THE ADVENTURE OF THE GREEN SKULL by Mark Valentine

Mark Valentine is the author of the novels In Violet Veils, Masques and Citadels, and, with John Howard, The Rite of Trebizond, which are about an “aesthetical occult detective” and are collectively known as the Tales of The Connoisseur. He is the editor of the psychic sleuth anthology The Black Veil and The Werewolf Pack. He also edits Wormwood, a journal of fantasy, supernatural and decadent literature, and writes regularly for Book & Magazine Collector about neglected authors.

A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that returns to terrorize the living, often in retribution for some wrong visited on that person in life. Wrongs done create ghosts, and many wrongs were committed against the workers of London in the early days of industrialization. Many of these deprivations were chronicled by the author Charles Dickens, who was so traumatized by the time he spent working in a dangerous, squalorous blacking factory that for the rest of his life he wore gloves and washed his hands constantly. The Sadler Committee once interviewed a young man named Matthew Crabtree, who testified that he had started work in a factory at the age of eight, commonly worked sixteen-hour days, and was beaten severely for the slightest infraction. He also testified that in all his years in the factory, not an hour had passed that you couldn’t hear one of the child workers wailing. Many people don’t realize that the thick, impenetrable London fogs that we associate with Sherlock Holmes were a result of terrible air pollution. The Victorian Age was romantic, but it was also a dark time, when business interests were totally unrestrained.

 

THE ADVENTURE OF THE GREEN SKULL
by Mark Valentine

I have mentioned before the three massive manuscript volumes that contain my notes on our cases for the year 1894. Circumstances now allow me to reveal the details of one of these, as weird and tragic a case as any we encountered. It was, I see, the beginning of November, and Holmes was on capital form, pleased to be back at the hub of matters in London after his long incognito wanderings in the East and elsewhere. There had been a high wind wailing outside our rooms and throughout the city, and Holmes was just beginning to become restless for some new matter to whet his keen mind upon. As was his habit, therefore, he was scouring the pages of the Times at breakfast, seeking evidence of anything untoward. Today his researches had an especial edge, for he had received word that Inspector Lestrade would call later, if convenient.

“Read that, Watson,” he said, passing the paper to me, and pointing to a brief paragraph.

“‘Mr Josiah Walvis, 51, an overseer at the Bow-side match-works, met an untimely end on Saturday evening when he fell from a high wall abutting the East India Wharf, and cracked his skull. The cause of his sad accident has not been ascertained. It is understood Mr Walvis had been entertaining friends at the Lamb & Flag public house before making his way home. Interviewed, his associates say the deceased was of his normal disposition upon departing, and was not excessively inebriated. It is considered possible Mr Walvis was contemplating a shorter route to his home but missed his footing. Two witnesses, a watchman and a street boy, aver that they saw the victim pursued some moments beforehand, but this cannot be better corroborated. The proprietor of the Bow match-works reports that Mr Walvis was a diligent and just employee who—well, etc, etc’”

“There is the barest hint of promise in that, Watson: the pursuer, you know. But it is otherwise a drab affair. Yet it is all there is. Inventive evil appears to have quite vanished from London.”

Holmes sighed, and began to gather up the dottles for his morning pipe.

The visit of our colleague from Scotland Yard did not at first obviate his gloom. For it seemed Lestrade had indeed nothing better to offer.

“It’s the Walvis business, Mr Holmes.”

“Oh, indeed? But that happened two days ago, Lestrade. The gales will have rushed all the evidence to the four corners. There is no point in coming to me now.”

“Well, it seems a straightforward case that is hardly worth your while. But one of the constables, a keen lad, saw something he didn’t quite like.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes. Of course, an accident is quite the likeliest explanation. There was no robbery, and no other marks on the body but those caused by the fall. Yet, here is the thing. In the deceased’s left hand, between the two middle fingers, protruding outwards, was a spent match.”

“Ah. That is singular.” I saw my friend’s eyes gleam.

“Quite so. A drowning man may clutch at a straw, but—I say to myself—a falling man does not. He splays his fingers, so…”

“Therefore, the match was placed there after the fall,” I interjected.

“Exactly, Doctor,” returned Lestrade. “Now I am inclined to regard it as merely a macabre little joke on the part of the friends who found him. They all worked at the match factory, you know. They were pretty far gone in drink. So they put it there as if to say ‘you, Walvis, have struck your last match.’ I questioned them pretty fiercely about that, but they deny it. Half didn’t notice it at all, the others say it must have blown there…”

“You have preserved the match, Lestrade?” Holmes demanded.

