My short story that follows BOHEMIAN SOUL was originally published in Jersey Devil Press, Sherlock Holmes special edition, January 2016.
Abra Deering Norton
Of course I’d heard of Godfrey Norton. It was only that I didn’t quite recall the name. I was busy with my own life, my own distractions. The wife and I were having some marital distress. Mainly, I was ready to begin our healthy brood and she wasn’t in the mood for breeding. Whether that was due to a distaste for breeding with me, or breeding in general, I could not say. I will admit I’d been drinking too much as of late and that had done little to advance marital bliss with my rose of a wife so I moved out. Mrs. Hudson welcomed me back to 221B Baker Street without so much as a blink and a how do you do.
Holmes was at his most distracted. Gone for days at a time, meeting with Mycroft over some super-secret urgent mission, on this case or that. It was as if he hadn’t even acknowledged that I’d moved back in to our lodgings. I told him it was temporary. He said nothing to me but raised one eyebrow.
I was surprised then, on Tuesday morning the fifteenth, when a young woman called. Mrs. Hudson announced a “Miss Norton” and a young American girl came over the threshold and settled herself in the chair opposite mine. The woman had the most beguiling features. Cat-like eyes that reflected the light in a mercurial way. Hair as dark as a raven’s. Smooth skin that tended to be ruddy. Her hands were jittery. They went from her hat, to her lap, to her parasol, to her beaded reticule. She sat stiff in the chair, her white shirtwaist was neatly pressed. She said her name was Miss Adler Norton and she hailed from New Jersey. She was in England visiting a friend of her father’s, a barrister. He was a member of The Honorable Society of the Inner Temple, of course. His name was Brosnan. He’d recommended that she hire Sherlock Holmes at once.
I was so taken with her that it took me a long while to put two and two together. She dropped a glove which I fetched for her. I noticed the dirt and clay under her nails. I was taken aback.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I’m a sculptress. My mother says I have a Bohemian soul,” she said.
My eyebrows shot up. “Indeed? That sounds like someone I know,” Holmes was quite the bohemian. “Sherlock Holmes sometimes frequents the Algerian in Soho. The coffee is dark and sweet, served in tall glasses. I went with him once. Ran into a bohemian fellow, head to toe dressed in ruby red corduroy, sat on one end and a literary agent on the other. Everyone smoking Eastern cigarettes. They talked until well past midnight.”
“You describe the scene accurately. I find it not so much Hogarthian as stimulating.”
“What do you sculpt?” was all I could think to say. I’d never known a sculptress before.
“People,” she said. “They are the most difficult.”
“Why is that, do you suppose?”
“Because they are not always what they appear to be.”
Just as I was about to speak, the door pushed open. Holmes stood on the threshold, somehow appearing taller than he had this morning. His cheeks, nose and ears were red from the cold and he carried the smell of London’s streets, mixed with crisp air, with him. He wore his Inverness cape, a scarf tossed over his shoulder, and a hat with ear flaps. It was an Ushanka hat. A gift from a client and due to the inclement weather, he’d taken to wearing it in the city and in the country, in place of his deerstalker.
Miss Norton shifted in her seat. I opened my mouth to introduce her but Sherlock had removed his fur cap and nodded his head in greeting. He said nothing to her. But he stared. For a second longer than necessary.
“Watson, you must haste. Take notes please. I will return.”
With that he spun on his heel and left.
I was flabbergasted.
Miss Norton looked stunned. Too tough to be injured, even if his manners were curt, she simply nodded.
“I best get on with it then,” Miss Norton said. “My mother has disappeared. She left me a note and told me to see Mr. Brosnan. You see, she said I am to come into a small fortune and she feared for my life.”
“She’s an old… acquaintance… of Mr. Holmes.”
I found myself scoffing at such a notion. A female acquaintance of Holmes! Then I stopped. She couldn’t be! Could not be!
“You’re Irene Adler’s daughter!” I blurted, astounded.
She stared at me, a tone of defiance in her look, “I am,” she said but her tone seemed to imply a “what of it?” and being that she was American, I didn’t want to press further, knowing how liable Americans are to brawl at the slightest provocation.
“I am just, surprised. I remember Mrs. Adler, er, Norton. Holmes remembers her well.”
She pressed her lips together. “There’s some doubt,” she said, “as to, well, my natural birth… origins. This is awkward.”
“My dear, you best tell me.”
She nodded. “My father, Godfrey, married my mother and raised me.”
“I recall,” I said, “that they were married in some haste before departing London.”
She nodded. “I am not Godfrey’s natural daughter. It seems that I am, in fact, Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein’s daughter. Ormstein was the King of Bohemia before the Kingdom was to be ruled by Emperor Ferdinand.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m already eighteen. One could make the argument that I am an heir to the Kingdom of Bohemia,” she said.
I stared at her. I was overcome with the desire to fall into a pique of laughter, for some strange reason. Perhaps it was something Mrs. Hudson had put in the tea. Wilhelm had been found dead a few months prior in a harlot’s house near Haymarket. He’d been disgraced and Emperor Ferdinand had taken over, marrying his widow, the Swedish Queen so that she could keep her title. It had caused quite the scandal. She had a daughter but no sons. The daughter was about Miss Norton’s age.
Ah. Yes. Matters complicated, indeed. “Well, do you have any proof of your assertions?”
“I do, of course. I have a letter from King Wilhelm. With the official stamp.”
She produced the letter from her reticule. I went over to Sherlock’s desk, found his magnifying glass and gave a look. I ran my fingers over it. It seemed authentic enough. I recalled, from my memory banks, the King’s personal stationary. I remembered it and this matched. I read aloud: “My dearest Irene, you and I have known the truth all these years and you honored your end of the bargain. I shall honor mine. I do not wish any shame to be brought upon the House of Ormstein. You shall keep our little secret, the darling ‘parcel’ as we call her, and you will receive the following items: a selection of photographs, one bumbershoot, and the rare opal, gold, and diamond necklace which was worn by my mother that will be bequeathed to our little parcel.”
I looked at the “little parcel.” She looked as scared as a bird that would start pecking at the air in a nervous fashion at any moment. I felt protective of her somehow.
“Does Holmes know?”
She shrugged. “Brosnan suggested we contact him. My mother said she and Mr. Holmes were dear friends.” I doubted it but didn’t want to say so. Miss Norton’s eyes roamed our sitting room. She took in the walls of books, the odds and ends that could be in a curiosity-shop, the cigars and pipes, even a scarab from the great Lady Meux. Miss Norton nodded. “Yes, mother described this room in great detail. It appears that it hasn’t changed much in eighteen years.”
“Your mother was here?”
“Oh yes. Before she left for the states with my… father, er… you know… Godfrey.”
I doubted that too but remained mum. I wanted to pat her hand and make her feel safe. She had a face of steel, yet there was more vulnerability in her eyes than a hundred does in the meadow. “Pray, may I ask Miss Norton, what do you want Mr. Holmes to do, precisely?”
“To keep me safe. There’s a bounty on my head. Mr. Brosnan, the barrister, contacted the royal house on my behalf and naturally they resisted.”
“Naturally. That’s awful. I am not certain Holmes can keep you safe.”
“There’s also this…” she reached inside her shirt and pulled out a gold necklace. The chain was thick as a rope. In the center was the largest opal I’d ever seen. It was ringed with diamonds. Two rows of large, dazzling diamonds. It was stunning. I gasped.
“Well you have it. I’m confused, it’s beautiful, what’s the problem?” I asked.
“Dr. Watson, I’m saying that this necklace – the one my true father, the King, bequeathed to me – is not this. This. Is a fake.”
She nodded. “It’s worthless. I don’t know if it was a cruel trick he played on my mother or if someone in his House sent me the fake. My mother was hysterical because the first thing she did was have it appraised. Then she put us on the next steamer and planned to confront him. On our journey over – he passed away. She looked up a friend of my father, er, Mr. Norton’s, and he said we should contact Mr. Holmes. She told me she was on her way to see Holmes – a few days ago – I haven’t seen her since.”
She began crying into her muckender. “I just d-don’t know what to do.”
“So what you’re saying is that you are, in fact, a princess.”
Her eyes went wide. “Now that you put it like that. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Do you really think so?”
“I daresay, Miss Norton, if you are the king’s daughter you have a claim to something. I know that many a King sired unnatural children, forgive me, and they often do not get recognized – certainly not an ascension to the throne. Take Edward IV, for example – his two sons, two princes, were locked in the Tower of London and never heard from again. And I believe it was Elizabeth I who reigned but…my dear you couldn’t possibly believe…”
“Oh gosh no, I don’t. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I’m American, Dr. Watson. I just want to give my mother some peace. She’s convinced I’m a princess. It seems to mean so much to her. Godfrey was a wonderful father to me. I’ll always consider him my father. Still. I always felt distant, somehow, different.”
“I suppose all children feel that way at one time or another. How did you feel different?”
“I often felt bored. If I’m being honest. It is like I can see things other people can’t. Strange details. All details. I can remember things too. I never forget a face. I feel, and this sounds horrible to say, but I feel as if people are ants and I’m looking down at them. I become exasperated at times at their slow-wittedness. For example, I could tell you a few things about yourself.”
“You drank too much last night. I noticed it immediately. You wince at light and sounds. The little capillaries around your eyes are broken. You were sick this morning, no?”
“Correct but not unusual. Any observant person would know that –”
“You would think so, but I often find not many seem to notice what I observe. You have the air of an upset man. Deeply upset, something nagging at you. I would guess that you and your wife are getting a divorce.”
I stared. “Yes. Well, I suppose that type of insight could be awful.”
She smiled sheepishly. “At times it is. The funny thing is I do like people. I’m an adventurer at heart, like my mother, and I love to feel alive, you know. That’s why I sculpt. It’s the only time I feel truly at peace.”
She stood up and came over to me, her eyes looking into mine, piercing. “Did you know Praxiteles, the ancient Greek sculptor, sculpted the most beautiful Aphrodite? Some built altars to her whereupon you could cleanse your heartsick soul. The Cyziceni had a well and just one taste would mitigate your lovesickness. Sculpting heals me. Do you need to be healed Dr. Watson?”
I couldn’t move. At that moment, for the first time in months, I felt the gloom evaporate. She was a basket of oranges, no doubt, as beguiling as she was pretty. I scarcely knew what to say. My throat was as dry as the Registan.
There was a banging upon the door. Inspector Bradstreet opened it. The man in the frogged jacket and tall cap. He kept his head hanging low.
“Where is Mr. Holmes?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea at the moment, he left some minutes ago,” said I.
Mrs. Hudson was in the doorway. “Is everything all right Inspector?”
“Excuse me a moment,” Miss Norton took her leave.
Holmes had instructed me to not let her out of my sight until he returned and I would not fail.
“May I be of service, Inspector Bradstreet?” I asked.
“No, just looking for Holmes.” Bradstreet glanced down at the letter and magnifying glass.
I waited until he left. Miss Norton was still absent to freshen up and Mrs. Hudson headed back to her apartment.
I stood for a moment looking out at the skyline. The grey, ethereal mist blanketed a city dotted with soft glowing lights and eerie ghosts of dark chimneys and bridges punctuated the night. The poetry of the city landscape was much more inspiring than that of the suburbs, if one were inclined to poetic notions, which I was not. The gloom was not as heavy on me now. There was no denying it, being at Baker Street agreed with me. I felt better than I’d felt in a while. My marriage was done.
I saw a blur of black coat and skirt run past me. I heard thumping down the stairs and the front door of our terrace slam closed. I grabbed my hat, coat, and brolly and headed out into the pattering rain. As luck would have it, I saw Miss Norton up ahead on the street and followed. She dodged a Growler and slipped in the mud but continued on. In the rain I could not see well. The Strand was a jumble of cabs, horse trams, crossing sweepers, pedestrians – nothing but a river of black bowlers and coats under the glare of lampposts. I feared she would disappear into the Underground.
I ran down the street, the rain pounding on me, blurring my vision. I saw a black skirt, jacket and hat dart around a corner. I dodged a Growler and came into a tunnel. There, for a few moments, I found relief from the downpour. I couldn’t see her. There was a workman leading his horse — holding a lantern high, two men in discussion, and another carrying a plank of wood. I came upon her conferring with the three men. She held a parcel. What, were they a team of Dragsmen?
“Miss Norton,” I said. “What do you have there?”
She spun around and the man with the wood plank – swung it in my direction. Fortunately for me, I ducked. Then with my good leg – I struck out and kicked his shins. He went down.
I grabbed Miss Norton and took her by the arm. The parcel was in the mud. She yanked her arm away and fell to the ground. She opened the package and pulled out goose feathers. “It’s not here! It’s not here!” she cried.
“All right, don’t go off your head.”
She swirled to standing and foisted me with an evil stare and shriek, then let out the hue and cry: “Toast your blooming eyebrows!”
She wailed and fussed all the way to Baker Street but that didn’t stop me from dragging her past the trams and Growlers and throwing her into a cab. In no time, we were back in our apartments and Mrs. Hudson was fetching tea.
Miss Norton seemed to be in a fit. She was distraught and feverish. Our landlady recommended putting her to bed. My room (and certainly Sherlock’s) was out of the question so instead we made a bed on the sofa. Mrs. Hudson tended to her. I read the newspaper. Finally, when we had a crackling fire, the girl sat up.
“I think you best come clean.”
“Okay,” she said in a quiet voice staring at her teacup. Then she looked at me and her young eyes were filled with tears. She was indeed, young, and I saw the conviction in her eyes. “But I know I’m not Godfrey’s daughter!” She rummaged through her reticule. “Look! We look nothing alike!”
Indeed, a photo showed Godfrey and he was tall with dark hair but the features were entirely different.
“So you expect me to believe you really are what? An unrecognized princess?”
“Believe what you want. I know Godfrey is not my father. I believe my mother. She told me he was not my father.”
Mrs. Hudson returned with a message. “It’s from Holmes,” she whispered, out of earshot of Miss Norton.
I took the note and retired to Holmes’s desk. It said that he found the real necklace at a jeweler’s in Marylebone. The instructions were specific. I was to go to the jeweler’s and obtain the necklace by any means necessary and then I was to meet Holmes at the hotel lobby. He would be in the corner, in the dark, and I was to leave the necklace in a parcel nearby. Holmes was meeting a representative from the House of Ormstein and needed the necklace to vouchsafe her life.
This was no small order. I made my way to the jewelers and after some arguing and a promise that I was “borrowing” it and leaving some items for collateral, the jeweler parted with the necklace. Miss Norton was with me and said not a peep.
We walked to the hotel and it was still raining. “I forgot my bumbershoot,” she said. I held out my brolly and she turned to me. “Dr. Watson, you’ve been such a dear. I’m sorry, for any trouble –”
I interrupted her. “Nonsense. It’s been awhile since I’ve helped Holmes and it’s gotten me out of a rather gloomy time.”
“I’m glad,” she said smiling. Then I saw her eyes take on the faraway look. “I’ll wait outside,” she said.
I went into the lobby. It was dimly lit and I could barely make out Holmes sitting in the corner with several people. I saw his profile quite distinctly and he was smoking a pipe. All was in shadow, as I expect the House of Ormstein wouldn’t have it any other way.
As instructed, I left the parcel on a table and turned to go.
I saw a woman rise from the table, dressed in a fine dress and fur. A flicker of recognition ran across my face. I staggered backwards. It couldn’t be! It was Irene Adler. She looked as if she hadn’t aged a day in eighteen years.
Holmes was meeting with Irene Adler?
Just then I spun around to see Holmes cross into the lobby, dragging Miss Norton by the arm. She twisted and turned and got out of his grasp. “Mother!” she cried.
Holmes held up a lantern and called out. The lights came on. Inspectors Bradstreet and Hopkins came forward.
“There!” Holmes cried. He pointed to the corner. Now that the lights were on I saw the men from the tunnel – when Miss Norton had hoped to have the real necklace then but the box had been empty. Mrs. Irene Adler stood with a triumphant look upon her face. And the Sherlock Holmes profile I’d seen in shadow?
It was a bust of plaster.
Miss Norton had done a marvelous job sculpting it.
“Your game is up,” Holmes said. “I don’t know why you should go to such lengths. It’s ridiculous. I would never believe that Miss Norton is Ormstein’s daughter. I saw the letter; Mrs. Hudson slipped it to me. I was, in fact, in disguise as Bradstreet in his hat and frogged coat. The chief clue was this – the word in the letter. “Bumbershoot” is an American word. It’s an Americanism of umbrella when Americans are trying to sound British.”
“I don’t understand,” Miss Norton said. “Mother?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Irene Adler said. “But you don’t understand, either, it was not my choice to be here – to do this.”
“We all have a choice,” Holmes said, “and this is not the way to get my attention.”
“Oh no? You ignored all my letters. It worked, didn’t it?”
Holmes stared at her, for the first time (well, the second time – the first time being the first encounter with Mrs. Irene Adler) he was rendered speechless. I often find women have this effect on men, but never have I seen it on Holmes, until her.
Holmes came to her slowly with the utmost delicate and gentle of expressions. He reached out his hand. Irene began weeping. She dropped her head.
“We both have bohemian souls, do we not? We – three?” Irene said.
Holmes soothed her. He took her hand. He lifted her chin. We all stared in awe.
“Indeed, my dear, we do. We do.”
What did that mean, exactly? Bohemian soul?
As if reading my thoughts, Holmes answered:
“We know that there is more to life than meets the eye. Most people cannot see beyond the ordinary. Most poor fools are blind. Artists see the extraordinary in every day.”
Miss Norton came forward, her voice a whisper. “Bohemian souls have the gift of sight. It is… magic.”
For a moment, the room seemed to dazzle. It was as if everything grew sharper, just for an instant, heightened, more spectacular. In that moment, I’m not afraid to admit – even a Blackheath man like myself – I did believe in magic. It would not be the first time I thought Holmes in possession of some otherworldly gifts. What would the world be without artists, writers, and “magic?” Without people like Holmes? It would be a very dull place, indeed.
Irene dabbed at her tears. She put on the stiff upper lip and turned to Miss Norton. “All I wanted, Holmes, was to show you – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
I stared in awe, my head bobbing from one to the other of them. What was going on? Were they all mad?
“You could’ve called and had a tea and conversation,” Holmes said. “Like ordinary people.”
“How dull. How unextraordinary. How unlike our bohemian souls.”
Holmes had nothing to say at that.
Miss Norton was not in tears but had a certain steely resolve. “The king is not my father?”
“No, dear,” said Irene Adler.
“And neither is Godfrey?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said with a smile.
“Well… who then? Mother, who is my father?”
Irene Adler looked at Holmes and smiled. “The man who is your father is in this photograph, here. An old cabinet I saved. From long ago. When I first encountered this.”
Just then a smoke bomb went off. We were dazed in a fit of coughs. The Inspectors called out and we stumbled through the lobby and outdoors. By the time Holmes and I made it to the street – they were gone.
Gone with the necklace too.
The necklace I’d obtained for them!
We went back inside as the windows were opened and the smoke was fanned. Holmes had the most curious expression on his face. One of such pain and longing as I’d never seen. We made our way over to the table whereupon we regarded the bust in his image. The sculpting showed real talent. It was quite remarkable, masterful, even.
There was a photograph set on the tabletop, leaning against the bust.
Holmes couldn’t bring himself to pick it up. I glanced at the photo – then back at him – then back at the photo.
“Why – why – why, Holmes!” was all I could say.
ABRA DEERING NORTON‘s recent fiction and poetry have appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The East Coast Literary Review, Star 82 Review, Eunoia Review, The Haiku Journal and elsewhere. She has an MFA from UCLA. She’s written for the Los Angeles Times and her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post. She recently completed an upmarket historical mystery-suspense novel with a female sleuth set in 1899. She’s originally from Minneapolis, lives in California and misses the rain. You can find her online at her website: www.thismywritinglife.com or twitter: @adeerLA.
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