Mycroft Holmes is not so unlike his younger brother Sherlock. Mystery-solving and clever solutions set in the eighteen-eighties are afoot in a collection of tales featuring “The Other Mr. Holmes”. Tearing through London in hansom cabs and knee-deep in the twists and turns in pursuit of adventure alongside Mycroft is his plucky, crack-shot mistress Anna.
Once again Anna and Mycroft Holmes tear through London in hansom cabs as they pursue three further adventures set in the eighteen-eighties.
“The Deadwood Stage”: When an anarchist threatens mayhem at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Anna finds herself having to impersonate Miss Annie Oakley and hobnobbing with Bill himself before the Prince of Wales. Mycroft puffs and pants his way through another case, applying his keen mind while Anna faces death in a spectacular Indian “attack” on the Deadwood stage with the Prince of Wales on the driver’s box and four European kings as passengers.
“Murder At The Lyceum”: Anna is accused of committing murder during a performance at the Lyceum Theatre. Fellow actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry believe in her innocence, but will Inspector Athelney Jones? Anna goes into hiding, and Mycroft must find the truth before the wrong person pays the penalty.
“The Green-painted Door”: After a hideous slaying in Wimbledon, Oscar Wilde exercises his scornful wit, but Mycroft Holmes is roused to action yet again. His privately-printed copy of the Kama Sutra (translated by Sir Richard Burton) stimulates another kind of action, as Anna has every reason to know. The book also saves Mycroft’s life in a sudden confrontation which leads to the discovery of the murderer.
GENRE: Mystery (Historical) ISBN: 978-1-920972-26-4 ASIN: B003Y74HIW Word count: 55, 630
July 15th 1891
Well, here I am in Buckinghamshire, pregnant and unmarried. I’m staying in a small cottage in a small village where no-one knows me except as Mrs George Weybridge, supposedly the widow of an Army officer killed in a riding accident in Ireland.
In my last account I mentioned that Mycroft had a surprise coming to him in just over seven months. Foolishly, I imagined that the prospect of fatherhood would spur him into marriage with a woman who loved him intensely, but the surprise was reserved for me. With amazing efficiency, Mycroft arranged for me to go into the country to have the baby. He would pay for everything, despite my protests.
“You will be unable to earn money in your normal profession for a long time, Anna,” he said. “The stage prefers its actresses not to be fruitful and multiply.”
It was Mycroft’s idea that I play the part of a widow.
“You’ll have no trouble doing that, Anna,” he said breezily as he watched me pack in our rooms at the Diogenes Club.
I was wearing my gentleman’s tweed suit and packing the dresses I kept in the concealed cupboard behind the bookcase in my room. My travelling dress I kept to put on before leaving the Diogenes Club.
No women were ever allowed in the club, and in order to live with Mycroft Holmes I had to dress and behave as a man. But from today I would resume life as a woman and would begin by ignominiously sneaking down the fire escape in my travelling costume.
“You’re keeping the lounge suit?” asked Mycroft as I began to change.
“There’s no need,” I replied, sniffing back a tear. Suddenly I was in Mycroft’s arms, my braces dangling. “Mycroft, what am I going to do? Why won’t you marry me and make me an honest woman?”
He held me but shook his massive head. “It won’t do, Anna, I’m afraid. I need to go on living here in the club.”
“But why? You have the rooms across the street. You could easily spend time here. I would look after our home, Mycroft, you know that.”
“I have no doubt you would be an excellent wife and mother, Anna, but I should be the worst of husbands. My hours would be irregular, which would not suit me, and worse, I should be open to visits from anyone who took it into his head to call. But have no fears. I shall never leave you destitute. In fact, I intend to visit you from time to time once you’re settled in. And if you need anything during your confinement and afterwards, just wire. ‘Holmes, Diogenes’ will reach me.”
The outside staircase of the Diogenes fire escape was not overlooked and it was an easy matter to slip down it even during the day. I went at lunchtime when the side street was quiet and met Mycroft with a four-wheeler already waiting, my box securely stowed. I took his hands and said goodbye, but as usual in public he evinced no emotion and I might as well have been a mere acquaintance, rather than his pregnant mistress. Heavy-hearted, I boarded the cab and set off to the station. I looked back once through the little rear window but Mycroft had already gone.
Now, as I sit before the window on a warm summer’s evening, my widow’s mourning weighing me down in spirit as well as in body, I am passing the time in writing down some of the adventures I had with Mycroft after I first met him. I find the activity soothing. It helps me to find a perspective from which to consider my life, and I enjoy reminiscing about those happy times I shared with him in the Diogenes Club.
One of the earliest cases on which I accompanied Mycroft was a brazen plot in the early summer of 1887. It threatened the lives of four crowned heads of Europe, and also that of our own Prince of Wales, to say nothing of my own. And there was also the necessity for an audacious impersonation, even more daring than that which enabled me to live in a gentlemen’s club as a member.
THE DEADWOOD STAGE
May – June 1887
It was the year of the Golden Jubilee, and the entire kingdom was afire with enthusiasm. The celebrations were to include an American Exhibition in the capital, and, as part of the Exhibition, a stupendous Wild West Show was to take place in London. The arena had been built at Earl’s Court, a third of a mile in circumference, and even then there were fears that it would not be big enough for the displays of riding and scenes from Western life that were to be played there. The show was run by an acquaintance of mine, Colonel William F. Cody, but what particularly excited me was the news that my old friend and mentor in shooting, Annie Oakley, was part of it.