“I have, Mr Holmes, and—knowing your ways—have brought it with me.” Lestrade produced a twist of paper from his waistcoat pocket and handed it over.

Holmes inspected the exhibit carefully between thumb and forefinger, then handed it back.

“It tells us little. It is a Lyphant & Bray match—the people who have the Bow works. So it could well have come from his colleagues. Or from almost anybody. It is a very popular brand. Yet, someone who has handled it may be an actor.”

We both looked suitably astonished, and Holmes favoured us with an explanation. “It is very simple. I have studied the shape, size and composition of over forty types of lucifer or match—the matter complements my researches upon tobacco ash, you know. A combination of a certain ash and a certain match may help to mark a man. But not in this case. No ash, and a very common brand.”

“The theatrical connection?” I urged.

Holmes shrugged. “Oh, merely that someone has left a small smudge of greasepaint upon the stick. Not you or your constable, I assume, Lestrade?”

“Indeed not.”

“Well, it does not get us very far. But what about this evidence of a pursuer, Inspector?”

Our visitor’s face settled into a satisfied smirk.

“The witnesses are not very sound. An aged watchman, half deaf and almost wholly foolish. A street arab, with a lively imagination.”

“And what do they say?”

“Well, Mr Holmes, I don’t give it much credit. Indeed, I am trying what I can to suppress their little yarn. It doesn’t take much to spread unreasoning terror abroad.”

There was a brittle silence, Lestrade savouring the matter that had really brought him to us, Holmes quiveringly alert.

“They say they saw Walvis chased down the street by a phantom. It wore a hooded cloak, but they caught a glimpse of its face—if you can call it that. It looked more like, they said, it looked more like—a green skull.”

Sherlock Holmes rose from his chair and rubbed his hands together. “Come now,” he said. “This sounds promising.”

The case may have caught my friend’s imagination, because of its peculiarities, but for some days he made little progress. The scene, as he had anticipated, had been quite wiped clean by the wind and rain of the intervening days, and all the witnesses he interviewed stuck resolutely to the stories they had given the police, even the two who had seen the spectral pursuer. Lyphant & Bray would give nothing but a sound character to Walvis, conceding only that by some he might be regarded as somewhat stern in his duties. There was little more for Holmes to do, and he was succumbing again to his blue devils when, barely a week later, Mrs Hudson ushered in a new client. He was an angular, brisk young man, pale and peremptory in manner.

“Sit down, Mr Reynolds. This is my friend and associate, Dr Watson. What is your business with us?”

“I have read of you, Mr Holmes, from Dr Watson’s accounts. I have observed that you see importance in matters others overlook.”

“You are very kind. And you think you have a similar matter?”

“I do. My employer, Mr Thomas Mostyn, died last night.”

“I see. The cause?”

“Heart failure.”

Holmes looked crestfallen.

“It is certain?”

“Yes. His medical man has treated him for years. He has long had indifferent health. I could see this for myself too.”

“Then why—”

“That was the cause of his death, Mr Holmes. I am concerned about the occasion of it.”

“There is something here that does not satisfy you?”

“A number of matters.”

Holmes tapped his fingers upon the arm of his chair. “Pray proceed.”

“Mr Mostyn’s face in death was distorted most disturbingly. It was a grimacing mask, exhibiting naked fear.”

I interrupted. “Rictus, Mr Reynolds. It can give the most distressing effects.”

Our client turned to me. “I understand. But there is rather more. Though in his nightgown and dressing-gown, as if prepared for bed, Mr Mostyn met his end in his study. Some matter had taken him there. And in death he was clutching between his middle fingers, pointing outwards—”

“A match.”

Mr Reynolds’ face was a picture of astonishment. “Great heavens, yes. How did you know?”

Holmes smiled. “No matter. It was used?”

“Yes.”

“Well, perhaps he was about to enjoy a cigar before retiring. It is not uncommon.”

“Certainly not, Mr Holmes. My employer disapproved of smoking. It was the only matter of disagreement between us. If I wished to smoke, I must do so clandestinely.”

“I see. He does not sound very companionable. Well, Mr Reynolds, let us have more of your story. You are his private secretary?”

“I am. I deal—I dealt—with nearly all his business and personal correspondence. He has many financial interests. I have been with him some seven years, since I successfully answered an advertisement he had placed upon his return from Guiana. He was reticent about his wealth, but that he had made a very great deal in the Americas was evident enough to me from his investments.”

“And had made enemies, no doubt?”

