The account was certainly a strange one. Under different circumstances, I would have been more than ready to discount it, but it was Murcheson who broached it to me, and I have never known him to indulge in any kind of fantasy.
He came to my London rooms in Berkley Mews early on a Saturday morning in March. There was still snow on the ground and the wind keened in the eaves. He appeared dishevelled and somewhat out of sorts. I asked him to take a seat in the armchair which he did immediately; flopping himself down with extreme abandon.
“You will not believe me, Renfrew!” he challenged.
“My dear Murcheson, it appears to me that you have had a significant encounter which begs revelation. Allow me to pour you a brandy which should calm your nerves. As to whether I believe you or not, you know that I have infinite faith in your veracity.”
I poured him a large brandy and handed it to him. He gulped it down eagerly with both his hands trembling on the glass. I don’t know which calmed him more: my assurance or the brandy, but he seemed – after a while – to pull himself together.
“I had to come to you, Renfrew,” he explained, finally. “No one else can help me; I am sure of it.”
“It was the teller in the bank, a few months ago, who brought the whole affair to my attention,” he explained. “I have never passed more than a word or two with him in my past transactions, but this time he initiated a conversation. ‘Your account has taken a leap, I see,’ he observed.
“I checked my balance. It had been increased by ten thousand pounds! I had no idea how this situation had occurred. I asked the teller to check the account, mumbling something about a possible bank error.
“‘No, sir,’ the teller responded. ‘There is no error.’
“I was stunned! Somehow, I made my way out of the bank and went across the street to Crosbie’s Coffee Rooms. You know; the place on the corner of Billing Street opposite the bank. I had to think.
“‘There is no error.’ The words haunted me! I had the power to expand my hatter business to at least two more shops. I was confused, but not distraught to the extent of ignoring the fact that this was, indeed, a valuable windfall for my business.
“I pondered on the situation. Eventually, I took things as they were and opened two more shops with the funds provided by my windfall. Oh, that I had never succumbed to such inordinate avarice! But my business was not providing me with much more than a living and so I did. Profits were good from the new shops and I began to live well.
“It was a few months after my apparently fortunate experience that I was approached in my home shop by a man who called himself Mr. Polankasis.
‘Might I help you?’ I inquired.
“You must understand that I had never seen the man before.
‘You already have,’ he smiled.
“There was something about his voice that sent chills down my spine. He was a tall man, well dressed and, I would judge, in his mid-forties, with aquiline features and deep-set, piercing eyes. He held a silver-headed cane in his hand. I recall the top of the cane was shaped in the form of a hawk’s head.
‘You have the advantage of me, sir.’ I offered.
‘Come now, Mr. Murcheson. We recently entered a business agreement together. Surely you recall the ten thousand pounds? I’ve come to collect on my investment.’
“I was shocked! If what he said was true, and I felt sure that it was, my unthinking greed had placed me in this man’s power. I had no doubt that he would be without compunction in destroying both my business and my reputation with some revelation of my action in using the money. He seemed that kind of man.
‘What is it you want?’ I asked him.
“He then proceeded to give me the most curious of reasons for his ‘investment’ as he had called it. ‘I need hats,’ he told me. ‘Forty of your finest black beavers, to be precise. I will send a man to give you the sizes and, later, to collect them. I am sure, with your new establishments, that you can provide what I need within, shall we say, a week?’
“I was flabbergasted! But I hastened to assure him that I would do what I could to fill his order. He smiled then; such a thin and harsh smile that it made me fear him all the more.
‘I knew that we could come to an agreement,’ he said. Then, without another word, he rose and left.
“You must understand, Renfrew, there was something eminently sinister about the man; he commanded absolute fear.”
“Most curious,” I observed.
“Curious, indeed! But, you must help me in this matter. Strange as it may seem, I feel this man has some nefarious purpose for the hats. As an unwilling accomplice, I am tied to heaven knows what terrible venture. I feel that only you can truly divine his intent.”
I replenished Murcheson’s empty glass. “Calm yourself, old fellow,” I instructed him. “I shall give the matter my complete attention.”
“You’re a true friend, Renfrew,” he gasped, gratefully. “A true friend, indeed!” He gulped down his drink and then he reached out and wrung my hand with both his own quite forcefully. “A true friend,” he repeated.
