During my long and fruitful association with Mr Sherlock Holmes I have recorded many of his adventures for publication, and have been gratified by the reading public’s response. Those three-score of factual tales do not, however, represent the entirety of cases upon which Holmes has laboured, nearly always with my assistance and observation. Several have not been set down by me for a variety of reasons. On occasion they have involved a matter of social or political delicacy which mandated their concealment. In other instances Holmes accepted a case that proved to be so simply and easily solved that it, in my opinion, lacked the necessary drama and fascination to hold a reader. Then there were those cases whose specifics were so outré as to challenge the belief of any potential reader.
I can recall only one, however, that remained suppressed simply because Holmes wished it so. But the fact that some three decades have passed since the events of that adventure took place argues that continued silence regarding its aspects, as well as the facet of Holmes’s character it reveals, has become moot.
It was in the early summer of 1894, some months after Holmes’s “miraculous” return to the realm of the living, having been presumed dead for three years. I was still struggling with a more personal tragedy, the death of my wife Mary who, alas, was not destined to come back. At that time Holmes had resumed his consulting detective practise in Baker Street and I had retaken my position as his living companion. On one otherwise uneventful day at the end of June a knock came to the door of our flat and our landlady, Mrs. Hudson, announced a visitor. He was short of stature, perhaps on the near-side of fifty, and dressed in slightly worn tweeds. His most remarkable characteristic, however, was that there was not a single hair on his head, though his bushy eyebrows more than compensated for that dearth. He held a pasteboard box of approximately two feet square and introduced himself as Bartholomew Wells of Lambeth.
“What has brought you to me, Mr Wells?” Holmes asked.
“I’ve been led to believe that you can explain the unexplainable, Mr Holmes,” he said in a rough voice.
“Indeed? Might I ask who led you to that belief?”
Wells nodded in my direction and said, “Him.”
“I?” I replied. “Sir, until a moment ago I have never laid eyes on you.”
“Right, but I’ve read your stories. You write about how people come to Sherlock Holmes with problems they can’t figure out, boxes full of ears and things like that, and he makes sense of it all.”
Bartholomew Wells was referencing an adventure I had recounted under the title “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” in which a woman had indeed been the recipient of a package containing severed human ears.
“Is that why you have brought a box of your own?” I inquired.
“Not exactly. This is simply a means of transportation for what’s inside.”
“Would it by any chance be a stringed musical instrument?” Holmes asked. “A mandolin, perhaps? Or a banjo?”
The man looked startled. “It’s a little small for either of those, but how did you know I play the banjo? Have you seen me perform?”
“Not at all. I merely observed that you keep the fingernails of your left hand clipped short, ideal for the fingering of chords on a fretted neck, while those of your right hand are considerably longer and carefully manicured, well suited for the plucking of strings.”
“Your reputation is entirely deserved, Mr Holmes. I pray you can make equal sense out of these.”
Bartholomew Wells set the box on the table and took such care in opening it that I wondered if something alive was inside, awaiting the opportunity to spring to freedom. What the man withdrew, however, was not a living thing; it was instead a hangman’s noose, which he handed to Holmes for inspection.
“This is new rope and rather loosely banded,” Holmes said. “Clearly it has not been used. How did you come by this?”
“It was sent to me in an unmarked package, as were the rest of them,” Wells replied, reaching back into the box and pulling out noose after noose—seven of them in total—each made from a different width of rope, ranging from that which might be used on a ship to lightweight packaging twine. “I received one of these each week starting about two months ago.”
“Can you be more specific?”