Monday, December 31, 2012

Sherlock Holmes - The Mystery of the Blue Carbuncle

      It was the second day after Christmas.  Watson decided to pay a visit to Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective who had been his former roommate.  When he entered the house he saw Holmes sprawled out on the sofa in a purple dressing gown.  Near him lay a pile of newspapers.  Watson's attention was drawn to a dirty-looking hat which lay on a chair.  A lens and forceps were also on the chair suggesting that Holmes had been inspecting the hat.  "Looks like you have another case?"  Watson said, his curiosity stirred.  Holmes laughed.  "You are wrong, Watson.  There is no case... at present.  But there is an interesting story behind that sorry-looking hat."

      Watson said, "I am all ears."  Holmes replied, "I guess you know Peterson, the commissionaire?  This property belongs to him, in fact?"  "Peterson?" asked Watson in a tone of surprise.  "I thought he could afford a better hat than this one."  "No, no Watson.  You have got it all wrong.  What I meant was that Peterson found it.  And please don't think of the hat as a piece of junk.  Look at it as a puzzle."  Watson said that he would try but only after he had heard the full story.  Holmes began, "It must have been four o'clock on Christmas morning.  Peterson, that honest fellow, was returning home after a night out merry-making with friends.  He was walking on Tottenham Court road when he witnessed an altercation between some men.  A tall man carrying a goose was being set upon by some thugs.  The man with the goose had a cane with him and he raised it to defend himself against his attackers.  As he was swinging the stick over his head it hit the window of the shop behind him and it smashed into pieces.

      "Peterson rushed towards the men.  Seeing a man in uniform, the thugs ran away and so did the man who had been attacked.  He probably thought that he would get into trouble for breaking the shop window.  In the melee he dropped the goose.  He forgot to pick up his hat as well.  It had been knocked to the ground by one of the thugs.  It was in this manner that Peterson became the proud owner of an excellent goose.  And since the hat came with the goose he took it too.  But as he had no idea who the owner of these items is he brought them to me, hoping I could help him."  Is there no way to find out who he is?" asked Watson.  Holmes said, "The goose was meant for one Mrs Henry Baker.  A card tied to the goose's leg says so.  And the initials 'HB' are legible on the hat lining.  But there are so many Henry Bakers in this city that these clues are insufficient to find the real owner."

      Watson wanted to know where the goose was.  Holmes replied, "It was here until this morning.  But despite the mild frost, there were indications that the goose would spoil and any further delay would render it useless and inedible.  So I returned it to Peterson with my blessings and hopefully, it is now roasting on a slow fire in his kitchen.  But I have kept the hat with me still, in the faint hope that it may yet yield some clue as to its owner's identity."  Hasn't the owner advertised for his goose?"  "No," replied Holmes.  He twirled the hat thoughtfully.  "This hat is a veritable mine of information, Watson."  Watson looked at Holmes incredulously.  "What do you mean?  I can't see anything but a battered old hat."  "Ah, you see only the obvious.  But I can tell you many things about the owner of this hat."  "Like what?" asked Watson.  "For one, the man who wore this hat has a good degree of intelligence," said Holmes.  "He was well-off three years back but, since then, he has fallen on hard times.  His wife does not love him anymore.  He is also fond of alcohol.  And there is no gas in his house."  Watson clapped his hands.  "Bravo! Now explain to me how you deduced all this from this humble hat."  "I will.  But can you take a look at this hat and tell me how I arrived at my inferences?"  Watson took the hat in his hands.  It was an ordinary black hat, round in shape and well-used.  It had a lining of red silk but it was quite discoloured now.  The maker's name was absent but the initials 'HB' were visible on one side.  It had been pierced in the brim for a hatsecurer but the elastic was missing.  It was also cracked and very dusty.  There were many discoloured patches and someone had evidently tried to smear ink over the patches.  Watson  pored over the hat for a while and then conceded defeat.  "It beats me."

