The Truth About Cats & Dogs
<< This story is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>
On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.
Content Warnings: Flashes of slash. Rampant fluffiness. Kitten angst.
In the course of long association with my intimate friend Sherlock Holmes, I have more than once found myself engaged in clandestine behavior most law-abiding citizen of Her Majesty’s realm would consider quite out of the common, certainly for a middle-aged residential physician.
At my friend’s side, I have crouched in hedgerows, crept onto private grounds, secreted myself behind drawing room curtains and, on one occasion which Holmes takes transparent delight in recalling to my mind at regular intervals, concealed myself under the bed of a certain lady well known to devotees of the Parisian can-can.
It was with no great astonishment, therefore, that I found myself lurking in an alleyway outside a battered warehouse door one chill and rain-swept autumn evening. It was the denouement of this particular adventure that was to prove far more surprising.
Holmes had been on the trail of “High Hat” Jackson, a notorious “finder” of lost dogs. Jackson was one of those class of professional miscreants who make their living by stealing a pampered pet, extorting outrageous amounts from the stricken owner, and finally restoring the animal, only to steal it again a short time later.
My friend had been engaged by one such beleaguered dog owner. The venerable lady’s pet had gone missing for the third time in as many months and she was frantic with concern for her much loved and much-stolen spaniel Boodles.
Holmes had always been drawn to cases which offered something of the unusual to test his talents. Moreover, he had a particular antipathy toward Jackson whom he considered to be a blight on the East End.
Jackson had outwitted Scotland Yard time and again through the simple expedient of recruiting a third party to handle the ransom exchange. Holmes was determined to catch him red-handed with the dog in his possession.
Having tracked Jackson to his bolt hole in the Isle of Dogs (an irony which Holmes seemed not to appreciate when I pointed it out), he had recruited me to stand watch outside the rear door while he scouted the territory.
The alley itself was a standard specimen of its kind. Gray cobbles for a floor, gray brick for walls, and, at least on that evening, a gray sky above.
The door I was assigned to watch was of a piece with the rest. It had once been a cheery yellow but now showed patches of weathered gray wood behind peeling paint. Stone dust, turned to thick slurry in the rain, leaked from the single cracked step leading up.
Up the alley toward the river, the Manchester Road was nearly deserted by this time. Down the alley were more echoing rows of vacant warehouses. The distant and muffled sounds of the city only added to the sense of dreary isolation
As I stood in the shadow of one of the many stacks of disused packing cases that lined the passage, trying to ignore the thin stream of icy rainwater seeping under the collar of my Mackintosh, I bleakly considered the absence of my warm tartan scarf .
I had last seen it that morning draped across the dresser in Holmes’s bedroom. The circumstances of having it removed for me the night before were still fresh in my mind and as I lost myself in the stimulating memory, I felt a sudden touch on my sleeve. I confess I gave a violent start that nearly upset the dark lantern at my feet.
Years in his company had never accustomed me to Holmes’s knack for moving as silently as one of Fennimore Cooper’s Mohicans. Before I could turn, his hand was on my shoulder. The feel of his breath on my ear sent a shiver through me that had little to do with the chill night air.
“Not long now, Watson,” he whispered as his hand drifted to the small of my back. “The rendezvous is set for thirty minutes at the ferry landing.”
My pleasure at finding Holmes beside me was enormous and, though I did not wish to disrupt his surveillance, I had a passing thought of grasping him around the middle and tackling him to the ground for some impromptu devilment. I had concerns, however, that one or the other of us might sustain injury through sudden contact with the rain-slicked cobbles. This suspicion later proved to be entirely accurate.
Holmes, for his part, was focused intently on the task before us. His piercing gaze raked the battered door across the passage as though he could will Jackson to emerge through it.
Jackson did not appear, however, so we simply stood and waited in the steady drizzle. I was just becoming acutely aware of the trickle of rain that had found its way around to my collarbone when Holmes, as was his habit, broke in on my thoughts.
“There’s a bright fire and a stiff drink waiting for you at the end of this, old boy,” he said under his breath. “And if that fails to warm you sufficiently perhaps I could apply my hands to your–”
But before I could learn where Holmes planned to place his hands his words were interrupted by a sudden chorus of high, peeping meows emanating from an open packing case a few yards farther down the alley.
“What the devil?” Holmes said, peering at the source of the noise.
At that moment a particularly loud and sustained “Mew!” rent the air like a tiny train whistle.