At that time, I was living in the Diogenes Club masquerading as a young man. It was the only way I could ensure that I lived with Mycroft. Fortunately, the rule that members must not speak meant that no-one took the slightest notice of me, and the staff we saw regularly were either half-witted, half-blind, or half-senile.
Mycroft was as interested as I to visit the arena before the first night of the Wild West Show and meet some of the performers, including the Colonel.
“I can’t possibly go like this,” I told him, sweeping a hand down the gentleman’s light tweed suit I was wearing, then running it over my short-cut hair. “I know both Colonel Cody and Annie Oakley, as well as Annie’s husband.”
“Then change in my rooms over the road. I shall pick you up at the corner of St James’s Square.”
I left the club at one thirty on that sunny afternoon as Warren Hastings Dalziel, carrying a bag containing my dress, and let myself into the unused rooms which Mycroft owned across the street. At one fifty-five, having changed and made myself up, complete with finest-quality theatrical wig, I emerged as Anna Weybridge and met Mycroft at the corner. He was casually dressed in light tweed suit and stiff straw hat and was carrying a fine silver-topped Malacca cane, which he was tapping impatiently on the pavement. My walking dress was a charming little dark green creation, and over it I wore a fawn-coloured jacket with primrose yellow piping on the sleeves and lapels. The dress was in the simple “Aesthetic” style, for I hated wearing a bustle, and with my matching parasol and straw hat I felt quite the young lady of fashion as I took Mycroft’s arm and we strolled off in search of a cab to take us to Earl’s Court.
The scene at the Earl’s Court arena was one of frantic activity: men shouted orders in broad American accents, others staggered by with baulks of timber, saddles, rails of costume and pots of paint. There was the din of hammering from the carpenters fitting up the stands, the steady creep of a gang of painters working their way along the woodwork, and above all was the constant lowing, bellowing and whinnying from the animals. There were nearly twenty buffaloes, almost two hundred horses, huge elks, deer and some longhorn steers of the kind I recognised from my own years spent in the West.
“Noah’s Ark,” grunted Mycroft, as we picked our way among animal stalls, past lasso-twirling cowboys, cigar-smoking Mexicans and statuesque Red Indians. Suddenly, one of the Indians loomed in front of me.
“Anna!” he said, and then broke into a flow of Sioux. I had spent some time shooting buffalo with the Sioux – that was how I had met Colonel Cody – and I understood the language, if only imperfectly. But this stocky Indian seemed a stranger to me, until I recognised him.
“Red Shirt! It is you, isn’t it?”
Chief Red Shirt grunted with pleasure and seized my hand.
“Little Game ‘Un,” he said in his own language. That was what the Sioux had called me in the West. He pointed at Mycroft. “This your man?”
I translated our conversation, such as it was, for Mycroft. A few idlers drew near, interested to hear an Englishwoman making halting talk in Sioux. Suddenly a voice bellowed.
“What in tarnation is goin’ on here? I beg your pardon, ma’am, I – why, bless my soul! I know you. You’re that English girl that Annie taught to shoot, ain’t you?”
Who nowadays would fail to recognise the celebrated Buffalo Bill? The broad sombrero crowning the flowing locks of glossy dark hair, the magnificent physique clad in exotic buckskin jacket decorated with beaded flowers and tassels, the thigh boots adding to his height, and above all, the handsome, bearded aquiline features with their piercing eyes, have been reproduced too frequently on posters and in the illustrated papers for him to be a stranger in England. His very appearance used to set my heart pounding.
“How do you do, Colonel?” I said, offering my hand.
“Anna Weybridge, ain’t it? Well, I’m darned! And this is – ? Mr Mycroft Holmes? Honoured to meet you, sir. Is it Mrs Holmes, Anna? Oh, friends? Yes, of course, I understand.”
There came a whoop from behind and Annie Oakley, five foot one of whirlwind, was all over me. Once the reunion had settled down and some order was restored, her husband, Frank Butler, joined us and we drifted through the chaos of the arena, all talking at once. Like Colonel Cody, Annie guessed how close a friend Mycroft was, for she gave me a mischievous grin behind the backs of the others. At length we came to a shooting range, where three young women were practising with rifles and revolvers.
“Annie’s not my only girl shot, Anna,” said Buffalo Bill. “These three gals – let me introduce ’em – Lillian Smith, Della Ferrell, Georgia Duffy. Miss Anna Weybridge, ladies, an Englishwoman who used to live out West and now lives back home right here in London. I guess Anna could show you a thing or two with those guns. Here, Anna, try your hand.”
The three girl shots looked on with interest and a certain degree of cynical amusement as the Colonel thrust a rifle into my hand. It was a .22 calibre Remington repeater with a lever action.
“Safer than using a heavier calibre weapon in the arena,” said Cody. “Try your hand at those targets, Anna. I want to see you shoot again.”
I loaded the weapon and took careful aim, putting five shots into the bull’s-eyes of the three targets. The three girls gasped and then broke into applause. I had to tell them about my years in the West and my tuition under Annie, and they were possessed, in the way that only Americans can be, with genuine delight and interest. The shooting practice turned into a regular demonstration, with Annie and Frank joining in.
