The Fallen Financier
By James Lovegrove
“Watson,” said Sherlock Holmes as we strolled along the promenade at Eastbourne one sunny afternoon. He was breaking a sociable silence of some ten minutes. “Has it ever struck you how wide a gulf lies between what people seem to be and what they are?”
“I suppose we all project a persona,” said I. “We wish others to see us as we would wish to be seen.”
“True,” said Holmes, “but I meant that however someone appears to the world, the reality of his situation is invariably much different and in most cases a considerable disappointment. Take that young couple for instance. They bill and coo like turtle doves. They are the very picture of love’s young dream. Yet I predict that within a fortnight they will no longer be together, indeed will have ceased to be on speaking terms after a highly acrimonious parting.”
“Really, Holmes!” I ejaculated. “You are dashed cynical at times. How can you say such a thing?”
“Easily, my dear doctor. Look closer. They are quite clearly from different social strata. The young lady is of good breeding. Her dress, her coiffure, her mannerisms all attest to it. Whereas the lad, though he affects to a high station in life, is of common stock. Note the worn rim of his shirt collar and the button missing on the sleeve of his jacket – sartorial deficiencies which a true gentleman, with a valet at his disposal, would never suffer. Note, too, how his trousers have had to be lengthened at the cuffs and still do not quite fit. He has little money but is making every effort to appear that he does. She, his paramour, has discerned as much but it does not trouble her – for now. She is, as they say, ‘slumming it’. She is enjoying his attentions and is happy for him to make love to her. However, when he proposes marriage, as he will do soon, that is when matters will take a turn for the worse.”
“How do you know he is going to propose?” I demanded. “Surely that is pure supposition.”
“Watson, how often have I told you that you see but you do not observe?” said my friend.
“A maddeningly great number of times,” I replied.
“But still you do not take the lesson to heart. Behold the young man’s left pocket. See that small bulge? What can that be but a box containing an engagement ring? He is plucking up the nerve to pop the question. Perhaps not today, but certainly by the end of the week, he will have found the courage. That is the point at which his intended will have to reject him, for she is a girl who has been brought up to expect to marry a man with good prospects.”
“It could be that she genuinely loves him, Holmes. Have you considered that? Men and women do fall in love, you know. Or perhaps you don’t.”
He ignored my little barb. “Then there is that elderly gentlemen perched on a bench over there. What do you make of him?”
I studied the man. He was in his seventies, I estimated, and wore a plethora of campaign medals on his chest. He sat ramrod-straight with his hands clasping the handle of his walking cane, gazing contemplatively seaward, beyond the shallows where bathers cavorted, all the way to the hazy horizon.
“An ex-soldier like myself,” I said. “A veteran of the Crimea, though he would have had to have enlisted when he was fairly young. The Boer conflicts too. A military fellow through and through. Never a day’s slouching in his life.”
“Indeed?” said Holmes wryly. “Yet neither his boots nor those decorations he so proudly sports are polished to a gleam. I would submit that he has never held a rifle or fired a shot in anger. Rather, he haunts the tearooms and hotel bars of this town, cadging drinks and regaling strangers with tales of bogus heroism and derring-do, after which he importunes them for a little cash ‘to help an old serviceman through a rough patch’.”
“Shame on him if that is so,” I said, “and shame on you, Holmes, if it isn’t.”
My friend smiled thinly. “And this well-to-do family here, coming towards us. How blissful they look. Father, mother, and nanny pushing pram with gurgling newborn within. A very idyll of prosperity and fecundity. What could be sweeter?”
“Now you’re going to tell me one of them is an axe murderer or some such.”
“Far from it, Watson. In most regards they are as respectable as you or I. Then again, the nanny is wearing a silver charm bracelet that is far more expensive than one with an income such as hers could normally afford. And the father’s eye keeps straying to her rather shapely form whenever his wife’s attention is elsewhere.”
“Are you implying…?”
“I imply nothing. I infer that his relationship with the nanny is anything but that of employer and household servant. See how his wife has her arm linked through his? How tightly she clings to him? She senses something is afoot. It is likely she even knows the truth. Wives are not easy to hoodwink, especially when it comes to infidelity. For the sake of her baby, however, and her future, she has elected to turn a blind eye.”
Holmes tipped his hat to the family as they passed us. They in return nodded, smiled and offered snatches of formal greeting.
As we walked on I said, “Honestly, Holmes, it is a delightful summer’s day and you are like a raincloud, casting an oppressive shadow over everything. Can you only ever see the worst in people? Is there not a part of you that looks for the good in us?”
“Always, Watson, always. Alas, so often in vain. But hullo, what’s this?”
A lady was rushing towards us along the promenade, from the direction of the pier. She was in a state of some agitation, her colour up, her stride purposeful. She was only in her thirties but her face was so haggard and drawn as to give the impression of her being considerably older.
“Mr Holmes!” she cried. “It is you, isn’t it? I heard you had moved to this part of the country. Pray tell me I’m right. You are the Sherlock Holmes, the famous consulting detective?”
“Retired consulting detective, madam,” said Holmes. “Those years are behind me. But yes, I am he.”
