THE CASE OF THE BISHOP’S BATH

11 Aug

Has it ever crossed your mind, Watson,” said Holmes, lighting his pipe and filling the room with a cloud of his favourite tobacco, “that water holds many a secret.”

Water, Holmes?” I asked, unable to see any relevance to anything that had recently touched our lives.

Yes indeed, Watson: Water,” he murmured, puffing furiously to bring his pipe to life. “And unless I’m very much mistaken the owner of those footsteps on the stairs is going to remind us of that fact before we’ve had a chance of forgetting it.

I heard the footsteps a microsecond after Holmes mentioned them.

You know who it is, Holmes?” I asked, vaguely.

I knew that he must because several blasts from his pipe had been crushed against the glass of the window that overlooked Baker Street. It was an occasional occupation of his, looking at the world from the first floor and finding clues out there.

It’s my brother Mycroft,” murmured Sherlock. “Now why the devil has he come here? He much prefers to call me to him!”

He is older than you,” I pointed out.

And doesn’t he know it! But hush, Watson, here he comes. There’s no Mrs Hudson to show him up, it being Sunday and she being at church”

The door opened without being knocked and the portly figure of Mycroft Holmes stood there, his brilliant piercing eyes taking us both in in a single sweep.

It’s not good enough, Sherlock, expecting visitors to climb Everest in order to get to see you,” he complained.

There are considerably higher Everests than a few stairs. Mycroft,” said Holmes, somewhat tartly. “But what a pleasure it is to see you on a Sunday even if you have had to climb to a first floor room in order to provide me with that pleasure.”

I have come on a serious matter of national importance,” he said, suavely.

Whenever you want to see me you claim national importance as if the Empire would dissolve if I didn’t do your will,” said Sherlock. “Now hearken. I can’t order you tea or crumpets because Mrs Hudson is off praying, so pray just take a seat and tell me why this country’s at risk all of a sudden, on a Sunday.”

It’s the Bishop of Westerly,” he said, almost pompously.

It is? A minor Bishop if there is such a thing,” murmured Holmes thoughtfully. “But Eton and Oxford none-the-less. And he spent some years in South America, I believe. Possible Peru, if my memory serves me right.”

He’s been back here preaching for thirty-odd years,” said Mycroft. “But that’s all by-the-by because he’s now an ex-Bishop, I’m afraid. But he was always favourite of the king, and his demise is therefore cause for concern.”

His demise, Mycroft?” asked Sherlock.

Indeed. Demise. He was found in a bath of cool water, sans life, sans breath, sans everything as the bard would have said. And before the King is informed we must know for certain that he died naturally, for if he didn’t it could well be one of Moriaty’s more devious schemes to get closer to royal circles.”

I can see that,” murmured Holmes. “Is that all there is to it? He was found dead in his bath? People do die in the bath, you know. There’s nothing particularly suspicious about that, unless they’ve got a dagger in them, or a nice round bullet hole somewhere not too pleasant.”

He wasn’t alone, Sherlock,” said Mycroft.

Not alone?” I spluttered.

He had the company of the Lady Ursula Bilmous,” said Mycroft, shaking his head.

The wife of Lord Edwin Bilmous?” spluttered Holmes, “probably the rarest beauty among the angels of the aristocracy? Said to have been courted by dozens before Lord Edwin snared her?”

And snare her he did,” sighed Mycroft, “put her with child and was too decent to have her installed in an asylum for her wickedness, so wed her.”

He was a leg up for her, too,” murmured Holmes. “So tell me. In the bath with a Bishop who died…?”

They were both dead, Sherlock,” said Mycroft, “and it was no shiny pleasing bath with gold taps and a quick-drain plug! Oh, no, it was the kind of bath a crude worker, someone of the lower classes, might soak his filth off once a week! A tin bath, they call them!”

A tight fit, then,” murmured Sherlock, “to hold two bodies. Come, Mycroft, don’t be shy and tell me where we will find the pair of corpses.”

I’ve ordered that they be left where they were,” said his brother quietly, “knowing you are particular about details. They were found at a small establishment on the Bilmous Estate, a cottage previously occupied by the shepherd’s mate.”