“It’s a litter of kittens,” I whispered.
“Yes,” Holmes replied evenly. “Undoubtedly you are correct, Watson. But what are they doing here?”
“I imagine,” I answered, coolly returning his sarcasm for I was beginning to feel somewhat put-upon by this time, “They’re doing what kittens do. Eating, sleeping and generally bumbling about. At the moment it sounds as though eating is uppermost in their minds.”
Holmes was silent. At last he said in an undertone, “I meant what are they doing here outside a warehouse in the rain.”
Before I could assay a response, he had crept from my side. I saw him edge through the shadows to the side of the crate in question and bend to peer inside. The mewing rose sharply in volume and he backed away quickly.
“The mother seems to be absent,” he said when he’d slipped back to my side.
“I expect she’ll return soon. She’s no doubt gone looking for supper,” I remarked, bemused by my friend’s continued interest in the subject. He made no reply so I added, “Twilight is their favorite time for hunting.”
We stood in silence, shoulders touching, for some little time more before I ventured, “Did you never have cats when you were a boy, Holmes?”
I knew it was a risk, trying to draw my companion into conversation at such a time, however opportunities to question him about his early life rarely presented themselves and I could not resist availing myself of the chance. His response, as I had expected, was as unenlightening as it was terse.
“Not to speak of,” he said.
I had subsided into silence when, to my great surprise, he went on.
“Cats have not played a large role in my professional career,” he murmured thoughtfully. “They’re seldom as useful as dogs in investigation. They’re disinclined to leap onto moving carriages to identify their master, their silence in the night is hardly remarkable and they’re not known for their willingness to follow a trail, even of creosote. There was one occasion when an unfed housecat’s alarm led to– ah, but here’s the missing mother I fancy.”
I followed his gaze, which was turned to the mouth of the alley. A ginger striped cat, rather lean but carrying a small rodent carcass in her teeth, was approaching. Her tail was held high in the characteristic posture of a successful hunter.
“We had a moggie just like that in our barn when I was a lad,” I mused as she trotted past, not sparing us a glance. “We used to call her Violet, I remember, because she–“
“There!” Holmes said tightly, raising one hand in a warning gesture.
The door opened a crack, spilling a trail of sickly gaslight across the wet cobbles.
“Get ready, Watson,” Holmes breathed. “He’ll head for the Manchester Road. We’ll take him when he turns up the alley.”
I made no acknowledgment for at that moment a pale muzzle emerged around the door followed by a dog’s sleek, fawn-colored body. Boodles was indeed a handsome animal with well-formed legs and a long tail that waved proudly behind him like a banner.
The creature that followed at the end of a long twine lead was decidedly less comely. “High Hat” Jackson did sport a shiny stove-pipe style topper, but it was the only thing about him that was in any way sleek.
Stringy dark hair hung from under his hat brim like pond weeds. His knobby forehead protruded over narrow, heavy-lidded eyes and he had a squashed and misshapen nose that was no doubt the casualty of many a drunken brawl.
He was a huge, hulking man, but in the way of some big men he carried himself stooped, his head jutting forward on his thick neck. Taken as an unsavory whole, his appearance spoke of a cagey ferocity that caused my fists to clench involuntarily.
Holmes’s hand closed on my elbow. I waited for his signal to move, the muscles in my legs tensed to spring.
Boodles panted quietly and blinked in the cold drizzle as Jackson kicked the door shut with his heel. He stepped off the crumbling stair and jerked the lead in his hand. The dog gave a small shake of his head and started forward.
A plaintive “Mew!” sounded in the still air.
With a delighted yip, Boodles executed a neat turn and bounded back down the alley toward the noise, tugging his lead from Jackson’s hand. Jackson whirled around with a speed for which I would have hardly given him credit. Letting loose a stream of oaths too foul to repeat, he pelted after the dog.
The dog, his nose to the ground, skittered to a sudden stop directly before our hiding place. He cocked his head to the side and peered up at us curiously.
Jackson, in hard pursuit, skidded to a halt behind him. From the distance of no more than a yard, his watery black eyes met mine and widened. Several things happened at once.
Holmes leapt forward, one fist cocked and shooting out even as he moved. I lowered my head and charged at Jackson’s midsection. Boodles bounded between us, barking merrily, his damp twine lead whipping the air.