“Oh thank the Lord,” said the lady. She threw herself at my friend, clutching his lapels. “Surely you can help me. You must! I am going mad. They tell me he is dead. They insist upon it. They urge me to grieve for him, to be a widow. And yet I know he is still alive. I know it in my heart.”
“My dear woman,” said Holmes, “pray compose yourself. Your husband is dead, you say?”
“No!” she insisted. “They want me to think that. Everyone is telling me that he took his own life, but not him, not Jacob. He would never do such a thing. A body has not been found, you see. And without a body, where is the proof?”
She was near hysterical. At my insistence, for her shrill imprecations were drawing attention, we repaired to one of the wooden shelters that line Eastbourne’s elegant seafront. In truth, the sun was oppressively hot and it was a relief to avail ourselves of shade.
“Now, if you would,” said Holmes to the lady, “let us take things in due order. Your name, please.”
“But of course,” said she. “I am Mrs Thisbe Markinswell. My husband is Jacob Markinswell. Perhaps you know of him?”
“I have heard of a London financier by that name.”
“That is he. He works for the bank of Carstairs and Buckingham, on Moorgate.”
“A highly successful institution,” said Holmes, “with a reputation for prudence and efficiency. Would that all banks followed its example.”
“My husband has been a loyal employee for nearly fifteen years,” said Mrs Markinswell. “He has risen to senior partner, with responsibility for overseeing investments in the Far East and the Americas. We are, as a consequence, more than comfortably off, as you can imagine.” Her pinched face displayed a pride which I’m afraid to say I found rather dislikeable.
“Meaning that he is unlikely to have committed suicide, if indeed he did do so, for reasons of penury,” said Holmes.
“Exactly. That is one motive the police have advanced, and of course it is utterly absurd. Another is that he has become embroiled in some financial scandal and the shame has proved too great to bear. But that is not the case either. I have checked. His accounts at Carstairs and Buckingham are all in excellent order. At my urging, the bank has had its actuaries go over the books and not a penny has gone astray. Both in his personal and his professional dealings Jacob is impeccably in the black.”
“Interesting,” said my friend. “How long is it that your husband has been missing, Mrs Markinswell?”
“A week now,” came the reply from the distraught woman. “We have a place here in town, you see. Most of the year we live in Kensington, but for the summer we like to come down to the coast.”
“I find the South Downs climate congenial myself, and I speak as one who spent the best part of his life in London and whose lungs are probably still grey from constant exposure to an urban atmosphere.”
I refrained from mentioning that Holmes’ propensity for his beloved black shag tobacco was doubtless still leaving its own inward mark on his vitals.
“Jacob always looked forward to coming down,” said Mrs Markinswell. “He often spoke about selling our London home and relocating permanently. It wasn’t until this year that I began to wonder whether that might be such a good idea.”
“Well, we arrived in late May as usual, and my husband began his customary practice of taking the train up to London every weekday. It is a lengthy journey but he prefers to commute like this so that he can enjoy the benefits of being on the coast during his leisure time. However, it wasn’t long before I noticed a change in him. He grew withdrawn and irritable.”
“As a result of the constant travelling?” I ventured. “Exhaustion?”
“So I thought. It had never bothered him before, though. I asked him repeatedly if something was the matter but received only evasive answers and vague reassurances that all was well. I was reluctant to press him too hard. Jacob is a mild-mannered, biddable man but does not take kindly to being nagged. A decade of marriage has taught me that.” Mrs Markinswell gave a brief, stiff smile.
“Might I enquire how suspicions arose that he killed himself?” said Holmes.
“He was last seen in the vicinity of Beachy Head,” said Mrs Markinswell. “He was acting erratically, according to eyewitnesses.”
“Hmmm. Beachy Head, you say.”
A glint had entered Holmes’ eye. I knew my friend well enough to recognise the signs. He was intrigued. Something in Mrs Markinswell’s account had piqued his curiosity.
“Beachy Head is well known, notorious even, as a place for suicides,” he continued. “It has almost become a cliché, the frequency with which people throw themselves off the cliffs there. You believe, however, that your husband is not among their number, Mrs Markinswell.” This was framed more as a statement than an interrogative.
“I am quite certain of it, Mr Holmes. I imagine you frown on the notion of woman’s intuition. I have read enough of your exploits, courtesy of Dr Watson here, to know that you are an arch rationalist. You would no doubt dismiss as superstitious poppycock the idea that the female of the species is sensitive to certain indefinable factors hidden from the male.”
“On the contrary,” said Holmes. “Often what is called woman’s intuition is nothing more than an acute, if subconscious, awareness of the subtle visual and verbal cues given out by others. I have contemplated writing a monograph on the subject but disqualified myself on grounds of gender.”
“Suffice to say that were Jacob dead, something in here would have told me.” She thumped her chest.
“You suspect foul play, then?” said I.
“Dr Watson, I don’t know what to suspect,” said Mrs Markinswell. “The police have their own line of enquiry, and that is the only one they will pursue.”
