Sherlock Holmes: The American Years

Michael Kurland

Minotaur Books

Why did Sherlock Holmes first go to America? Why else, Mr. Lupoff tells us, but to attend a wedding? But complications ensued . . .

INGA SIGERSON WEDS

by

RICHARD A. LUPOFF

A single loud report. Shards falling, colliding, tumbling, red, green, purple, yellow, glittering, reflecting flickering gaslight, crashing to the parquet, all against the sounds of the orchestra playing, four hundred voices in anthem raised . . .

I was womaning the counter, waiting on customers, accepting payments, and wrapping baked goods, when the postman’s bell was heard in the courtyard. I refuse to refer to myself as "manning" anything. Such usage demeans the female gender and implies that I am in some manner inferior to and subservient to the male.

Mr. Tolliver leaned his bicycle against the postern and, after taking a moment to sort through his sack of mail, came forward and handed me a small bundle of missives. He smiled through his gray mustache. "Mum all right, Miss Holmes?"

"She would rather work," I replied, "but the doctor insists that she rest during these final weeks. Once the new arrival is here, he says, she will have work enough to do."

"Aye. And Dad, what has he to say?"

"He is in league with Doctor Millward. As am I. Mother insists on cooking for us all, but at least she has consented to yield her duties in the shop."

"You take care of your mother, Miss Elisabeth. She is a dear lady."

I handed Mr. Tolliver a complimentary crumpet and he retrieved his bicycle and pedaled away.

The shop was busy this day. It was all that young Sherlock could do with mixing batters, keeping the ovens in order, and placing fresh goods on display. Dad alternated caring for Mum and napping so he would have his strength to tend to the heavy baking duties overnight. And of course Mycroft sat in the nook that passed for an office, working as he ever did over the bakery’s books and studying formulas for new products.

Mycroft also handled our correspondence, such as it was, ordering supplies and paying bills. Ours was a reasonably successful family business, but a most demanding one in this busy section of London. Competition was keen as well.

By the time the shop was closed for the day, darkness had fallen over London and gas lamps were casting soft shadows outside our dwelling. Gas had also been installed indoors despite the grumbles of older residents who insisted that the new lighting was unnatural and unpleasant compared to traditional oil lamps.

Father had risen from a nap. Mum had made a rich soup of orange pumpkin and had roasted us a piece of beef with potatoes and greens. There were, of course, baked goods from our own shop. Mycroft was as usual prompt to reach his place at the family table. It seems that Mycroft spends his entire life in a stationary posture, save for his rare and unexplained "expeditions." At irregular intervals he will rise ponderously, don headpiece, take walking stick in hand, and disappear for an hour or a day.

On one occasion that I recall he was gone for an entire year. My parents had given him up for lost when he strode into the shop, greeted a number of our regular customers familiarly, and returned to his accustomed place without a word of explanation. My elder brother is as portly as my younger is scrawny; could they but exchange a few stone of avoirdupois I believe they would both be better off.

But this night it fell to me to summon Sherlock, who had retreated to his room to practice his fiddle playing.

I do not know which is more distressing, the sounds of scraping and screeching that he calls music or the unpleasant odors of the experiments he conducts from time to time. Why my parents had gifted me with this bothersome stringbean of a younger brother is beyond human comprehension. I hoped only that the next addition to the Holmes house hold would be a pleasanter companion. The Fates willing, a girl!

Of course, this pregnancy is a late and unanticipated one. Still, Mother gives every evidence of plea sure at the prospect of having another Holmes about the house. Father worries about expenses. Mycroft appears oblivious.

As for the execrable Sherlock, I suppose that he is accustomed to the privileges associated with being the youngest member of the family. When mention is made of the fact that he will lose this distinction, his expression resembles that of a person who has bitten into a fruit, thinking it an orange, only to discover that it is a lemon.

To be honest I will confess that my little brother is not entirely brainless. On one occasion I recall, he asked me to assist him in his so-called laboratory. He explained that he was developing a technique to transmit energy by means of sound waves. He had arranged an experiment in which he mounted a metallic object in a brace, surrounded by sound-absorbing batting. He stood nearby, scraping hideous sounds from his fiddle. He played notes higher and higher in pitch until, to my astonishment, the metal object began to vibrate violently.

"Now, sister, I want you to stand on the other side of the apparatus and match that note on your flute."

I complied, with similar results.