I noticed that although Mycroft was smoking a cigar and casually lounging behind the firing line, he took a keen interest in the whole business. He even had a few shots with a revolver, and acquitted himself creditably. Of course, none of us shot as well as Annie. She performed one of her favourite acts, shooting at a playing card placed in a cleft stick – edge on! She whipped the card out of its stick with her first shot at thirty yards, then put five more through it from her Winchester as it fluttered to the ground. I tried it but got no more than four into it as it fell. She concluded with a rather hazardous act, shooting the ash from a cigarette in her husband’s mouth, again at thirty yards.
“Come on, Anna!” called Frank. “Have a go at this one.”
He stood ready, the cigarette still in his mouth. I shook my head.
“No thanks, I don’t think it would be wise. But I’ll try this,” and I snatched the half-smoked cigar from the lips of the astonished Mycroft, ran and set it up in the cleft stick, then ran back and shot the ash from it with the rifle.
“You could have done it with me,” laughed Frank. “What were you afraid of?”
“Leaving Annie a widow,” I replied, handing back the rifle to the girls.
When we left, late in the afternoon, I felt that I had established a favourable reputation among the show people. Buffalo Bill took us to the exit, and handed over a couple of tickets for the first night.
“You know who’ll be here, of course? The Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra. They’ll be sitting right over there, in those seats we’re making up to royal standards of comfort. We hope to get Her Majesty to come later, but I guess it will all depend on the report she gets from the Prince.”
“As long as you don’t hit him with a stray bullet,” I said.
“No, Anna, there’s no danger of that, but I hope I can talk him into taking a ride in the Deadwood Stage. There it is, over there. A fine-built Concord coach used on the Pacific coast, the Overland trail, and the Deadwood route.”
His face became sombre as we contemplated the stagecoach. Although freshly painted, it looked rather battered, as if it had an interesting history.
“That coach, Mr Holmes, has been the death of I don’t know how many poor folks. Time and again, drivers and passengers were massacred by road agents or Indians. Some of the Indians reckon it’s haunted and kinda fated to be the death of others yet. Still, it’s got a more peaceful career now. We do a mock robbery and Indian attack on it, which is worth seeing, and you’ll see it in a couple of nights’ time. Be here early. There are forty thousand seats in this arena, and I expect to fill ’em all, every night.”
A slight shudder possessed me as I took a final glance at the unfortunate coach. We left the arena and returned to the Club. In our rooms I was as excited as a girl going to her first ball, as I considered what to wear to the Wild West Show.
“It won’t be like a reception,” said Mycroft. “I myself will not be in evening dress, for our seats are not near the royal party. Think of it as more of a picnic or a sporting occasion.”
I opened the secret closet behind the bookcase in my room and considered my female attire. I hadn’t much, but I laid them on my bed and eventually decided on my royal blue walking dress, which I pressed myself in the seclusion of my bedroom. There was little danger of staff intruding on us. Our rooms were at one end of the first floor landing, while at the other end were the suites of the Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer. Their spacious quarters were closed off from the landing by a panelled door, and ours by a green baize one. On the landing between us were the bedrooms for the occasional use of members. The landing extended into a gallery round the entire first floor, giving onto various smoking and reading rooms. We had complete privacy, with our own bathroom and lavatory across the passageway, and the fire escape at the end. That was most convenient for me if I needed to leave the building in my woman’s clothing.
“Tell you what,” went on Mycroft. “I’ll buy you some new gloves to go with your outfit, if you’d care to go out and choose them.”
I crossed to Mycroft’s other rooms as Mr Dalziel and changed into Anna Weybridge. Then I went to Oxford Street and made my purchases. Of course, as I later explained to Mycroft, you can’t buy gloves on their own. There was a new matching reticule to get, and who could have resisted the bright little silk scarf which set everything off to perfection and was just right for the occasion? With the pearl earrings, that is, which I spotted on my way back. Mycroft grumbled a little at the cost, but I rewarded him amply that night in bed, and once he lost consciousness at about one o’clock I knew I should hear no further complaints.
Ten o’clock the next night found me pottering about in our sitting room, waiting for Mycroft to return from his Whitehall office. I knew he would be late, for there was much concern over a treaty to be signed in Europe which no-one was supposed to know about, but which he knew in all its details.
I was stark naked, for the night was warm, and I wanted to give Mycroft a pleasant surprise after his long day. Normally, when he was working hard in Whitehall, he preferred to sleep alone, but I was so excited that I could hardly wait to have him in my arms. I was more in love with him than ever, and I knew that my shooting at Earl’s Court had impressed him tremendously. I was also looking forward to seeing my old friends performing in the arena the following evening, and wondering what the Prince of Wales would think of them. As I was deciding between hiding behind the sofa or in Mycroft’s wardrobe in order to spring out at him, I heard the swish of the baize door outside.
“Mycroft!” I thought, and got behind the sofa. To my horror, as I crouched down, I heard the shuffle of old Dinwoodie, the Senior Servant, and a moment later came his scratching knock and piping voice calling for Mycroft. I sprang to my feet, instinctively seizing the large crocheted antimacassar and clutching it about me, but before I could reach my bedroom the door opened and Dinwoodie stood on the threshold, stooping and blinking into the half-light of the single shaded oil lamp.