After he had left, I thought about the information he had divulged. I pondered on it for some time. A few days later, I received a visit from my young lawyer friend, Edwin Groom.
“Edwin,” I greeted him, “we have a new case.” I hastened to apprise him of the particulars which Murcheson had imparted to me.
“I know the man Murcheson described,” I told him, “the Baron Von Shwartzhausen. Only he has such a cane. You must understand that I could not impart my knowledge of him to Murcheson. Heaven knows what the man might have done in his state! You need to know that Von Shwartzhausen is a potentially formidable adversary who has friends in high places. He is probably the most dangerous man in all of Europe. But I am confused as to his purpose with these hats, Edwin; I find it strange.”
“Strange indeed,” Edwin commented over the glass of sherry he had poured for himself from my decanter. “With that many black beavers might one guess at a funeral?”
“I have anticipated that eventuality,” I confided to him, “but ‘The Times’ records only one such event; the ceremony marking the sudden passing of the Rajah of Muhtan, which is scheduled in two days time in Khalipur. We cannot possibly judge that so many European dignitaries might attend at such short notice.”
He absorbed my statement and then nodded agreement.
“…And other forthcoming events of note?” he enquired.
“The dedication of the Blenheim Museum by Her Majesty, in ten days; the opening of parliament three weeks from now; the formal closing of the Bourbon Jewel Exhibition, on loan from France; and the Black Hunter’s Ball at Twickenham in six days.”
Groom’s eyes flashed. “The Black Hunter’s Ball,” he repeated. “By God, Renfrew, that has to be it! You know, full well that the Black Hunters require all of their members to wear black beavers. Though why a group of sane men, in full dinner-wear, should race their horses after a fox at breakneck speed, eludes me.”
I nodded. “You may well be right in your estimation, Edwin. However, we should try to determine the truth of this matter one step at a time. There is no doubt that all actions, no matter how illogical they appear, are generated in response to other events. I have observed that the more illogical the criminal action – the more serious the event. I believe that we must determine the event in this case quickly, Edwin, as I fear we may have little time to spare.”
“Do we have a delivery location?” Edwin enquired.
“No, the hats are to be retrieved from the shop.”
“One might venture that the requirement of the hats might precede the event of their need for some days.”
“I agree with you, but we must be on our guard, and presume the shortest of times. I fear some evil purpose here, Edwin. The investment is considerable and surely commensurate with the function.”
“What must we do? I am, happily, at your service for the next few days due to a lull in the business.”
“I am most fortunate to have that service, I assure you, my friend. Please avail yourself, again, of the sherry bottle while I think things out.”
I began to pace the floor, as was my wont on such occasions. Edwin poured himself another sherry and returned to his chair. He waited, as he always did when I had a problem to resolve.
Eventually, a vague idea began to form in my mind. I stopped pacing and walked over to my bookshelves.
“You have something, Renfrew?”
“Perhaps,” I murmured as I reached for Harper’s ‘History of the English Nobility’. I flipped through the pages and found what I wanted. I returned the book to its place. “We must travel, immediately, to Norfolk,” I informed Edwin.
“As you say,” he acquiesced, reaching for his silver hunter. “The four-ten for Norfolk leaves Victoria Station in approximately twenty-five minutes. I’ll hail us a cab.” He rose and left the room.
There are certain things I counted on with Edwin. Among them was a remarkable memory for rail and steamer arrivals and departures.
I collected a few personal items and followed him down the stairs.
“Lord Minton. Allow me to introduce my companion, Edwin Groom.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Groom, I’m sure. Now tell me Renfrew, what is this all about? Your telegram was the first of my worries. You must excuse my trepidation, but a telegram from you always puts me on edge. You recall the Canterford affair?”
“Indeed I do, Lord Minton, and I hasten to assure you that your assistance in the matter was of the utmost value. As you will recall, that case was pursued to a satisfactory conclusion.”
“I’ve learned how to deal with you since then, my friend. I know you have something up your sleeve, Renfrew; give it up!”
“First, a question: have you received any unusual gifts recently?”
“No, but I have been promised one in the next few days; a black, silk beaver; donated, apparently, by one of my constituents.”
“Do you have the note?”
“Well, yes, I think so.” He turned to his secretary, who stood nearby. “Chalmers, do we have the note?”
