“You can understand my distress, Mr Holmes,” Miss Anderson, our client, was saying – “there is a lot of money resting upon the fate of that boat, and if my brother turns out to have lost the damn thing, there will be debtors and investors and all sorts of nasty types that I shall have to keep away from him. Will you please help?”
Holmes shot a glance at me from where he sat by the hearth and the client, a woman whose brashness only seemed to make her more fascinating in his professional eye. The answer, to me, was clear.
“You said your brother's ship departed from the East London docks,” he said, in his calm and imperious way. “Could you describe it for me?”
Miss Anderson snorted in an ungainly show of mirth. “It's a big old boat,” she scoffed. “Black, I think, or dark at least, and metal, not made of wood. Joseph tells me it's called a bark. And it has this hideous young woman mounted under the front part, all painted in white, I can't imagine a demure young thing like that diving in and out of the waves all day. I'm sorry I can't describe it better, but I told you – my brother gave that infernal ship my name, but that is the extent of my connection to it. I can't abide the thing. Always stinks of coal or Australian wool. It was a ghastly idea of Joseph's, I'm not surprised it's gone missing.”
Holmes' long and absent stare was accompanied by a sigh which brought his chin to his chest and his arms crossed below it, until he looked like a puffed-up, ruby-feathered bird in his rich dressing gown.
“I shall investigate the most likely possibilities,” he intoned to the rug, “and contact you within three days. If all goes well.”
Sophy Anderson sighed with relief. “Thank you so much, Mr Holmes,” she cried. “If you can just find the damned thing I can at least try to convince Joseph to scuttle it before it brings him any more trouble. If not, I should appreciate a little forewarning for the disaster he's managed to dig us into this time...”
She rose, and held out her hand for Holmes to shake. He did not acknowledge the gesture – whether from stubbornness or mere absorption in his thoughts I doubt I'll ever know – and she shook her head with a click of her tongue, sweeping out of our rooms with a cursory nod in the general direction of where I sat, still drinking my morning coffee.
“Well Holmes?” I said, as first our sitting-room door, and then the front door, clicked behind her. “What do you make of it?”
He hummed, a long, low, grumbling sound of thought and discontent.
“I fear it shall be an obvious solution,” he muttered, as he pulled himself from his perch and ambled over to join me. “But since we've nothing else to do, we might as well investigate. Perhaps the matter will reveal itself to hold some small pieces of interest.” Standing beside my chair, he picked up my cup of coffee and held it against his lips. “Fancy a jaunt to the docks, my dear Watson?”
“Drink my coffee and I'll never accompany you again.”
He drained the cup in one gulp. I swatted him with a newspaper, and watched the tails of his dressing gown shiver with his laughter as he retreated to his room to change.
The docks, as usual, were crowded, reeking, and utterly unimportant to Holmes' bloodhound nose. He led me in a winding, circling path, his eyes darting over each rowboat in port and every ship anchored closer or further out in the river, and scanning every workman hefting sacks and crates or lounging in the doorway of a pub. I had no idea what he was looking for – surely the missing ship would hardly turn out to merely have been moored at a different end of the docks than usual.
“She said the ship was a bark...” I heard him murmuring to himself at one point, not long after noon, when I was beginning to grow hungry.
“And how precisely does that differentiate it from every other wooden hull here?” I asked, not without a little impatience.
“It's a start,” Holmes snapped.
“You don't really think the ship is going to be here, do you Holmes?” I cried. “Joseph Anderson can hardly have lost his ship while it was still in port.”
Holmes pulled up short in his stalking, and turned to level a withering glare of cynicism down at me.
“You heard Miss Anderson's assessment of her brother's character,” he drawled. “All the evidence so far has shown her to be an excellent judge.”
“You're only saying that because she paid all her attention to you this morning while ignoring me.”
“Well, you were still having your breakfast, Watson,” he said, but there was a glitter of warmth in his eye which meant that I could take no offense.
“She showed up at seven-thirty,” I grumbled. “Any earlier and she would have caught you at your worst.”
“I am not at my worst at seven o'clock,” Holmes declared, but I knew that this was an argument he couldn't win: there was a very clear memory in my head of Holmes, with his hair all in disarray and the most horrible frown on his face, demanding that kisses and coffee and maybe a little toast be brought to him in his bed.
“The detective doth protest too much, methinks,” I laughed, and the purse of his lips told me very clearly that he should very much have liked to shut me up with his mouth on mine. As things were, he turned and swept off down the shoreline again, muttering half to himself and half to me.
“Thou art a scholar indeed...”
I trotted behind him to keep up with his long strides.
“Well?” I said, after another long period of walking in silence. “Have you come to any conclusions?”
Holmes drew himself up, cast his eye once more over the bustling, creaking, rolling scene, and pointed with one finger at a long, iron hull anchored out near the middle of the river and just visible behind the forest of masts.