For a year I had deceived the staff at the club into thinking I was a man. I had not put a foot wrong, had been careful with my speech, my movements and my clothing. Harris the half-witted under-porter, the one-eyed junior waiter Henderson, and the other staff I met from time to time had accepted me. But never had I been caught unawares like this, as Dinwoodie peered at me from the threshold.
Even in the poor light, a younger and more alert man would have realised at once that I was a woman, despite my close-cropped hair, for the antimacassar did not cover my bare shoulders, which were undoubtedly womanly, and which Mycroft often admired as being among my finest features. I gave a little shriek and clutched the antimacassar even tighter about me to try to conceal my cleavage, but I was uncomfortably aware that the crochet work concealed hardly anything of my figure. Luckily, the half-senile Dinwoodie stayed on the threshold and, better still, he had the left-overs of his mind on other matters.
“Beg pardon, Mr Dalziel, but is Mr Holmes in?”
“No. He’s – he’s working late at the office,” I squeaked, trying hard to control my voice as I sidled into the shadows.
“Oh dear, oh dear. Oh dearie me, sir. What am I to do? He won’t go from the Strangers’ Room, sir. He’s sitting there, smoking a cigar as cool as you please, and glaring at me and demanding to see Mr Holmes. I see you was about to go for a bath, sir, but I wonder, would you mind going down and seeing to him?”
“To whom, Dinwoodie?”
“A Mr Brodie, sir. Wants to see Mr Holmes and won’t be put off, sir. If you would see him, sir, it might get rid of him.”
“Let me get dressed, Dinwoodie. In the meantime, just cut along and tell him someone will see him shortly.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you.”
The old man tottered away, while I unwrapped myself, thanked my stars, and went to dress as Mr Dalziel. I hastily put on my gentleman’s outfit, realising too late that I had forgotten to bind up my breasts.
“Oh well, I’m not exactly Rubenesque,” I said, and donned an old smoking jacket of Mycroft’s, which was miles too big, but hid my feminine contours admirably. I made my way downstairs and sauntered into the Strangers’ Room. It was a comfort to me that this room too was shrouded in evening dusk, with only one shaded lamp, turned down. The visitor was standing with his back to me, gazing out of the window and smoking. As I entered, he turned, throwing the stub of his cigar into the empty fireplace and taking a stride forward. Then he stopped in evident disappointment, while I stood paralysed in terror. It was Buffalo Bill.
Buffalo Bill in a sober dark coat. Only the day before, in my skirt, hat and jacket, I had passed an afternoon with him. Now I was presenting myself before him as my alter ego, Warren Hastings Dalziel. How could I escape detection as a woman from the keenest eye of the prairies? Pulling myself out of panic and into mere desperation, I shut the door to cut off the light from the lobby, then smoothed down my hair and shot my cuffs. I strode towards him with outstretched hand and pumped his vigorously while keeping the shaded lamp directly behind me.
“Dalziel,” I said. “Mr – Mr Brodie?”
He looked at me curiously before replying. “Cody, sir. Colonel William F. Cody at your service. I understand from the rather deaf old fellow – porter, waiter, whatever he is – that you’re a colleague of Mr Holmes?”
“Yes, indeed I am, Colonel. Take a seat. This one’s quite comfortable.”
I indicated a seat that would put the light of the lamp in the Colonel’s eyes while I stayed in the shadow.
“Try one of these cigars,” I added, pushing the box across the low table.
“Or try one of mine, Cody,” said Mycroft from the door behind me. A wave of relief swept through me and I stepped back to allow Mycroft to take control.
“Don’t go, Dalziel,” said Mycroft, taking me firmly by the elbow. “Sit over there. I heard from the porter that you were here, Colonel. You may speak freely before Dalziel,” he continued, “for although he is a young man about town, he knows when to speak and when to remain silent.”
Gingerly, I took a seat well in the shadow, trying to make myself inconspicuous. Why Mycroft couldn’t simply have let me go, I did not know, but the last thing I wished was to make a scene about it.
“You will excuse my not turning up the light, Colonel,” said Mycroft smoothly, “but Dalziel’s dissipated life has given him ophthalmia. Now, you have encountered a problem at the arena which brought you to me in some haste, for even in this light I see that your coat and trousers do not match, indicating that you flung on the first things you found. You left in such haste that you did not even remove your riding boots. Such signs betoken an emergency of great importance to you.”
“Why, sir, you’re absolutely right. It’s – ”
“No. Let me deduce. It is not a crime, for you would have gone to the police. It cannot be anything to do with the animals, the rough riders or the Indians, for what could I do for you in those cases? If it concerned the Prince, the Palace would deal with it. That leaves your shooting performers. Am I correct so far?”
“Admirably, Mr Holmes. It’s – ”
“Either Mr Butler, his wife, or one of your other shooting girls. As any of the three girls could stand in for any other, it cannot be one of them. Nothing has befallen all three of them? No? I presume that you yourself could stand in for Mr Butler. Therefore something has happened to his wife, Miss Annie Oakley, the one marksman, or rather markswoman, for whom there is no substitute. Yes?”
Buffalo Bill sat astounded, then slapped his thigh with a roar of approval.
“Damn me, Holmes, you’ve hit on it!”
