[identity profile] spacemutineer.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] acdholmesfest
Title: The Adventure of the Bridegroom's Photograph
Recipient: [livejournal.com profile] inamac
Author: [livejournal.com profile] spacemutineer
Rating: PG
Characters, including any pairing(s): Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, various OCs and historical people
Word Count: ~6600
Warnings: ACD-esque historical distortion, discussion of illness/death
Summary: There is more than one secret to be revealed when a young man comes to Holmes and Watson with a keepsake and a question.
Beta thanks: to [livejournal.com profile] tweedisgood, always a treasure
Notes: [livejournal.com profile] inamac, you asked for a historical mystery with an emphasis on detection, and I tried my very best for you with my first ever case-fic. See end for notes on the real mystery, what I changed, and how it differs from ACD's solution – and he had one!

I came to Baker Street often in that late spring of 1890 for that strange, sweet respite of chaos that my old rooms and my old friend in them so reliably provided me, a welcomed contrast from the tender repose of my married life. On that particular day, Sherlock Holmes and I were locked in another round of our ongoing debate over the respective value of statistics versus intuition in quality card play when we were thankfully interrupted by the arrival of a client. He was a flustered but graceful man no older than twenty with smart brown eyes that darted between the two of us. He tucked himself neatly into the seat I offered him and gave us his name. At my side, Holmes was quick to offer our guest a cigar and an introduction of his own.

"Mr. Elias Morehouse, good afternoon. My name is Sherlock Holmes. My associate Dr. Watson and I offer you our sincerest congratulations on your impending wedding."

"I will be married next month, Mr. Holmes," the astonished Mr. Morehouse said, openly gaping. "However did you know that?"

Holmes scoffed and waved his hand. Only I saw his fleeting smirk of satisfaction. "What you should ask is how I knew you have only just come from a fitting for a tailcoat. The answer lies, of course, in the distinctive pinched wrinkling in your sleeves and the subtle hints of chalk from a tailor's fingers at certain hemlines. In any case, this is an irrelevant side issue to the matter that brought you through these doors today. Which is itself no minor one I gather, given the state of your collar, which you have been repetitively worrying at without noticing. I do not doubt you have a set of several other equally distressed collars as this has troubled you for some days."

Morehouse startled again, then gathered himself, lacing his strong fingers together in his lap rather than continue the compulsive nervous behaviour. "You are not wrong, sir. I am indeed troubled. Perhaps I should not be, perhaps it is nothing, but I find I simply cannot help wonder after what Emma said. It has been keeping me awake at nights, I admit it."

"Emma?" I asked. "Would that be your fiancée?"

"Yes, sir. I get ahead of myself, I apologize. Let me explain. My mother has kept a photograph of me as a baby in her bedside drawer for years, as long as I can remember. I never took much notice of it, but my Emma is an avid photographer and terribly in love with me, so when I let slip one day that there was a picture of me from my infancy, she all but demanded to see it. I asked my mother for it, and strangely, she was reluctant to lend it to me. I know she can be possessive like a museum curator of family artifacts, but even with that, it seemed incongruous. That is, until I showed the picture to Emma. She asked if I'd picked up the wrong card by mistake. 'That's not you, Eli,' she said. And since that moment, my life has been a cascade of doubt."

Holmes raised his eyebrows. "A cascade of doubt from one baby photograph? Could that be a slight overreaction?"

"I hope it is, but this is why I came to you, sir. Please, take a look and see what you think." He handed over the card showing a tranquil tot of only a year or so but small even for that age, held upright for the camera in his mother's lap as he slept. "Look especially at the angle of the cheekbones, Mr. Holmes. That is the feature Emma mentioned specifically. It could very well be me. Why would it not be? Babies are often similar in appearance in their early years before differentiating more in childhood. But again, the cheekbones, Mr. Holmes. Does the shape of face resemble my own, truly? I am beginning to doubt."

