"all tell the same story of this dreadful apparition" [HOUN]
I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes on Christmas Eve, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a chartreuse dressing-gown, the day’s newspapers well-studied and his black briar emitting a curl of blue smoke in the ashtray. Beside the couch was a straight-backed chair, and on the stile hung a seedy and disreputable fur-trimmed stocking hat, much the worse for wear. A lens and a forceps lying upon the seat of the chair suggested that the hat had been hung with care for the purpose of examination.
"You are engaged," said I, "perhaps I interrupt you."
"Not at all. I am glad to have a friend with whom I can discuss my results. The matter is a perfectly trivial one" (he motioned his thumb with a jerk in the direction of the cone-shaped covering), "but there are points in connection with it which are not entirely devoid of interest, and even of instruction."
I seated myself in his armchair, and accepted the glass of heated eggnog Holmes offered, for the day had been still and cold and now that night had fallen, it was colder still. "I suppose," I remarked after a sip of the landlady’s concoction and the warm glow that started to radiate from within, "that, homely as it is, this thing has some deadly story linked to it--- that it is the clue which will guide you in the solution of some profound mystery, and the punishment of some malefactor."
"No, no. No crime," said Sherlock Holmes, laughing. "Only one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four and a half million human beings cheek-by-jowl within the space of a few square miles. Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal. You know Peterson, the commissionaire?"
"It is to him that this trophy belongs."
"It is his hat."
"No, no; he found it. Its owner is unknown. I beg that you will look upon it, not as a tattered tupplue, but as a conical conundrum. Your arrival is fortuitous as Peterson is downstairs with Mrs. Hudson getting a cup of tea and I as yet have listened to his story. We shall listen to it together. In the meantime let us see what we can deduce of the owner.”
"From his hat?"
"But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered bonnet?"
"Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to the individuality of the man who has worn this article?"
I took the harried headgear in my hands, and turned it over rather ruefully. It was a red triangular plush cap with a white fur pom-pom at the point, and white fur trim around the base. The lining had been of red silk, but was a good deal sweat stained. There was no maker's name, at least as far as I could tell, but sewn in once-golden thread were strange linear hieroglyphics. It was pierced in the inner brim for a hat-securer, but the elastic was missing. For the rest, it was exceedingly dusty, and spotted in several places, although there seemed to have been some attempt to hide the discolored patches by daubing them with red ink.
"I can see nothing," said I, handing it back to my friend.
"On the contrary, Watson; how many fingers am I holding up?”
“Your eyesight is fine. You fail, however, to apply reason from what you see."
"Then pray, tell me,” I replied with some asperity, “what it is that you can infer from this hat?"
He gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him when he took on the air of a disappointed tutor lecturing a particularly dense pupil. "It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been," remarked Holmes, "and yet there are a few inferences which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably elves, at work upon him.”
“This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him,” he continued, disregarding my remonstrance. “He has, however, retained some degree of self-respect. He is a man who leads a sedentary life, goes out little, perhaps just once a year, is middle-aged, has grizzled hair which he has had cut within the last few days, and which he anoints with rather expensive avocado-cream. These are the more patent facts which are to be deduced from his blushing bucket. Also, by the way, that it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his house, no doubt because he lives on an isolated farm raising reindeer."
“Surely, you’re joking!”
“You know I detest that nickname. I don’t even allow my brother Mycroft to call me that.”
“No, no; I meant you are certainly not serious.”
“Ah. I’m quite serious, my dear fellow.”
"How did you deduce that this man was intellectual?"
For an answer, Holmes slipped the linty lid upon his head. The fur brim passed over the forehead and settled upon the bridge of his nose. "It is a question of cubic capacity," said he; "a man with so large a brain must have something in it."
"The decline of his fortunes, then?"
"This hat is old. These type of plush fur-lined hats have long been out of fashion. It is a hat of the very best quality. Look at the fur, and the excellent lining. If this man could afford to buy so expensive a hat. and has had no hat since, then he has assuredly gone down in the world."
"Well, that is clear enough, certainly. But how about the foresight, and the moral retrogression?"
