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Cousin Adelaide and I were traveling to London to choose from the latest fashions of the season. There would be receptions, concerts and balls, evenings crammed with polite company and dinner parties, and I was simply dying to take part in all of it.
That was what my aunt Ina believed, at any rate.
The truth was that I had suggested our trip to my cousin, but not because I had developed a sudden need for hat pins or embroidered corsets. I had convinced Adelaide to journey to the city to consult Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the London detective, and plead with him to save her marriage. But that was our little secret, and if my plan succeeded, no one would ever know it.
As the train whistle sounded, my cousin quietly slipped her hand into mine and waved cheerfully to her husband.
“You needn’t squeeze my fingers quite so hard, Dora,” she whispered to me. “I know you’re nervous for me, but you mustn’t be so obvious about it. Give your aunt a smile, now; she’s looking at you.”
I couldn’t help admiring Adelaide’s perfect poise just then, her tranquil eyes, the waves of yellow hair in flawless coils beneath her stylish hat. There wasn’t a hint of tears on her serene face, no trace of the night before when she had cried her fears out to me. In public my cousin would always be the model of a sophisticated lady. No one could ever guess what she was hiding behind her frank and easy smile, or how desperate she was to keep her secret from her husband and her family.
But then—we all had our personal mysteries, I suppose. Adelaide’s husband didn’t suspect that his sweet wife was being blackmailed by a criminal who’d purchased her old love letters from a servant. And Adelaide didn’t suspect that her innocent sixteen- year- old cousin was hiding something as well. She never imagined that I had proposed this trip to the London detective not only because I wished him to help her, but because I had been waiting years for an opportunity to meet him.
And the reason that I had been waiting years to meet him? Well, that was the greatest secret of all.
It was dark by the time we arrived in London. As our cab sped away from Victoria Station, I caught a glimpse of ivory columned buildings with sculpted rooftops and then endless rows of identical narrow houses, bordered by metal railings and illuminated by gaslight. The leaden taste of coal smoke made me catch my breath; the sloshing sound of hansom wheels against the pavement and the regular beat of horse’s hooves against the cobblestones soothed and excited me. Every new sensation seemed to whisper promises of a great discovery and a dawning adventure.
My cousin pointed out St. George’s as we neared our destination, and we were soon at her town house on Hanover Square. We were welcomed inside by Adelaide’s housekeeper, and quickly installed in our respective bedrooms. I undressed, unpacked my bags, washed the coal dust from my face and then settled into bed to listen to the city’s sounds. Though I was tired from our journey, I could not risk going to sleep, because I was worried that I might miss my chance to steal away the following morning before my cousin woke. I knew that Adelaide would wish to visit the detective as early as she could and present her case to him as soon as possible. And I would be there by her side, of course, to support her as she told her story. But I had my own reason for visiting Mr. Holmes and my own story to tell him, and so I had to reach him before she did—and I had to speak to him alone.
There were only a few hours left before daybreak, and the minutes ticked by more slowly as the night drew on. I tried to read a little to distract myself, but I found that somehow I could not concentrate on other people’s plots. My eyes kept wandering to the framed portrait of my family that I had placed upon my nightstand. The painting was my most prized possession; it was one of the last mementos I had of my mother and father, for they had died of typhoid fever just weeks after the picture was finished.
I reached my hand out and picked up the frame, running my fingers over the rough paint, over the gently smiling faces of my parents. It was such a lovely scene, my mother kneeling at my father’s feet, her flowered dress spread out across the lawn, her face tilted upward gazing sweetly at us. I was perched proudly on my father’s knee; one of his hands was on my shoulder, the other extended to his wife. It truly was a perfect picture.
Slowly, I turned the portrait over, grasped the corner of the frame, and tore back the folded canvas edge. It came loose with a snap of ripping thread, and a little packet dropped out of the gaping hole into my hands. As I had done a hundred times before, I carefully untied the linen envelope and unrolled the single piece of paper on my lap. It had been several months since I had looked over the letter; the ink had faded slightly, but my mother’s words were still fresh and sharp in my imagination.
My dearest Dora, [I read]
I do not know why I feel forced to write to you, words that I know will only bring you shame. All your life I have shielded you from a secret that would have hurt you, and now, when I am no longer there to comfort you, I feel compelled to transfer this burden onto you. There is no earthly reason why I should not cast this page aside, and let the secret die with me. But the lies I’ve told you feel heavier than ever, and I cannot bear to leave you without telling you the truth.
Before my marriage, Dora, I was secretly engaged to a man whom I had known since childhood. I knew we could not marry for many years, for he could not then support a wife, and my family would never have consented to the match.