Holmes scanned the photograph for several seconds. A furrow barely appeared in his brow then vanished, the shadow of a hidden thought. Wordlessly he passed the card over to me for my own perusal. I glanced back and forth, scrutinizing the minuscule details in both infant and man, looking for variance.

"This cannot be all that has led you to this point, Mr. Morehouse. I take it that you have long considered yourself to be different than your immediate family," said Holmes.

"Exactly so, sir! Exactly. I always dismissed it, but now I know not what to think. I have always had a more active inclination than my sisters or my parents, who have never even watched a steeplechase, much less ridden in one. My interests are in language and the literary pursuits, not fine artistry, but my father is a watchmaker, and the women of my house are all skilled seamstresses. By contrast, I am a translator by trade. Even my coloring is not quite like theirs. I find myself more olive toned in my skin and I rarely suffer sunburn as they sometimes do. Can it all be coincidence?"

"Inheritance of traits is not always a linear business," I replied, giving my best educated opinion. "It is definitely possible and in fact common to be quite unlike one's immediate family. Perhaps your traits simply come down from a more distant ancestry." Holmes shifted his legs under him in his chair and puffed on his pipe a few times, considering.

"Tell me, Mr. Morehouse, what it is exactly that you want to find here? Do you honestly wish me to confirm these suspicions? You are clearly close to your family and are about to celebrate the happy occasion of your wedding with them. Do you truly want to throw all of that into doubt? Before I take your case, I would warn you, this is a box you cannot close once opened. If I find for you what you suspect, your family life will be irrevocably altered and in ways you cannot currently anticipate. There is no way back from this knowledge, if it exists."

"I understand, sir. But I must know. I love dearly the parents who raised me to my adulthood, but this is not something I can simply ignore. How can I? One way or another, before I give my sweet Emma my name, I must know that name truly is mine to give."

Elias Morehouse outlined his family life for us. He talked of a birth in rural Canada, a childhood growing up in England, and an education at a respectable school here in London. As soon as the fit young gentleman had gone and the door behind him clicked shut, Sherlock Holmes took to his archives. If there was a place to start in virtually any case, it was his collection of newspaper clippings and scrawled biographies that composed his vast index of names and notorieties of the commonwealth. He ran his long finger down the text.

"Morehaven, Moreheart… Here we are. Morehouse, Samuel. 'Specialty watchmaker and jewel importer, formerly of Nova Scotia.' Well, we already knew that. Ah, here, this is more interesting. 'David Morehouse, father of Samuel. Captain of the Dei Gratia.' The Dei Gratia! Now we know why the name Morehouse was so familiar. This is perfect. We have our cover. Watson, our hats and a cab, if you would."

The home of Captain David Morehouse was as neat and tidy as his grandson had dressed. We had barely stepped across the threshold when Holmes stretched out his hand to the silver-haired man with the deep crow's feet and the gentle countenance in front of us and announced our intentions.

"Captain Morehouse, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. As you may have guessed by our presence, the detective services of my colleague and I have been contracted in the case of the Mary Celeste. The investigation has continued these years on in a search by certain financial interests involved for liability and restitution from the proper parties. I know it has been a long time, sir, but may we ask you a few questions?"

I tried my best to hide my surprise from Morehouse to keep up the appearance of our story, and from Holmes to keep him from later sighing at me about forever being two steps behind him. I remembered now where I had heard of the Dei Gratia. Given that hearing was eighteen years ago, perhaps my forgetfulness could be allowed. Holmes was certainly right about it being excellent cover for our investigation. The discovery of the Canadian brigantine Mary Celeste floating empty and abandoned in the open Atlantic by the stunned crew of the Dei Gratia was a mystery for the ages.

It was the sensation of its time in the early months of 1873 when word reached our shores. I remember well reading of it in every newspaper, and like all others of the time, formulating my own theories about it. Where had all the passengers gone? Was there truly no sign left of them nor any of their struggle or departure? The fate of the Mary Celeste lended itself to wild imagination. I could only wonder about how the curiosity of such an event must have captivated a young Sherlock Holmes, not then a detective yet but still learning at university.