“Yes, m’lord, I have it in the correspondence file.”
“Would you fetch it to us? It seems to be of some importance right now.”
With that, Chalmers left the room.
“You must apprise me of this mystery, Renfrew. What can a black, silk beaver have to do with your present investigations?”
“To tell you the truth, Lord Milton, I have no present idea. However, I feel that this particular gift has a distinct function in a matter of some serious concern to the crediblily of this country and its government.”
“My God, Renfrew! You mean that such an insignificant item represents a threat to our very government?”
“I am sure of it. However, I intend to ferret out the design of the perpetrator; the Baron Von Schwartzhausen.”
“I never liked the man,” Lord Milton observed, grimly. “Met him once; some diplomatic function. Gave me the shivers with those eyes of his.”
Chalmers returned with the note, but it told me nothing.
“Lord Milton, I am afraid, we must be on our way. There is work to be done. One restriction I must impose on you. Please do not open the box containing the beaver. I don’t wish anyone to touch the box until I have examined it.”
“You have my word, Renfrew, and I am happy for your advice on this matter.”
“You know!” Groom accused on our train journey back home.
“I have a certain idea,” I admitted, quietly. “We are facing a very cunning and cautious adversary who is playing for very high stakes. There is something very large and devastating in the mind of the Baron Von Schwartzhausen. We must repair to London and make sure of what I feel is his true design.”
“Then there is some detective work involved, Renfrew; without a doubt, for such a purpose, Gamp is your man.”
“I have sent word for him. Please avail yourself of the sherry, Groom, while I plan our next move.”
So saying, Groom poured himself another drink from the decanter.
“The whole thing is not clear to me completely, Groom. Please be so good as to pour me a double brandy.”
With something approaching surprise on his face, Groom did as I asked.
After my second sip of the brandy, it came to me! The whole matter was more serious, in its ramifications, than I had believed, but it had to be true!
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. It was Gamp.
I had always been thankful for Groom’s successful defence of Gamp on a questionable murder charge. Gamp, of course, had been eternally grateful and it had been no problem for Groom to enlist his aid on a number of our cases. The man was a veritable chameleon. He had spent time, in his past, as an actor and knew the world of disguise better than any man. His cherubic face could be transformed in an instant to that of a swarthy and sinister Lascar or a benign minister of the cloth.
“Evenin’ guv’ners both,” Gamp said.
“My dear Gamp,” I greeted him. “We have need, once more, of your invaluable services.”
“’Appy to oblige in any way, Mr. Renfrew, sir, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
I poured him a liberal glass of rum, his favourite libation, and he tipped the glass to the both of us.
“Difficult case?” he enquired.
“Somewhat,” I conceded,” and possibly dangerous. We are dealing with the Baron Von Schwartzhausen.”
“Nasty piece of work, that one, sir, if I might make comment. I’m bringing to mind the Braxton case. But you got the better of him then and I’m sure you can do it again.”
“Thank you for your confidence, Mr. Gamp.”
“And my part, sir?”
“I need you to attach yourself to Muller, Von Schwartzhausen’s closest confidante and aide. I must know where he goes and everything he does.”
“Consider it done, Mr. Renfrew, sir.”
“Thank you Mr. Gamp, and now, if you would agree to joining us, I have sent round to ‘The King’s Head’ for some supper for us all. It should be here directly.”
“My pleasure, sir, indeed.”
In the interim, and later, as we enjoyed a fine supper of boiled mutton, we regaled each other with memories of past cases.
I had the feeling that Von Schwartzhausen would certainly remove himself from any direct action in the ensuing affairs. In this respect, I appeared to have been right. It was no surprise to me, then, when I learned that our adversary was scheduled to appear at the coming-out of Lady Markingham’s daughter.
I hastened to inform my companions, Groom and Gamp, that I intended, given the seal of my good friend, Lord Milton, to attend the function.
“Do you see it as wise, Mr. Renfrew, sir?” Gamp queried. “Our quarry might realize you are onto his scent.”
“Can you believe, Mr. Gamp, that he does not already have these suspicions? The matter of the hats, Mr. Gamp; the matter of the hats! I must know more. Understand me, the Baron and I have crossed swords before. Given his arrogance, he may reveal something.”
“I wish you well, sir. In the meantime, I intend to attach myself to a certain Mr. Muller.”
