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Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Parcel

English: Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. W...

Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Parcel


Dr. John Watson*

Sherlock Holmes’ reputation as the greatest sleuth of our time was such that there was never a lack of those who sought his help.  The variety of cases brought to him was as varied as crime itself.  It was more the challenge a particular case presented than the case itself that compelled his interest.

Not every case that Holmes took on during my years sharing lodgings with him at 221B Baker Street involved crime.  Indeed, many of the more memorable cases which I witnessed, and dare I say, to which I contributed my own expertise, had nothing at all to do with a criminal act.  One example was what I call “the case of the mysterious parcel.”

It was the evening of the 20th of April, 1890.  I arrived back from Greatham, where I visited Lord and Lady Marshall.  His Lordship and I served together in India.  My visit provided an opportunity to recall shared adventures in one of the most enchanting corners of our empire.  We shared a bottle of sherry and filled the air with the sweet aroma of some of the finest Cavendish that ever filled the bowl of a pipe.

The return trip to London was uneventful.  I arrived at Paddington Station just before 6:00 p.m., and immediately took a hansom cab to Baker Street.  

Mrs. Hudson greeted me as I entered.

“I am most delighted to see you’ve returned, Dr. Watson.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson.  As they say, ‘there is no place like home.’”

Mrs. Hudson appeared to be somewhat upset.  She was rubbing her hands together, and there was a definite look of concern, if not worry, in her face.

“Is something bothering you, Mrs. Hudson,” I inquired out of genuine concern.

“It’s Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson.  He’s been up there all afternoon playing the violin,” she paused, then continued, “ever since the package arrived.”

“What package?” I asked.

“I am sorry, Doctor,” she replied.  “I must explain, of course.” 

Mrs. Hudson was obviously concerned about Holmes.  She moved about wringing her hands together.  She stopped, looked at me and began to explain what was troubling her.

“It was midday.  I was about to take tea up to Mr. Holmes, just as I always do, when I heard someone knock on the door.  When I opened the door, a very distinguished young gentleman was standing there with a package.  He tipped his hat, bowed his head, and asked if I was Mrs. Hudson.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“He then held out the package and asked that I deliver it to Mr. Holmes.  I said that I would.  The gentleman thanked me, and once again tipped his hat, bowed his head, smiled, and then turned and climbed into a waiting cab.”

“And that was unusual?” I asked.

“Well, not at first,” she replied, and then continued.

“I felt right off that there was something different, strange even, about the package.”

“Strange you say?”

“Yes.  You see, Dr. Watson, it appeared to be wrapped very carefully in plain brown wrapping paper and tied with a string; I mean a kind of twine, a tan twine.”

“Are not most packages wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, or as you say about this package, tan twine?”

I admit that I was having some difficulty understanding why Mrs. Hudson seemed to be so troubled by this particular package. 

I continued:  “There must have been something odd about the package, or the gentleman who delivered it, that has caused you such concern.  Please, tell me more.”

“I’m not sure there was anything really unusual.  Like you say, Dr. Watson, packages do arrive from time to time for Mr. Holmes, or yourself.”  She paused, as if trying to reconstruct the whole episode from memory.  She looked straight at me and continued in a low voice as if wanting to be sure that she would not be overheard by someone other than me.

“Perhaps it was Mr. Holmes’ reaction, when I took the package up to him with the afternoon tea.”

“His reaction?” I asked, “What sort of reaction?”

“Like I said earlier, Mr. Holmes was playing the violin when I reached the top of the stairs and knocked on the door.  He answered that I should enter, and I did.”


“I placed the tray with the tea and the package on the side table next to his favorite chair.  It was a small package, you see, so it fit easily on the tray with the tea.  I told him that there was a package for him.  As I turned to leave, he began to . . .  Well, you know how Mr. Holmes can be at times, rather peculiar I say?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied.  “He no doubt told you in great detail not only how the young messenger was dressed, but also described the cab and cabbie.”

“Oh, yes sir.  It is rather uncanny at times how Mr. Holmes can see so much more than the rest of us.  Do you suppose it is, as he likes to say, mere logic, or,” she smiled, “something more, some sixth sense?’

“Humph,” I replied.  “I think it more likely that Mr. Holmes was looking out of the front window when the cab with the gentleman and package arrived.  Logic?  Yes, but nothing more.”

“I’m not so sure,” replied Mrs. Hudson.

“I grant you that Mr. Holmes can be rather awe-inspiring with his, as he calls them, deductions, but you must remember Mrs. Hudson,” and I smiled and winked, “Holmes is not that different than you or I.”

After bidding Mrs. Hudson good night, I ascended the stairs to our rooms.

When I entered, I immediately observed Holmes sitting in his chair, staring straight ahead as if deep in thought.  The mysterious package was sitting on the end table beside the chair just where Mrs. Hudson placed it, still unopened.

