‘Few things incline a man towards mischief more surely than boredom.’
Extract taken from A Study in Crimson
By Robert J. Harris
Published by Polygon
I was woken at the earliest hour of morning by an energetic rapping at the connecting door. As I struggled upright on my pillows, the door was flung open and Sherlock Holmes strode imperiously into the room. He was fully dressed, and at close quarters smelled of soap and hair oil.
‘Come along, Watson,’ he exhorted me briskly, ‘this is no time to be a slugabed. My nostrils are twitching with the scent of a breakfast being cooked.’
Even through the blackout curtain, I could tell it was still dark outside. ‘Holmes,’ I grumbled, ‘it’s surely too early for breakfast.’
‘Too early for us, but not for certain others. Come along, man. Get dressed quickly and meet me outside.’ With that he was gone. Clambering out of bed, I pulled on my clothes, ran a comb through my hair, and stumbled downstairs. Holmes was pacing up and down outside the front door in a fever of impatience.
When he spotted me, he pressed a finger to his lips. ‘Quiet now and keep to the shadows,’ he instructed, and beckoned me to follow.
We made our way round the north wing of the castle to the rear where we crouched behind a rain barrel. From this vantage point I could see Holmes’s gaze was fixed firmly on an open door in the basement level. From the scents wafting through the air I had no doubt that this was the back entrance to the kitchen. Why we should be spying on Mrs Sienkowski’s efforts was beyond me, while the smell of cooked breakfast stirred a sharp hunger in the depths of my stomach.
Holmes abruptly yanked me down deeper into hiding as a uniformed figure emerged from the doorway and made its way steadily up the small set of steps to the ground level. I recognised at once the burly outline of Sergeant Ross. He was carrying a tray which held an assortment of covered dishes. As we watched, he set off into the surrounding woods.
Holmes turned to me with a gleam in his eyes. ‘Come along, Watson, and go cannily. Sergeant Ross is our trail of bread crumbs.’
Crouching low and darting from one patch of shrubbery to the next, we followed the sergeant into the trees. There was no difficulty about keeping him in sight even at a safe distance, as he was making no effort at concealment. He clearly did not expect anyone else to be abroad at this hour and strolled casually along a narrow, winding path.
‘Holmes, where on earth can he be going?’ I murmured.
‘Can you not guess?’ Holmes sounded genuinely surprised.
In a flash it occurred to me that Ross must surely be taking this breakfast tray to the vanished Dr MacReady.
I said breathlessly, ‘Are you suggesting that the sergeant is actually an enemy agent? That he spirited Dr MacReady away and is holding her captive somewhere in these very grounds?’
Holmes clucked his tongue reprovingly. ‘I’m suggesting nothing of the sort. Surely I explained it all last night.’
‘You did everything but explain,’ I retorted with some warmth. ‘Perhaps you might begin with the loose button on the discarded blouse to which you attach such importance.’
‘It was pulled loose because the blouse was removed in haste,’ said Holmes. ‘The fact that the shoes were kicked off willy-nilly and the skirt was only partially unzipped before being pulled off tells the same story.’
‘Are you saying that Dr MacReady was in a hurry to take a bath?’
‘If she had intended to take a bath, she surely would have put the plug in before turning on the taps. No, no, the clothes in the doorway and the running water were intentional distractions. Then there were the spaces on the bathroom shelf from which a few essential toiletries had obviously been removed. On the other side of the room was the telling evidence of the wardrobe.’
The path forked ahead of us and Ross turned off to the left. As we followed, Holmes continued to discourse.
‘You saw the disordered shoes in the otherwise tidy wardrobe. They had been thrust aside to make room for a bundle. Then, of course, the clothes hanging there, and the shoes themselves, clearly indicated that Dr MacReady is quite a tall woman.’
I felt myself bewildered but pressed on. ‘And the mark on the wainscot?’
‘Made by the thick rubber sole of a boot. Someone was pressed tightly behind the door out of sight. Of course, none of this was possible without the aid of Sergeant Ross and some of his men.’
‘But why on earth would Ross connive at the doctor’s disappearance?’
‘From his choice of reading matter,’ said Holmes with a grimace of distaste, ‘which he was so annoyingly eager to share with us, we know he has a taste for adventure. It may be why he joined the army in the first place, only to find himself incarcerated here with a party of dry, bookish intellectuals. Few things incline a man towards mischief more surely than boredom.’
Still following the sergeant, we came within sight of the loch I had observed upon our arrival. Nestled among a stand of willows on the shore was a wooden building in a poor state of repair, that must once have served as a boat house. Ross ducked under a low door and disappeared from view.
‘Last night you told me that the most significant thing about Dr MacReady is that she is a Scotswoman,’ I reminded Holmes. ‘What did you mean by that?’
‘Come, Watson,’ said Holmes, leading the way to the boat house. ‘You surely noticed that her colleagues are all English and are held in various degrees of contempt by the Scotsmen who guard them. She alone has a spark of life, she alone is happy to mix socially with the soldiers and, like them, she has taken a considerable dislike to the officious Professor Smithers, particularly so as he disdains her purely on the basis of her sex.’
The full realisation of the plot now dawned upon me. ‘So when you told Professor Smithers that he was the victim in this affair, you were not simply being ironic.’
‘Indeed not,’ said Holmes, bowing his head to step indoors.
A Study in Crimson by Robert J. Harris is published by Polygon, priced £12.99.