In the next instant we all four hit the cobbles in a confusion of flailing limbs. Jackson’s high hat went flying and Boodles dashed away after it. Someone kicked over the lantern and it rolled, knocking the shutter loose and sending a flare of white light bouncing crazily over the scene.
I landed one solid punch to Jackson’s belly then grabbed at his leg with a thought to pinning him down. His boot heel shot out as he twisted away and it struck my shoulder a stunning blow. I yelled, more in anger than at the pain.
Through a haze I saw Holmes land a hard right against Jackson’s eye then they were rolling away, fists flying. The sound of punishing blows, punctuated by a sharp gasp or a muffled grunt, echoed off the brick walls.
While I was scrambling to my feet, Holmes managed to rise so he was half-straddling Jackson’s massive chest. He raised his fist to bring it down against Jackson’s jaw and Boodles bounded back into the fray.
The dog leapt between them yipping happily. Holmes pulled his punch and rocked back. Jackson took his chance. He knocked the dog away, wrapped one meaty hand around my friend’s neck and yanked him to the side.
I pushed forward but as I did Holmes hit the cobbles. My reaching fingers just missed Jackson’s ankle as he heaved himself over, one massive fist raised and rocketing down toward Holmes’s face. My friend’s skill saved him as he caught Jackson’s fist in both hands, gave a sharp twist of his forearms and sent Jackson flying into a stack of packing cases.
Heavy wooden crates rained down on us. A board bounced off my upraised arm as I charged forward. Holmes was on his feet again, moving left as I went right. Boodles cantered in a circle barking madly.
Jackson broke to the right, crashing through the welter of boxes and making a run for the alley mouth. My rugby training surged to the fore. I reverse stepped, pushed off in a flying tackle, hooked an arm around Jackson’s waist and slammed him to the ground. My fist came down on his jaw with a resounding crack. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell back, senseless.
Holmes sank to his knees beside me and sat back on his heels. My chest was heaving with unaccustomed exertion. I suddenly became aware that I was kneeling in a cold puddle and sat up on my haunches.
Boodles trotted up, tail waiving jauntily. He gave a little bark and licked Holmes’s face.
With a low sound that may have been a growl, Holmes gave the dog a slight shove. Unperturbed, it trotted around to me. I reached over, loosened the dog’s twine lead and slipped it off his head.
In a short time I had Jackson’s hands tightly bound. Holmes had climbed to his feet and stood flexing his shoulder, a slight grimace on his face. I stood and surreptitiously ran my eye over him under the pretense of bending to dust off my knees.
“No significant damage, old fellow,” he said in answer to my unspoken question. He felt the back of his head and gave a slight grimace before he went on, “Although an Aspirin wouldn’t go amiss. You, however, look like hell. I believe we will add a bath to the list of rewards at the end of this evening. Where did that blasted dog get off to?”
I pretended not to see the purpling bruise on my friend’s cheek and the lump forming over his left eye. There would be time later to annoy him.
I glanced about the darkened alley. A harsh hiss sounded and I turned to find Boodles had his muzzle deep in the packing crate that held the ginger cat and her little family. I had barely taken a step when he gave a startled yelp and scrambled backward.
“No less than he deserves,” Holmes observed as he stepped toward the animal. He bent and hoisted it easily in his arms.
Boodles’s recent setback was instantly forgotten and he wriggled with joy as Holmes started up the alley.
“Come, Watson,” he said over his shoulder. “Let’s get this beast back to the loving embrace of his mistress. I am not keen to continue our association. I have a sneaking suspicion it was he who bit me on the leg.”
It was a few hours later when I again found myself standing before the yellow warehouse door. “High Hat” Jackson was in the hands of Scotland Yard, the rain had ceased and a high full moon cast a silver light over the cobbles lending the alley the illusion of a peaceful grotto.
“Holmes,” I said, watching in puzzlement as he paced down the passage, “If Jackson left more evidence of his crimes behind surely we would find it in the warehouse.”
“Hmn?” he murmured. Then he went on distractedly, “What? Oh, yes, very probably.”
I saw him shoot a glance into the open packing crate against the wall as he passed.
I coughed to hide my smile then remarked casually, “She will have moved them by now.“
“Moved what? What are you on about, Watson?” he said as he continued to pace the length of the alley.
“The mother cat,” I said. “After the uproar she will have taken her kittens someplace more quiet.”
“Oh,” Holmes said, and he seemed to slump a little. “Well, then.”
He exhaled sharply and clapped his hands together.