“She cannot shoot. It is the only thing which would bring you to me.”
“Holmes, you are right. But you can’t help me yourself. The person I need to speak with is your young lady friend, Miss Anna Weybridge.”
I started in my seat. Colonel Cody, however, was too agitated to notice. He rose and began to pace the room, puffing hard on his cigar. Mycroft sat back, drawing gently on his own.
“And how can Miss Weybridge assist you, Colonel?” he asked.
“Why Holmes, the thing is, my little Miss Oakley, my Little Sure Shot, my lovely little shinin’ star, tripped over a wire today and sprained her goddamn wrist. That’s what it is, gentlemen, and the show opens tomorrow in front of His Royal Highness the Prince, and if Annie ain’t there, why, what will become of us?”
“But,” I ventured, “how can this Miss Weybridge help you, Colonel?”
Through the gloom Buffalo Bill stared hard at me. My heart thumped, for I was certain that he had recognised my voice, but, still smoking furiously, he took another turn round the room.
“You don’t know Miss Weybridge, I presume, Mr Dalziel? The thing is, apart from Annie, I know nobody who can shoot like Anna Weybridge. Annie taught her, and she taught her well. I met Anna out West some years ago, and I saw her again the other day and, by jiminy, she impressed me! Set a playing card edge on in a stick, and Anna can knock it out with a repeater – edge on, mind you! – and put three or four more shots through it before it hits the ground. Annie can give it five or six shots at ninety feet with her Winchester, but then, there’s nobody to touch Annie. But if I could get Anna Weybridge for the time being, till Annie’s wrist mends, the show will be safe.”
I sat in horror, thinking of the ash on Frank’s cigarette.
“If we manage to persuade Miss Weybridge,” said Mycroft, “surely the audience will be disappointed that Miss Oakley is not taking part?”
Buffalo Bill smiled.
“This is the devilish part, Holmes. I thought it over in the cab. I don’t want Miss Weybridge to simply stand in for Annie. I want Anna Weybridge to impersonate her in every way. You told me the other day she’s an actress now, appeared with no less than Irving and Miss Terry? Well then, a little impersonation shouldn’t come too hard.”
Shock froze me rigid. The Colonel continued, pacing and jabbing the air with his cigar.
“Anna is but a little taller than Annie, who stands no more than five foot one in her shoes, and we can run up a costume for her by the afternoon. In appearance she looks nothing like Annie, though, for Annie, although a striking gal, has a rather homely face.”
I always found her rather attractive, but of course I held my tongue.
“Anna is a much more handsome gal,” went on the Colonel, “but the point is, nobody in the audience will have any real idea what Annie looks like, for the drawings in the illustrated papers don’t do her justice. My idea is we present an attractive young lady who can shoot, and call her Annie Oakley, and bring on Annie’s husband-”
“Who will be in the plot, I suppose?” asked Mycroft.
“Naturally. Bring on Frank, and have him call Anna ‘Annie’ – why, it won’t matter if he forgets and says ‘Anna’, the names are so alike. Holmes, this plan has to work. Cody’s Wild West depends on it.”
To my increasing consternation, Mycroft nodded.
“I agree with you entirely, Cody. I shall approach Miss Weybridge first thing tomorrow. I do not think that she will raise any real objection. She is a born actress and an excellent shot. I believe that I can win her round.”
Cody bounded forward and grasped Mycroft’s hand in both his own.
“Holmes, if you can do it, sir, I’ll – why, I’ll give you anything in my power. I’ll even support you if you wish to run for Mayor of New York or Governor of California.”
Mycroft smiled and raised a deprecating hand.
“I do not intend to do anything so ambitious. But I must warn you about one quirk of Anna’s nature.”
Good God! What could it be? Disguising herself as a man? I leaned forward, no longer breathing.
“You have hairdressers, I presume? Then I must warn you that Anna hates having her hair touched. She will groom it herself.”
I realised what he meant. As myself, I should have to wear my wig. Buffalo Bill waved aside the caution.
“Of course, whatever she wishes. Holmes, Annie is my greatest star. Little Sure Shot captivates the hearts of the audience from the moment she enters. You see, gentlemen, she knows how to make an entrance. She doesn’t just walk in. No, sir. She – why, I guess you’d say she kinda skips right in there – almost floats. She bows, she waves, she blows kisses to the gentlemen that set their hearts a-thumpin’ and their ladies wild with jealousy, then she makes it right up to the ladies by droppin’ curtsies to them in the prettiest way imaginable.”
“H’mm,” nodded Mycroft. “Anna could do all that.”
Black despair took hold of me. I could see no way of getting out of this escapade that Mycroft had agreed to. I knew now why he had made me stay. He had spoken with Harris the porter, deduced the reason for Buffalo Bill’s visit before he even saw him, decided to help him and, in doing so, had condemned me to taking part in a wild gamble. I knew I shot well, but to equal my teacher Annie Oakley? And in front of forty thousand people and the Prince and Princess of Wales? I was numb and cold as Colonel Cody took his leave, overflowing with gratitude and enthusiasm.
But afterwards I was anything but numb and cold. I flew at Mycroft, once we were in the privacy of our quarters, and pummelled his huge frame with my small fists until he seized me and, laughing, pulled me onto his knee.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded. “I can’t take Annie’s place and pretend to be her. The audience will see through it in moments. They’ll lynch me – and get your hand out of my shirt front this instant!”
