holmes.
‘Constable, apprehend this wretch. And once he is secure let us hear the truth about this curious affair.’
It took us a few minutes to arrange ourselves, but soon the leering postboy was squatting on the floor, handcuffed, with the constable watching over him while Lestrade and I sat opposite, with Sherlock Holmes standing, his back to the fire.
‘This is a tale of burglary,’ he began. ‘And an ingenious method to gain entry to the house. This boy, Edwin Griggs, worked in the post office and so visited the homes of many wealthy people in the East of London. He also lives, I believe in Shadwell.’
‘Is that true?’ Lestrade demanded.
‘Yes!’ Griggs was sullen now.
‘Passing a stationer’s shop, he happened to see a set of Christmas cards more strange and macabre than any that had ever been printed and he purchased no fewer than nine sets.
‘You will remember, Watson, that the printer informed us that an errand-boy had called in to his shop, just as Sir William Mawson’s housekeeper recalled that Lady Mawson had confronted not a postman but a postboy. All along I suspected that our malefactor might be of a tender age.
‘The nine packets, incidentally, indicate the number of crimes he intended to commit. Nine separate burglaries. There may well be other victims, Lestrade. We will find out in due course.
‘The first five cards he sent through ordinary means. He knew the workings of the post office, clearly, as he added EC to the address to ensure a speedy delivery. The scissors that he used to kill Sir William were also suggestive of an office such as the one we visited, incidentally.
‘The last cards he delivered himself. Was it so surprising that the recipients should invite him into the house to question him about these unpleasant communications? Had they not, he would have found another way, I am sure, to inveigle himself in.
‘At any event, it was by this means that he was able to inspect the houses that he was intending to burgle, opening the latch on the window at Sir William’s and locating the clock in Mr Barrowman’s library. He did not intend to kill.
‘The fact that poor Sir William was stabbed in the heart rather than the back suggests that he had come into the room while the theft was in progress. He saw Griggs and without mercy, Griggs attacked him.
‘But it was the spelling errors on the envelopes addressed to Barrowman that gave the game away. The first five were incorrect but the last two were not. Why should this be?
The answer became apparent when we visited Whitecross Street. Griggs saw the true spelling on the brass plaque by the door and foolishly decided to correct his error.
‘His idea had been a clever one, and he may have prided himself on his proficiency. He wanted everything to be done well.’
The postboy scowled but said nothing.
‘But how did he know to come here?’ I demanded. ‘And why did he choose to attack you?’
‘He overheard Mr Frobisher loudly introduce me when we visited the General Post Office. He knew that I was on his trail and thought that by attacking me he would ensure his own safety.’
‘A young Devil!’ Lestrade growled.
‘But one that you now have under arrest,’ Holmes concurred.
‘Once you have found out where he lives, you will uncover the proceeds of his crimes and learn how many houses he was able to invade.
‘However, should you come upon a gold striking mantel clock decorated with angels, my dear Lestrade, I would be grateful if you could pass it into my possession. I would like to return it personally to its true owner.’
Edwin Griggs was led away, but that was not the end of the adventure of the seven Christmas cards. For there was still one last mystery to be resolved.
That occurred a week later, on the day before Christmas.
Once again, I had agreed to stay at Baker Street for a goose followed by an almond pudding, and indeed it would be at this time that Holmes would suggest that I should move back to my old lodgings, an invitation I would accept with joy.
We were sitting together with a whisky and soda drawn from the gasogene that he kept in his room when the bell rang.
‘You are expecting a visitor?’ I asked.
‘Indeed so,’ replied Holmes with a smile. ‘He has come, in part, to apologise to you.’
The door opened and a well-built man entered, looking nervously around him. I took in his fair hair, his rugged yet handsome features, then realised with alarm that I knew him. This was the very man who had assaulted me in Shadwell. This was the artist, Hubert Smythe.
Holmes, however, greeted him warmly. ‘My Smythe! Welcome. Come in out of the cold and take a seat beside the fire. So you received my note!’