      Holmes then said, "I will add a few more facts about the owner.  He leads a sedentary life, has grizzled hair which was cut a few days back.  He applies lime-cream on his hair.  Now let me explain how I discovered all this.  It is simple."  Holmes put the hat on his head.  It came to rest on the bridge of his nose.  "He has a large head which means he has a large brain so he is probably quite intelligent.  The hat is of a make which was popular three years ago.  The ribbed silk and fine lining say much about its good quality.  If this man could buy a hat like this three years ago but couldn't afford to replace it with a new one since then, it means his fortunes have dwindled during this period.  The lower part of the hat's lining yields more clues.  The hair ends cut by the barber's scissors, and the odour of lime cream are suggestive.  The dust on the hat is not the grey and gritty dust of the street but the fluffy brown dust of the house.  Which means that he doesn't go out much.  The hat has not known a brush for at least a week indicating that his wife does not care for him.  The many wax stains on the hat also reveal that the gas has not been laid on in his house as it suggests the use of candles."  Watson's eyes widened with wonder.  "Holmes, your cleverness has no parallel.  But all this painstaking deduction seems to be a waste of time to me as no crime has been committed."  Holmes was about to say something when the door opened and Peterson came in, looking very excited.

      "What is it Peterson?"  asked Holmes.  "It is the goose, sir!" said Peterson.  Holmes said drolly, "What, has it come back to life?"  "No, sir.  But look at this.  We found it in the bird's crop when we cut it open."  He held out his hand to reveal a dazzling blue stone, smaller than a bean but of such striking purity and radiance that Holmes and Watson were left in no doubt as to its value.  Holmes whistled.  "This is no ordinary stone."  "Is it a diamond?  It cuts glass as if it is butter."  Holmes took the stone in his hands.  "Friends, behold the famed blue carbuncle.  For that is what it is," he said.

Sherlock Holmes examine the stolen blue carbuncle which belonged to the Countess of Morcar
PHOTO: Sherlock Holmes examine the stolen blue carbuncle which belonged to the Countess of Morcar

In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. […] In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history.
PHOTO: “In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. […] In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history.”
Sherlock Holmes (The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

      Everyone fell silent as the implications of his words sank in.  It was well known that the blue carbuncle which belonged to the Countess of Morcar had been stolen recently.  The news had been splashed in all the newspapers and a reward of thousand pounds had been offered.  "The Blue Carbuncle! Good God!" exclaimed Peterson finally.  Watson asked, "It went missing at the Hotel Cosmopolitan, didn't it?" Holmes replied, "Indeed.  The theft occurred just five days ago, on December 22."  He went through the old newspapers and said, "The Countess was staying in the hotel at the time.  The attendant, James Ryder, had shown the plumber, John Horner, into her dressing room to carry out some repairs on the grate.  He had overseen the plumber's work for some time but after a while he left to attend to some work.  When he returned he found that the plumber had left.  He was shocked to find that the bureau had been forced open and the morocco casket in which the jewel had been kept was lying empty on the dressing table.  Ryder made a complaint and the plumber was arrested.  The Countess' maid, Catherine Cusack, also testified that she had rushed into the room hearing Ryder's cry of alarm and found things just as he had said.  But Horner had protested that he was innocent.  A search of his person and his lodgings yielded no results either.  Overcome by emotion, Horner had fainted when he was taken to court and had to be carried out."

      Holmes said, "What do you think, Watson?  Do you consider the plumber guilty?"  Watson scratched his head.  "I don't know, Holmes.  But it seems strange that the plumber is in prison and the stone ended up in the goose's crop."  "There is more to it than meets the eye.  To find out what happened we must trace the path the stone took from its casket to the goose's innards.  Come let's start our work," said Holmes eagerly.  The first thing he did was to place an advertisement in the evening papers.  It said that a goose and a black felt hat had been found at the corner of Goodge street and that Mr Henry Baker could collect them if he came to 221B Baker Street.  Holmes was sure that the man would come for his goose as he could not afford to pay for another one.  He also asked Peterson to buy another goose.  If Henry Baker did come in response to the advertisement, he had to be given a goose to replace the one which had been made a meal of by Peterson and his family.  "What about the stone?" asked Watson.  "It shall remain with me for the present," said Holmes.

