After a sincere bout of marital troubles, the nature of which I am loath to disclose, eventually resulting in a writ of divorcement and a settlement signing over the house and property to my wife, I found myself without accommodations. Through the graciousness of my good friend Malachi Norton, I once more found myself sharing room and board in our old lodgings at 122 High Street, St. John’s Wood.
To-day, Malachi seemed to be in a mood which his friends would call taciturn, and others morose. He smoked incessantly, played snatches on his violin, sank into reveries, devoured sandwiches at irregular hours, and hardly answered the casual questions which I put to him. It was evident to me that things were not going well with him, but I did not press him, for I have frequently observed such behaviour in him before. Those outbursts of passionate energy when he performed the remarkable mental feats of deduction for which he has achieved some mild fame were followed by reactions of lethargy, during which he would lie about with his violin and his books, hardly moving save from the sofa, to the armchair, to the table. At the moment he was absently rubbing his bow across the catgut strings of his violin, the hideous noise it made preventing me from writing that he played the instrument. After several hours of such treatment, I could take it no longer.
"Malachi," I exclaimed somewhat tartly. "What would it take for a little peace and quiet?"
The bow screeched to a halt. He carefully laid the instrument in its case at his feet, pressed his fingertips together in front of him and he peered at me through languid, drooping eyelids
"I am afraid, my dear Johnson, that with my worthy antagonist Martiroy out of the picture, the streets of London have become far too quiet for me. There is no excitement anymore, nothing to stimulate the mind. I must have a challenge worthy of pursuing; without exercise, the brain atrophies."
"But come now, Malachi, what are you saying? That you wish there was more crime?"
"No, no, of course not. Crime runs rampant; it always shall. I was simply observing the distinct lack of more interesting crime."
"Ha! And what of the case of Lady Wingate’s stolen jewels? Or Mr. Thompson’s apparent poisoning? Are these cases not remarkable enough?" I asked, referring to our two most recent potential clients.
The bored appearance of my friend, sitting motionless in his armchair, remained unchanged. He met my gaze with indifference. "My good man, I solved those trivial matters before the injured parties stepped back outside that door, if only in theory. However, if I truly sought to find the evidence with which to substantiate what I already know, I could do so for both cases in less than a day. I have not yet done so merely because they are petty cases, not worthy of my time."
"But good heavens man, Henry Thompson nearly died of poison, and Lady Wingate’s jewels must have been worth a small fortune, she a helpless cripple at that. Now, how can you call these cases petty?"
"For the simple reason that Mr. Thompson was never poisoned at all, at least intentionally, and the jewels have in all likelihood never left the prudish Lady Wingate’s residence."
"But certainly you can’t mean it. I visited Mr. Thompson myself at the hospital, and while he seemed to suffer from a slight case of paranoia, I can vouch for the fact that he was, indeed, poisoned. And although I may agree that Lady Wingate was not the most pleasant of people, I find it highly unlikely she would have fabricated the whole ordeal."
"Are you familiar with Clostridium botulinum and its early effects on the human body, Johnson?"
I had long ago discovered that although Malachi’s grasp on the study of botany was variable, and he knew nothing of practical gardening, he was quite well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. "Botulism toxin, what? As a war-time medic, that was one of the few things I have never had the displeasure of encountering. Causes paralysis, does it not?"
"Obviously, you have not read my Treatise on the Efficacy of Poisons Both Common and Uncommon. Botulinum toxin consists of two toxins; an entero-toxin to penetrate the intestinal lining, and a neurotoxin that then enters the bloodstream and binds irreversibly to nerve endings, causing flaccid paralysis. However, if the toxins are evacuated before the secondary toxin can penetrate, then no paralysis occurs. In its early stages, it has symptoms of poisoning much like those Mr. Thompson described."
"But if it is so simple, then how can it be that only Thompson was effected by the poison? There must have been dozens of others present at the banquet."
"That was Thompson’s main reason for suspecting foul play, and I found it logical to come to the same conclusion myself. The case intrigued me, until he passed me the list of foods he ate at the banquet. Johnson, how many people present do you think would partake of canned pigs’ feet pickled in brine, when so many other delicacies abounded?"
I laughed heartily. "I can’t say as I could imagine anybody purposely consuming such a thing, other delicacies present or not."
