The Man with the Twisted Lip
by Terence Faherty
Art by Allen Davis
Due to the controversy surrounding our publication of recently unearthed first drafts of several famous short stories by Dr. John H. Watson, chronicler and confidant of Sherlock Holmes, we are deviating from our prior practice of publishing the tales in their original order. Reproduced below as the fourth entry in our scholarly study is the earliest known version of “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” the sixth of Watson’s efforts to appear in the Strand Magazine. We moved forward this manuscript’s publication date because it contains a reference by Holmes himself to Watson’s practice of refashioning his source material, which may help to settle some of the scepticism on this point within the Sherlockian community. (As was the case with the earlier examples made available to the public, Dr. Watson’s manuscript notes are inserted in the appropriate places in the text in parentheses.)
Asa Whitley, brother of the late Sir William Whitley, of the Society for the Improvement of Drains, was a rake’s rake. The pursuit of women—tall or short, fat or lean—was a habit that dated from his college days, when, needing money for books, he’d undertaken part-time employment as a fitter of bustles, during that fashion appliance’s 1881 vogue. Like so many men before him, he’d found the desire for female companionship a hunger not easily sated. He attempted the conventional cure, marriage, but it failed to answer.
One evening in the spring of 1889, there came a ringing at my front-door bell. It didn’t rouse me fully from a doze, but my wife and helpmate completed my transition to wakefulness by throwing her needlework at my head.
“If that’s a patient,” she said, “it had better be a man.”
I should say here that in my own home I had the same sorry reputation as Asa Whitley enjoyed in the world at large, though in my case it was due entirely to my wife’s misapprehensions.
The person who was shown in a moment later was a woman and a very attractive one, at least in regard to her figure. Her face was covered by a veil.
I groaned, anticipating another assault from my wife. To my surprise, Mary rose from her seat and rushed to greet the newcomer, whom she had somehow recognized.
“It is Kay Whitley,” she said, drawing back the other’s veil to reveal a tear-stained face.
“I need your help,” sobbed Kay.
“Do you wish me to send James to bed?”
“Who is this James?” I demanded, for my given name is John. (Don’t let her forget this slip.)
Before Mary could do more than color, Kay burst out, “Let him stay! I need his help as well. It’s Asa. He’s not been home for two days. His . . . weakness occasionally takes him away from me for a night but never for two. I fear some harm has befallen him. Perhaps a jealous husband.”
“You should be so lucky,” Mary said.
“I have it from a reliable source that he is at the Golden Bell in Upper Swandam Lane. It is a small hotel of dubious repute that caters to illicit couples.”
“Know it?” Mary asked me acidly.
“Yes. That is, I know the street. I mean, that part of town. Near the river, isn’t it? Or is it?”
Kay cut short my babbling by insisting that I go at once to fetch Asa. My wife surprised me yet again by agreeing to the plan. But she reverted to character with the remark with which she sent me out into the night.
“If you’re not back here in an hour, we’ll be coming after you.”
Upper Swandam Lane ran along the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge. The Golden Bell was an island of light and music among the wharves, an old inn that served sailors and tipplers as well as the dallying couples Kay Whitley had mentioned.
Telling my cabman to wait, I entered the hotel’s taproom to have a quick whiskey and soda before I inquired after Whitley. The inquiries proved unnecessary, as I found the man himself propped against the bar, swaying his head to the tinkling of a piano.
“Good heavens! It’s Watson!” he exclaimed. I was amazed that he recognized me, for he was much the worse for drink. “What brings you here?”
“Bringing you home brings me here,” I said. (Sounded better in my head. Rewrite.) “Your wife sent me. What do you mean by staying away for two nights running?”
“She didn’t come, Watson. The most entrancing creature in the world promised to meet me here two days ago, but she didn’t come. I’ve been waiting ever since. I’ll wait forever!”
“You’ll come with me right now, you infamous hound,” I said, “or we’ll be swinging from the same gibbet. Come on.”
Whitley, who had the face of a not overbright ferret, winked at me. “Can’t,” he said. “I’ve been drinking on credit since noon.”
“Perfect,” I replied with asperity and set out in search of the landlord. (Make landlord a lascar. What exactly is a lascar?)