"And now," Sherlock proclaimed, "for the peas of resistance. We shall stand on either side of the apparatus and, upon my signal, both sound the keynote."

I did not correct his solecism but merely shook my head in exasperated compliance.

Sherlock placed his fiddle beneath his chin, laid bow across strings, and favored me with a nod and a wink. The grotesquerie of his bony visage thus distorted far exceeds my mean verbal powers. Indeed, the awfulness of it must be imagined rather than described.

We both sounded the crucial note, he upon his fiddle and I upon my flute. Within seconds the metal object began to vibrate violently, then to glow with red heat, and finally to liquefy and fall in a silvery rain upon the floor.

At this moment, Mother entered the room. "Elisabeth, Sherlock, dears, has either of you seen my precious silver spoon from Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee?"

Alas, there it lay, a formless puddle of molten metal upon the floor of Sherlock’s laboratory.

The meal proceeded pleasantly enough, each family member in turn describing his or her day, as is our long-standing custom. Talk had turned to affairs of the world as they filtered into our house hold through the conversation of our customers when Mycroft announced that he had found a missive addressed to our parents in the day’s arrivals.

Mycroft is by far the most brilliant man I have ever encountered. I cannot imagine him spending his life in our family bakery, but for the time being he performs invaluable service. He can also be the most exasperating of men, surpassing even the annoying Sherlock. Wiping his chin free of a drop of grease, he muttered and patted himself here and there, searching for the missive.

At last he found it. He drew it from an inner pocket and handed it to Father.

It was an envelope carefully addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Beasley Holmes, Holmes Family Bakery, Old Romilly Street, London, En gland. The stamps were of an unfamiliar hue and design, denominated in something called "cents." A return address in the city of New York in the United States of America provided the solution to the mystery of the odd stamps.

There followed an act that could have been performed as a comic turn at a Cheapside music hall. Father patted himself on the chest, blinking all the time. "I cannot find my spectacles," he announced at last, handing the envelope to Mother.

Mother shook her head. "I must tend to my kitchen duties. Perhaps one of the children will read this letter to us all."

Somehow the duty fell to my lot. Somehow, it seems, in this house hold it always does.

I opened the envelope. It was unusually stiff and of a finer grade of paper than most ordinary correspondence. From the envelope I extracted a card. In embossed lettering it read as follows:

MR. AND MRS. JORGEN SIGERSON

REQUEST THE PLEA SURE OF YOUR COMPANY

AT THE WEDDING OF THEIR DAUGHTER,

MISS INGA ELISABETH SIGERSON

TO MR. JONATHAN VAN HOPKINS

IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

ON SUNDAY, THE TWENTIETH OF JUNE, 1875

I had read the card aloud. Upon hearing it Mother clapped her hands. "My dear brother’s child is to be married! It seems but yesterday that she was an infant."

"I knew it," I exclaimed. "I knew that a wonderful event was about to befall my cousin Inga."

"A joyous occasion indeed, but of course we shall send our regrets," Father stated. "The twentieth of June is mere weeks ahead. There is no way that Mum could possibly undertake an ocean voyage, nor would I, under the circumstances, even consider traveling to America while she remained at home."

Mother reached for the envelope and I extended it toward her. As I did so a slip of paper fell from it, barely missing the vegetable bowl and landing in front of the bony Sherlock. He snatched it up and refused to surrender it until Father commanded him to do so. Even so, I had to tug at the slip before he would release it.

The note was written in the familiar hand of my cousin. Dearest Elisabeth, I read silently, My Jonathan is the most wonderful man. He is a skilled printer and editor and we plan to move to the West once married. Please, please, cousin dearest, do find a way to come to my wedding. I shall be heartbroken if you do not. I want you there as my maiden of honor. The note was signed, in my cousin’s customary manner, with a cartoon drawing of the two of us, our arms linked familiarly.

Although we have never met, I believe that we have had a psychic link throughout our lives. My mother and Inga’s father were twins. Mother remained here in England while her brother emigrated to the United States, where he married an American woman, Miss Tanner. We two cousins were born on the same day and, as far as we have been able to determine, at the same moment. My cousin was named Inga Elisabeth and I was named Elisabeth Inga.

The invitation to my dear cousin’s nuptials was confirmation of a knowledge that I had carried for weeks.

Gathering my courage, I announced that, in view of my parents’ inability to do so, I would represent the English branch of the family at Inga’s wedding.