      Once Peterson had left, Holmes picked up the blue carbuncle again and admired it for a few seconds, holding it against the light.  "Most beautiful.  See how it sparkles?  Every good stone like this one is the reason behind a crime.  The devil loves to bait people with them.  In stones which are bigger and older than these, each facet may well represent a bloody deed.  This one is hardly two decades old.  It was found in southern China.  But instead of the ruby red colour that characterises carbuncles it is a rich blue in hue.  Did you know that despite its youth it already boasts a sinister past?  Two murders, a suicide, a vitriol-throwing and a spate of robberies!  It is like a curse, that such beauty must be accompanied by much heartbreak and tragedy.  Anyway let it rest a while in my bureau while I contact its owner and convey the good news of its discovery."  With that, Holmes went into his bedroom.  When he came out, Watson was about to leave.  "I will come back in the evening, Holmes to follow up on the developments."  "Please join me for dinner," said Holmes courteously.  "I think there is a woodcock on the menu.  Maybe I should ask Mrs Hudson to examine its crop.  One might get lucky, eh, Watson?"

      It was around half-past six when Watson returned to Baker Street.  He went in and found that Holmes had company.  A tall man was sitting on a chair by the fire.  Holmes introduced him as Mr Henry Baker.  He was a large man with a huge head and grizzled brown hair.  When he spoke one formed the impression of a man of learning and letters, albeit one whose fortunes had taken a turn for the worse.  Holmes told Watson, "Mr Baker has come for his goose."  Then he turned to Baker and asked, "But why did you not advertise for it as soon as it was lost?"  The man said, "I thought it was of no use.  It was my belief that the thugs had taken the bird."  Holmes nodded, "I see.  Well, the fact is that we had the bird for two days and then we had to eat it."  The man's jaw dropped.  "You ate it?" he asked dully.  Holmes said quickly, "Not to worry.  You can have another goose of the same weight and fresh from the market to replace the one you lost."  A look of relief appeared on Baker's face.  "If you wish we can also give you the legs, feathers and crop of your own bird," continued Holmes eyeing the man keenly.  "That will not be necessary.  I will be quite content with the replacement," said Baker.  Then Holmes handed him over his hat and the goose.  As he was about to leave, Holmes asked casually, "By the way, would you mind telling me where you got the goose from?  It was a very well-grown goose, if I may say so."  "Of course," responded Baker genially.  "I got it from the Alpha Inn near the Museum."  "Ah," said Holmes, "I shall make it a point to get my goose from there next time."

      After Baker had left, Holmes told Watson that he was sure that Baker knew nothing about the carbuncle.  The next step was to go to Alpha Inn and find out more about the goose.  So the two men set off in search of the inn.  After fifteen minutes they found themselves outside the inn.  Holmes and Watson went to the bar and ordered beer.  As he drank the beer, Holmes asked the landlord if his beer was as good as his geese.  The man seemed surprised.  Then Holmes told him about Mr Henry Baker and his goose.  The landlord told Holmes that Baker's goose was not from his establishment.  Holmes asked him where he had got Baker's goose from.  The man replied that he had got it from a salesman in Covent Garden.  The salesman's name was Breckinridge.  Having got the information he wanted, Holmes finished his beer and left the inn with Watson.  "On to Covent Garden then, Watson.  Something tells me we are drawing closer to our quarry," he said.

      Breckinridge's stall was one of the largest in Covent Garden market.  The owner was a horsy-looking man.  Holmes went up to him and asked him if he had any geese.  The man replied,  "We are sold out now.  Come tomorrow."  Holmes pursed his lips.  "That would be too late."  "Well, you can try that shop over there," said Breckinridge.  "Someone recommended your geese highly," said Holmes.  "Who was that?"  "The landlord at Alpha Inn."  "Oh yes, I had sent him some."  "And where did you get them from?" asked Holmes.  Suddenly the man became irritated.  "What do you want to know, mister?" he asked belligerently.  Holmes replied calmly that he only wanted to find out who had sold the geese to him.  The man said angrily, "Well, I am not inclined to tell you."  Holmes looked at him astonished.  "Why, my dear man, there is no need to get angry, is there?"  The man barked, "Well, you would get angry too if you had people coming up to you and asking all kinds of questions about the geese you are selling.  You are not the first to pester me about my geese."

