The sky over London was overcast. The air that day was chilly and damp. Soot fell like snow, around the clopping horses and rattling carriages that moved along the crowded, narrow streets of the City. My elderly patient should have stayed inside, and nursed her consumption at home; but she was insistent that I bring her along with me, so she could speak in person to my friend Sherlock Holmes.
We bounced in the coach for a half-hour, along the dark paving bricks of the echoing streets. By the time we arrived at 221-B Baker Street, the elderly lady’s wheezing was noticeably worse.
We entered the house, and I at once insisted that Mrs. Hudson bring her some tea, to ease her breathing.
We went inside the study, where Holmes stood beside the hearth, with the curved pipe in his mouth, with smoke rising before his hawk nose, while he perused a newspaper. He wore a robe around his thin body.
The moment we entered, he folded the paper and put it up on the mantle.
“Good afternoon Watson.” He said, “Please introduce me to your patient, whose condition clearly indicates that she shouldn’t be outside in this weather.”
The woman moved over in front of the hearth, warming herself by the fire, as she spoke in a wheezy, distressed voice.
“My name is Mrs. Abigail Farnsworth, Mr. Holmes. I asked Dr. Watson to bring me to speak to you. It’s my son William. He’s missing. I haven’t seen him, neither have I heard from him, in a fortnight.”
He blew a puff of smoke, causing her to cough. Then he asked, “How old is your son?”
“He is 26.”
“Then he is an adult.”
“He’s a responsible fellow.” I interjected, “And very devoted.”
He asked, “Perhaps overly devoted?”
Mrs. Farnsworth explained, “That’s what I’ve kept telling him. I told him he needed to get out more; so I was pleased when he accepted an invitation to a party, being hosted by a certain Professor Moriarity.”
Holmes removed the pipe from his mouth. His face showed a serious demeanor.
Then he inquired, “Do you mean ‘Moriarty’?”
“Perhaps.” she replied.
He looked at me. “I see Watson. I wondered why you brought this woman to me in her condition. Now I understand.”
“Elementary my dear Holmes.”
He asked, “Mrs. Farnsworth. Did you see your son William again, after he left for the Party at Professor Moriarty’s?”
“No Mr. Holmes. I heard that William was treated very rudely by some of the other guests, who did not like his poetry. That was when he left, and no one has seen him again.”
“What do you mean by ‘treated rudely’?”
“Well one fellow, grabbed a poem he was working on out of his hand, and read it aloud to all the guests. William had written a poem about an unnamed woman, in which he described her beauty as ‘effulgent’.”
I tried not to laugh. “’Effulgent’?”
Mrs. Farnsworth said, “The guests at the party were not as courteous as both of you gentleman. The fellow who read the poem said, ‘I’d rather have a railroad spike driven through my skull, than to have to listen to that drivel again.’”
I saw Holmes stiffen. He asked, “Railroad spike through his skull?”
She said, “Dreadful thing to say wasn’t it?”
He told her, “Dreadful thing indeed.”
“That was not the worst of it. There was a young woman in attendance at the party, by the name of Cecily Halfrich. Later that evening she spoke to William and asked him if the poem was about her. He admitted that it was.
“Then she told him, ‘You are beneath me.’”
I said, “Dreadful woman.”
The poet’s mother said, “They were all dreadful people.”
Holmes asked, “You say you haven’t seen or heard from your son, ever since that happened?”
“Not a word, Mr. Holmes.”
“Then how do you know what happened?”
“The mother of Cecily Halfrich is my neighbor. She told her all about it, and she agrees with her daughter. The are all such dreadful people.”
“Thank you Mrs. Farnsworth.” He said, “You have told me all I have needed to hear.”
We shared tea with Mrs. Farnsworth, while Holmes paced up and down, puffing heavily on his pipe, causing the lady to cough again. He put down the pipe but continued pacing.
He picked up the newspaper he’d been reading from the mantle. Then he sat in his chair and perused it again until tea was finished, and it was time for me to escort Mrs. Farnsworth back home.
Holmes put on his peacoat and deerstalker cap, and shared the cab with Mrs. Farnsworth and myself, while I escorted her safely to her home. I noticed that he had the newspaper tucked under his arm.
When we arrived at the Farnsworth house, Holmes waited outside while I went inside with my patient. When I came back out he had dismissed the cab.
“We won’t have far to walk.” he told me. “I must speak to Miss Cecily Halfrich, who lives nearby.”
I said, “She doesn’t sound like a woman who any man would want to speak with.”
He said, “Have you read a newspaper today?”
“Not really. Just glanced at it.”
He removed the newspaper from under his arm, and pointed to it.
“There is an article in the Times, about a young man who was found murdered with a railroad spike driven through his skull.”
I grabbed the paper and repeated, “A dreadful thing indeed.”
He said, “Dreadful enough, I dare say, for us to speak to the reportedly ‘effulgent’ Miss Halfrich.”