Father shook his head. "Out of the question, Elisabeth. We shall obtain a suitable gift for your cousin and dispatch it by transatlantic transport. You will not travel to America, certainly not alone."

Mother fingered the strings that held her apron in place, tying and untying them in distress. "Inga is my brother’s only child, Reginald. She is Elisabeth’s only cousin. It would be sad if she could not be present on this occasion."

"No," Father insisted, "a young woman traveling alone under these conditions would be most improper."

"Perhaps her brother could go with her, then. Mycroft is a responsible young man. Surely he would be a suitable chaperone for Elisabeth, and I have no doubt that my brother and sister-in-law would welcome him into their home."

I will confess that even in this moment I found it amusing to think of Mycroft boarding a ship and traveling to America. My-croft, whose daily movements seldom vary in route from bedroom to office, from office to dinner table, from dinner table to parlor, and from parlor to bedroom.

With a single word Mycroft rejected our mum’s suggestion, nor was any further discussion useful.

Following dinner and coffee we retired to the parlor for our customary family hour. Some evenings Mother will read aloud from a popular work of fiction. Others, I play familiar airs on my flute, on occasion accompanied by Sherlock’s execrable fiddle-scratching. Rarely, Mycroft deigns to entertain us with a recitation. He has committed to memory the complete Dialogues of Plato, Plutarch’s Lives, the scientific works of the great Mr. Charles Darwin, and the Reverend Dodgson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a favorite of my own.

But this evening there was but a single topic of conversation. It was the wedding of my cousin.

Mother and Father having ruled out their own presence at the nuptials, Father having forbidden me to travel alone, and Mycroft having refused to contemplate the journey, there remained but one possible solution to the puzzle. I swallowed my pride and proposed that Sherlock accompany me.

I half hoped that he would reject the idea. To be honest, I more than half hoped as much. But my dear younger sibling took this occasion to torment me by giving his assent. Of course he did so with a demonstration of reluctance bordering upon martyrdom.

Mother seemed ready to give her blessing to this plan when Father raised the question of money. Fare for two persons traveling from England to America and back would come to a substantial amount. It might be possible to run the bakeshop without Sherlock and myself for a time. But there were simply not sufficient funds in the till to provide passage for Sherlock and myself.

Father rose from his chair and stated, "We will send a suitable gift, perhaps a gravy boat or salver, to the happy couple."

"Not yet." Mycroft’s words, spoken in the same rich voice that he used for his learned recitations, brought Father to a halt.

"Not yet?" Father echoed.

"Sir," Mycroft replied, "do not be so quick to give up on our family’s being represented at the wedding. Remember that Inga is my cousin as well, and I would wish to see my sister and her cousin together on the happy day."

Father reached for his spectacles, unfolded their arms, and placed them on his face to get a better look at his elder son. "I trust you do not plan to rob a bank, Mycroft, an behalf of Elisabeth and Sherlock." Father seldom makes jokes, but I believe he thought he had just done so.

"Please trust me, father. I make no promise, but I venture that Elisabeth and Sherlock will be at Inga’s wedding." He reached into his vest pocket and extracted a turnip. After consulting it he shook his head. "Too late this evening," he said. "Give me twenty-four hours, Father. I ask no more."

The next morning found our bakeshop fully stocked as usual, the product of Father’s industry. I took my place at the counter; Sherlock, his in the area reserved for handling goods; and My-croft, at his desk, tending to his administrative duties. Nothing further was spoken of last night’s family conference.

At noontime Mycroft rose, took hat and walking stick, and strode from the shop. He disappeared into the pedestrian traffic on Old Romilly Street. He did not appear again until the family had gathered at the dinner table.

Mother had roasted a chicken and small potatoes, and there were hot and cold greens and of course dinner rolls and butter. She assumed her place at the head of the table; Father, at the foot; Sherlock and I, facing each other across the cloth and dishes. Father had just taken carving implements in hand and reached for the brown-crusted bird when Mycroft entered the room. He rubbed his hands together, smiled at each family member in turn, and took his place.

He spoke at length during the meal, but his sole topic was the excellence of Mother’s cooking and Father’s baking. "We are not the possessors of financial wealth," he stated, "but we are a fortunate family to have a comfortable home, a successful business, one another’s company, and the finest cuisine, in my humble judgment, in all the realm."

He may have exaggerated but none at the table chose to dispute him. Not even Sherlock.

Excerpted from Sherlock Holmes by Michael Kurland.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Kurland.
Published in February 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.