The Adventure of the Tell-Tale Typewriter

Mr. James Windibank sits in the center of our couch, fidgeting in the midst of a prolonged and deliberate silence.  He has been there, exactly so, for five minutes; I have spent the same amount of time perched in my usual armchair, stirring milk into my tea.  As I do so, I watch him.  Stare, really, my gaze broken only by lazy, intermittent blinks.  The longer the silence stretches, the closer Windibank creeps to the edge of the couch cushion and the more his eyes drift to the door, contemplating escape.  Watson, for his part, stands by the curtained window overlooking Baker Street with his hands in his pockets, the perfect picture of silent ease.  

Windibank clears his throat.  It sounds dry, possibly from nerves, possibly because he has not been offered tea.  He is little older than I, something I expected after talking with Mary Sutherland but have hammered home deftly by the sight of him.  Some might find his keen gray eyes and square jaw with its haughty, roguish grin appealing – obviously, as they worked enough to his advantage to snag him a fairly well-off widow.  I see nothing of the sort.  There is ice in his stare if you look long enough.  His smile, his manner, his every glance and gesture read as false.  He is a caricature of a person, designed to fill the role each person or situation requires.  “I’m not quite sure why I’m here,” he says, breaking the silence I refuse to.

“I had the great pleasure of making the acquaintance of your stepdaughter, Mary, recently.”  I lay my spoon on my saucer with a soft, but definitive, clink.  “She requested my assistance in determining the fate of a gentleman named Hosmer Angel.”

Disbelief, of the sort typically inspired by my gender, stifles a momentary flash of panic in Windibank’s eyes.  “Why would she seek out your assistance in such a matter?”

“Because I specialize in solving such puzzles, and someone wisely informed Miss Sutherland of such.”

“A strange preoccupation for a young woman,” he says.  I shrug and take a sip of my tea, unaffected.  It’s not as if I haven’t heard similar things from similar sorts before.  “I’m sorry she bothered you with the whole mess.  Little more than a folly, really.”  He begins to rise, hands pressed to the cushion to serve as leverage.  “If you’ve come to me looking for some form of reimbursement for your trouble, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  My stepdaughter may be gullible, but…”

“Sit down, Mr. Windibank.”  I lean forward to set my tea on the coffee table, affording me the opportunity to catch his gaze directly.  “Your stepdaughter is a sweet and tender-hearted young woman in a world both ill-suited for and in desperate need of such.  Her compassion is to be envied and admired; it is also in need of protection.  Such a rare and fragile nature otherwise leaves itself exposed to misuse.”  I settle back into my chair and rest my hands on the arms of it.  “You, sir, are guilty of just such misuse.”

Windibank tenses.  Now it takes longer for the panic in his eyes to be overtaken, this time by anger.  “I beg your pardon.“

“It’s not for my pardon you should be begging.”  I nod at Watson.  He brings me a small stack of paper from my desk before returning to his sentry post by the window.  “You recall, do you not, answering my request to meet by a typewritten note?”  Windibank nods.  “Funny thing about typewriters.  Over time, they develop small faults – a letter will wear unevenly, a key will chip or crack – that makes that typewriter’s output easily identifiable as belonging to it and it alone.  These faults will show themselves in any document typed upon it.  As you see, the ‘e’ on the typewriter you used for this letter strikes the page unevenly, giving it a smudged appearance.  The ‘r’ appears broken, missing one of its tails.”  I hand him the first sheet of paper; I had earlier circled each of the letters in question.  “Do you see?”

“Yes,” he says.  “I suppose.  It was typed on a machine at my office.  It is the only typewriter there and gets quite a lot of use.  Should I inform someone it’s in need of repair?”

“No, but you should perhaps rethink using the same machine for honest communication that you do for dishonest ones.”  I produce the other four documents – the letters from Mr. Angel – and spread them out on the coffee table.  “As you can see, I’ve gone to the trouble of circling the e’s and r’s on these as well for the sake of comparison.”

Before the last letter is left on the table, Windibank hops to his feet and grabs his hat.  “I refuse to sit here and listen to the fantastical nonsense of a woman with too much time on her hands.  If you will excuse me…”  When he turns to leave, he finds Watson standing in his way.

“I’d really sit down if I were you, Mr. Windibank,” he says, intimidation threading thinly through the good doctor’s usually calm tone.

“Are you going to make me, doctor?”

Watson squares his shoulders and thrusts his jaw toward our guest.  “Am I going to have to?”

“Gentlemen, we’ve no need for violence.”  I gather up the papers into a neat collection and tap them against the table.  “We can inspire your presence without it coming to fisticuffs.  We could, perhaps, mention a very dear friend of mine who happens to have the ear of a Times correspondent who might find all this of the utmost interest.”

“Newsworthy even.”  Watson winks at me over Windibank’s head.  Our prey, meanwhile, sinks back into his seat, reclaiming the very edge of the cushion once more.  He has the unsettled posture of an animal in a trap; I can see the cogs spinning in his head, searching for the appropriate lie and not yet finding one.

“If I’ve done anything – if! – it’s nothing the authorities can touch me for at all.   Inactionable, that is the word.”