At the far end of the room, I encountered a tall man whose straight back was at odds with his long white hair. He had been dancing a hornpipe with some dexterity until the moment I passed between him and the bar. At that instant, he stumbled into me.
“My apologies, Doctor,” he whispered.
“Holmes!” I said, for I now saw through the disguise and recognized my companion from many an amazing adventure.
“Quieter, please,” he said. “Settle your friend’s bill and meet me out front in five minutes.”
I did as instructed. As Whitley and I exited the hotel, I noticed a beggar squatting on the sidewalk. One more beggar in London would not normally have attracted my attention, but this unfortunate was like no other: orange-haired and deathly pale, with a horrid scar that turned his upper lip inside out. I dropped a copper in his leather cap as we passed him.
Moments later, Sherlock Holmes emerged from the hotel, apparently as unsteady on his feet as Whitley, who clung to my arm for support. When he neared us, the detective reverted to his normal purposeful stride.
“What a stroke of luck, Watson. I could certainly use your help this evening.”
“Nothing doing,” I said. “I have to take Whitley here back to my place, where his wife is currently encamped. He’s been away too long on a broken assignation.”
Holmes waved further explanation away. “Everyone in the Golden Bell already knows all about it. The man’s a fountain of indiscretion. Is that your cab? Excellent. Pour your friend into it and send him to your home, if that’s where his lucky wife is waiting. You can write a note to your own lucky wife and tell her you’ll be with me at The Cedars near Lee in Kent on a matter of life and death.”
“My death,” I muttered.
I’d never been able to refuse Holmes anything, however, so I wrote the note and entrusted it and Whitley to the cabman. In the meantime, Holmes had deposited his wig in a Gladstone bag and whistled up a dogcart. A moment later we two were racing into the night, Holmes at the reins. We crossed the river, our horse’s hoofbeats suddenly tiny against the water’s awesome moaning, and charged through increasingly suburban and deserted streets. A somber rack (I think I mean wrack) drifted across the stars. Holmes dozed from time to time, and only repeated applications of my elbow to his ribs kept us from ending in a ditch.
After one of these jabs, he said, “Perhaps we should talk to keep me awake. I’d hate for you to injure your arm.”
“Fine,” I said. “You can tell me why I’m here.”
“You’re here to protect me from the little woman who’s even now waiting for me by her front door. That flying elbow of yours will be invaluable when we’re trying to get past her.”
“Who is this little woman?”
“Her name is Rita St. Pierre, Mrs. Nigel St. Pierre to the world at large. She’s hired me to find her husband, who disappeared two days ago under the most unusual circumstances. He was last seen at the Golden Bell, which is why I was there tonight. I was in disguise because the landlord, a cunning Irishman (wily lascar) has a grudge against me from a prior encounter. Plus I once walked out on a bar tab.”
“About this St. Pierre.”
“Right. He turned up in Lee five or six years back with a pocketful of money, bought a big house, and married the daughter of the local brewer. The man’s a genius.”
“No, the brewer. You should taste his Maibock. You will taste it, in fact, as St. Pierre has several barrels installed in the cellar of The Cedars, his house.”
Holmes smacked his lips. I drew back my elbow in preparation for a prodding blow, and the threat was enough to spur the detective on.
“Every day, St. Pierre goes into the city to attend to his business, though no one in Lee, including his wife, knows what that business is.”
“That is odd.”
“Exceedingly. Two days ago, he went in as usual. It happened that Mrs. St. Pierre went into the city as well, by a later train. After lunch, she found herself in Upper Swandam Lane.”
“Among the wharves and gin mills?”
“She had to pick up a package that had arrived by ship. She was passing the Golden Bell when an upper-story window opened and Nigel St. Pierre stuck his head and shoulders out. He was wearing only his shirt, sans collar. A second later he emitted a strange cry and disappeared back into the room. Convinced that he was in danger, Mrs. St. Pierre rushed inside, only to have her way blocked by the Irish ruffian (lascar scoundrel) who runs the place.
“She returned moments later with a pair of police constables and gained admittance to the upper floor. No one was about except for a crippled ragamuffin of singular countenance: orange hair, pale face, and mangled lip.”
“I saw the very man tonight, begging in the street when Whitney and I quit the inn.”