"My thoughts exactly. And canned goods such as that provide the optimal environment for botulism to thrive. No, Johnson, it is my opinion that whoever would willfully ingest such an article thoroughly deserves what he gets from it."
"It is all so simple, and not really profound at all, once you put it that way. And what of the Wingate jewels?"
Malachi took on a slightly peeved expression. "Yes, you always find the answers so simple once I have laid them out for you. You were here when the Wingates paid us a visit. Tell me, Johnson, did you make any useful observations concerning Lady Wingate’s daughter?"
"Well, I… I observed that she seemed attentive, for one. After all, she was wheeling her mother about and assisting her in her chair-bound state. She was a pretty girl, of oh, I’d say twenty years of age. Brown hair and green eyes, of average height for a lady. Her clothing was modest for her income, not boastful or gratuitous, but conservative. Her only visible jewelry was a dainty silver locket about her neck. A quiet girl, too; she hardly said a word. When she did speak, her voice was soft and humble, and easily overrode by her mother. Have I missed anything? Nothing of value, I hope." This, I said somewhat smugly, confident that I had seen all that my good friend had. Of late, I had been trying to employ the same observational skills as my colleague, and I prided myself that in this case I had paid especial attention, thinking that I may be called upon later on to give some such accounting.
"Oh, only a few little things," Malachi replied dryly. "For instance, in your magnificent study of her, did you notice the faint indentations encircling the young lady’s wrist? The design was quite unusual and of sophisticated workmanship, caused by the pressure of something quite heavy for its relatively small size. The size and shape suggested an ornate gold bracelet, much like the one described by Lady Wingate as being among the stolen articles. The girl had most likely forgotten that she was wearing it, and only remembered her indiscretion when she was nearly upon our stoop. The clothing you thought so conservative and modest for somebody of wealth was indeed much cheaper and more shoddy than somebody with wealth would choose to wear, if given a choice. Lady Wingate continuously insisted on squabbling over my fee, trying to lower it before I even breached the subject. When Lady Wingate spoke to her daughter, it was harsh and with contempt. The locket you so aptly noted, was heart-shaped, a picture-locket of the type often given by a close family member or lover. It is highly unlikely Lady Wingate would have given her such a charm, so it is safe to assume it was the latter, as no other close family exists. I am of a strong opinion that Lady Wingate took a dislike to the thought of her daughter marrying this lover and leaving her, and refused to condone the marriage or give her daughter a proper dowry. If the young lady took matters into her own hands and took the family jewels that she would one day inherit at any rate, to pay for her years of devotion to the old crone and provide herself with a dowry, then who am I to say otherwise?"
"Astounding," I said in disbelief, "simply astounding. I fancy I saw the same things as you, and yet you saw so much more than I. It is remarkable indeed that I could not see it for myself. It is really quite simple when you explain it."
Clearly agitated, he uncoiled his lean frame from the chair and stood, turning to face the fireplace and clasping his hands behind his back. "Perhaps I should cease to explain matters, then," he said, somewhat crisply. Rather than take offense, I attributed it to the apathetic state he had been in of late, and remained silent.
He finally settled back into his chair, and resumed practice on his violin.
He looked up at me almost sheepishly, bow held in mid-stroke. "I suppose my skills with the violin are a bit lacking," he admitted blandly.
"Then why must you play that infernal instrument?"
He drew the bow across the strings once more, this time the motion nearly a caress. "This was my father’s violin. His closest friend once wrote that he was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit. I find even my harsh refrains soothing when played on this instrument."
I pondered his statement in silence. Malachi Norton did not often speak of his family. I had gleaned inklings about the Nortons through things that I overheard Malachi’s aging mother, Irene, say before she passed. She had mainly spoken of her beloved husband Godfrey, but something my friend had said during our last adventure, of which I have chronicled under the title "A Matter of Vengeance", came back to me. "It is high time you knew, Johnson, that Godfrey Norton died one year and nine months before I was born. When I speak of my father, it is not he that I speak of." Aloud, I asked, "If Godfrey Norton is not the person you speak of, then who is?"
A small smile creased the corners of his mouth as he replied. "Ah, my dear Johnson, you fancy yourself nearly as good at the art of deduction as I. Perhaps you can tell me."