“They’ll do no such thing. This is an English audience, not a foreign one – ”
“Mycroft, don’t you realise people will have money staked on Annie’s shooting? I can’t match her, and the bets will be called off, and there’ll be people waiting for me outside the arena, and trying to get in, and – ”
“They wouldn’t harm a woman,” said Mycroft soothingly. “You’ll be okay, as the Americans say. Despite the Press reports, no-one will know what Miss Oakley is really capable of doing. All you have to do is shoot as well as you did the other day. Now get to bed. You have a strenuous day in front of you. And that old smoking jacket of mine doesn’t suit you a bit. You look like a street urchin. That was why I told Cody you lived a dissipated life.”
There was no gainsaying Mycroft. He was implacable, even though I begged to be let off, pleaded, went on my knees, and finally lay full length weeping and pounding the carpet. Ellen Terry would have been proud of my performance.
Eventually he yielded slightly. “If it will help,” he said, “there will be an afternoon in Bond Street for Miss Weybridge during which she will be allowed to purchase anything she wishes, within reason, of course.”
“You’ve just thought of that,” I accused him.
“True, but I shall keep my word.”
“A whole afternoon?”
“From midday until the shops close.”
“Naturally, my dear.”
“Anything I want?”
“I’m doing this under protest,” I said.
He then locked himself in his bedroom and I spent a disturbed night in mine, partially alleviated by thoughts of how I should sweep through Bond Street and get even with him by way of his bank balance.
Next morning I deliberately lay in bed until Mycroft came and hauled me out. Still under protest, I was taken to his other rooms where I changed under his close supervision and he took me to the arena. I rehearsed for most of the day, receiving my splendid costume, an exact copy of Annie’s, that afternoon. There was a wide sombrero, a jacket to wear over a ruffled blouse, and a short but modest skirt with long buckskin boots. One thing Annie did not let me do was wear her shooting medals. “You gotta earn ’em tonight,” she smiled.
Buffalo Bill swore the entire company to secrecy with every manner of threat and cajolement. Everyone had learned of Annie’s injury and all were concerned about the effect it would have on the show if she failed to appear. During the day many idlers drifted into the practice range where Annie and Frank put me through my paces. By tea-time the verdict had gone round the arena that the English girl, though not quite up to Annie’s standard, was more than good enough to pass. Happily, I encountered no jealousy from the other girl shots, all of whom were anxious that I should succeed. What particularly pleased me was that I conquered my fear over shooting the ash from Frank’s cigarette. Three times out of three I trimmed it down.
“Good, Anna,” nodded Colonel Cody at the end of the long and exacting practice. “Now you just go and lay down for a couple of hours.”
I was glad to obey, and went into a backstage room where I put my feet up for a while and dozed with my sombrero over my face. While I was there a strange thing happened. I woke with a little jump, for someone had just closed the door. Hastily I removed my hat and looked about me. Nothing was amiss, and I assumed that Cody or someone had looked in. But as I settled myself to doze a little longer, I heard a whisper outside.
“Not tonight, no. Cody hasn’t yet persuaded him to ride in the stage. But I hear there will be a better chance in the near future.”
“My sources tell me that if Tum-tum carries a good report back to Mama, there will be at least one, maybe more, command performances. A number of European crowned heads are eager to see the show, and a good opportunity will arise from that, I should think.”
“Will you ride tonight?”
“No. I cannot ride bareback. That’s why I must wait for the right opportunity, because I shall have to ride with stirrups. However, the chance will come, my friend, and when it comes I shall take it.”
“Who’s in that room? Anyone?”
“Little Sure Shot herself, sleeping. Well, she’s not such a sure shot at present. She’s hurt her wrist and I hear they’ve got another girl in to replace her. Let’s go.”
There are so many intrigues, jealousies and schemes hatched among theatre people that I thought nothing of what I had overheard. Tum-tum was a disrespectful nickname for the Prince, so perhaps someone – probably one of the more anti-monarchical rough riders – wished to show off but had been slighted. It did not occur to me then that the predominant voice had spoken with a faultless and cultured English accent – too English by half. What did stay in my mind was that whoever looked in had mistaken me for Annie, so perhaps I could carry off the impersonation after all. For that had been the main worry for me, that although I might shoot almost as well as Annie, I should cut a poor figure impersonating her.
She herself had taken me through the kind of entrance she made, wafting in, blowing kisses, curtseying, waving her hat, and ending her act with what Frank described as her “sassy hop-kick”. We decided that the hat-waving should be cut out, as it would show too much of my face, or so I argued. In reality I was terrified that my wig would come off. Fortunately, my supposed eccentricity about allowing no-one to touch my hair had been remembered and passed on.
As the opening time approached, I felt the sort of nerves I’d had when I first appeared at the Lyceum with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. The Lyceum held a good-sized crowd, but nothing like forty thousand – the population of a respectably-sized town. I took a peep through the curtains screening the main entrance into the arena as the audience filed in. Tier after tier was rapidly filling with people in evident holiday mood. All classes were represented, as I could see from the variety of dress. A continual muted roar rose from them, like the noise of a large waterfall not too far away.
“A good house!” said Annie at my shoulder. “Where’s the Prince?”