David Morehouse ran us through the facts as he experienced them nearly two decades before. "The Dei Gratia left port on a Friday in November, bound for Gibraltar. It was an uneventful voyage. The seas had been rough for some time, but by that day we had found calmer water, with good wind. In the waters off the Portuguese islands, my helmsman alerted me to a ship sailing some six miles off our bow. I say sailing, and so did he then, but that is not at all what either of us saw. The ship was clearly just drifting at the mercy of the currents. The sails were set oddly, not catching any wind, and we could see no one on deck through the spyglass. I brought our ship about to approach, and boarded with my first mate Deveau with a sick worry in my heart. It was clear something was terribly wrong. I remember the look on the face of poor Oliver, my first, anxious as we stepped aboard. He and I both knew even then that there was nothing good that awaited us on the Mary Celeste.

"Thinking of it now, I suppose it could have been much worse. We expected death and destruction. We found quite the opposite. There was simply nothing. Oh, there were the trappings of a ship at sea, and clearly the passengers had made themselves at home. Maps still lay open on tables. A meal from days ago sat mouldering and half-eaten in bowls. I knew a woman must have been aboard, given the sewing machine that still held fabric and the soft scent of a bouquet still lingering in the air.

"But there was no one to be found. We searched, incredulous, past the sunset, into the night, and until the morningrise the next day. We looked everywhere, both on the ship and in the water. It seemed impossible. How could an entire crew vanish into the mist? We tried to come up with theories, but simply nothing fit. If they had abandoned ship, surely they would have taken the boats, but there they were, strapped and still waiting for use. If they were attacked, there would have been evidence of terrible violence. There was none. If they were robbed, the cargo would have been missing, but the hold was filled to bursting with containers of alcohol spirits. What else could I do but to leave Mr. Deveau aboard with two others of my men and have him sail the ship back behind us, for investigation and salvage. Those were long, strange days. It felt less like transporting an empty ship for salvage and more as acting as pallbearers for a coffin without a body."

Holmes, who had been listening intently, bowed his head in sympathy. "Captain Morehouse, I apologize, but I must ask you. There were many rumors at the time that you were acquainted with Benjamin Briggs, the captain of the Mary Celeste, before its fateful voyage. As I recall, you have denied that at every turn, am I correct?"

"I never met the man, Mr. Holmes, nor any of his crew. I had never heard of the ship either until I found her floating helplessly in the sea."

"Are you certain he did not know you, however? Could Captain Briggs have been aware of you and the plans of the Dei Gratia before you set sail? Could he have ever visited your home, under a false name perhaps?"

Captain Morehouse looked confused and not minorly bewildered. As so often happens, Holmes had asked a question the answerer never encountered prior.

"Well, sir, I suppose it might be possible he could have known of me, but I doubt he ever came to my home. I was fairly successful in my work, although in the months prior to that sailing of the Dei Gratia I had been deeply occupied with family matters and so was never far from the quiet of my home then in the woods of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and we entertained no visitors in that time that I remember. If Briggs ever knew of me, it would have to have been from some time before, perhaps from a mutual crew acquaintance or a random meeting of strangers in a port or pub. I can't say no to you, sir, but I certainly cannot say yes. Speak with my son. Perhaps he will recall something of that time I do not."

With that, Sherlock Holmes nodded, and seemed satisfied he had found what he came for, although I could not see how that was possible, given that nothing had been discussed that seemed to concern Elias Morehouse in any way. We thanked the captain and departed. In the cab as we returned to Baker Street, Holmes pronounced my next assignment.