My father had invested very heavily in a business venture with a friend. One night my mother found him unconscious in his study, a letter from the bank on the desk before him. He had had a paralytic stroke. The venture had failed, his friend had fled the country, and my father was ruined.
As my family was reeling from the shock and my father lay dying, an old suitor of mine stepped forward to comfort me. Philip Joyce was a good friend of my father’s, a wealthy and respectable man. I had turned down his proposal the previous year, but when he renewed his offer, I broke off my secret affair and accepted Philip. The engagement was very brief, as you know, because my father wanted to see his youngest daughter married before he died.
Very soon after the wedding I learned that I was with child. I wasn’t certain then, I wanted to believe that you were legitimate, that I would have no doubts after you were born. But as I watched you grow, it became harder and harder to deceive myself.
If you had not been such a little, frail thing, Philip might have suspected that he was not your father, for you were born eight months after our wedding. But he never thought to question or doubt. You were our only child, and he adored you.
Dora, only a few months ago he learned the truth about my past—
I rolled the paper up and thrust it back into its hiding place, tucking the edge of the canvas over it to conceal it. At the bottom of the confession, my mother had revealed the name of the man who she believed was my real father. I did not need to read that part again. That memory—the squirming ink upon the page, my beating heart, the look upon my mother’s face when she saw the letter in my hand—I did not want to think about that now. In my mind my mother’s final good-bye would always be tainted by my own betrayal, for I had stolen that letter from her night-table while she slept. And ever since that night I’d relived that awful moment every time I thought of her.
After my mother’s death I’d been adopted by my aunt Ina and welcomed into her family. I had kept my mother’s confession letter hidden from everyone, of course, for I never wanted anyone to discover her disgraceful past. And the name in my mother’s letter meant nothing to me then; I had no idea who Sherlock Holmes was—and I didn’t want to know. But the following Christmas Eve I would finally understand how Mr. Holmes and my mother’s secret would come together and forever change my life.
I thought back over that day again, and once more felt the heat from the roaring fireplace in my aunt’s parlor, saw the stacks of gleaming presents in the corner (my cousin had overbought that year in an attempt to cheer me up), and felt the pinch of my black crape mourning dress. Adelaide had placed a journal, the Beeton’s Christmas Annual, on my lap. I’d glanced at it with little interest. The journal had never impressed me before, and there was no reason to think that the 1887 edition would be any different. I’d scanned the dramatic title, “A Study in Scarlet,” flipped carelessly to the first page, and then froze.
There, black on yellow, underneath the chapter heading, was a name, the name in my mother’s letter, the one which I would never forget.
It could not be.
He could not be the one.
I remember my cousin staring at me, calling to me. I heard her asking me if I was ill, and I shook my head, my eyes fixed unseeing on the page in front of me, my fingers trembling. She touched my shoulder, and I pulled away from her. Clutching the magazine to my chest, I dashed up the stairs and locked myself in my room.
There, by candlelight, I’d devoured the story, barely understanding the plot while I raced to swallow every scrap of conversation in the piece and inhale every word that the detective said. The narrator, a fellow named Dr. Watson, had written this first story about his friend and published it in this family journal.
I read the tale over and over, lighting candle after candle, crouching by the window until my muscles cramped, then stretching out on the floor like a child with a favorite toy. By the third reading, I had absorbed some of the mystery, shuddering at the gruesome double murder, grinning at the stupid inspector’s confusion, and gloating over my detective’s triumph. By the fourth time through, I was calmer, and I began to examine the details of Mr. Holmes’s character. He sprang from the page to meet me, and a picture of the man formed in my imagination, a noble and kind figure, a hero who could support and encourage me as no one ever had. He was no longer just a name now, no longer a shadow from my past.
But although this secret opened up an interesting new world for me, it also marked the beginning of all my troubles with my aunt and my new family. After my parents’ death, Aunt Ina had declared that she would raise me as she had raised her daughter, Adelaide, and so mold me into a proper lady. But, as it turned out, I no longer wished to stand straight, roll my r’s, or dance a waltz; nor did I understand why I ought to try. Every month the stays of my corset were slowly tightened to train my waist for its adult shape. Every afternoon my governess would instruct me how to smile and breathe and say my vowels correctly. And every night I would tear the lacing from its buttonholes, pull apart the whalebone seams, and creep upstairs in loosened robes and slippers, to dream of improper adventures in a dangerous town.