This gets cruder and cruder!” said Holmes. “Tell me, did anyone have the good sense to measure the temperature of the water in the bath?”

Mycroft nodded. “I ordered that much,” he admitted, “The constable said he was no judge but thought it right.”

I see,” murmured the younger brother, “so time is short! Come, Watson, and bring your bag with you! It will take a good hour to get to Bilmous, and we may already be too late!”

Leaving Mycroft to take a carriage back to his club Holmes and I set off at a fair pace for the estate of the lamented Lady Ursula.

This is a strange one,” I ventured to Holmes.

He nodded. “Though it may be straight-forward,” he said, “for a tin bath in a labourer’s cottage is a strange place for either a lady of high status or a bishop to decide to end it all.”

You think it was suicide, Holmes?” I asked, shocked. “Surely no bishop, knowing his place in Heaven is assured by his living a good life, would risk it by committing the worst of sins, which is what suicide most assuredly is.”

The human mind can be easily twisted by emotions, Watson,” he said obliquely, and we continued on our journey engaged in more irrelevant chit- chat, mostly about the weather that, until that morning had been appalling. Holmes, it seems, can devote a great part of his mind to the solving of problems whilst making almost meaningless conversation with the smaller part.

The cottage was small and mean as one would expect to be inhabited by an under-shepherd. This one had been empty for some months as the present occupier of the lowly post of shepherd’s mate already had a home in the village on the estate, living as he did with both parents.

The sight of a bishop (portly as they often are, testament to good game and port, no doubt) lying in cold water with the most beautiful of women, in her thirties by the look of her, but sadly with the pallor of death on her.

Holmes spent some time examining both bodies, and the sorry piles of clothing that had been folded onto a chair, and then his eyes lit up and he looked at me with that expression I had long associated with the instant solving of a hard question.

See here, Watson,” he said, and he pointed to a puncture mark on the naked woman’s thigh. “I would guess that this is the culprit! Someone used a syringe and injected some toxin into the fair maiden’s flesh.”

I stared at it, and shook my head. There could be no doubt: I have seen syringe scars many times. “So sad,” I whispered, “but what of the bishop? After all, it is he your brother was most concerned about.”

The story, as I read it, is this,” he said, almost sharply, “remember what we said of the weather? Take a look at his discarded clothes. The bishop was out in the rain, possibly moving between parishes as bishops are won’t to do, and became soiled by splashes of mud and the like. The lady, for this is her husband’s estate, remember, brought him here to be cleansed rather than risk taking him to the big house where his presence and state would be available for all to see and mock at, and provided him with a bath. But the water, Watson, was much too hot and the shock of it, whilst not scalding him, sent his body into a fit from which it would never recover. See his weight and the gross swelling of his skin where it met the over-heated water…”

I see that much,” I assured him, “I am used to such things you know, Holmes.”

You see where the water, hot though not normally dangerously so, caused his heart to lurch one time too many?” said Holmes. “The lady Ursula would have been here, tending to his needs, and may well have slipped into the bath and joined him accidentally at the shock os his passing… Feel the water, Watson, there is still some warmth in it.”

Naked, Holmes?” I asked frowning.

Most certainly,” he replied, “especially if she too had also been soiled by the foul weather. She would probably have wanted to make herself clean for her husband… whatever happened, when she discovered that he was dead and seeing no decent way out of a predicament that might have been wholly innocent but seen as anything but, she decided to end it all.”

So she carried a syringe of deadly poison with her, did she, Holmes?” I asked cynically.

Perhaps,” he nodded, “remember, she had previously had an unenviable reputation and it was highly likely that she could foresee the occasion coming when she might choose the hereafter rather than humiliation…”

So it wasn’t a simple case of her husband finding her in a tin bath with a dead bishop and, in despair, doing what he may well have considered doing years ago when her character was first known to him?” I asked, “you know, when she fell pregnant?”

But Watson,” he said, appalled at my suggestion, “he’s a lord, a member of a noble aristocracy … you really must learn to think before you speak…”

Of course, Holmes,” I mumbled.

© Peter Rogerson 30.07.17

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