“I never heard of any. Indeed, all of his affairs appeared to me almost entirely untroubled, until—well, that is, until the particular incident that brings me to you. On Tuesday last week, I opened Mr Mostyn’s correspondence as usual, and there was nothing out of the ordinary run of things, but one: an envelope that contained no letter, only a handful of matches. I could not imagine what the sender’s purpose was, although sometimes the advertisement men do try the most foolish tricks to engage attention. I threw it in the basket. When I took in the rest of the day’s post and went through it with my employer, we dealt with it all well enough, until—at the end—I mentioned the matches, light-heartedly. Quite a remarkable change came over his face. I had never seen him so agitated, except perhaps once when he felt he had been browbeaten by a hothead of a lawyer into some settlement he did not like—the one matter, as it happens, where he did not confide in me.”

“I see. The envelope arrived—what, eight days ago? Go on, Mr Reynolds. This may all be more germane than you know.”

“In his agitation, Mr Mostyn asked me exactly how many matches there were. I am afraid I laughed and said I did not know. He became vehement and told me to go and count them at once. I could scarcely believe the order, but I did as he bid.”

“And?”

“There were nine or ten.”

“Nine or ten? Mr Reynolds!”

“Ten, then. It seemed of no moment.”

“Do you have them?”

“Well, yes I do. But only because I found them in my employer’s desk drawer, next to his appointments diary. I cannot imagine why he kept them.”

Our visitor handed them over and Holmes subjected them to scrutiny, separating three from the others.

Mr Reynolds regarded Holmes’s actions quizzically, then resumed. “A little later that day, Mr Mostyn gave me a most unusual instruction. He said that business compelled him to go abroad again, it might be for some time. I was to realise as much as I could, and as quickly as I could, of his investments, so that within one week—he was most insistent upon that—within one week, he should be ready to leave.”

“He had never done such a thing before?”

“No. I was very much surprised. From what I knew of his business affairs, there was nothing of any consequence to call his attention overseas. But by requiring me to turn his holdings to cash so quickly, he forfeited a great deal of their value. I could not imagine what would impel him to that.”

“Is there anything more, Mr Reynolds?”

Our visitor hesitated.

“No.”

“Think back very carefully, sir. Over this recent period, has there been any matter whatever at all out of the ordinary?”

“Oh, only foolish talk from the boot-boy. He reads too much sensational literature.”

“Indeed? I find it has much to commend it. And what was his prattle? Spring-Heeled Jack? The Wild Boys of the Sewers?”

“Ha, very nearly so, Mr Holmes. He said he saw some figure skulking around the garden at night. He has an attic room that commands a view. He should have been asleep, but no doubt was reading his rubbish. He said he saw Death with a lantern. The maid, superstitious soul, says it had come for Mr Mostyn. I had to speak severely to both of them… Of course, there may have been an interloper, but scarcely in that form. Now, Mr Holmes, what is your advice?”

“I should like to visit the scene without delay, Mr Reynolds. And I am concerned for you, sir. You have had an unpleasant experience. Now there is no necessity for subterfuge, help yourself to one of these—a Macedonian—you will find it quite soothing—while we get ready. Now, where are my matches? You have some with you? Good. good. We shall not be long.”

Despite the tragedy that had taken place in No 4, Pavia Court, Mostyn’s address, I relished our visit, for it was a pleasure to see Holmes prowling throughout the house and its modest grounds in his customary keen-eyed search for any clue that might bring substance to the shadows that had gathered here. I saw him crawling carefully around the garden at the rear, and its narrow entrance gate, examining the sash upon the study window that overlooked it on the ground floor, and walking up and down the small, blind street, itself off a very minor thoroughfare, that comprised the Court, in all these places picking up and examining any piece of unregarded flotsam. I heard of him also in the pantry in animated conversation with Victor, the boot-boy, comparing the merits of various thrilling pamphlets: and in the study, questioning Reynolds closely about his employer’s business holdings.

For my part, I sought out Mostyn’s doctor, Hawkins, on the pretext that I was a medical advisor to his insurance people. Although, as a matter of form, the district police had been called, they had relied upon his assurance that a heart failure was responsible for the death. He conceded he had quite expected—and indeed hoped, since Mostyn paid well—that his patient would have survived some years longer, but it was still quite within the bounds of medical science that the condition had taken him earlier. Might—I suggested—some additional anxiety in his affairs, even some shock or other, have contributed? Dr Hawkins was affable: yes, of course, it very well might.