“There she is.”
I stared, open-mouthed, from the ship to my friend and back again. The ship was sharp at the bow, painted black, with an unsightly dark mass of what was clearly meant to be a figurehead beneath the bowsprit. Its three masts looked bare with all sails furled tight and out of sight from the shore.
“Holmes, you really are too much,” I cried. “How can you tell?”
“What specifications did Miss Anderson give us as to the appearance of her brother's new venture?” Holmes asked me.
“Oh, do be serious, Holmes,” I scoffed, but he overrode me.
“I am being serious,” he said. “Weren't you listening?”
“Of course I was, but I know one of your tricks when I see one,” I sneered. “I shall say something obvious and entirely correct, at which point you will turn the terms on their head and reveal something impossible which you claim I should have noticed from the beginning.”
“Don't spoil my fun, Watson, you know how it upsets me.”
I wanted to flick the pout from his face. I gave in with a long sigh, and turned my sights again to what we could see of the ship Holmes claimed to be the lost Sophy Anderson.
“She said it was dark.”
“Which this ship is.”
“As are half the ships I can see in a glance.”
“Go on, Watson.”
“Made of metal, you do know I hate you, correct?”
“Words, words, words, Watson, please continue.”
“Well, we know it's a bark, but I hardly know what that entails –”
“An imprecise term usually used to describe a three-masted, square-rigged vessel.”
“– with a white figurehead of a young woman, and usually smelling of coal and wool.” I looked up at Holmes with as much venom as I could muster in my admittedly quite amused state. “Was that everything?”
“It was perfect and complete, my dear doctor,” Holmes smiled. “Now, there is not a single vessel here which fits Miss Anderson's description -”
I threw my hands in the air.
“– but that ship there is one of only three that is a dark-painted, iron-hulled bark large enough to transport heavy goods from Australia on a semi-regular basis. If the Sophy Anderson's figurehead was distinctive enough for Sophy Anderson herself – with her utter disregard for all things nautical and undertaken by her brother – to notice and remark upon, it would be the first thing needing to be disguised should the ship be hidden as part of a scheme to defraud its hapless main investor out of his deposits without giving him any of the profits of its exertions. Correct?”
“An assumption based on a rather unproved theory,” I said, “but correct under your parameters.”
“It's the most obvious solution,” Holmes shrugged. “I'm afraid that taking advantage of a man like Joseph Anderson is simply far too easy a job for us to overlook the possibility without a large amount of evidence against the theory. In the meantime, I have gathered a not-insubstantial amount of evidence in favour of it. This mysterious ship anchored as far away from the rest of the fleets here as possible and with almost no activity happening on board or between it and the shore is the primary piece of that evidence. All that must be done now is to prove or disprove the theory.”
I looked up at him, and my face fell.
“Please do not suggest that we wait until night and sneak on board a ship that may or may not be currently in the hands of criminals trying very hard not to expose the true identity of the ship,” I said, mostly into the hand I'd raised to my forehead.
Holmes met my despair with a brilliant grin.
“It occurs to me that this may not have been the most astute approach.”
“Well, Holmes, at least your theory has been confirmed.”
They had not killed us, which was a point in our favour; on the other hand, they had tied us together, back-to-back, upon the open deck, just outside the warmth, light, and company of the crew deckhouse. And it had started to rain.
“Lying low until Joseph Anderson gives up the venture as lost and hands over his share of the investment,” Holmes was muttering – “at least it's not an entirely mindless scheme. The cargo will all last the few more weeks it should take for Anderson to lose his nerve, then the ship, cargo, and all current and future profits go only to the master and his crew. What intrepid fellows, if they are a little uninspiring.”
I leaned against my friend, enjoying, at the very least, the comfort of his back against mine. I was more used to one or the other of us being turned around, but there was something familiar about the arrangement nonetheless. This may have had something to do with our unnerving ability to get ourselves into situations including danger, criminals, and being restrained, but I chose not to dwell on that aspect. I peered about us, and knew Holmes was doing the same, trying to find some way of cutting ourselves loose and getting word to the proper authorities – or at least to Miss Sophy Anderson, who, I had no doubt, would be able to handle things from there.
My peering turned into a frown as I realised what I was staring at up in the top of the foremast: there was a rifle leaning against the upper mast, half-hidden by the tangle of ropes and rigging which obscured with criss-crossed shadows the light of the moon.
“I do like the tone of your voice, Watson,” he murmured in response.
“I think there's a rifle in the foremast top.”
“In the foremost what?”
“The fore-mast top,” I repeated, over-enunciating. “If we get our hands on it without the crew noticing, we might be able to threaten them into letting us go. I didn't see many weapons when they caught us.”