“He’ll come last. Oh, there’s Mycroft!”
He was slowly edging his way to a seat.
“Who’s that little round man with him?”
“Major Winstanley, from Whitehall. Everyone calls him Tubby. He’s Mycroft’s chief, only nobody admits it.”
“They’re quite close to where the royal party will sit, ain’t they?”
“Yes, it’s part of their responsibility to keep an eye on them.”
“Why? What do they expect to happen?”
“Oh, nothing, I imagine. Still, in a crowd like this there could be Fenians or nihilists about who might try to make a scene.”
“Heck! If they do that an’ put you off your aim we’ll get Red Shirt’s boys onto ’em.”
At last the amphitheatre was filled and gradually a hush fell. Everyone was expectant, heads turning to the entrances. Suddenly the band struck up “God Save the Queen” and the royal party entered. Everyone stood in silence until the Prince and Princess were seated, then a spontaneous roar of applause broke out. It was deafening and I had never heard anything like it. I had got used to the Lyceum roar that greeted Henry Irving or Ellen Terry, but now forty thousand throats thundered their salutes, to which the royal couple responded graciously.
All of a sudden the area behind me, just inside the curtained-off arena entrance, was full of silent Indians on their ponies. Even the ponies were still, as their riders awaited the signal. As Annie and I stepped aside, it came. The band struck up again, the curtains swept open, and as one man the Indians galloped furiously into the arena and round its entire circumference. Red Shirt led them, resplendent in his war bonnet. No sooner had the Indians formed line in the arena than a rush of cowboys and Mexicans followed. I was overwhelmed by the breakneck speed with which they galloped up to the Prince’s tier, saluted, and then, flinging up clouds of dust, formed up beside the braves. Rush after rush followed as rough riders, frontiersmen, foreign cavalry and a detachment of our own Lancers took up their places in the arena, with the band playing triumphantly all the time. Every squadron of horse tried to outdo the others, and the Londoners roared at every rush.
Finally the music changed to something faster, the waiting companies of horsemen formed into a hollow square shimmering with colour, each company with its own flag, and then one more horseman galloped into the arena on Charlie, his splendid half-blood Kentucky. The limelight picked him out, and, sweeping off his broad sombrero, he advanced to the royal party, bowed, then addressed the audience in his magnificent voice.
“Your Royal Highnesses, ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce a congress of the rough riders of the world.”
The cheers drowned out the band completely. My nerves vanished as I watched the spectacle begin with scenes from American life. The Indians staged a war-dance and mock battle, the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers was enacted, an Indian wedding followed, after which came the rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas. When all that was cleared away, a herd of buffalo came to a water hole, stalked by Buffalo Bill himself. Then a great prairie fire was simulated, with wild animals apparently fleeing the flames.
After the last spectacle came the turn of Annie and Frank. Now the butterflies were fluttering again in my stomach. Annie gripped my hand and wished me luck, Frank took my elbow and said, “Now don’t forget to skip in and smile, smile, smile.”
Even the normally impassive Red Shirt stepped up to me and said, “Show them, Little Game ‘Un,” in his own tongue. That gave me the little push of courage that I needed. As the band struck up, I skipped into the arena to a smattering of applause.
Although the papers had puffed up Annie Oakley’s prowess, hardly anyone in the audience really knew what to expect, so when I began my shooting demonstration there were many gasps and exclamations. Frank tossed dimes and shillings into the air for me to shoot down, I shot the playing card out of the stick, Frank did some shooting himself at clay pigeons, and then came the climax. He lighted a cigarette and strolled to a distance of thirty yards. I took up the rifle, loaded it, and went numb.
I couldn’t do it. Three times I aimed, three times I lowered the rifle. The audience were deadly quiet. The Prince leaned forward in his seat, and then I saw Mycroft. He was making a little movement with his clenched fist, willing me to do it. Without thinking, I raised the Remington, aimed and fired in one movement. Ash flew from Frank’s cigarette and the audience went mad. Hats flew into the air, people stood and waved their hands, and the Prince himself stood and clapped me, prompting a standing ovation. Frank seized my arm and raised it as if I were a boxer.
“Good girl,” he said, under cover of the tumult, and gave me a kiss.
“Wait a moment,” I said. I was fired with confidence again.
I ran to the Prince’s seat, curtseyed, and said in my best American accent, “Your Royal Highness, may I make so bold as to ask you for the butt of your cigar?”
“It wants some ash on it, Miss Oakley,” said the Prince with a laugh, and, drawing hard on it for a moment, he handed it over.
The audience buzzed as I ran to Frank and gave it to him. With a bow to the Prince, Frank put it into his mouth and took up his position. I aimed and fired. Ash flew to howls of delight.
“Stay there, Frank,” I called, “and hold it in your fingers.”
He obeyed, and I fired twice more, cutting the cigar down to a small stub. The Prince himself led the applause and laughter as Frank held up the now tiny butt for all to see. Suddenly Buffalo Bill was galloping past on his splendid horse. He drew rein in front of the royal party.
“Sir,” he said to the Prince, “since Miss Oakley has destroyed your cigar, may I offer you one of mine?”
Again forty thousand throats yelled their approval as the Prince graciously accepted the superb Havana which the Colonel held out. We made our bows and left to tumultuous applause, and I even remembered the little hop and kick. Annie was waiting for me backstage.