Holmes gave one of his sharp, contemptuous laughs, like the bark of a dog. Regular readers of mine will know of the low esteem in which he held members of the constabulary. Even those he thought well of, such as Inspector Lestrade, were accorded a grudging admiration at best.
“But you wish to learn the truth?” said Holmes.
Mrs Markinswell nodded adamantly. “It goes without saying. Wherever my husband is, whatever has happened to him, I cannot bear this agony of uncertainty any longer. I have scarcely slept, Mr Holmes. I am going out of my mind with worry. If this were blackmail, I would have been sent a ransom note, would I not? If Jacob really were dead, surely his body would have washed ashore by now. I need some kind of resolution, and I pray you are the man to bring it. Your fee, of course, is not a problem.”
Holmes waved this aside. “In my retirement, money is no longer a consideration or a motivation, Mrs Markinswell. I will take on your case pro bono. But I should reiterate that I will get at the truth, and you must be prepared for it to be unpalatable.”
Mrs Markinswell steeled herself, dabbing her swollen eyes with a lace handkerchief and firming her jaw. “I am ready, come what may.”
“Good,” said Holmes. “First, Watson and I shall visit the scene of the alleged crime. After that, if we may call on you at home, Mrs Markinswell...?”
She gave us her address, a house in Eastbourne’s prosperous Meads area, and we took our leave of her.
During our walk to Beachy Head, Holmes was in a rare garrulous mood, although he talked about everything – the floral displays on the seafront, the geology of Sussex chalk soil, the various species of butterfly we saw – everything save the disappearance of Jacob Markinswell. Eventually, after an hour, we crested the steep brow of the Head itself. At our feet spread a panorama of glittering aquamarine sea, dotted with yachts and fishing vessels, leisure and commerce commingling. A warm onshore breeze stirred the rough grass and the thickets of gorse and hawthorn. The town of Hastings shimmered whitely across the bay.
It was a beautiful spot, yet I shivered to recall that it was near here that Holmes had watched a schoolteacher, Fitzroy McPherson, die a horrible death from a jellyfish sting, a case he narrated to me and which I have chronicled as “The Adventure Of The Lion’s Mane”; nor were we far from the stately home wherein had occurred those terrible, almost incredible events which I have yet to set down in writing but may one day do, under the putative title of “Gods Of War”.
Holmes echoed the dark turn of my thoughts when he said, “Ironic how, even when presented with a natural prospect as pleasing as this, someone could nonetheless go ahead with terminating his own existence. I am aware that the mind, when in an extreme state of depression, is hardly in a position to appreciate aesthetics. Even so, it seems paradoxical. Such beauty ought to restore one’s faith that life is worth living.”
“Holmes, are you getting maudlin in your old age?”
“Perhaps, perhaps. As death encroaches, I to tend to cherish all the more the majesty and glory of creation. Now, to work.”
He ferreted around for some time, crawling on hands and knees to the cliff edge and peering over, and examining in minute detail various clumps of vegetation. I, for my part, took advantage of the opportunity to rest my weary legs, seating myself upon a small hillock. I may even have briefly nodded off, for I became aware that Holmes had entered into conversation with a stranger of whom I had no recollection arriving on the scene.
His interlocutor was a tweedy sort, out walking an amiable, stocky black Labrador. As I strode over to join them, I heard this fellow say to Holmes, “Why yes, it so happens I did see the gentleman. He was agitated and no mistake. Hurrying back and forth to the clifftop, like he couldn’t make up his mind. A horse repeatedly balking at a fence, that’s what he put me in mind of. I was going to go up and accost him, ask him what was the matter. But no sooner had I come to this decision than, damnedest thing, suddenly he wasn’t there any more. I took my eyes off him for just a moment – Cicero here had scared up a rabbit and I had to call him back for fear he’d run away and never return – and when I turned to look back, blow me if the chap hadn’t gone. Just vanished. Only living beings I could see were a young lady, a farmer mowing that field over there, and two brawny lads hiking.”
“Most singular,” said Holmes.
“I said as much to myself,” agreed the stranger. He spoke with a distinct Sussex burr, a local born and bred. “I even went and checked the cliff, in case he’d finally gone and chucked himself off. I couldn’t see anything on the beach below, but the tide was fully in. It’s conceivable, I suppose, that he hit the water and was swallowed up by the waves. I raised the alarm right quick, anyway, and soon enough we had a search party going, but no sign of him could be found.”
“The others present, they all saw the man too?”
“The young lady certainly did. Pretty little creature. She agreed with me that the fellow had been acting peculiar. She wouldn’t swear to it, but she was almost sure he had taken a running jump. Awful business. The poor so-and-so. To be in such depths of despair as to do that to yourself.”
Holmes seemed inordinately glad to have met this person, whom he thereafter referred to, not without justification, as the Country Squire. “What luck!” he exclaimed as he and I made our way back into town. “It would have taken time and effort to track down eyewitnesses, and one comes along just when needed. Turns out our squire friend exercises his dog regularly, always taking the same route each day along the ridge of the Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven. Sometimes the smooth advance of an investigation hinges on such fortuitous encounters. Now to the Markinswell homestead.”