"Here is the foresight." said he, putting his finger upon the little disc and loop of the hat-securer. "They are never solid upon hats. If this man ordered one, it is a sign of a certain amount of foresight, since he went out of his way to take this precaution against the wind. But since we see that he has broken the elastic, and has not troubled to replace it, it is obvious that he has less foresight now than formerly, which is a distinct proof of a weakening nature. On the other hand, he has endeavored to conceal some of these stains upon the plush by daubing them with red ink, which is a sign that he has not entirely lost his self-respect. The further points, that he is middle-aged, that his hair is grizzled, that it has been recently cut, and that he uses avocado-cream, are all to be gathered from a close examination of the lower part of the lining. The lens discloses a large number of hair-ends, clean cut by the scissors of the barber. They all appear to be adhesive, and there is a distinct odor of avocado-cream, which is rare in this part of the world and speaks of a wanton self-indulgence and further evidence of moral regression. This dust, you will observe, is not the gritty, gray dust of the street nor the dirt of the country, but the fluffy brown dust of the house, showing that it has been hung up indoors most of the time; while the marks of moisture upon the inside are proof positive that the wearer perspired very freely, and could, therefore, hardly be in the best of training."
"But his wife - you said that she had ceased to love him."
"This hat has not been brushed for months, perhaps a whole year. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a year's accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife's affection, if not your wife herself."
"You have an answer to everything. But how on earth do you deduce that the gas is not laid on in the house?"
"One tallow stain, or even two, might come by chance; but, when I see no less than five, I think that there can be little doubt that the individual must be brought into frequent contact with burning tallow - walks upstairs at night probably with his topper in one hand and a guttering candle in the other. Anyhow, he never got tallow stains from a gas jet."
“I am familiar with over thirty types of European writing systems. These markings sewn into the lining are Tomte runes, peculiar to an especially short Scandinavian race locals refer to as ‘elves’. Our friend the hat owner is not a Tomte himself as seen by the hat size but must have a deep association with them to adapt their writing. They are a happy but short-tempered race, given to much mischief. Loyal if treated well, but pranksters and thieves if crossed. Long association with them could again lead to moral retrogression.”
“And the reindeer farming?”
“There are several indications. One: this type of hat is still fashionable in northern climes. Two: the white fun, unless I am very much mistaken, is polar bear, again an indication the wear resides up north. Three: the Tomte live in Scandinavia and nowhere else. Four: there are reindeer hair on the outside of the hat. As the author of A Study of Ungulates and Ruminants and Their Association with Criminal Actives, Illustrated with Forty Color Plates I was able to identify the fur quite easily. It seems then highly probable our mysterious friend is a reindeer farmer.”
Footsteps sounded on the stair and after a knock on the door Peterson the commissionaire entered. He greeted us cordially and at Holmes’ urging began his tale.
“I had an important commission this evening, but because it was Christmas Eve, the cabbie decided not to wait for me. The streets were fairly deserted and there was not another cab to be found so I started to walk back home while keeping my eyes peeled for transportation. I was walking down Bartholomew Lane---“
Holmes sat up straight on the sofa. “You were in the City?”
“Yes sir. Quiet as a tomb.”
“Well, it was dusk and not a soul to be seen. I reached the corner when I suddenly heard the jingling of bells and out of the sky dropped this funny hat, right at my feet. It’s not quite a bobble or a toque and it had this queer sort of writing inside and I thought that if anyone could make sense of this happening and maybe return the hat to its owner, it’s Mr. Holmes.”
“What else did you find, Peterson?”
The commissionaire’s cheeks flushed. We knew Peterson to be an honest man and his reaction was one of embarrassment, not guilt. “We-ell,” he stammered, “after I picked up the hat and looked at it and took a step onto the way of going home, this piece of paper fluttered out of the sky right into my hand. I thought it was…a reward – in advance, like, for getting the hat back to its owner…’
“You know, for doing a good deed…from…” Here Peterson looked up at the ceiling. He reached into his pocket and then held out his hand. There in his palm was a clean, crisp five-pound note. Holmes took up his lens and the note and examined it under the lamp and even held it under his nose briefly. When he turned back to us his manner was still phlegmatic but there was a most singular intentness in his eyes that told me he had chanced upon some clue of importance. Holmes went over to his desk. “I propose an exchange, Peterson, this fiver for yours. It’s not quite as new, but it will spend the same and I guarantee it has the same amount of luck as yours.”