"This case becomes more fascinating at every turn, Watson. Or should I say cases?" He chuckled to himself at a joke not meant for me as we pulled up to our rooms. "The next step is to divide and conquer, my friend. Go and speak with Elias Morehouse's parents about those mysterious days of 'family matters' with Captain Morehouse in Yarmouth. Report back here as soon as you are finished. As for me, I have a pressing date with a set of test tubes and pipettes." With enthusiastic grace, Holmes tipped his hat to me and he leapt from the hansom.

My visit with Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Morehouse was uneventful. They seemed as confused as the elder Morehouse did as to why Sherlock Holmes was intent on knowing whether Captain Briggs of the Mary Celeste ever knew them or visited their home all those years prior. The watchmaker told me it was exceedingly unlikely. The family entertained only a few close visitors in those days as illness in the household had led Samuel's father to return from sea to aid them. The unfortunate voyage of the Dei Gratia that encountered the Mary Celeste was Captain Morehouse's first ocean crossing in over a year, I was told.

I asked my misdirected questions and tried to tease out scraps of information about our young client at the corners of the false conversation. I found little, but a painting hanging in the sitting room where we chatted told me more. As a memento of a happy gathering some five years ago of the entire Morehouse clan, the portrait depicted the angular and elegant Samuel and his father David standing proudly in the back as patriarchs, while Samuel's wife Sarah sat in the foreground surrounded by her children. And there, fitted between Sarah and her youngest daughter sat a fifteen-year-old Elias Morehouse himself. His father's precise, pale fingers squeezed the developing muscles of the boy's shoulder. There was contentment written in Elias' relaxed gaze and his round, ruddy cheeks.

After the interview, I set about on a series of personal errands before I returned to Baker Street with my report. By the time I reached home it was dark, but I found Holmes still wide awake and lively. I meant to ask him if Mrs. Hudson had bought flowers, with the fine scent of lavender filling our house instead of the more familiar Baker Street odors of tobacco and newsprint, but I never had a chance. He met me at the door with enthusiasm and a large empty glass aquarium held upside down in his hands.

"My dear Watson, lovely timing! My experiments have been wildly successful although their results are not at all what I initially expected. Such is the beauty of science. Come, take off that coat and roll your sleeves. I have something to show you."

I was in for a show, I was certain about that. Although I eyed him curiously, I went along with his request. I told him a bit of my discoveries of the day as I did so, and he nodded at the few details I had gathered with not an ounce of surprise. Holmes seemed instead entirely invested in whatever experiment he intended to enlist me upon. When I was prepared as he asked, he held the glass aquarium out in the air in front of him and looked at me with intense purpose.

"I know this will sound strange, but bend your arm and put your elbow up into the box, Doctor." On my hesitation, he added, "If you would."

"My elbow? Why? Could I not just reach inside with my hand? I can see that it's empty." As soon as I said it, I froze. My time with a detective has led me to question my first instincts on anything this far out of the ordinary. "But it isn't empty, is it? It only looks that way."

"There's but one way to find out," he said, trying not to smile at my successful deduction and the experiment he was about to conduct.

"There are two, in fact," I replied as I levered tired limbs into position. "You could simply tell me, you know."

But Holmes would never deign to something so boring and trite as an explanation when there could be an elaborate demonstration for maximum impact instead. I played my part. I pushed my bare arm up inside the glass walls and waited for the magician's reveal. It did not take long.

As the itching – oh, the itching – set in with vehemence, I shrieked reflexively. "Water! Get me water!" I found myself shouting at Holmes, demanding relief along with an obscenity or two, and that grin he'd been repressing came out in full force. "Holmes, it's terrible! What is this?" I asked as I furiously raked my fingernails across my burning skin.

"Don't scratch, Watson, you'll only make it worse." He dragged me over to his chemistry table and grabbed a sponge that had been sitting in a shallow tray of liquid. "Trust me, I know from experience." Holmes quickly swiped the sponge over my reddening skin. The hideous itching began to dissipate instantly, leaving behind only an odd tingling sensation and that familiar unique blend of mental irritation and satisfaction of having been used as once more as a trusted laboratory rat.

