“Do not for a moment presume that I cannot tell to what you are turning your literary skills,” Sherlock Holmes said to me during an otherwise unremarkable evening in our Baker Street flat. Indeed, I had taken up my pen and was beginning to compose, though I had not uttered a sound as to the matter upon which I was writing.
“Even you cannot know what is in my mind, Holmes,” I replied.
“On the contrary, Watson, you are as easily read as the headline of the Police Gazette. The fact that you are pursing your lips like the first-chair cornetist at St. James Hall tells me that you are deliberating whether or not you should commit your thoughts to paper at all, which in turn implies that doing so carries some potential consequence. The obvious conclusion is that you are, against all advice to the contrary, about to record for posterity the details of the recently-concluded Inimitable affair.”
I threw the pen down, creating an ugly blotch on the paper, and turned in my chair to face him. “Really, Holmes, you make it sound as though someone from the Yard will burst in and take me away in manacles for the act of writing. It is not setting down the account against which I have been cautioned, but rather publishing it.”
“You must admit that one does lead to the other.”
“I admit no such thing,” I said, turning back and crumpling the top sheet of paper, which included only a partial opening sentence, now obscured by the ink blot. “Think of writing as my vice if you must, my personal form of warding off the ennui generated through periods of inactivity.”
“Touché,” Holmes said, retreating.
Having absolved myself of any feelings of guilt over recording my recollections, I set my mind to remembering our first encounter with the woman who called herself Nelly Robinson.
She did not arrive on our doorstep, as do so many of Holmes’s clients, but instead sent him a letter from her home in the Maida Vale neighborhood of Paddington.
“What do you make of this, Watson?” Holmes had asked, handing the letter over to me.
Dear Sherlock Holmes, it began, I am in dire need of your help! I daren’t offer a description or explanation of my problem in writing, lest it somehow fall into public view. I pray that you will believe me when I tell you that the matter over which I am being threatened is the most delicate of situations, and if not handled properly it could result in a catastrophic scandal; not for me personally so much as to another, one who is not in a position to defend his reputation.
I pray that you can aid me!
Mrs. George (Nelly) Robinson.
“Clearly the woman is in distress,” I commented.
“Clearly. Anything else?”
“It would appear on the surface to be a matter of blackmail.”
“Agreed. Go on.”
“Well, there is the fact that she wrote to you instead of coming here in person, when she lives but a short carriage ride away. It is as though she is attempting to secure your interest in the case prior to explaining to you any details, whetting your appetite, as it were.”
“Excellent! And yet there is more this letter tells us.”
“I must confess I cannot see anything more.”
“Watson, you are overlooking the most important point, and that is why the man endangered by this scandal is unable to defend himself.”
“There could be any number of reasons.”
“There could be, but only one fully addresses the level of this woman’s concern. The man in question must be dead and buried, and yet he has left behind an image of himself so admired that the disclosure of a dark, terrible secret would be shocking to those who continue to hold him in high esteem.”
“Could it be a nobleman? A politician?”
“I will not know until I speak with the woman, which I intend to do at earliest convenience. I shall send her a telegram asking her to arrive here at two o’clock tomorrow.”