      Holmes knew now that he was on the right track.  He told the salesman that he had no ulterior motives in asking questions about the geese.  If others had been making enquiries he had nothing to do with them.  But he had laid a bet of five pounds with some friends on the assumption that the bird in question was country-bred and he just wanted to know if he was right.  But the man said he was wrong, the bird was town-bred.  Holmes refused to believe it.  He said that he was willing to offer him a sovereign if he could prove that the geese he had sold to Alpha Inn was town-bred.  Breckinridge laughed cockily.  "It is as good as gone, mister.  Bill, fetch me the books."  A little boy brought him two books.  The salesman went through the books and showed Holmes the name and address of the person from whom he had bought the geese that had been supplied to the Alpha Inn.  It was one Mrs Oakshott of Brixton road.  Holmes' eyes gleamed.  But he pretended to look woebegone and gave a sovereign to Breckinridge.

      Holmes and Watson moved away from the stall.  "Men like Breckinridge," said Holmes grinning, "have to be baited with bets.  Watson, I think we are almost there.  The question is, do we go see Mrs Oakshott tonight or tomorrow morning?"  Just then the sound of a commotion was heard from behind.  The men turned round and saw a rat-faced man cringing before an angry Breckinridge who was shouting at him.  "I will set the dogs on you if you come asking me anything more about my geese."  The rat-faced man said that one of the geese had belonged to him.  Breckinridge told him to ask Mrs Oakshott about it.  When the man said that she had sent him to Breckinridge, the latter lost his temper and lunged at him.  The rat-faced man scurried away in fear.  Holmes ran after the man telling Watson to follow him.

      Holmes caught up with the man and tapped him on the shoulder.  The man turned around.  His face became pale and he looked afraid.  "Who are you?"  What do you want?" he asked nervously.  Holmes answered, "I heard your conversation with Breckinridge and I came to tell you that I may be able to help you."  "How can you help me when you don't even know what the matter is?" asked the man, suspiciously.  Holmes asked, "My name is Sherlock Holmes and I make it my business to know things.  Isn't it a fact that you want to know the whereabouts of some geese which were sold by Mrs Oakshott to Breckinridge?"  The man became cheerful almost instantly.  "Yes, yes," he said.  "Do you know where they are now?"  Holmes told him that it would be better to discuss the matter in a more cosy place.  He asked the man's name.  The man hesitated and then said, "John Robinson."  Holmes smiled and shook his head.  Then he spoke in the manner of one who was rebuking a wayward child.  "That won't do.  Real names are better for a business of this sort."  Realising that he had little choice, the man said, "My name is James Ryder."  Holmes replied, "Now I get it.  You are the head attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan.  Well, let's go to my place and I will give you all the information you seek."  Ryder looked at Holmes hopefully.  Then his expression changed to one of doubt.  It was as if he was not sure what he was letting himself in for.  At last, however, he got into the cab which Holmes had hired and the three men were on their way to the Baker Street lodgings of Holmes.

      Watson looked at Ryder surreptitiously and noticed that he kept clasping and unclasping his hands.  His face also bore a look of great tension.  After a while, the cab dropped them off at 221B Baker Street.  On entering his lodgings, Holmes said to Ryder, "You seem to be cold.  Take a seat near the fire and make yourself comfortable.  Then we will get down to the business of the geese."  The man said, "Yes, what can you tell me?"  Holmes said shrewdly, "I suppose you want to know the fate of one particular goose.  One with a black bar across its tail?"  The man got up in great excitement.  Then he sat down again making an effort to compose himself.  "You are right, Mr Holmes.  Do you happen to know where the goose is?" he asked, trying to make his voice sound calm and measured.  But his hands twitched and his eyes shone brightly betraying his eagerness.

      Holmes smiled at Ryder.  "The goose is here in this very house, Mr Ryder."  "Here?"  "Yes indeed.  And a more remarkable goose I have never come across, mind you.  In fact, I can quite understand why you are so interested in it.  You see, after it died it laid an egg.  Not a golden egg, I am afraid, but an egg that is no less precious.  Only it was blue in colour.  I have it here safely in my possession."  Mr Ryder looked like he would faint.  A paroxysm of emotions flitted through his face.  He seemed to be at a total loss for words.  Meanwhile Holmes stood up and went to the bureau where he had kept the Blue Carbuncle.  He took it out and held it up for Ryder to see.  Ryder seemed to be mesmerised by the gem.  He said nothing but went on staring at Holmes and the gem.