“Well, then!” he said briskly as he turned and started toward the warehouse door. “Let’s see what else our Mr. Jackson has been up to in–“
A shrill “Mew!” sounded from a few yards down the alley. Holmes spun on his heel and set off toward the sound.
I arrived at his side a moment later. The mother cat and her three ginger kittens were curled on a pile of packing straw. All were sound asleep save for one, the smallest. It peered up at my friend and gave a matter of fact, “Mew.”
Holmes regarded it with a curiously distracted look. Then, without looking up, he said, “Watson, would you be so good as to fetch a packing case?”
Our long-suffering landlady was duly nonplussed at being asked to provide milk and a plateful of kippers for our small guests, but she rose to the challenge.
While Holmes and I availed ourselves of warm and welcome baths, she bustled between her kitchen and our sitting room. When I emerged from the bathroom a short time later I found the lights dimmed and Holmes alone, draped in his purple dressing gown and stretched out on the divan before the fire.
He was watching the mother cat and her kittens. The little family was curled up on the hearth, nestled in my warm tartan scarf and purring quietly.
I stepped over to the sideboard and poured out two tumblers of brandy. Returning to the fireside, I offered one to Holmes. He reached up languidly and took it from my hand.
With typical grace of movement, he shifted so that by the time I was settled on the divan he was reclining, his long legs stretched out across my lap.
We sat thus for some moments, my fingers idly tracing the sinews of his calves. As I took another sip of brandy I considered how much more pleasurable the night was than the evening had been, what with the warmth of the brandy and the fire and Holmes’s skin against mine.
The mother cat stirred, licked the little ginger head nestled under her chin and settled back to sleep.
“Holmes,” I said thoughtfully. “In your limited experience of kittens… you are aware they get larger?”
“Mrs. Hudson’s sister has some land in Reading,” he said. “She is sure that they have room for a handful of moggies about the place. I believe we will find a home for all of them in due course.”
The smallest kitten raised its head, blinked at the firelight, uttered a huge yawn, then rolled over against another of its siblings and fell back to sleep.
“Almost all of them,” Holmes said thoughtfully. He ran his fingers down my arm.
“Wounds all cleansed and mended?” he asked a few moments later.
I nodded. “Yes and yours?”
“Hmn,” he responded.
“I could look at that knot over your left eye,” I remarked casually. “And the cut on your cheek might do with some sticking plaster.”
He was silent for a moment.
“Do you know,” he said at last, “As PC Gilchrist was hauling our friend Jackson away, the man mentioned, just in passing, that you may have been unnecessarily rough in apprehending him.”
“Did he, by Jove?” I said curiously.
“Yes,” Holmes answered, “His very words were ‘That big bloke, ‘e brutalized me, ‘e did.’ I was quite taken aback.”
“I should say,” I remarked.
“Indeed,” Holmes said, “Because I’ve never particularly thought of you as big.”
“Well-built,” he said. “Leonine, perhaps. And speaking of that, I believe I’m going to need you to show me that flying tackle of yours again. It’s devilishly useful.”
“Certainly,” I said. “Whenever you like.”
Holmes set his half-empty tumbler on the floor and levered himself to a seated position next to me.
“Well,” he answered, “There’s no time like the present, as they say. If you’re amenable?”
“Always happy to be of help,” I remarked.
I rose and stretched. “Do you know,” I said as Holmes took my glass and set it on the floor by his, “I had very nearly the same idea several hours ago. I considered demonstrating a standing tackle for you while we waited for Jackson.”
“Did you?,” he said, one eyebrow cocked, “And the idea has lost none of its appeal in the intervening hours?”
“Surprisingly little,” I said, reaching for his hand. “Shall we?
As I led him toward the bedroom I glanced down at the peaceful scene on our hearth and remarked, “Holmes, do you know, you never cease to amaze me.”
“I believe, my own,” he said, “That it is a talent we share. I suggest we put my little theory to the test.”
And in due course, we did.
» According to London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, stealing dogs and ransoming them back to their owners was quite the cottage industry in London around this time. Court records do not indicate whether Holmes was ever called to testify in the prosecution of “High Hat” Jackson. The fate of Jackson’s hat is still unknown.
» The case to which Holmes referred, in which a housecat was instrumental in the solution, was called “The Clue Of The Hungry Cat.” It was dramatized for radio some years later and performed by Nigel Bruce and Tom Conway. No cats were harmed in the making of the audio drama… or this story.