Peterson took the note with some reluctance. Holmes turned back to his desk and scribbled out a message, handing it to the commissionaire along with some coins. “Please go to the telegraph office and send this before you go home. And,” he said placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, “I can assure you this felt-and-fur Phrygian will find its home ere long.”
As soon as the door close, Holmes tore off his dressing gown and headed to the wardrobe in his room, all the while speaking. “What a blind beetle I’ve been! You remember that pretty little problem of Helen Stoner’s at Stoke Moran? At first all the clues pointed to the gypsies but once on the scene it became obvious it was that group of plasterers hired by her nefarious step-father.” Readers of these somewhat incoherent series of memoirs will recall “The Adventure of the Spackled Band”. “Well, my deductions about that hirsute headgear were perfectly reasonable, logical and entirely wrong, all because I lacked two facts.”
“The five-pound note?”
“And the location.”
“The corner of Bartholomew Lane and Threadneedle Street.”
A dark and sinister notion started forming in my mind. Holmes came out of his room and tossed me a pistol while checking to see that his was loaded. “Be a good fellow and hail us cab, eh, Watson?”
The horse’s hooves beat out a swift tattoo as our hansom headed to the City. “I believe you suspect Peterson’s fiver was a forgery.”
“You positively scintillate tonight, Watson.”
“So the hat is part of a disguise.”
“For over one hundred and thirty years Jules-Thomas and Sons has been operating out of the same building in the West End providing costumes and property for theater companies and acting troupes. Like many immigrants to our shores, they anglicized their name from the original Scandinavian Jultomten.”
“Exactly so, Watson. The Jules-Thomases are descended from that Scandinavian race locally known as elves and even today their scion are exceedingly short people. Early in the company’s history, the family name was sewn into their costumes—”
“In Tomte runes.”
“Watson, your eyesight improves by the moment! We can now look at our muffed mantle in a new light. It was manufactured well over a century ago of the best materials and meant to be durable. It was designed to fit all heads so was made on the larger side, so it could accommodate wigs. There is also the well-known factor of actors possessing larger crania than the general population. To save costs, it is repaired frequently, such as the touch-ups of red ink. As there is usually strenuous action on stage during the course of a production, that would account for the hat-securer and the sweat stains. As there is not much call for this type of hat except during the holiday season, there would naturally be a many-months accumulation of dust in the storage area located in the oldest part of the building where gas has yet to be laid. The dust tells us one other thing; professionals like Jules-Thomas would not allow a costume to go out in such a condition. Therefore, it must have been stolen.”
“The freshly-cut grizzled hair then must belong to the thief.”
“Bravo, Watson! I see that marriage has not staled your infinite variety. Cabbie, stop here.” We were let off at Cheapside and Queen Victoria Street and, being as inconspicuous as possible on the deserted streets, made our way to the “Grey Lady of Threadneedle Street”. The Bank of England, the financial heart of the Empire stood dark, silent and imposing in the light of the gibbous moon. The air was still and our breath shot out in front of us like smoke from a pistol shot. We made our way along the bank’s façade on Princes Street where Holmes found a rope ladder almost invisible in the shadows. We climbed to the first level roof and surveyed the five story wall that stretched above our heads to the top of the building. Here the cunningness of the rope-ladder’s design was made clear as even in the bright moonlight it was practically invisible to the eye and from the street below would be non-existent.
With Holmes in the lead we ascended the wall in the bracing winter night air, up past the sloping shingles of the top floor to the narrow, relatively flat roof. There, not far from us, silhouetted against the sky were a group of two-legged reindeer gathered around a skylight. They spoke in whispers with their backs to us, antlers bobbing in the cold. Nearby appeared to be a large sledge piled high with packages. Holmes took out his revolver and I followed suit. We crept to within a few feet of the costumed men then Holmes stood and in a quiet voice said, “Gentlemen, do not move.”
His voice rang out like cannon fire in the hushed darkness, seemingly turning the men to statues. Holmes edged closer to the skylight. “My friend here is known as the Deadly Doctor, so pray, be still,” he said sotto voce as he peered down in the stygian depths. I took pride in Holmes’ complement of my marksmanship until the sniggering of one of the men reminded me of its possible double meaning. The cocking of my hammer shut him up.