It was clear to me that Holmes had some definite line of enquiry in his sights, though I could not tell what. The next day, he was missing from our rooms for much of the time, and would say only that he had paid a call upon one of the new independent lucifer-makers. I was, therefore, a little taken aback when, shortly after our visit to Mostyn’s home, the boot-boy Victor presented himself, somewhat wind-ruffled but evidently bursting with news.

“I did ’sactly as you said, Mr Holmes. I took a place in the bun shop opposite this inventor cove’s place, Raffles, and watched and watched. I had to eat getting on for a dozen stickies before your mark came out, corst a terrible lot they did—” (a clink) “well, thank you very much sir, anyways after you’d been to see him and he’d shut up shop that day, it was hours and hours after, he looks about him and sets off smartish. But I’m on his track like you told me…”

“You see, Watson, nobody ever pays attention to small boys loitering or getting up to mischief. It’s what they do. A perfect disguise: behaving naturally. Well, where did (ahem) the inventor Raffles go?”

“He went out Chelsea way, where all the artists and anarchists are, sir, they’re always up to plots in The Black Paper, ’sfact.”

“So they are, Victor. And who are they are in league with, eh?”

“That’s what I was going to find out. He heads for a door in a yard off Blyth Street, and he’s looking all around him, see: furtive, that’s what they call it. But he doesn’t see me. And he knocks and there’s a wait and like a judas in the door opens, but I can’t see much. And then—then the door opens just a crack, and he talks very excited like, and he gets let in. And he stays there not long, twenty minutes maybe.”

“See anything when the door opened?”

“You bet. Woundy—beg pardon sir—scary.”

“You’re sure, Victor?”

“Blood honour, sir.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

I looked from one to the other. “Well?”

Holmes raised an eyebrow.

“He saw Death, Watson. Isn’t that right? The thing that came to Mr Mostyn’s garden?”

The youth nodded solemnly.

Holmes wasted no time. After swift directions from the boy, amply rewarded, we hailed a cab to the hidden, curious quarter he had indicated. In the neighbourhood, my friend enlisted another ragamuffin helper, a blind match-seller. A sovereign and a swift rehearsal of her role ensued. God knows she was battered enough looking, but she made her condition look even more distressing and knocked weakly and repeatedly at the door, imploring help. At the first the face behind the shutter ushered her away, but she swayed and cried and pleaded. The figure within went away a while, and then the door opened very slowly. We then abandoned all subtlety and flung ourselves at the crack. The child ran off, there was a harsh shout and a scurrying, and we burst in.

We were confronted by—a thing at bay. In one corner of the bare, meanly furnished room, there stood glowering at us a figure wrapped around in cloaks from which emerged a hairless, shrunken, bony head, where such meagre flesh as there was had a vile, livid hue.

“I do not know who or what you are,” Sherlock Holmes said, “but your business is at an end. I have evidence that will connect you with two deaths.”

The creature’s eyes were filled with hatred, and cast wildly about for escape. Then they seemed to dim, and the skull sank down, before it looked up at us again.

“You have no evidence that would convince a court. Yet perhaps it is time to let things rest. And I believe you will not speak so harshly when you have heard my story.”

I gasped, and I could sense that even the icy Holmes was taken aback. For the voice was that of a gentlewoman, clear and well-modulated. She beckoned us to two rough chairs. We made introductions and looked at her enquiringly.

“My name is of no consequence. I was born in the colony of Guiana, where my mother succumbed young to the foul waters. My father and a native nursemaid looked after me in my infancy, but he was taken too by some disease of the unhealthy conditions there. We had no close kin, but there was a distant cousin who had been once in the colony and had come to know my father before returning to England. I found that I—and my father’s wealth—were entrusted to this person, and I was shipped to a land I had never known as home. The next part of my story will hardly surprise you. This cousin and guardian, so called, claimed my father’s business affairs were in disorder and it was all he could do to settle his debts, penurying himself in the process. I must be put to work. I was sent to the Lyphant & Bray match factory, and housed nearby in squalid lodgings. From then onwards—I was twelve, mark you—my life was one of unremitting drudgery and callousness, in the most terrible conditions. I saw my guardian infrequently and then, I am sure, he came only to ensure I was secure. The fact that I had been educated and prepared for a gentler place made matters worse. The taskmaster—Walvis—took a hatred of me. I believe he was in league with my guardian, for I saw them confer together when he came. My natural rebelliousness against the conditions meant this creature was able to taunt, scold, fine and beat me. There was not the slightest opportunity I might escape—I was kept under close watch and had no money anyway.”

“It is pitiable, Madam,” I conceded.

