Thursday, January 13, 1898
Darkness had fallen by the time we reached Greenwich. A few harbor lights glittered over the wide expanse of black river, barely illuminating the low outline of HMS Daring along the dock. Secretary of War Lansdowne was waiting for us, hatless, at the entrance to the West Building, his aquiline features readily identifiable. His tall frame was stooped and hunched against the cold. He gave a momentary glance to our group, which consisted of Mycroft, Lucy and me. We had left little Becky in Baker Street, in the care of Mrs. Hudson.
To Lansdowne we were all familiar faces. All of us had been inside Lansdowne House, and with him in the adjoining Devonshire House just six months earlier when the Jubilee Ball had nearly ended in catastrophe.
On that occasion a traitor had been unmasked, and we had shared with Lansdowne a grim triumph. Now, I could not help thinking that there was no triumph. There was catastrophe.
“I am so terribly sorry for your loss,” Lansdowne said. “Lieutenant Commander Bradley is inside. I will take you to him.”
The commander, clean-faced and ruddy, about forty years old, stood in his blue uniform at attention outside a tall door just off the front entrance. His blue eyes looked inquiringly at our little group, then at Lansdowne as we approached.
“Commander Bradley, I shall introduce you to each of these people in turn. They are the next of kin to Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”
We each shook hands with him as Lansdowne made introductions. Then he opened the door to reveal a well-lit conference room, with a large oak table surrounded by a dozen empty chairs.
On the table lay a misshapen dark pile of fabric.
“His coat,” said the commander. “It’s all we have, I’m afraid.”
I picked up the coat to inspect it, catching the scent of damp wool and river water. It was Holmes’s black tweed Inverness. I put my finger through a small hole in front of the cape, through to the coat beneath, and then through the heavy wool fabric at the back. As I did so I realized that traces of reddish liquid were coming off on my hands. There was no mistaking the coppery scent of blood, diluted though it had been by the waters of the Thames.
There was also no mistaking the inevitable conclusion. A bullet passing through Holmes’s cloak in this manner would inevitably have gone through his chest. From the angle between the holes, the shot might have missed the vital organs, but there was no question that significant blood loss would have ensued.
“A miracle that he survived to take this off and attempt to swim,” said Commander Bradley, looking from me to Lucy and to Mycroft.
We took chairs around the table. Bradley told us what had happened. Authorized by Lansdowne, Holmes had asked for his assistance to watch the Red Dragon Inn and monitor boat traffic in and out. “Something to do with opium smuggling,” the commander said. “We hove to on the south side of the river, just opposite Limehouse Basin. We had a good view of the Red Dragon. It was a gray afternoon, but the weather was clear enough.”
“What time was this?” Lucy asked.
“About three o’clock,” the commander said. “We saw a motor launch pass us, heading straight for the Red Dragon, close enough so that we could see the crew was Chinese. There was no name and no flag. The boat docked briefly under the pier, unloaded a few barrels of cargo, and then maneuvered away from the dock, to head downstream. At that moment Mr. Holmes appeared on the dock, running at full tilt.”
“You could identify him at that distance?” Mycroft asked sharply.
“Not at that time. I had my binoculars, but no, I could not distinguish his features as he ran. I did see that he was brandishing a revolver. He jumped onto the Chinese boat just as it was pulling away from the Red Dragon dock. In a few moments, however, I could identify Holmes. He was on deck, and the Chinese boat was moving rapidly in our direction. Then there were shots fired. The man I now know to be Sherlock Holmes was clearly visible, and he was hit by one of the shots. He fell into the river.”
“Could you see his face when he was in the water?”
“Yes. Plainly. It was Mr. Holmes.”
“You had met him before?”
“Yes. This was the man who had asked me to keep the Red Dragon Inn under surveillance.”
“And he had identified himself as Sherlock Holmes?”
“He did, and to confirm his identity he asked me to call Secretary Lansdowne in his presence.”
“Holmes made the request to me on the phone,” Lansdowne said, “I recognized his voice. Then he put Commander Bradley on the line, and I gave the authorization.”
“What happened then?” Lucy asked.
“I knew the water was dangerously cold. As you know, freezing water can paralyze a man’s limbs in no time. There were blocks of ice here and there, but none close enough for Mr. Holmes to hold onto. We lowered a dinghy to rescue him. I watched throughout. He was struggling to stay afloat. He took off his coat, which was dragging him down, and tried to swim to the dinghy. It was a valiant effort, but before we could reach him, he went under. He was gone.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish