Dr Watson's Wimbledon Wantonbyshawalphamale©
England's greatest detective is away in the Balkans and sexual blackmail is afoot in centre court. Can the good Doctor save Miss Maude Oakes from a fate worse than being beaten by the American challenger or will it be love all?
It's often said that doctors make the worst patients and I was feeling fretful enough to prove the point. Still, it was a day that would cause any Londoner to chafe at having to remain indoors: high summer and a cloudless sky outside as the sun warmed the cobblestones of Baker Street and smiled through the opened windows of number 221B. The chemical retorts stacked on the acid stained workbench glistened, dust motes danced over the piles of books lying in untidy heaps and only the unused fireplace seemed mournful.
Candidly though, the fireplace was not the only thing in the room which seemed to be of no present utility to anyone. That description might well have been applied to me, John H. Watson, MD, late of the Medical Department of the Indian Army. For I was temporarily crippled by a sharp attack of gout in the toes of my left foot, an attack of such severity that I was compelled to spend most of my time sitting in my armchair by the empty fireplace with the afflicted foot resting on a footstool. Not only were my toes paining me, but the affected nerves also extended to my old Afghan bullet wound, summoning up frequent sharp twinges as unwelcome reminders of past service on the North West Frontier.
It ill becomes an old campaigner to complain about minor afflictions but such was my mood that I would have gladly welcomed the chance of a few minutes conversation with that brash young author, Mr Kipling, so that I might have told him what I thought of all the tosh he writes about the Great Game. In my humble opinion, if the Russians or anybody else want to rule Afghanistan, we Britons should offer them every encouragement to try to do so. That blighted territory has caused nothing but trouble for anybody foolish enough to meddle in its barbaric affairs and always will do.
But since there was neither Mr Kipling nor anybody else present to talk to, I perforce attempted once again to find something interesting to read in the books Mrs Hudson had placed by my side. It was not an occupation which could divert my restlessness for long. Unusually for one of my normally placid temperament I now had some inkling of the oppressive boredom which settled on Holmes when there was no case of interest to apply his mind to. For me, a brisk walk in the fresh air and a half pint of best bitter afterwards in the 'The Cask and Greyhound' would have settled my nerves admirably. Yet even those small pleasures were presently denied me.
Perhaps, though, the matter of most concern was the absence of the world's greatest detective. For Sherlock Holmes was carrying out one of the most important investigations of his career, and doing so far away from his usual haunts. He had been gone from London for over five days and I believed him by now to be somewhere in Transylvania.
"I have no wish at all to be dispatched on this mission, Watson," he had told me from amidst a cloud of his favorite shag tobacco on the eve of his departure to Dover. "But the request came not only from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary: there was also an appeal from an even more majestic level, one which no loyal Englishman could deny. Indeed, never before can I remember such concern in the highest of circles, not even when the plans for the Bruce-Partington submersible vessel went astray. So I'm bound for the Balkans, and no discussion is to be entered into."
"But, Holmes, what could happen in those primitive areas to affect British interests?" I'd asked of him in surprise.
"Why, Watson, anyone who takes the trouble to read the daily newsprints knows that the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a ship of state with many in its crew ripe for mutiny. Now we have certain word that the Black Hand Gang of Serbia is planning to strike a blow which will be deemed a casus beli for a general uprising against the Imperial authorities. I agree that in times past that would have been a matter of little interest to London, but we live in a changing world. One of the most important capitals in Europe has passed into the control of a vainglorious peacock with a thirst for military adventures. Let a spark strike in the Balkans today and it might set off the whole of Europe like a gigantic powder magazine. That is a tragedy that any man must do whatever is in his power to prevent. So now I fear I must make my departure for the boat train."
I'd struggled to my feet to shake his hand and bid him God speed. "I only wish that I might come with you, Holmes, but with this accursed foot I would be more hindrance than help."
"Come, Watson, cheer up. Even if you were able to chronicle this case it's an absolute surety it could never be published, not for as long as the Austro-Hungarian and British Empires endure. And I fear you would find the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains but a poor substitute for our usual lush hunting grounds in the home counties. No, it's best you stay and hold the fort against my return, stout fellow that you are. Farewell."