But worst of all, I also began to “notice things,” as Aunt Ina put it, things which an innocent young lady had no business noticing. “Your banker friend has just lost money at the races,” I would declare at dinnertime. “He’s had to sell his mother’s jewels.” Or “Our pastor thinks somebody is stealing money from the collection plate.”
Amazingly, nobody seemed interested in these observations. And yet, I could never get enough of other people’s mysteries. I collected secrets like stamps, and took pride in my collection. Instead of ladies’ journals and embroidery squares, I saved newspaper clippings, cigar ash, and footprint samples, and stored them under a floorboard in my bedroom. It was all part of a grander purpose of course: to train myself in the study of crime, so that one day I would be ready to meet Mr. Holmes himself.
Now, as I looked back on the four years I’d spent preparing for this day, I couldn’t believe that I was almost there, that I was actually going to see him that very morning. Somehow I had pictured a grander presentation, with some celebrated individual in the background making the introductions. I wished suddenly that I was older, that I had done something spectacular to deserve this day. There was no guarantee that he would welcome me, I realized; he might resent me, or laugh at me, or deny the truth altogether. Or worse, he might smile indulgently, pat me on the head, and send me home to my diaries, my crime journals, and my silly dreams.
The clock struck four, then five, then six, and I slipped quietly out of bed and dressed before the mirror, shivering. It was an unseasonably cold spring day and my fingers were stiff and numb as I buttoned up my collar. In the dim morning light I could just make out the outline of my small, thin figure, wrapped in a brown plaid walking dress and velvet cloak. I traced the familiar contours of my reflection in the glass, the mass of dark, thick curls, my large gray eyes, my freckled nose, my pointed chin, and tried to imagine how I would appear to him.
Turning before the mirror now, I felt as if I were seeing myself for the first time, through the critical eyes of a distant stranger. I practiced different expressions to decide which one to wear. I rehearsed my smile and offered ten different greetings to the pillow on my bed. I tried out confidence and meekness and decided he would dislike them both. I pretended fear and stuttered, and felt his irritation. I gave brilliant examples of my criminal knowledge, and saw him yawn discreetly. I composed a heartfelt speech about my family, and then shuddered at his reaction to my mother’s name.
Finally, I told my secret to the mirror and was met with icy silence. And as the morning dawned, I still sat terrified and undecided on my bed, clutching my little purse until my hands were numb.
I might have stayed that way forever had not a distant sound from my cousin’s room motivated me to break the spell. There was no going back now, I told myself. I had traveled to London for this purpose, and willingly or not, I would meet him before the day was through. If I waited any longer, Adelaide would wake, and I would lose my chance to speak to him alone.
I went to my desk, drew out a sheet of stationery, and scribbled a brief note to my cousin. Will be back by noon. Went for a walk around town. By the time she found my message, I would already be there. I knew that she would fuss at me when I returned. Young unmarried women were not supposed to walk about alone. There was no way around it, though, and I wasn’t really thinking about etiquette at that moment, anyway. I threw one last look at the mirror and then left the room, closing the door quietly behind me. The hallway was empty and, holding my skirts to still the rustling cloth, I stole down the stairs and into the street.
A yellowish gloom had descended over the city and obscured the morning sun. Beyond the haze, I could just make out the shapes of hansoms and broughams, and the hordes of street vendors and shop-men who were rushing past. A cab clattered toward me, and I stepped off the pavement and put out my hand. The driver asked my destination, and I hesitated briefly before replying, “Baker Street, please. Number 221.”
That cab ride felt like the longest trip I had ever taken. The morning rush brought us into a thick knot of carriages, and the hansom swayed and pitched to avoid the swelling traffic. Above me, the driver cursed God, the city, and his horse, as if he had never seen a London jam before. I peered into the crowd and counted cabs to distract myself. And yet, when we finally arrived at his door, I wondered how the most important drive of my life could have been so short.
As I wavered undecided upon the step, the door swung open, and a man rushed past me; I saw that he was wearing a black mourning band around his arm, that his cheeks were gray and hollow, and his eyes bloodshot. Standing behind him in the doorway was an older lady who was gazing into the street and sobbing, clutching the railing in her grief as her tears fell unheeded upon the stairs
But still I did not see the truth; I did not dare to guess. And I could not move, not until the weeping landlady had closed the door, the unhappy gentleman had vanished around the corner, and a little newsboy had sauntered past me, hauling his stack of papers. Not until I heard the child’s cracking voice, shouting out the latest headline, did I realize why I was shaking.
Not until I saw the words that he waved before me did I understand what I had lost.
Sherlock Holmes Killed in Switzerland