      Then Holmes said quietly, "As you seem to have nothing to say, let me do it for you.  The game is up, Ryder."  Suddenly Ryder, who was standing by now staggered and nearly fell into the fireplace.  "Whoa there!" cried Holmes.  "Watson, catch hold of him before he sets himself on fire.  The excitement has been too much for him, I guess.  He doesn't even have the strength to commit a felony and get away with it."  Watson helped Ryder to his chair and gave him some brandy.  Having ensured that Ryder was alright, Holmes said, "Do you know what this stone is, Ryder?  Don't try to bluff for I have all the proof I need against you."  Ryder said weakly, "It is the Blue Carbuncle belonging to the Countess of Morcar."  "Good.  And how did you happen to make your acquaintance with this stone?"  "It was the Countess' maid, Catherine Cusack, who told me about it," replied Ryder.  "And now let me guess what happened.  Both of you hatched a plan to steal the carbuncle.  To divert suspicion from both of you, you sent the plumber to carry out some repairs in the countess' room.  Then, after he had left, you stole the gem.  You were aware that the plumber had been implicated in a robbery before and so people would have no difficulty in believing that it was he who stole the gem.  Ingenious, if I may say so.  But... "

      Suddenly Ryder got up and caught hold of Holmes' hands.  "Please Mr Holmes.  I made a mistake, the only one in my life.  Please don't ruin me.  I swear I will never do anything wrong again.  If my parents get to know of this they will die of shame."  Holmes removed his hands from Ryder's grasp.  "You thought nothing of condemning an innocent man to prison.  Let the law take its course."  Ryder begged him to reconsider.  "I will leave the country if you wish.  But please don't send me to prison, I beg of you."

      Holmes told Ryder that he would think about it.  "Now tell me how the stone landed inside the goose and of all the events that followed before you lost it," he said.  Ryder agreed.  "After stealing the stone I felt scared that the police would search my rooms as well.  So I left the hotel at once saying that I had some urgent business to attend to.  I went to the house of my sister who lives in Brixton.  She is Mrs Oakshott, the woman who sold the geese to Breckinridge.  I was not sure of what to do next.  All I knew was that I had to trade the gem for some money quickly before suspicion fell on me.  I had a friend named Maudsley who used to steal things and had even spent time in prison.  I felt that he would be able to help me in this matter.  But how could I transport the stone safely without getting caught.  Then I had an idea.  My sister had promised a goose for me for Christmas.  I decided to stuff the stone down the goose's throat.  I saw one which had a black bar across the tail and thrust the stone down its throat.  Just then my sister came there and asked me what I was doing.  I said that I was picking out the goose she had promised me.  Suddenly it struggled and flew away to join the others.  Though she said she had a fatter one for me, I said that I was happy with the goose I had chosen.  The she told me to kill it and take it with me when I left.  I did that and made my way to Kilburn where Maudsley lived.

      "I told Maudsley all that had happened and he promised to help me dispose of the stone.  Then we cut open the goose.  Imagine my horror when I found the stone missing!  I knew that a mistake had occurred and rushed back to my sister's place.  I asked her if she had another goose like the one I had chose.  She replied that she had.  Then I noticed that the geese were all gone.  My sister told me that she had sold them all to Breckinridge.  I rushed to Covent Garden post-haste but by then, Brechinridge had sold the geese and he refused to tell me who he had sold them to."  He stopped and buried his face in his hands.  "I should never have done it.  But I allowed my greed to overwhelm me.  God help me!"  Then he began to sob.

      The room fell silent.  Holmes sat impassively.  If he was thinking something his face did not reveal what it was.  At last he said, "Get out."  Ryder looked up, scarcely believing his ears.  "You heard me, get out.  Leave before I changed my mind."  "God bless you sir," cried Ryder, and rushed out.  Watson looked at Holmes as if to ask him if he was doing the right thing.  Holmes explained, "I don't think Ryder will do anything wrong again.  But if I send him to jail now there will be no going back for him.  He will be condemned to a life of crime.  Anyway, Horner will be released after I return the stone to the Countess and explain things to herThis is the Christmas season after all, the season of forgiveness.  Now let's have dinner."

      Once more, Holmes had used his amazing powers of deduction to solve a baffling mystery and save an innocent man from dishonour.

Author:  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle