THE CASE OF THE KIDNAPPED WIFE

23 Jul

Holmes was busy pouring over his copy of The Times and contemplating the puzzle of a naked man holding a scrunched-up handkerchief in one hand and found dead on the beach at Dover, when there was an unexpected knock on the door, and Mrs Hudson breezed in.

You have a visitor, Sherlock,” she said, “and I’m too busy to ply him with tea whilst you sit around idling up here.”

I am not idling, Mrs Hudson,” he retorted. “This piece I am contemplating may well lead to the easy solution of many unsolved atrocities.”

If you say so,” she sniffed, “anyway, it’s Mr Barnstaple.”

And she breezed out, leaving a stranger holding his bowler hat nervously in both hands standing in the doorway.

I eyed him suspiciously. There was something about him, maybe the worn appearance of his suit, which was unfashionably brown, or the smears of dust on his unpressed trousers, or maybe even his shirt and collar, both obviously days since they were laundered.

Barnstaple, you say?” said Holmes. “The name doesn’t ring a bell. You’re not related to the Barnstaples of High Wycombe by any chance?”

Never heard of them,” he growled in reply, “I’m a Yorkshire Barnstaple, and proud of it.”

Then your pedigree has escaped me thus far,” hissed Holmes, “and I will be delighted to be enlightened should we ever have the time. Tell me, what brings you to Baker Street?”

It’s my wife,” he grated, “she’s been kidnapped.”

This drew Holmes attention away from the Times and to the stranger with an apparently kidnapped wife. It did, in fact, sound to his well-tuned ears like a proper case, and these had been few and far between since the publicity surrounding his infatuation bordering on love for a shop mannequin.

Tell me more,” he asked, eagerly.

Mr Barnstaple braised both eyebrows before continuing.

There’s not much more to tell,” he replied. “I own a mill up in Yorkshire, and three days ago when I returned home from earning a bob or two from the labour of underage peasants I found she weren’t there, and instead of her waiting for me in her frillies and such like, all eager for the fray so to speak, there was this note.”

He handed a slip of paper to Holmes, who did me the courtesy of letting me read it whilst he held it up to the light and stared through his piercing eyes at it.

No watermark,” he pointed out. “Cheap paper, obtainable at any stationers in the land.”

Hush, Holmes,” I muttered, and read the note aloud.

To Mr Bernstapol, I’ve got your wif in a dungon and will only let her go on receet of £500 as soon as mebbe.”

And there’s no signature,” murmured Holmes. “Tell me, Mr Barnstaple, what you know of Yorkshire dungeons.”

I don’t know of any!” exclaimed our agitated client. “There’s cellars, of course, where goods are stored, and wine in racks. There’s loads of wine in racks! But dungeons … I’ve never been in one nor know of where one might be. If I did don’t you think I’d have taken a force o’ peelers and raided it?”

Then we must catch the next train to Yorkshire,” decided Holmes, “Watson, your hat and cloak, and take your pistol with you just in case. I abhor the use of firearms, but this case has the sound of danger to it. And I need to make a most important phone call on our way. I hate leaving without telling someone, just in case things go wrong.”

I nodded. Kidnapping has always seemed to me to be one of the nastiest of crimes, almost on a par with murder. I equipped myself as requested and within short order we were ready to go to the station in order to catch a train to Yorkshire. Fortunately Holmes’s brain was a compendium of timetables for every conceivable form of transport, so we didn’t have to waste time searching through a papery one that might even turn out to belong to another year and be consequently out of date!

I’ll be staying in town on business until tomorrow,” Barnstaple told us, and he handed us a note with his address on it. “I’ll be back up North by noon,” he advised us, “but this journey has already wasted too much of my valuable time, and time is money, you know. Time is money.”

Not so bothered about his good lady, Holmes,” I said when we were alone in our compartment. “He seems to put his wealth above all things.”

I noted that, Watson,” agreed Holmes, “what do you make of this case thus far?”

We’ve precious little to go on,” I murmured. “That note was far from literate.”

You noticed that. Good!” praised Holmes, making me blush, “but did you not think the poor grammar a little exaggerated?”

It was written up North, Holmes,” I pointed out, resorting to the stereotype of the cloth-eared and uneducated Northerner for my theory.

Then you have fallen into the trap that many descend into, Watson,” said Holmes severely, “Yorkshire is a most enlightened county and has many great centres of learning in its cities! Yorkshire folk are every bit as literate as Londoners! No, this note fails to convince me of its authenticity on more than one count. Consider that it says the writer requires £500 as soon as maybe. When is that, Watson? When is maybe? It is not a specific time, and in my experience kidnappers are always very precise when it comes to time, and in addition there is no indication of how that £500 is to be delivered to the criminal and the exchange for Mrs Barnstaple made. No, the note fails to convince me, but that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t in danger.”

I see, Holmes,” I said slowly, “I see very well.”

There are other clues,” continued Holmes, “did you notice anything about Barnstaple that you might choose to question? For instance, his suit?”

Brown,” I murmured, “and double-breasted.”

And worn at the elbows,” added Holmes, “And in addition, you might have observed that there was a dusting of chalk on the trousers. And you will forgive me if I refer to one of my publications, but the chalk was the type that is stirred up by the iron rims of vehicles that ply the roads south of London and towards the south coast, where natural chalk is plentiful in the form of dust that lies quite freely on the surface. No, our Barnstaple did not come from Yorkshire despite his delightful Yorkshire accent, and the note that claims to be from a kidnapper was written by his own fair hand.”

Really, Holmes! How can you know that?” I gasped.

You may have missed it, but I didn’t. He had a smudge of ink on the forefinger on his left hand, and unless I’ve very much mistaken it is a smudge of blue-black ink as manufactured by Downs and Co., and is the very same shade and make of ink he used to inscribe the letter, which was obviously written by a left-handed man.”

But what would his motive be, Holmes? Pretending to kidnap his wife…?”

His suit, Watson! I pointed out, ill kept and his shirt imperfect! He has no wife or she would ensure that he looked more presentable! No, all that was real was the note, and that was far from real!”

No wife, Holmes?” I gasped.

Indeed, no wife. I would put money on it being an insurance claim, a fraudulent one of course, and out of desperation he decided to invent a spouse and a kidnapping in order to be rescued from some dire fiscal disaster.”

And you’re sure, Holmes?”

You’ll find that our Mr Barnstaple is already in a cell at Scotland Yard … I did make a telephone call, you remember, and he will be up before the beak tomorrow on a most serious charge.”

Serious, Holmes?” I asked.

Of course. Murder,” said Holmes darkly “While you were enjoying your bacon and eggs this morning I noted, in The Times, a brief report concerning a body on the beach at Dover. Nobody seems to know who it was, but the report said it must belong to a native of the town of Barnstaple, because that word was stitched to one corner of his handkerchief, which was his only possession. I fear they are wrong and that the real Mr Barnstaple is dead on a beach and our Mr Barnstaple is a killer after insurance money. Ah, here we are…”

But this isn’t Yorkshire, Holmes,” I protested.

If you had your wits about you, Watson, you will have noted that we caught a train to the south-east coast rather than one going North. Our client (or ex-client, I won’t work for criminals of any kind) was trying to establish a credible alibi when he called on us this morning, but he needs to be a great deal sharper when he tries to use Sherlock Holmes as part of a devious plot. Not content with attempting to wrest the value of a mill from the insurers, he murdered the mill owner who had just returned from a business trip to the continent, and attempted to steal his identity before anyone found out, which is why the corpse was stripped of any identification and only kept a handkerchief by chance in one desperate grab at his killer.”

You’re a marvel, Holmes,” I said warmly, and meant it.

Perhaps you’re right, Watson,” he murmured modestly.

© Peter Rogerson 19.07.17

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