“Is there nothing I might do to assist you further?” Groom enquired.
“At this point, my dear Edwin, I fear there is nothing. You are too well known as my companion and a great deal of what is needed must be done in secret. Please be assured that when the time comes, I shall have great need of your assistance.”
At that moment, there was a gentle knock at the door.
“Come in, Mrs. Tansy.”
The door opened and my landlady, a full-figured woman in her late fifties, slipped into the room.
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Renfrew, but these letters came while you were out. I completely forgot to give them to you when you returned.”
She offered the letters.
“No harm done, Mrs. Tansy. No, harm at all.”
She smiled and left.
“I’ll be on my way then, Mr. Renfrew, sir,” Gamp announced.
“Yes, of course.” I began to read one of the letters. “Remember; tomorrow evening.”
“I will, Mr. Renfrew, sir.” He disappeared.
“Good news, Renfrew?”
“I’m not sure, Edwin. It seems that our case has become somewhat more complex.” I scanned the second letter and then the third. “Yes, a great deal more complex,” I concluded, handing the letters to him.
After reading them, Edwin looked once more at the signatories.
“Sir Richard Emery?”
“A close friend, and, curiously, a member of the Black Hunters.”
“Really …and Professor Blakehurst?”
“None other than the future curator of the Blenheim Museum. We studied together at Oxford.”
“Seconded to the police department; on special assignment, as a security expert for the Bourbon jewels.”
“Good Lord! That certainly does complicate matters; all recipients of a black silk beaver from an anonymous source.”
“Ah, Edwin, but there is one linking factor.”
“There is, and I have divined it! I shall need you after all, my friend. I want you to speak with Inspector Crump, of the London constabulary. As you know, he and I have collaborated on a number of cases. I shall provide you with a letter of introduction which will give you the power of my own presence. Here, let me pen it now.”
I moved to my desk and applied myself to the writing of the letter. After only a few moments I was able to sand the letter and seal it.
“Take this letter to Crump and inform him that you have my absolute confidence,” I informed Groom. “I trust, only, that we are not too late.”
“What must I do with Inspector Crump?” Groom enquired.
“It is all in the letter. In the meantime, I must prepare myself for a coming-out,” I said, handing him the letter.
“And so we meet again, Mr. Renfrew. I trust you are well?”
“Very well, Baron Von Schwartzhausen, and you?”
“As well as I have ever been, I can assure you. Most recently, I feel a certain new and inspiring purpose in my life.”
“Indeed. You must acquaint me with your physician, Baron.”
He smiled, thinly, at this.
“You are always quick with the bon mots Mr. Renfrew; most refreshing, I assure you, in such gatherings. You are working on yet another of your famous cases?”
“I am, as it happens, a case involving hats; a most curious case.”
For a second, only for the briefest of moments, a curl appeared at the corners of his lips and then vanished. If there had been a companion with me, the companion would have sworn, later, that they had seen nothing in his face. But it was there!
“Remarkable,” he observed. “I hope you will pursue it to a successful conclusion.”
“I assure you, Baron, that I will.”
He drifted away after that, and I saw nothing of him after we had parted. It was as if he had attended the function only for one purpose.
“I need you both to tell me, in detail, what you have discovered. Mr. Gamp?”
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Renfrew, sir, but surely it is Mr. Groom’s place to begin.”
“Not so, Mr. Gamp! Your information is of the utmost primary importance. It is what you will impart that will clarify what Mr. Groom has to contribute.”
“As you wish, sir.” He took a well-thumbed notepad from his pocket and began.
“I followed the subject, Mr. Muller, and observed him to visit three locations. The first was a theatrical supply company which is known to me. Not wishing to lose Mr. Muller, I delayed my enquiries at that establishment to a later hour. The second place Mr. Muller visited was a carpenter’s shop on Brackridge Street. Given my confidence in my disguise, I chose to enter the shop after Mr. Fuller and observed him discussing matters with a carpenter who was standing by a large crate which had the letters HMG stamped on the outside. Subsequently, Mr. Muller led me to a street containing a number of warehouses. I observed Mr. Muller enter one of these warehouses, but chose not to follow. The name on the outside of the warehouse was: ‘Plank and Barnes’. After a while, Mr. Muller appeared again and then repaired to his lodgings on Clark Street. To my knowledge, he did not leave his lodgings that evening. Presuming the fact that he would not exit his premises, I took the opportunity to return to the theatrical supply company. There, I discovered that he had ordered costumes for a production of the new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’”
“Capital, Gamp! Capital! I must commend you on your superb research! Only now are the pieces of the puzzle coming together. I assure you, the information you have provided is of the utmost value. It’s your turn, Edwin.”