“And not a single firearm, no,” Holmes mused. He seemed almost to be chewing his tongue for a moment, and his eyes, from what I could see of them, flashed here and there about us on the deck. “Hold your wrists apart,” he said, and though I grumbled about their bound state, I did as he'd commanded to the best of my ability. There was a lot of wriggling and twisting between us, and, catching on to his intentions, I did my best to accommodate and contribute to his efforts. After a few long moments of this, Holmes uttered a low “Ha!” of triumph, followed by calm “One moment please, my dear,” hampered only slightly by his breathing, laboured as it was from his exertions. Finally, with an almighty wrench, he pulled both of his hands free, and I felt the ropes fall, loose, around my wrists.
“Sailors,” Holmes said, as I shook off the ropes and we turned to each other – “excellent at tying knots, but perhaps a little lacking in their techniques for restraining people.”
He smiled a devilish little grin, and I couldn't help but return it with a shake of my head. It was then, of course, that a voice rose above the rest in the deckhouse. It was the master's wife.
“Have any of you lot bothered to check on your prisoners since you left them sitting alone on the deck?”
Holmes' face twisted in annoyance. “I do hate an intrepid woman.”
We scrambled to our feet, Holmes tossing the useless rope over the side of the ship – but as I hurried to the starboard shroud, a half-dozen of the crew stumbled out of the deckhouse.
“Watson –” Holmes cried, but I was already gripping the ropes and vaulting over the side of the ship.
“Keep away from them!” I shouted as my feet found holds on the shroud and I began to climb. In the same moment, two men from the crew had already run up to follow me, and another had turned towards the port side shroud. Holmes ducked a swinging blow from the first mate. I heard him shout my name, but focused instead on my scramble up the shroud, the swing and dip of the ropes and the rise and fall of my weight all recalling instincts built up a decade earlier.
Holmes called my name again, but this time there was a distinct question in his tone.
The two men behind me were beginning to catch up, but I'd had a not insignificant head start, and when I glanced across at the opposite shroud, the man there was still not even halfway to the top, which came closer and closer to being in my reach with every heave. I heard the crunch of thrown punches echoing up from the deck below, but could not spare the attention to look down – though I felt reasonably confident that Holmes would be wining. As I reached the top, I was infinitely glad for the practice I'd had in my youth: I remembered my first time trying to navigate a futtock shroud, and nearly shuddered at the memory even as I manoeuvred myself almost upside-down for just a moment, then heaved myself over and onto the top. I stumbled to my feet, and grabbed for the rifle I had seen, and immediately loosed off a single shot into the air, then swung the barrel about to aim for the head of the man closest. The hand which had gripped the futtock shroud behind me froze in place.
“Holmes!” I called from where I stood, glancing back and forth between the three men who had all stopped in their ascent. “Holmes, are you all right?”
I heard a semi-distant sniff.
“Fine,” came the nonchalant reply from the deck. “A little banged up, but you taking three of them off my hands was certainly a help. And thank you for firing. I imagine the port authorities will very soon be on their way to investigate the disturbance.”
“Oh, God,” I heard someone groan from below – the master, I assumed.
“Now,” I said to the three who had followed me – “if you would all be so kind as to go back on deck and await our further orders...”
The fifteen crewmembers – plus the master's wife, who, it transpired, had gotten a decent blow in at Holmes' jaw with a pail while he boxed with the third mate – waited in the deckhouse as a lantern bobbed towards us from the docks. In the light of another lantern hung by the doorway, I kept one eye on the surly crew while, with the other, I inspected Holmes' head for injuries.
“I told you, Watson,” he grumbled, “I am fine. None of them hit me all that hard.”
“You said the wife hit you with a pail,” I retorted. Holmes glared at me askance.
“After which I was perfectly able to disarm her and continue fighting until you got your hands on that rifle,” he sneered. “Speaking of which – I wasn't aware you knew how to climb the rigging, so to say.”
“It's called a shroud,” I murmured, then rose my voice from abstraction. “Didn't I tell you? I served aboard a whaler for a summer, halfway through my medical studies. It was a sublime experience – looking out over the ice fields from the crow's nest was a treat I never missed out on unless I had to.”
“You were the resident surgeon, I suppose?” Holmes asked.
“Yes, a friend of mine was going to take the job, but had to decline. He offered it to me in his absence – he knew I needed the money.”
“I see.” Holmes was silent for a long moment as I parted his hair and prodded at one forming bruise or another. There was little trickle of blood on his forehead, but it had already dried, and I wasn't very worried. “I must say,” Holmes finally continued, “it was –” He cleared his throat. “It was quite an impressive sight, seeing you race those sailors up the rigging.”
Holmes glared again, but there was little heat in it. I smiled.
“I don't get to surprise you very often,” I said. “I find it highly enjoyable every time.”
“Believe me,” said Holmes, “so do I.”
I checked on the crew, and the distance of the approaching authorities in their rowboat, and slipped in a small kiss to Holmes' cheek.
“Then I hope to do it many times more.”