"Well, I did say I tested the effects on myself as well, you know," Holmes said at my reaction. "Only I did so by rather stupidly reaching into the box with my bare fingers and all their reactive nerves instead, as I expected the gas to be flammable, not poisonous. It took almost two hours of trial and error for me to create a functional neutralizing remedy for myself and you using only my left hand." He held up his right, still quite red and raw from vigorous itching and scratching. I sighed at his recklessness and my own obliviousness. I would need to bandage that later, and I should have noticed the injury earlier.

He continued. "I made certain when the test was repeated with you, less sensitive skin was employed, and relief was ready close by. It was important you understood the severity of what I have found, Watson."

"What exactly is it you've found, then?" I asked as I rubbed at my elbow. I was still a bit stunned at how completely the itching had overwhelmed my senses. "Some new form of poison? The key to a murder?"

"Of a sort. What we were just exposed to is the colorless, lighter-than-air gas produced by the methanol found in methylated spirits reacting in a high humidity environment with the particular variety of wood-tar creosote used in the waterproofing of ships constructed in the eastern Canadian provinces."

"The eastern Canadian provinces..."

"Exactly. I see by your eyebrows you begin to follow my logic, Watson. I hoped that you would. Send a telegram to Captain Morehouse to arrange a meeting tomorrow morning. You will be available to accompany me, will you not? With your assistance, I trust that we can put the questions pressing us to rest."

In the morning, David Morehouse seemed surprised to see us once more. Holmes had requested a private audience, and he led us into his study where he shut the door behind him to keep his eager housekeeper out. The detective sat across from the old man and tented his fingers in front of him. Morehouse took the chair by the desk in the corner and cocked his head.

"I don't know what more I can tell you, gentlemen, but I will help you any way I can. You understand it has been so long, though."

"Long enough, I think," Holmes replied. "I should tell you I have solved the disappearance of the passengers of the Mary Celeste."

The captain coughed in shock. "Since yesterday, you have solved it? After eighteen years, truly? Of course I had heard of your skills, Mr. Holmes, but this is incredible, sir, if true!"

"Well, to be honest, the generic theory of the solution came to me years ago, when the tragedy first occurred. But I was too young then to investigate the matter, so yes, I finally had occasion to prove it only yesterday," he said. Here Holmes hesitated, and I could see him weighing options behind his eyes on how to proceed. "However, that is not why I came to you today."

"What? But you say you have solved the mystery!"

"I have. Captain Morehouse, I know about Elias."

All color began to drain from the old man's face until it rivaled his thin hair for ghostly pallor. "Elias? My grandson? What of him?"

"It is he who hired me, to look into a parentage he had begun to suspect, although his origins as the sole survivor of one of the greatest maritime mysteries of the last century he surely never suspected."

Once again, I found myself utterly astounded by Sherlock Holmes, and I also found I was not the only one. Morehouse raked a hand through his few wisps of hair and glanced between us, considering defiance, considering denying Holmes' statement of the facts. Instead, he pulled his thick eyeglasses away and rubbed at the tears that were beginning to develop behind them.

"You... You do exceed your reputation, sir. God help us. I prayed every night that he would never know. You intend to tell him, don't you?"

"I have not decided what to do, which is why I am here. Let me tell you what I know, Captain, and you can fill in what little I am yet missing. Then we shall make our decision, the three of us."

Morehouse looked over to me in paralyzed fear. His fate now lay not only in Sherlock Holmes' hands, but unexpectedly to both of us, in mine as well. Holmes struck a match with his bandaged fingers to light his cigarette and he stood to pace and explain amidst a growing cloud of acrid smoke.

"As you know, the Mary Celeste was carrying a sizeable quantity of volatile alcohols in its hold during its voyage across the Atlantic. An accidental leak developed in one of those containers. Due to an unfortunate coincidence involving the ship's construction, a chemical reaction followed, producing a thin, colorless toxic gas. That gas has several curious qualities. The first helped me realize the culprit was indeed a gas when you told us you had smelled the flowers of a woman's bouquet on the abandoned ship. Unless they were attached to a growing plant, it was unlikely that flowers would have remained in bloom and smelling sweet that far into an ocean crossing. The scent you noticed on boarding was in fact the gas in its safer form as it dissipates.

"Another peculiarity of the poison that doomed the passengers of the Mary Celeste is that the gas invariably seeks to float. It is lighter than normal air, and so it congregates in the highest point of any enclosed space. It seeped along the walls and climbed the ceiling of every room to form an invisible cloud no less than four feet thick – deep enough for every adult who came to his feet to be enveloped in it from his shoulders up at least. As one by one they were stricken, they rose to help each other, or to seek out the commotion. The passengers were in their cabins at the time, kept inside by the same rough water you noticed on your own voyage, and every scream and cry for assistance would have led inevitably to another's exposure to the poison.

"Only one passenger escaped that fate, by random fortune of age alone. Being barely a year old, tiny Arthur Briggs had the virtue of only being able to crawl upon the floor of his father the captain's quarters where you found him, rather than walk, and thus he was spared the cloud of death that hovered just above him."

Morehouse's jaw fell slack. He was lost in the sound of Holmes' voice, recounting and painting his own memories for him.

"The boy must have been a pitiable sight indeed. An infant lying on the floor of an otherwise abandoned ship, exhausted and weak from days spent alone at sea with no food, no water, no warmth. Any decent man would have been compelled by his heart to help him. But a man also in deep mourning over the recent loss of his own grandson of a similar age? That man might be compelled to take that help rather a step further."

A choking noise came from the captain's corner of the room. I could not see his face, buried in his palms, but I could hear his attempts to hold back the emotion he had so well hidden for so long. I decided to give him a moment and make a connection of my own.

"The family illness. It was the boy, then. The... first Elias Morehouse."

"It was more than just the boy. How carefully did you look at the photograph the, as you say, second Elias Morehouse showed to us, Watson? Did you notice the mother holding the boy, or did you focus only on him? To me, she looked drawn in the eyes, harrowed, although trying mightily to present otherwise. There were two reasons for that, I believe. One is that the illness was likely originally her own, something contracted in her pregnancy, which she then passed to her child. The second reason is that while she recovered gradually, alas, the child did not. He perished before his first year. The photograph we saw was taken as a memento mori, Watson. Elias Morehouse was dead in his mother's arms, not sleeping, when that photograph was taken."

There was another small sob, then the first coherent word from Captain Morehouse in the corner. "Fever." It was a word but only just, as it scratched its way past the lump lodged in his throat. "Scarlet fever. At every step, we held hope the baby would recover in time, as Sarah did. But the sickness weakened his heart to the point of stopping, and ours in our family to the point of breaking. My sweet daughter-in-law wasted to a shadow of herself, my son Samuel haunted his own life like a wraith, and all I could do for either of them was watch. I know it doesn't excuse..."

"No, it does not. You are correct. Your family's grief, however great, does not excuse kidnapping. For that is truly what we are discussing. Let us address the real issue at hand. You stole a child, Captain Morehouse. That his parents were dead at the time is entirely irrelevant. When you took the boy from that ship, he had grandparents on his mother's side living in Massachusetts. He had - and still has - an older sister as well. Did you know that? She was eight when the Mary Celeste set sail. Old enough to remember, Morehouse. April Briggs remembers her brother, but her brother does not even know that she ever existed."

"Elias has a sister already. Two in fact, fine girls who dote on their brother. We took the boy in, and all these years he has had a family that loves him and cares for him as one of our own."

"Quite literally as one of your own. You took from him even his name. That is precisely what brought him to me. He fears he will be giving his future wife a name that is not his own. He is right."

"No, Mr. Holmes, no! Morehouse is his name. He may have been born with another, but Elias is our family. We never thought of him and never treated him as anything else."

"And thus you have stated the entirety of the problem, sir! Precisely it. There is no Elias. Not anymore. The man we are speaking of is Arthur."

"No, he isn't." All eyes turned to me. Holmes regarded me quizzically. He had not anticipated other testimony interrupting him. "He is, but he isn't. The man who is our client has known himself by the name Elias Morehouse since before he had capacity to say it. He knows who he is in his heart. He wants beyond anything to be certain he knows."

"To be certain he knows correctly, you mean," said Holmes, paused now from pacing and turned entirely to me. He was finished entertaining the captain's defence and now only interested in sentencing. It was why he brought me. "He came to us to clarify the matter, Watson, not obscure it further for him."

The matter still seemed obscured to my understanding. One point in particular continued to gnaw at me. "Wait a moment. Captain Morehouse, how is it you were sure no one would ever come looking for the child? You found no bodies. How did you know the boy's parents were definitively dead and gone? How did you convince everyone to go along with your scheme, in your crew, in your town?"

Morehouse looked sick to his stomach. He opened his mouth to try to explain, but the words did not rise from his throat. Holmes answered for him.

"It is really very simple. Morehouse was a well-loved leader on his ship, and a powerful man in his tiny locality, and easily made certain the necessary public records were altered and private memories changed. He then immediately moved his newly recomposed family to England so there was no one around him to know anything beyond what he said. And as for why he knew Arthur Briggs' parents were not returning, that is obvious as well. Captain Morehouse has been lying all these years about what he saw. He did find signs of violence on the Mary Celeste, although I strongly suspect those signs were minor. Fully thrashed rooms and gore discovered soaking into carpets would be hard to pretend never existed. But say, a few fallen objects from tables, and some small streaks of blood found out on the deck railings? That is all easily amended and tucked to the back of one's mind to be forgotten."

From the corner, Morehouse's moan told me those images were not forgotten, no matter the effort and the years.

"The railings... Mr. Holmes, oh dear God. How did you know about the railings? How could you know? We told no one. We swore to it!"

"Because it is my business to know, to understand. The railings you saw had flecks of blood on them because the passengers had blood under their fingernails when they clambered over them. Their fingernails had blood under them because the relentless, overpowering itching the gas induces had caused them to claw at every inch of their toxin-exposed skin: their faces, their eyes, their mouths. Standing in the cloud, they in fact breathed it in, taking the poison in through the delicate tissues of their sinuses, down into the depths of their lungs. Experimentation has shown that one's first desire on exposure to this toxin on even just skin alone is a desperation beyond reason for water to cool the fire. And the one thing the passengers of the brigantine Mary Celeste had at their reach in abundance was water. In their wild scramble to soothe their agony, the adults on the ship did the only thing that they saw they could do. They threw themselves overboard and into the sea, never to surface again."

Morehouse and I gasped at the revelation. "He can never know," the captain said. Morehouse clutched at his chair's armrests, grasping them and the idea he repeated as his only solid firmament. "Spare the boy this horror, at least. That he does not remember the nightmare he witnessed is a miracle. Please, these are to be his happiest days, Mr. Holmes. Don't do this to him."

"Can I avoid doing this to him, Watson? Do you see any clean way through this mire?"

Awaiting my response, Holmes turned back to me, focused entirely on what I would say next. I could feel his expectation upon me, like the pressured heat of the tropical sun. I took several deliberate breaths to buy myself time to consider.

"He must be told," I said at last. "It is his right as a man to know the truth about himself, and to find his missing family. What else can be done?"

The old captain lowered his head, defeated. Even Holmes looked disappointed. He wanted a better solution than to have to destroy one long-standing family and likely snuff another out just as it was being formed. I agreed with him. The concept of what lay before us hurt to hold inside my heart. I tried to think out loud, attempting to work toward something that did not ache so. "But perhaps he does not have to know the specific details of his orphanage? The awful particulars of how he was found, are they all a necessity?"