Well, if I was still holding the fort, it was as a forlorn and crippled garrison. As Holmes had done so many times before me, I wished that something would happen which would occupy my mind. And how soon and how fully was that idle wish to be granted!
"Doctor, excuse me, but there's a young lady on the doorstep who wishes to speak to Mr Holmes."
I looked up to see Mrs Hudson's honest face at the doorway. It seemed odd that she should have troubled to ascend the staircase for such a pointless announcement.
"Then she is unfortunate in her timing, as well you know, Mrs Hudson. Mr Holmes is abroad and not expected back for some time. Whatever the lady's difficulties, she must seek her help for them in some other quarter."
Mrs Hudson was as little affected by my blast of irritation as an oak tree by a gentle breeze: "Yes, Doctor, but this is not quite an ordinary young lady. Her name is Miss Oakes."
I felt my brows crease in puzzlement at her words. Was I supposed to be acquainted with this female?
"Miss Maude Oakes," Mrs Hudson repeated with a touch of asperity and suddenly I realized whom she was referring to.
"You mean the tennis player? The All England champion?"
"Yes sir, that Miss Oakes. The girl who won at Wimbledon last year and will again tomorrow, when she beats that American upstart, Daisy Cavanah."
Mrs Hudson's already sharp voice became even sharper with disapproval.
"Can you imagine that, Doctor, some Yankee coming over here and thinking they can beat the English at their own game? And yet that may well happen if Miss Maude has to go out onto the court in the same condition she's in now. In no fit state to represent her country, poor dear, I can see that much for myself."
I had no idea that Mrs Hudson had such an interest in any sport, but it was indeed possible that she might approve very strongly of Miss Oakes. Certainly everybody in the country knew about the young female champion, even those not normally interested in tennis. For Maude Oakes was in the way of being England's sweetheart and I was astonished at my own slowness in not noting her name as soon as I heard it. I well remembered once seeing her play and it was a treasured memory. A tall strapping Amazon of a girl with a figure which made men catch their breath as she ran across a court, the hem of her skirt brushing against the grass so swiftly it sometimes seemed more like flying than fleetness of foot.
Yet it was not only her athletic and sporting prowess had made her a favorite of the press, but also her beauty, and it seemed there was always some excuse for her photograph to be published in the news tabloids yet again, almost always with her tennis cap perched jauntily on top of her tresses of blonde hair.
Of course I reflected that Maude Oakes seemed the most unlikely of visitors to be expected at Sherlock Holmes' lodgings. Whatever had brought her here there was probably little enough that I could do to help her. Still, she was more than welcome to enter, for the sight of her would light up my morning as surely as the sun was brightening up everybody else's day. And presumably a few minutes conversation could be of no great matter to Miss Oakes, whatever the urgency of her business.
With the aid of my stick I had managed to struggle to my feet when Mrs Hudson showed the young lady in. There are some people who can dominate their setting just by being there, like a diamond displayed amongst stones. They have a physical presence and a personality which seems to be cut from a more glittering cloth than the more prosaic material the rest of us have to wear during our earthly existence. Miss Oakes was one such: she was taller than me, broad shouldered, deep bosomed, yet with a waistline which would have done credit to a danseuse; her blonde hair and vivid blue eyes were made for a Viking's delight and her complexion had the freshness of newly dewed rose petals. Above all else though, my first impression of her was of a radiant energy and a grace of movement worthy of display on the stage of Covent Garden.
Quite frankly, once she was touching my hand in greeting, I was regretting my decision to admit her. For I suddenly realized how old and infirm I must seem when compared to this young and golden embodiment of youthful Britannia.
"Doctor Watson, it is good of you to see me. I'm in desperate need of sound advice. In fact it was an assistant manager of the Savoy Hotel whom suggested that I come here, though he himself knows not the half of my troubles."
Indeed, she looked to be near despair, and my heart beat in sympathy, as it must in the breast of any decent man when appealed to by a person of the feminine persuasion.