“Mrs. Hudson filled you in, I assume?”

“Filled me in?  Filled me in about what?” I asked.

“The events of the afternoon,” Holmes answered. 

“Yes, she did mention something to that effect.”

“Something?” Holmes replied.  “I am quite sure Mrs. Hudson recounted all that she remembered, and then some.”

“I notice you haven’t opened the package.”  Of course, I was merely stating an obvious fact, but I did so in a tone that would elicit a response.

“It isn’t necessary, Watson.  Opening the package would confirm what can be deduced from a careful examination of the package, itself.”

I had no doubt that Holmes was able to do just that, but I knew also that to say nothing, was not what he expected.  We were playing a game, one which began when I entered the room.  Holmes made the first move when he commented on Mrs. Hudson’s habit of keeping me informed about his every move when I was absent. 

We both understood that Mrs. Hudson was not prying.  That was something beneath a woman of her character.  No.  She did so in the hope that my response might shed a little light on what she liked to refer to as “the most peculiar and interesting gentleman I have ever let rooms to.”

I said no more and neither did Holmes. 

Only moments later, there was a knock on the door.  Mrs. Hudson appeared, carrying a much appreciated tray with tea and biscuits.  She never failed to bring refreshments when either of us returned from a long journey.

Holmes did not acknowledge her presence.  That was not in itself unusual.  He could be the very model of a gentleman towards Mrs. Hudson.  At other times, when he was preoccupied, it seemed that not even an earthquake would disturb his train of thought.

Mrs. Hudson said nothing.  She paused, looked at Holmes, and then gave me the usual look that said she understood.

I poured myself a cup of tea, and then sat down to read the evening paper.  The minutes ticked by.  Finally, I could stand the stress no longer.  I quickly folded the newspaper in my lap. 

“Holmes!”  I said, in an obviously frustrated voice.

“Watson.”  He replied, “Something must be troubling you.”

“You know exactly what is bothering me,” I answered.  “Would you please open the package?”

Holmes rose from his chair and slowly walked across the room.  He picked up the package from the end table.  He turned the package in his hands as if examining it, as I became more anxious.  It was his move, and he was relishing every moment.

“The ordinary individual would look at this package and see only a very ordinary package.  He would deduce nothing.”

Holmes did not mean to belittle me.  I was well aware of his respect for my own ability to deduce a conclusion from careful observation of the problem put before me.

“As a medical doctor trained to diagnose an illness from a set of often baffling symptoms, I would expect nothing less than a keen sense of observation from you,” he often said to me.  It was his indirect way of complimenting me without having to display any human emotion.

“I, on the other hand,” he continued, “see a great deal.”

He sat down in the chair opposite me and in his usual manner began to explain.

“First consider the wrapping paper.  It is no ordinary brown wrapping paper.  It is too thin and too crisp.  And look closer, Watson.  Notice the tiny hair-like fibers in the paper.  No.  This not the sort of paper one might purchase in the local stationary shop to wrap packages in.  If we were to hold it up to the light, I am sure we would see a water mark in the paper.”

Holmes continued.  “You and Mrs. Hudson are both correct in identifying the twine in which the package is wrapped.  It is made of hemp, very fine hemp, twisted to form a very high quality of twine.  And look carefully at the ink.  Again, it is not the ordinary black ink used for such a utilitarian purpose.  No.  This is a fine black India ink.”

Holmes sat silently staring at the package.  After what must have been a couple of minutes, he handed the package to me.

“Go ahead, Watson.  Open it.”

I began slowly to remove the wrapping.  Once the package was unwrapped, I glanced up at my friend.  Holmes was staring at what was now only a small box.  There was no sign of emotion or anticipation on his face, only a blank stare.

I opened the box and looked in.  The only contents, other than tissue paper, were a postcard and a folded note.  The postcard was of an inn with white capped mountains in the background.  Judging from the architecture of the inn and the snowcapped mountains, I felt safe in concluding that the location was either in Switzerland or Austria.

I handed the folded note to Holmes.  He read it, then carefully folded it and laid it on the end table.  Without saying anything, he crossed room, picked up his violin and began playing a soft tune, as if remembering a special moment in the past.

I picked up the note and read it.  Written in a very beautiful cursive by a feminine hand was the simple message:  “Happy anniversary.  Irene.”

*a.k.a., Paul R. Waibel

Fact and Fiction: Having Fun with History

As a practicing historian, academically trained no less, with thirty-four years of college teaching under my ever-expanding belt, I would be among the first to admit that the practice of history is not an exact science.  I am somewhat irritated by those who keep insisting that history be included among the so-called “social sciences.”  To do so implies that historical research is like conducting an experiment in a laboratory.  God forbid that the image of a bent over figure in a quiet corner of a library, clad in an old, worn corduroy sport coat, should ever be replaced with that of a scientist in a lab coat.