Holmes began to brighten at the glimmer of possibility. He brought a finger to his lips to think, then pointed it back at me and over to Morehouse. "Absolutely not. In fact, I would have no one outside this room ever know the exact particulars of what occurred. The chemical that caused this tragedy would make a hideous weapon if ever put to that purpose by evil minds. We should leave those details out entirely in any case."

I continued the thought. "Then what are we left with that is true? The boy was rescued from an abandoned ship in an act of great sympathy and love, not malice, and he has been cared for kindly all of his years since. The grown man today deserves an explanation of that truth as much as any other."

There was a quiet pause as Holmes thought and puffed at his cigarette. Long curls of smoke rose through the air. Finally he nodded and made his pronouncement.

"Quite so. This is what we shall do. Captain Morehouse, you have no alternative but to tell Elias of his parentage, and of his living relation, while omitting the extraneous details. I recognize this will be a painful task for both you and your grandson, but I assure you it will be far less painful than if you force me to inform him instead. You love him; you will make the proper choice. When you do, give him the perspective he deserves of this. Tell him the truth of the family that brought him of age, and of the emotion that went into the decisions made when he was but an infant, and all of the decisions since. There is no guarantee he will accept your offerings with forgiveness, of course, although there is reason to hope given the quality of his upbringing."

Holmes turned for the door but stopped at the knob. "I do wish you luck, Captain. I wish Elias luck as well." He shrugged. "Or is it Arthur? I suppose we shall see. Good day to you, sir."

We were both quiet and contemplative on the ride back to Baker Street and in the days that followed. Holmes and I heard nothing from Elias Morehouse – or from Arthur Briggs, for that matter. I scanned for any news in the papers, and I suspected Holmes did as well, as he was even more rapt than his usual in sweeping the headlines each morning. I worried we would find news of a broken engagement or a major maritime scandal, but none came.

It was over a week before we heard from our client. The card, when it arrived, came on fine pressed paper. Holmes unsuccessfully hid an erupting smile from me as his eyes tracked over the writing. He rose and handed it over as perfunctorily as possible, but I knew what it had to be before I saw it. It was an elegant invitation, addressed to the two of us, to the wedding of one Mr. Elias Morehouse and one Miss Emma Hadley. A man's careful hand left a small personal note at the bottom.

I hope sincerely you will attend, Mr. Holmes. My sweet sisters, all three of them, will be in attendance, and I hope sincerely you and Dr. Watson will have opportunity to meet them and my bride. We all have thanks to offer you.
- EM

By the window, Holmes sighed with a great theatrical shrug of his shoulders and waved his violin bow at me for emphasis as he spoke. "Well, Watson, I suppose this means not only must we go to another tedious society function, but we must also purchase a celebratory gift for our client as well. Can't the man simply deduct the relevant amount from our fee? Alas. Accommodating social custom is always such trouble." He gave up the pretense and Sherlock Holmes grinned. "There is one solution. I will just have to send you to find and buy it, Doctor. You do have such particular and indispensable uses to me, after all."

End notes:
The mystery of the Mary Celeste is a real one, and I used as many real facts and names from the case as I possibly could here, and either approximated truth (switching which Briggs sibling was on the ship, for instance) or fully fabricated the rest. Flammable gas emerging from the alcohol in the cargo hold is a real theory. Poison gas is my own invention.

Over the many years since, despite much conjecture, the disappearance of the passengers of the Mary Celeste remains unsolved. Lots of people have been captivated by the mystery, including even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, as I discovered to my delight during my research on unsolved history. He wrote his own version of the tale, which is both much fictionalized and extremely racist by today's standards. It's an interesting read, but buckle up for the racism – it's for real, and is in fact the core of the mystery.

One fun point to note: ACD's narrator in his version is a doctor and a veteran of war, and only survived to have this adventure and tell the story after having been rescued and carried wounded from the field of battle by a kind gentleman named Murray. Sound familiar?
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