"Miss Oakes, we could hardly turn away a young lady of your accomplishments away from our doorstep. But it is my sad duty to tell you that Mr Holmes is abroad and unable to help you for the present."
She nodded briskly.
"So I was informed when I arrived. But perhaps my journey has not been wasted. Frankly, the matter which brings me here is so delicate that I would actually prefer to reveal it to a medical man in the first instance. Please, may I talk freely to you?"
"Of course, Miss Oakes, of course."
The lady politely refused Mrs Hudson's offer of a dish of tea. Once we were alone and seated she produced a letter from her reticule.
"Before I show this to you, Doctor, I must first explain that during the All England Tennis Championships I have been staying at the Savoy Hotel. As you know I have been fortunate enough to win my way through to the finals, which will be played tomorrow morning at eleven thirty. Yesterday I returned to the Savoy from Wimbledon with all my playing gear in the cab with me. Somehow, between the time my cases were unloaded, and the porter bringing them to my room, my racket was stolen."
"Stolen? At the Savoy!"
"Yes, it seems quite incredible and at first the management believed some dreadful mistake had been made as they made the most desperate efforts to find out where the racket could have gone to.
"You must understand, Doctor, how much that racket means to me. It was made for me when I first began playing tennis by Mr Owen Mullard, at that time the senior proprietor of Mullard and Sons of Restoration Row, a king of his trade and now, regrettably, deceased. Every game since then I have played with my Mullard in my hand, and I know it as well as any violinist would know his instrument. I also know that I can never hope to play at my top form without my own racket. Which means I shall probably lose against Daisy Cavanah."
I was aghast at the very mention of such a possibility.
"A Yankee winning at Wimbledon! Come, come, Miss Oakes, surely the loss of even the most treasured of rackets cannot undermine your morale to the extent that you could believe such a thing possible. Why, her Majesty herself is believed to be taking an interest in the outcome of the Championships."
Miss Oakes shook her head sadly: "I fear that I shall indeed be defeated. All conflicts on the center court are eventually decided as much upon spirit as on skill, and everybody involved in the game knows how much value I place on my Mullard. When she hears that it has been taken from me Daisy Cavanah's spirits must be elevated in the same degree that mine have been lowered."
So obvious was her distress that I almost reached out to squeeze her hand in compassion. Fortunately I was able to stop myself from committing such a terrible faux pas with an unmarried lady.
"You say your racket has been stolen from you, Miss Oakes. Are you absolutely sure that this is so? Might it not have been misplaced or taken away in error?"
"No, Doctor. For a letter addressed to me was delivered to the Savoy desk this morning by a pageboy who handed in over with my empty racket case and immediately left. Before I show it to you, I beg your assurance that you will keep its contents completely confidential. Even the mere fact of my having received it would cause a terrible scandal."
"How could that possibly be?" I asked.
"Read it and you will find out for yourself, for surely you will never have seen a more infamous document, not in any of the nefarious criminal cases you have chronicled as Mr Sherlock Holmes' companion!"
Surprised by the openly displayed intensity of her emotions, I picked up the letter. I was written on a single sheet of fine quality but unheaded writing paper with a well shaped nib and neatly blotted:
'My Dear Miss Oakes,
Or may I take the liberty of calling you Maude? For I hope we shall be much better acquainted by and by. I would indeed wish us to be friends, and as a friend it is my pleasure to return to you your racket case, proving that I have possession of your Mullard, which, I am happy to assure you, is unharmed.
Naturally, as a patriotic Englishman, it is my dearest wish that your racket should also be returned to you forthwith so you may win the All England Championship. However, being also a man, and perhaps your greatest admirer, I claim the privilege of returning your property to you personally. Be on platform number six at Euston station at three o'clock this afternoon. You will be approached and show a playing card, the Ace of Hearts. Without any hesitation you will follow the person who shows you the card and obey any instructions he or she gives you. By a roundabout route you will be brought to me and your racket handed back to you.
However, before the transaction is complete, I shall claim my reward. As a keen photographer I have long desired to capture your image, preferably holding your racket aloft. But what would make the photograph perfect would be for you to pose for me wearing nothing but your playing boots and your tennis cap. That would indeed be a picture worth the taking.
If you genuinely desire to have your racket returned, and if you are willing to grant me the favor I have asked for, be at Euston station at three o'clock. Should you be unwise enough to involve the police in this matter, be aware that the agent who meets you at the station will be completely unable to help the force to identify or locate me. Furthermore, any such action will result in the immediate destruction of your precious racket,
Your most obedient servant,
An Ardent Admirer'
My hand shook with outrage as I read this madman's letter. Indeed, I was so angry that I could find no words at first to express my feelings, but could only express them in lashing at the footstool with my stick, nearly hitting my own foot as I did so. I suppose it was something of a comical performance, but rarely in my life had I felt so angry as I spluttered and struck out in ineffectual rage at the furniture.
"Blaggardly, Caddish! An affront to civilized society! Despicable!"
As I sank back into my chair there came an urgent knocking on the door: "Doctor! Doctor! Are you all right?" Mrs Hudson was clearly worried that I might have suffered from some kind of seizure.
With considerable effort I managed to calm my outraged sensibilities to some degree.
"I'm well enough, thank you." I called out to reassure my anxious landlady. "Nothing for you to worry about, Mrs Hudson."
I waited until I had heard the worthy landlady's footsteps go back down the staircase before I could trust myself to speak.
"You are quite right, Miss Oakes. I have never, never, in all my years of dealing with the criminal classes, come across anything so flagrantly in denial of all standards of human decency. Equally certainly, your name must never be linked with this madman's ravings. I suggest you burn this letter immediately."
Miss Oakes pursed her lips, as if in doubt about my advice.
"Might it not be better to keep it in case it contains some clue as to the origin? You see, Doctor, I have had time to think on my journey here and I wonder if this is perhaps some kind of a trick designed to unsettle me even more than the loss of my racket. It may be that whoever penned this . . . communication is not in fact a madman but a student of psychology intent on completely destroying the last shreds of my concentration before tomorrow's match."
"By Jove, you could be right," I admitted. "But it would take a mind of complete depravity to conceive such a plan. Were you committed to playing a French opponent the situation might possibly be as you postulate."
"But surely no American would ever stoop so low?"
"Hmmm . . . No, I doubt it, Miss Oakes. Certainly they have their baser moments, but with the Americans it's almost always money which brings out the worst in them, and that can hardly apply here. Not even the most avaricious Yankee sharp can ever hope to make any money out of respectable sporting activities, least of all in such a genteel pursuit as female tennis. No, I believe this letter to come from the source it indicates, some foul creature so utterly besotted by his bestial desires that he imagines you might possibly consent to do as he bids you to."
Miss Oakes stared at me with a directness and a force in those vivid blue eyes which quite disconcerted me.
"And yet I must consider the alternatives. Imagine the prospect of a Wimbledon Trophy being taken ashore at New York and borne in triumph through the streets. It would be like a Roman Triumph! Why, I might as well be dragged along Broadway in a cage as if I were a captured barbarian princess being taken as a prize to Caesar."
"Come, come, Miss Oakes, you exaggerate, surely? After all, you would not be there but here, in your own country."
"Yes, here in a country in which all my previous successes would have been turned to ashes in my mouth. A country in which I would hereafter be pitied at best and regarded as almost a traitoress by others. No, I will not submit to that fate without a desperate struggle, no matter what sacrifices I may be called upon to make."
I tried to lead her back to the path of sanity.
"Miss Oakes, a moment's quiet thought must indicate to you that any idea of actually following the instructions in this foul letter would lead you to a position in which you could be totally compromised. Such a rash course of action might mean being forcibly deprived of a treasure worth far more to a decent girl than any sporting trophy."
Those curiously bright eyes seemed even bluer than the summer sky outside as they continued to gaze upon me.
"You are referring to my virginity, Doctor Watson?"
Never in all my years of medical practice had any young gal spoken to me with such directness. Certainly, never before had I found myself discussing such delicate matters with a blush on my own cheek and none on my patient's fair features. Yet Miss Oakes seemed quite unperturbed as she laid out the position with a directness which would have taken a female bargee aback.