The study of history is much more interesting and fulfilling than any of the natural sciences.  Although I must admit that watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory makes it appear as though physicists have much more fun than historians.

We historians have much more power than any scientist.  Scientists may plot how to destroy civilization, but we have the power to change the past.  By selecting, recording, and interpreting past events, we create and give meaning to the past.  When Alex Haley, author of Roots, went in search of his identity, he looked for and found it in his family history, not his genetic code.

Interpreting history is not the same as inventing the past.  Interpretation of history is a quest for its meaning.  All too often individuals without any training in the discipline presume to write history, but end with mythology.  Examples could be cited from popular histories of the early American republic or the fairytales that Afrocentrists attempt to pass off as history.

Enough shop jargon!  I do not wish to climb upon my soapbox to rant about the continuing decline of education, not to mention basic literacy.  Rather, I want to address something of far greater interest than whether or not George Washington prayed at Valley Forge.  (No doubt he did say grace before eating; after all, that was custom then.  But did he kneel down in the snow with his cape draped over his shoulders and his hands positioned as if in an etching by Albrecht Durer?  Well, if he did, it was probably under a cherry tree.)

Part of the historian’s task is to sort out fact from fiction.  That does not mean, however, that history need be boring.  On the contrary, history is about people, and as Art Linkletter used to say, “People are interesting.”  Therefore, it follows that history must be interesting.

Even the dullest historical event can be “spiced up” with a bit of interesting, though completely irrelevant trivia, what best-selling author Barbara Tuchman called “corroborating evidence.”  Ms. Tuchman said that the historian must always keep the reader in mind, and ask how to keep the reader turning the pages. 

From time to time I come across an interesting historical fact that I file away in the back of my mind, intending to use it someday in a lecture, article, or book.  Take for example this little noticed event from the past.  On this day (October 15) in 2004, the National Traffic Safety Administration (NTSA) no longer required hearses to have anchors for child safety seats.

Manufacturers of hearses argued that a hearse was a “single use vehicle” that when in operation normally carried only two individuals—one driver and one passenger.  The latter, they pointed out, was not likely to be injured in an accident.  Therefore, anchors for child safety seats were uncalled for.  The NTSA agreed.  Hearses were no longer required to have anchors for child safety seats, that is, unless they had a back seat.  In that event, the said anchors had to be installed.

I am not sure how I will eventually be able to use that bit of historical trivia, but someday I will be writing something and slip it in.

Not all historical events are necessarily “historical.”  Sometimes fictional events become historical, as for example the wedding anniversary of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane on October 8, 1937.  Lord Peter was (or should I say is) a creation of the well-known English author of mystery novels, Dorothy Sayers.

Lord Peter pursued Harriet, a stimulating and very lovely mystery writer, through the pages of several novels until finally establishing a lifelong partnership in 1937.  You can find the “historical facts” regarding the event recorded in Busman’s Honeymoon.

The search for the history of such fictional characters as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane can be great fun for the trained historian, for whom it provides a welcome relief from the daily boredom of academia. 

While visiting London some years ago, my own Harriet Vane and I decided to visit 221b Baker Street, where Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson rented rooms from Mrs. Hudson.  Unfortunately, we got the address wrong. 

Thinking that we were at the right address, and finding nothing Holmesian about the place, we entered what was perhaps a realtor’s office.  As I approached a counter, a gentleman sitting at a desk asked if he might help us.  I replied that we were looking for the residence of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The object of my inquiry did not respond.  He merely said, in a rather loud voice, “Hey, Mable.  It’s that Holmes thing again.”

A short, plump lady emerged from a back room.  She walked up to the counter where we stood.  She placed her hands on the counter in a prayerful manner.   With a look of sympathy, as if about to comfort one who had just suffered a great loss, she said:  “It’s just a story.”

I’m not sure what expression she saw on my face, but I felt as if she were about to reach across the counter and place my hand in hers.

She continued, looking as if she might shed a tear or two:  “You see, the man never lived.  It’s only a story.”

Not knowing what to say, and feeling just a little foolish, I thanked the lady.  We turned and retreated to the street.

“Now what?” my dear wife asked. 

“Let’s get on the Tube and go to Paddington Station,” I replied with a mischievous twinkle in my eye.   “I want to see if I can locate the platform where Mr. and Mrs. Brown first met Paddington Bear.”

“Wonderful idea!” she said.  Placing her arm in mine and smiling, we started off in search of the nearest entrance to the underground.  “Do you suppose there might be little shop where we can purchase a small jar of marmalade?”

“Of course,” I replied.  “After all, the English love marmalade.”