“Did you, by Jove? He was gone when I came out or I would have had a word with him. I’m convinced he is involved somehow. He was in the upper hallway, very near the door of the room in which Nigel St. Pierre was last seen. Before this beggar could be questioned thoroughly, the shady Irish (rascally lascar) innkeeper tossed him into the street.
“Inside the room itself, the party discovered Nigel St. Pierre’s clothing but not the outfit’s owner. The pockets of the coat were packed tightly with coins, mostly pennies and half-pennies.”
“Pennies? Whatever for?”
“I can think of one possibility. There is a trap door at the back of the inn, right at the edge of the river. It is possible that St. Pierre’s body passed through that door and that his weighted clothing would have followed but for Mrs. St. Pierre’s intervention.”
“What did the police do?”
“Nothing. They didn’t have a body, St. Pierre’s not having, as yet, washed up. They didn’t even have a suspect. The ragged cripple had vanished and the Irish villain (lascar cutthroat) could not have manhandled St. Pierre, as he was downstairs manhandling Mrs. St. Pierre within seconds of her husband’s disappearance from the window. The police being flummoxed, she naturally consulted me. I’ve been staying in Lee ever since.”
“But why not conduct the case from your rooms in Baker Street?”
“There are no barrels of Maibock in Baker Street. Not a one. Still, this arrangement is far from ideal. Mrs. St. Pierre is somewhat aggressive physically.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll soon find out. Don’t be surprised if she greets us in an outfit entirely inappropriate to her current dire circumstances. Ah, here we are.”
We pulled up before a large house, and Holmes passed the reins to a waiting stableboy. We’d barely climbed down before the front door of the house sprang open. A blond woman was framed in the doorway, clad, as Holmes had predicted, in a sort of muslin negligee set off at the neck and wrists with pink chiffon. The light from the room beyond, streaming through the muslin, left no curve of her figure to our imaginations.
“Crikey!” I breathed.
“You can say that again. Elbows at the ready, Watson.”
“Well?” the sentinel called out to us.
“No news,” Holmes said.
The woman slumped against the jamb, and we took the opportunity to slip past her and into a well-lit drawing room, where she shortly joined us. Holmes then introduced me. Mrs. St. Pierre held my cold hand so long in her very warm one that I glanced over my shoulder for Mary involuntarily.
Then she rounded on my friend. “Tell me the truth, Mr. Holmes. You have brought a doctor along to help you deal with a hysterical woman. You plan to tell me that my husband is dead.”
“No such thing,” the detective replied. “Dr. Watson’s presence is a pledge that I am redoubling in my efforts on your behalf.”
Holmes seemed mildly distracted, but not, as I was, by the physical presence of our hostess. She wore a perfume that would have made the finest gardenia on earth wilt with envy, and plenty of it too. Holmes’s preoccupation was explained in the next instant, when a manservant entered carrying a tray on which sat two steins of beer.
“I noted the arrival of a second, ah, guest,” this person said, “and took the liberty of bringing two Maibocks.”
“Quite right, Boone,” Rita—as she insisted I address her—replied. “And you may prepare a second room.”
“No need,” said Holmes, his lean face, which had brightened at the sight of the silver salver, darkening again. “My room has two beds. Watson will rough it with me. I intend to stay up all night in any case, ruminating.”
“I’ll be up in a moment,” Rita said, “to see if there’s anything you need.”
Boone preceded us to the upper floor, carrying the silver tray. Once inside our room, Holmes flung his Gladstone into a closet, of which there were two, facing each other on either side of a pair of beds. When the servant had gone, Holmes began to collect pillows and cushions, piling them in one corner of the room. Then he produced his pipe and tobacco.
“I’ll take the first watch, Watson. One of us will have to stand guard all night against that incubus in pink muslin.”
“Succubus, you mean,” I said.
“Have you drunk both beers?”
The detective’s reply was cut off by a knock on our door. It opened, and Rita St. Pierre entered, pushing before her a veritable fog bank of scent.
“Comfortable?” she murmured.
“Perfectly,” Holmes said from his throne of cushions.
“You look just like a maharajah, Mr. Holmes.”
“An emir, rather,” I said.
“Shut up, Watson,” Holmes said.
The sound of a commotion came clearly through the closed bedroom door. It was the noise of a man charging up the stairs. . . .
# # #
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"The Man with the Twisted Lip" by Terence Faherty, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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