“It is the life of many of your fellow creatures. It would be mine still, had I not taken the one opportunity that came my way. You will recall of course the great match-girls’ protest some five or six years ago? I am proud to confess I was one of the agitators. After much hardship, the proprietors permitted a tour of inspection of the factory by some eminent sympathisers—it was all well-managed, of course. But some of the more astute of them realised this, and deliberately looked for an opportunity to become detached from the party and learn the untutored truth. I told my story hurriedly to Mr Shardlow, the Radical, and he was much affected and promised to see me have justice. I know now that he confronted my guardian and wrung from him some settlement on my behalf—Mr Shardlow is a lawyer and a strong orator, of course. Since this release, I have done what I can for those left behind. The terrible yellow phosphorous that Lyphant & Bray use must be abolished: there are safer alternatives. That was my campaign. But it will be too late for me.”

“You have phossy-jaw, Madam? It is a bad business.”

“Exactly, Dr. Watson. You may see the symptoms.”

I turned to Holmes. “It affects those over-exposed to the noxious chemicals used in the match trade. It brings a green pallor, a sinking of the cheek bones, complete loss of hair, a shrinking of the flesh. It is incurable. But forgive me, madam—yours is an exceptionally severe case. ”

“It is well advanced, Doctor. But also, since I cannot disguise its ravages, I decided to accentuate them, to render my appearance still more ghastly. For I had determined to confront my persecutors face to face with what they had done. With the cunning of theatrical make-up, I thought I could strike terror in their hearts and jolt them into some realisation of their evil. My craft was good. It worked somewhat better than I expected. Poor Walvis fled from me in mad panic and plunged to his doom. While—”

She hesitated.

“Mostyn,” supplied Holmes.

“Yes, I see you know everything. Mostyn was already full of fear from the little message I sent him.”

“The spent matches,” I put in.

“Yes, Doctor. You were my accomplice in those, of course.”

“I—why, I…”

“I read with great relish your account of the Five Orange Pips sent as a sinister warning. And so has half London, I should think. It gave me an idea.”

“So I see,” remarked Holmes, drily.

“Mostyn was an implacable opponent of the match reforms, and as a chief investor in Lyphant & Bray, was an obstacle to my plans. I had to chase him away. My guardian, I reasoned, would have heard of the strange death of his accomplice, the overseer Walvis. He will not be quite sure if it were the accident it seemed. He will hardly miss the significance of a packet of dead matches delivered to him. And a man less vilely cunning than he would reason that seven matches equals seven days. It was a fair warning. His face when I slid open the sash of his study and advanced upon him was dreadful to behold: yet not, you can see, so dreadful as what he had done to me.”

There was a silence.

“And now, gentlemen, what do you intend? You hardly have any case, you know. And it is all one to me. I cannot live much longer: but I would not harm my cause.”

Sherlock Holmes stared piercingly at her.

“There must be no more apparitions.”

“There will be none.”

“Then this matter is concluded. I am my own law, and you are not, as I judge, in default of it.”

That the case had shaken Holmes I could tell from the brooding silence he observed on our way back to Baker Street in a cab. But once in our rooms again, and after he had played over Swettenham’s sweetly melancholy violin sonata, he became somewhat restored.

“I shall be able to use this case in due course as an exemplar for my monograph on lucifers, matches, and spills,” he observed. “Here are the ones left on the dead men and sent in the envelope—all Lyphant & Bray—see the squared-off stalks and yellow residue at the head. Here are three that Reynolds cast in the waste basket after having several secret cigarettes—they are identical to the one he left here after smoking one of my Macedonians. They are from the Phoebus Match Co, a rounded stem and a more friable head. They led Mostyn to think he had ten days before Nemesis would strike: in fact, he had only a week.

“And here are those I found in Pavia Court. One at the top of the street, by the sign: struck to check it was the right street; one by the gate; one in the garden, for the dark lantern. These were my treasures. They are a very uncommon match indeed—Raphael’s Hygienic. An experimental type, to see if some less deadly form of phosphor can be used in match manufacture, one that will do no harm to the poor creatures in the match manufactories. The lady of the skull, Watson, used Lyphant & Bray, the instruments of her oppression as a calling card on those she wished to harm, but in her everyday use she naturally patronised, and indeed part-funded, the safer design. I merely had to make known that I had connected the apparition to the Raphael workshop, and I felt sure the young inventor there would hurry to let her know and warn her off. In the morning, Watson, I shall visit to reassure him: and, after all we have heard, to place our order for matches always with him.”

[End]