“Not the legal authorities,no, though I find myself hoping that a more celestial judgement exists and waits to intervene.”  I rise, taking all the papers save one back to my desk.  I worry what Windibank might do to them in an attempt to protect his reputation.  “ As to what you have done, you courted an older woman, recently widowed and with some bit of income, and eventually married her.  Afterwards, or perhaps even during the course of the courtship, you discovered that her daughter had inherited a tidy sum as well, which she generously provides to you and her mother while living with you both.  You become accustomed to that extra bit of income, and then you begin to worry what will happen if it ever disappears.  Someday, a sweet, personable girl like Mary, being pretty enough and clever enough and with a hundred pounds annual stipend to sweeten the deal, is going to draw no shortage of suitors.  One day, she’s going to marry and then some other man is going to benefit from that hundred pounds.”

“Quite an unfortunate, but inevitable, outcome.”  Watson clucks his tongue.  “It must have been a kick to the teeth, that realization.”  Windibank glares at the two of us but says nothing.

“Oh, don’t worry, Watson.  He devised a plan to prevent it.  Of course, the initial one didn’t work out so well.  It’s nearly impossible, after all, to prevent a young woman from running into eligible men short of locking them in some tower, as my aunt would likely attest.  Trying to keep her separated only made her more determined to escape.  Thankfully, for you, she did warn you of her plan to mutiny and that gave you time enough to adjust your strategy accordingly.”

“I assure you, I haven’t a clue what you’re on about.”  Windibank sounds less and less comfortable with each word out of his mouth.

“And I assure you that you are well-acquainted with every detail.  Your first mistake was not the typewriter, but your choice of disguise.  Only an amateur uses so many conceits  at once.  The glasses and the mustache and the sideburns…it all seems such an obvious attempt at altering one’s face to almost be comical.”  I bring the remaining letter back to the table and slap it down onto the surface.  “I took the opportunity to inquire at your place of employment after a gentleman of Mr. Angel’s description, leaving off the aforementioned embellishments.  According to that letter there, my description matches only one person in the entire firm – one Mr. James Windibank.”  Windibank’s well-admired jaw ticks with the effort taken to suppress some unhelpful emotion.  He refuses to set a single eye on the paper before him.   “You, with the assistance and cooperation of your wife, I think, decided to cut Mary’s matrimonial prospects off at the knees by wooing her yourself in disguise.  Then, once you obtained her heart and her hand, you pried an unreasonable promise from her and disappeared just in time to avoid becoming a bigamist.  Clever, sir.  Cruel, but clever.”

Windibank rises slowly from the couch.  Watson does nothing to deter the action this time.  “It doesn’t matter if you know or not.  The law can’t touch me.  You can’t touch me.  And even if you tell Mary all this, she’ll never believe you.  She’s too trusting.  Too gullible.  She will continue to pine and continue to hand over her allowance month after month because she-“

“Is right here.”  The voice of Mary Sutherland is muffled by the heavy curtains she hides behind and thick with tears as it floats from the direction of the window.  When she steps into view, her cheeks are streaked with silent tears; her hands grip her ridiculous feather hat tight enough her knuckles are white.  Her eyes, however, are clear, dark, pitiless pools belying the reason for the tension in her grip.  Anger keeps her hands as they are, not shock.

Windibank instantly blanches.  I see the color bleed from his face as Mary approaches him.  “Mary, dear, I can explain.”

Mary Sutherland, so sweet and kind on our first meeting, raises a hand to stop her stepfather’s excuses.  Then, she curls her fingers into a tight fist and slams it into Windibank’s jaw.  “Explain that to mother when you see her,” she says, and before he can pick himself up from the floor, where Watson’s jaw may have nearly stretched from the shock, Mary stomps to the door and sees herself out.

Watson turns back to me once the front door slams below.  “Did you teach her that?”

I shrug. “There may have been a brief lesson on the basics of pugilism while you were downstairs earlier.  She has quite good aim for someone so short-sighted, don’t you think?”

Watson laughs.  On the floor, James Windibank groans.

***

A letter arrives three months later, postmarked Edinburgh.

Dear Miss Holmes –

I fear I didn’t take the opportunity to thank you properly last we saw each other.  My stepfather’s confession, and my own mother’s possible collusion, left me in a highly ill-mannered state.  It’s very distressing to learn you’ve been treated so poorly, especially by those you trust.  I was adrift over it all for several days, unsure what to do with myself, or what to think or feel.  I may have muttered unkind things in your direction for a while for opening me up to it all, and for that I do apologize.  You didn’t do me harm, providing me with that unpleasant truth.  You freed me, in point of fact.

I have left London, my household, and the scandal behind me.  I am now in Edinburgh and have been for near on a month.  Something of the Scottish manner appeals to me.  They are bluntly honest, but warm-hearted as well, and I appreciate both of these qualities greatly.  The former perhaps especially, though it does take some getting used to, as does the accent it’s delivered in.  I have found steady work typing up notes for a local physician.  I have full use of my stipend now but I prefer to keep busy.

I have put all romantic thoughts on hold for the immediate future.  It’s best, I think, to give my heart time to fully purge itself of Hosmer Angel.  My head was easy to clear; the heart is always a different matter.

I hope this finds you well and that perhaps someday I will have the opportunity to repay you for all that you have given me.

Forever indebted,

Mary Sutherland

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