Presently, a shuffling sound emanated from within the building and up rose from the black hole a head of long white hair, then a face surrounded by a full white beard. One red-mittened hand held the rope ladder attached to the skylight, the other a bag slung over a shoulder. Holmes clapped his gun to the man’s head. “Up and out slowly, if you please. That’s good. Now place the sack down. Right. Watson, you’ve heard me speak of this gentleman, but I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure of meeting him. Doctor John Watson, Professor James Moriarty.” Holmes had pocketed his gun, grabbed the hair in one hand and the beard in the other and yanked away. There stood the former mathematics professor, his bald pate fringed with grizzled hair gleamed in the moonlight, his sunken eyes glaring with malevolence at the detective. “A masterful performance, Professor, although your costume is sadly incomplete.”
Comprehension broke on his features as the whole chain of events that led to his capture became clear. “The hat! If it wasn’t for that damned freak gust of wind--- “ Those were his first and last words of the evening as he clamped his mouth shut and refused to speak further.
Then from out in the street there arose such a clatter. “Watson,” said Holmes, his gun now back out and trained on Moriarty, “take that gentleman there” (he indicated one of the reindeer who would appear to be most at home at Newgate) “over to the ledge and have him report what he sees.”
I motioned the brute over and he peered down. “There’s a great lot of Black Marias, a fire brigade and a whole lot of coppers.” I motioned the man back to his herd.
“That will be Inspector Bradstreet, the Yard, the City Police and the ladder engine. I am afraid your brilliant plan of stealing the actual five-pound note plates” (here he tapped the sack with his foot) “and substituting counterfeit plates to cause the financial collapse of the Empire is for naught, Professor.” City and Metropolitan Police swarmed to the roof and soon the two professional law groups were fighting over who would make the arrest and who would claim credit in the papers. Eventually, the criminals were led away and the lawmen cleared the roof leaving Holmes and I alone at the scene.
Holmes examined the “sledge”, which was a balsa cutout ingeniously constructed to fold into a small, portable square for easy transport, yet from the street or the window of a neighboring building would appear to be substantial.
“There is always a touch of the extravagant to Moriarty’s schemes. To create a tableau of Father Christmas visiting the Bank of England just to discredit any possible witnesses…” He shook his head. “Hum. I wonder…”
“What is it, Holmes?”
“Peterson said he heard bells, then the cherry chapeau landed at his feet, yet neither Moriarty nor his ‘reindeer’ were wearing bells, and this cutout certainly doesn’t have any. Where did the sound come from?”
Then above the distant sound of London there was the faint jingling of bells, which grew louder, then a voice from above said, “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes. Ho, ho, ho.” We both turned skywards and there across the waxing moon appeared four pairs of reindeer drawing a sledge driven by a rotund bearded jolly man who waved at us. As we watched, the apparition turned to the north and rapidly disappeared clean out of sight.
I do not know how long we stood there transfixed but finally I whispered my companion’s name. That broke the spell. Holmes snapped, “Watson, you know my maxim that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. As it is impossible for reindeer to fly, the only vehicle able to lift such a sledge is a hot-air balloon, which was not in evidence, and further, a hot-air balloon could not achieve such speeds as witnessed, there can be only one probability for our folie à deux; Mrs. Hudson spiked our eggnog with absinthe!
“However, as this is the season of forgiveness, we shall not reprimand her, or mention it to her, or,” he turned to me and spoke in a steely voice, “mention this incident to anyone, ever!”
Holmes strode the roof edge and the rope ladder, then stopped and stared thoughtfully at that spot in the northern sky where the apparition vanished and where now faintly glowed a star.
“You know, Watson,” he spoke slowly as a clock chimed midnight, “I am not one to celebrate holidays, but if I were to wish for a present, I can think of no better one than to be with my old comrade-in-arms, back in action and on the thrill of the chase, putting the most dangerous criminal in London behind bars. Complements of the season.” He stuck out his hand.
“Complements of the season, Holmes.”
We clasped hands and shook.
For inspiration, I’d like to thank John Foster of the Sherlock Holmes Society of St. Charles and Gahan Wilson. —JCO’L