“Anna, you were just swell! I’ll have to equal that trick with the cigar whenever there’s royalty present.”
“I guess the Queen herself will come to see us now,” said Frank. One or two of the roughriders and others nearby smiled and nodded.
“It’ll be a right royal show,” said one man, turning away. The others agreed. Oddly, the man who had spoken had the English voice I’d heard earlier that afternoon outside the back room. Even odder, he was wearing the buckskin leggings the Indians were wearing, but, as I noticed that, Buffalo Bill seized my hands and planted a great smacking kiss on my cheek.
“Wonderful, Anna. The Prince has requested to meet the company after the show. Stick around for it.”
“Surely Annie should do that?” I said. What frightened me was the chance of being recognised by the Prince. Less than four years earlier I had been his mistress, but I dared not say so to Annie and the others.
“You took the part, you take the credit,” declared Annie. “Anyway, he’d spot the difference. My time will come when the Queen comes. Oh, and by the way, put these on. You earned ’em tonight.”
Awkwardly, because of her sprained wrist, she pinned her rows of shooting medals onto my chest.
The presentation found me with a worse case of butterflies than ever. I was trembling when the royal couple made their way down the line of performers after the show. Buffalo Bill had not expected the presentation, and had not warned the company how to treat royalty. Therefore it was not surprising that the three girl shots put out their hands in the friendliest way to the Princess, who was not for a moment disconcerted, but shook them cordially. I followed suit, suppressing the inclination to curtsey and bend over the royal hand in the British manner.
As Princess Alexandra chatted to the three girls, Bertie himself came up to me. Although I kept my head down and tried to behave like a country girl from Ohio, he looked at me strangely.
“Do you know, Miss Oakley, you remind me of someone. Have we met before?”
“Oh no, sir,” I mumbled. “I haven’t had the honour.”
That, naturally, was a flat lie, but it served its purpose, for he failed to recognise me. When I was temporarily his mistress, I had worn my hair short and dyed it blonde. Now I shuffled my feet and spoke with the western drawl I had learned in my time in America. He asked about the shooting medals I was wearing, none of which I could describe, so I made up stories about them – “this one’s fer squirrels, and this here’s fer jack-rabbits” – until, to my relief, Princess Alexandra moved away and her husband followed, with one roguish wink at me.
The three girl shots controlled their rising hysterical laughter until we were in the dressing room, where Annie rushed up, bursting to know what had passed between the Prince and me. The girls were helpless by then, and I fear I was too dazed by the evening’s events to make much sense to Annie.
For a few more nights I passed off as Annie, until her sprained wrist recovered sufficiently for her to take her rightful position in the show. When I retired from the company I resumed my life as Mr Dalziel in the Diogenes, enjoying Mycroft’s attentions at night, for since my appearance in the show his animal spirits had reached their peak in the way that they did when he was involved in a case. I think it had something to do with my shooting skill, but whatever the reason, Mycroft paid me intimate attention in his bed every night.
Needless to say, I took every advantage of Mycroft’s offer of an afternoon in Bond Street and profited hugely by it, not least in seeing his expression as the stores delivered my parcels day after day to his other rooms. I was blissfully happy for some weeks, and called at Earl’s Court from time to time to see Annie.
One day she let me know that the Queen had commanded a performance of Buffalo Bill’s show. It was already sold out, but I was allowed to take Mycroft with me behind the scenes. We watched in fascination as the Queen was driven to the royal box that had been specially built.
As she alighted from her carriage, Buffalo Bill stepped forward, swept off his hat, bowed and said, “Welcome, Your Majesty, to the Wild West of America.”
Before the show began, members of the company dipped the Stars and Stripes to the royal box, where, to universal delight, the Queen and her suite rose and bowed to it. In return, the Americans gave three ringing cheers.
“Isn’t that splendid?” I said, delightedly clutching Mycroft’s arm as we watched from between the curtains.
“H’m,” he grunted. “There’s one not cheering. That rough rider over there. Why not, I wonder?”
I looked but could not distinguish the man in question. The company dispersed and the show began. When Annie went on, I paid keen attention to the skill she exhibited with her rifle. The Queen’s presence had the whole company performing to the highest pitch, and Annie’s shooting was no exception, apart from the fact that she made no requests for a cigar from any of the equerries in the royal box.
Much of the time I watched alone, for Mycroft wandered away and seemed to be looking for someone. At length I saw him talking to a performer, who began to look about him as anyone does when they wish to point someone out. Mycroft, however, with a hand on his arm, restrained him, slipped him some money, and rejoined me. He said nothing, but I sensed from his manner that something was afoot. Afterwards Colonel Cody and Red Shirt were presented to the Queen. When the Indian chief returned I asked him what had passed between them.
“Oh,” he replied in his own tongue, “I told her that I came across the Great Water purely to see her, and my heart was glad. She seemed pleased. You women, Anna, are all the same when a man compliments you, whether you are sharpshooters or queens, and whether he wears a top hat or a feathered bonnet.”
As we journeyed home I asked Mycroft what had been the matter earlier.
“Nothing to concern us at present, Anna. There seemed to be a little cloud on the horizon, but it may never come to overwhelm us.”
I was puzzled by his words, but before many weeks had passed, the cloud rolled in and threatened a mighty storm.