“Apparently, Renfrew, your letter had some effect. I received full details and plans from Crump, which I copied, on the security measures taken for the protection of the Bourbon Jewels and the Blenheim Museum opening by Her Majesty.”
“Excellent, Edwin! Let me see them.”
He handed me a number of papers and I perused them eagerly.
“It is as I thought, gentlemen. We have him!
Just one more thing, Mr. Gamp, if I might impose upon you further. I need to know if the pulley on the upper-story loading bar at ‘Plank and Barnes’ is greased. Can you ascertain that for me Mr. Gamp?”
“Consider it done, Mr. Renfrew, sir.”
“It grieves me that the government security provisions are so poor. But, no matter, I assure you that we shall prevail in this endeavour, gentlemen. We have two days in hand; two, for the Bourbon Jewels and two for the opening of the Blenheim Museum. Fortune is with us. Edwin, I wish you to take a letter to Crump. Please assure him that I am in complete control of my faculties. He must do as I say.”
I hurried to my desk to write the letter. When it was completed, I handed it to Edwin.
“We meet here at nine o’clock of the evening tomorrow, my friends. Mr. Gamp, I need you to bring your revolver. Please dress warmly, gentlemen; the Channel can bring powerful blasts at this time of year.”
We met together, the next evening, and Gamp assured me that the hoist-pulley at “Plank and Barnes” was well greased.
“As I suspected,” I commented. “Now, gentlemen, we must repair to the Blenheim Museum so that we might complete our journey.
I had already ordered a hackney carriage and instructed the driver to take us directly to the museum. There, we disembarked and took a waiting stage that sped us towards Dover.
“For the life of me, Renfrew, you must impart at least a portion of your knowledge. I am completely confounded in this affair,” Edwin commented.
“You do not see, Edwin, that the Baron’s prize is the Bourbon Jewels?”
“But the hats…”
“A mere diversion. When I determined that none of our selected groups would give good reason for the hats, I realized that the Baron was playing a deep game; a deep and expensive game! Consider this, my dear Edwin. What value of return could the Baron expect to recompense him for his considerable financial outlay to put me off the scent? Only the Bourbon Jewels, which, as you know, are priceless.”
“Why should he embark on such a complex course of deception?”
“He knew I was his only viable adversary. He knew, too, that Murcheson, as a friend, would come immediately to me. Believe me, Edwin, this man is a very cunning and formidable foe. His first concern was to put me on a paper-chase so that I would not be able to apply my skills to his endeavours.
Unfortunately, he made mistakes. If he had targeted one group with his hats, I might well have followed the chase. But the chase he had established was beyond reason. In his arrogance, he compromised his plan; his plan to steal the Bourbon Jewels. I knew of this plan as soon as I met him. He could not conceal from me a small indication of triumph.”
“There is more; the warehouse, the costumes and the pulley.”
“All fully comprehensible, my dear Edwin. His plan was to create a duplicate crate which he would place on the official stagecoach. He would achieve this effect by rerouting the coach, with the use of men in police uniforms provided by the costumer; hence the Gilbert and Sullivan costumes.
I am conjecturing that the coach would be stopped underneath the “Plank and Barnes” hoist, and that distraction of the guards would allow his men to replace the real crate, on top of the coach, with a perfect duplicate.”
“You astound me, Renfrew! But surely we should be in London to confound this plan!”
“By no means, Edwin. The Baron’s plan is scheduled to be executed tomorrow night. Believe me, Inspector Crump will have his men ready.”
“But the Bourbon Jewels…?”
“Safe on top of this stagecoach, my dear Edwin; a day in advance of their projected journey. It is unfortunate that the government, in its wisdom, chose to mark this valuable cargo with its stamp: HMS. However, we should be able to meet the packet to France, at Dover, with no further opposition. Be of good cheer, Edwin, the French government may provide you with a medal for this service.”