‘I am very glad to see you, sir.’ Smythe had been wearing a soft cloth cap, which he took off and held in both hands.
He turned to me. ‘And it is an honour to meet you also, Dr Watson. For many years now I have much enjoyed your work and when I knocked you to the ground — well, sir, that was the worst thing I did in my life.
‘But when the two of you turned up at my crib like that and announced yourselves out of the blue, well I was mortal afraid. I believed I had done you wrong and my only thought — foolish though it may sound — was to take myself off and hide.’
The more he spoke, the more I saw him as a quite gentle and ordinary man in his late 30s, and far from the villain who had been inhabiting my imagination.
But as pleased as I was that he knew — and admired — my writing, I was still unable to understand why he felt he might have offended us, or indeed in what way he was connected to us at all.
Holmes laughed, seeing my discomfort. ‘My dear Watson,’ he said. ‘You have here not only a fine artist but a man whom you have evidently inspired.’
‘In what way?’ I inquired.
‘The seven Christmas cards! Did you not see from the start? They were all based on our own adventures!’ Holmes took out the packet he had bought and laid them once again in front of me.
‘The man with the bottle of wine is surely Peter Carey, whom we found, you will recall, in Forest Row, impaled with a harpoon. He was known as Black Peter, which is the title you gave to his tale.
‘The horse in the field is Silver Blaze and the man lying beside him must be John Straker who was killed that night. The third card illustrates the dreadful experience of The Greek Interpreter.
‘Poor Mr Melas came upon just such a man as is depicted here, tied up with sticking plaster in a room where there happened to stand a suit of Japanese armour.
‘The fourth card is the most obvious. It is The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. You cannot have forgotten Miss Susan Cushing, who received two human ears in a box of salt sent from Belfast. In the fifth card we see Mr Jephro Rucastle being attacked by his own bull mastiff. You described the scene in The Adventure Of The Copper Beeches.
‘The sixth card — a favourite story of yours, Watson — The Speckled Band! You wrote that you would never forget our dreadful vigil at the end of which we were almost killed by a deadly swamp adder. And finally, the man escaping into the moonlight…’
‘It is Victor Hatherley,’ I said, my voice heavy with mortification. ‘He visited you with a terrible injury and told a story which eventually became The Adventure Of The Engineer’s Thumb.’
‘But why?’ I turned to our visitor.
‘I don’t know what I was intending, sir,’ Smythe explained. ‘I read your stories and they inspired me to draw the pictures, and then I had the idea of turning them into a set of Christmas cards. They are dark and violent, I know — but there are people who like that sort of thing. When you came to my house, I thought you had come because you were angry.’
‘Not angry at all,’ Holmes remarked. ‘Although if you will take my advice, Mr Smythe, you will stick to gentler subjects in the future, for it is therein that, I think, your talent lies.’
‘If only the public agreed, Mr Holmes.’
‘They will, I am sure, in due course. You must stick at it, Mr Smythe. And here is something that may help you in your work.’
He handed the other man a money order which had already been made out in his name. The artist examined the figure on the paper and his eyes widened. ‘But sir! This is too much! It is too generous.’
‘Tut! Tut!’ cried Sherlock Holmes.
‘You must think of it as a Christmas gift. And not from me, but from a friend of mine in the theatre world.
‘He paid dearly for the return of a precious clock that had been stolen from him. But he can afford it, I think. I hope it will tide you over, Mr Smythe, until success comes your way. Goodnight, sir. And thank you for your cards. I found them most entertaining.’
Our visitor left and Holmes took down from the rack his old and cherished pipe.
Outside, the snow had once again begun to fall and somewhere in the night I heard the sound of choristers in perfect harmony, performing a favourite carol of mine, The Mistletoe Bow. And it struck me that although Holmes might try to turn his back on Christmas, still it would find its way into his heart and into his home.
And right then, there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be.
The Adventure Of The Seven Christmas Cards by Anthony Horowitz. © Anthony Horowitz 2020.