Chapter 79: A Surprising Toast

"We have some excellent French cognac.
Will you join us?"
Stuck for words, I whistled softly. "It is, of course, possible," said Sherlock Holmes, "that I have something wrong, or several things wrong. But I think the chain is strong enough to survive a test."

"How can you test it?" I asked.

"You will see on Tuesday," Holmes replied. "Slate and one of his friends will join us for dinner. Will you be available in the afternoon to assist with preparations?"

"Certainly," I said. "Whatever you need. Just say the word!"

"Good man!" said Holmes. "Mycroft will arrive after dinner. Unless I am horribly mistaken, he will bring with him a man who can answer all our questions. If we play our cards properly, perhaps we can induce him to do so.

"There is very little you or I can do before Tuesday noon," Holmes continued, "so I propose we take a hiatus from all this madness." He spoke no more of the case to me for three days. 

"Let's go for a walk," he suggested early Tuesday afternoon, just after lunch. "We can give Mrs. Hudson a chance to clean up the flat, fill our lungs with fresh air -- or such as London offers at this time of year -- and stretch our legs." I readily agreed, and we didn't speak again until we were in Baker Street.

"Is your old army revolver clean and loaded?" Holmes asked as we walked along.

"Yes, of course," I replied.

"When we get back to the flat," Holmes said, "please put it in the pocket of your jacket. You don't have to wear the jacket all afternoon, but you must slip into it by seven-thirty this evening, if not before. Is that clear?"

"Yes," said I.

"Good," said he. "You can relax until Slate arrives, but then you'll want to pay close attention. I think you should make careful notes of everything he says -- for your book, if nothing else.

"But there must be no notes," he continued, "and no notebooks, from seven-thirty onward. Mycroft will arrive shortly thereafter, and we want his companion to speak as freely as possible."

"I understand," I said.

"I thought you would," said my companion. "If and when I need you and your revolver, you will certainly know it. Until then, you should do whatever you can to make our guests comfortable. You are much better at it than I am, so don't be afraid to take some initiative."

"All right," I agreed.

"But don't say anything about the case," he added. "Leave that to me."

"I understand," I said, "and I'll do my best."

"Excellent!" said Holmes. And we walked together without speaking, enjoying the autumn air.

I placed my revolver in my jacket pocket.
When we returned to the flat, I placed my revolver in my jacket pocket, as Holmes had requested, and admired the job Mrs. Hudson had done in preparing the flat. I thought it was remarkable enough that she could tolerate Holmes, let alone do things like this.

Holmes closed all the curtains, turned up the lamps, and sat in an armchair to read. I picked up a book, and we both sat quietly until shortly after four-thirty, when we heard footsteps upon the stair.

"That will be Slate and his friend," said Holmes, getting up to answer the door. But when he opened it, we found ourselves looking at a haggard old woman.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Holmes," she said, in a deep and strangely familiar voice. "Come on in, Scott. Meet Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson."

We watched an old man shuffle into the room, carrying a suitcase over which he was bent in obvious discomfort. The old woman closed the door and removed her shawl, then her hat, and finally her hair, revealing the familiar face of Buckingham Slate. "Hello, Dr. Watson," he said. "It's a pleasure to see you both again, gentlemen. This is my friend and colleague, Scott Robinson. Take off your wig and say hello, Scott."

The old man dropped his suitcase, removed his white wig, straightened his back, and offered us his hand. "Pleased to meet you both," he said with a smile. "Thank you for inviting us."

"I am happy to see you again, Bucky" I said. "And it's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Robinson."

"Please call me Scott, sir," said Robinson.

"Did you bring everything I asked for?" Holmes inquired.

"Yes, sir," said Slate.

"It's all in this bag," added Robinson, pointing to the suitcase.

"Good," said Holmes, and he gave me a subtle nod.

"Please make yourselves at home," I said, "or as close as possible, in any case. Will you take a drop with us?"

"It's a social visit," added Holmes, "and we have some excellent French cognac."

Our guests quickly accepted the offer, and Holmes filled four snifters. After giving one to each of us, he turned to Slate, raised his glass and said, "Congratulations, Bucky!"

"Thank you, sir," replied Slate. "But may I inquire as to the reason for the congratulations?"

"Unless I am very wrong," answered Sherlock Holmes, "you are about to crack the biggest case of your career!"

"I am?" Slate asked in astonishment.

"I do believe you are," said my friend.

"I will certainly drink to that!" declared Buckingham Slate.

He did, and the three of us followed suit.

The cognac was delicious. Ch√Ęteau Vernet, '97.