Little is known of William B. Kahn, and therein lies a mystery, because his sole contribution, published in The Smart Set magazine’s October issue, has earned a place in the pastiche canon. It was republished in a limited edition in 1964 by the Beaune Press, again in “The Game is Afoot” anthology, and was praised in LeRoy Lad Panek’s “The Origins of the American Detective Story” as being one of the first to recognize how many Holmes stories involved marital problems. Research revealed the existence of a William Bonn Kahn (1882-1971) who wrote “The Avoidance of War, a Suggestion offered by William B. Kahn, written for the Society for Peace” in 1914. Could it be the same person?
Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.
One night, as I was returning from a case of acute indigestion—it was immediately after my divorce and I was obliged to return to the practice of my profession in order to support myself—it chanced that my way homeward lay through Fakir street. As I reached the house where Combs and I had spent so many hours together, where I had composed so many of his adventures, an irresistible longing seized me to go once more upstairs and grasp my friend by the hand, for, if the truth must be told, Combs and I had had a tiff. I really did not like the way in which he had procured evidence for my wife when she sought the separation, and I took the liberty of telling Combs so, but he had said to me: “My dear fellow, it is my business, is it not?” and though I knew he was not acting properly I was forced to be placated. However, the incident left a little breach between us which I determined on this night to bridge.
As I entered the room I saw Combs nervously drinking a glass of soda water. Since I succeeded in breaking him of the morphine habit he had been slyly looking about for some other stimulant and at last he had found it. I sighed to see him thus employed.
“Good evening, Combs,” said I, extending my hand.
“Hello, Spotson,” cried he, ignoring my proffered digits. “You are well, I see. It really is too bad, though, that you have no servant again. You seem to have quite some trouble with your help.” And he chuckled as he sipped the soda water.
Familiar as I was with my friend’s powers, this extraordinary exhibition of them really startled me.
“Why, Oilock, ” said I, calling him, in my excitement, by his praenomen, “how did you know it?”
“Perfectly obvious, Spotson, perfectly obvious. Merely observation,” answered Combs as he took out his harmonica and began playing a tune thereon.
“But how?” persisted I.
“Well, if you really wish to know,” he replied, as he ceased playing, “I suppose I will be obliged to tell you. I see you have a small piece of courtplaster upon the index finger of your left hand. Naturally, a cut. But the plaster is so small that the cut must be very minute. ‘What could have done it?’ I ask myself. The obvious response is a tack, a pin or a needle. On a chance I eliminate the tack proposition. I take another chance and eliminate the pin. Therefore, it must have been the needle. ‘Why a needle?’ query I of myself. And glancing at your coat I see the answer. There you have five buttons, four of which are hanging on rather loosely while the fifth one is tightly sewn to the cloth. It had recently been sewn. The connection is now clear. You punctured your finger with the needle while sewing on the button. But,” he continued musingly and speaking, it seemed, more to himself than to me, “I never saw nor heard of the man who would sew unless he was compelled to. Spotson always keeps a servant; why did she not sew the button on for him? The reply is childishly easy: his servant left him.”
I followed his explanation with rapt attention. My friend’s powers were, I was happy to see, as marvelous as they were when I lived with him.
“Wonderful, Combs, wonderful,” I cried.
“Merely observation,” he replied. “Some day I think that I shall write a monograph on the subject of buttons. It is a very interesting subject and the book ought to sell well. But, hello, what is this?”
The sound of a cab halting before the door caused Combs’s remark. Even as he spoke there was a pull at the bell, then the sound of hasty footsteps on the stairs. A sharp knock sounded upon the door. Combs dropped into his armchair, stuck out his legs in his familiar way and then said: “Come in.”
The door opened and there entered, in great perturbation, a young lady, twenty-three years of age, having on a blue tailor-made suit, patent-leather shoes and a hat with a black pompon ornamenting it. She wore some other things, but these were all that I noticed. Not so Combs. I could see by the penetrating glance he threw at her that her secret was already known to that astute mind.
“Thank heaven,” she cried, turning to me, “that I have found you in!”
“Are you ill, madam?” I began; but suddenly realizing that I was not in my office but in Combs’s consultation room, I drew myself up stiffly and said: “That is Mr. Combs.”
The young lady turned to him. Then, lifting her handkerchief to her beautiful eyes she burst into tears as she said: “Help me, help me, Mr. Combs.”
The great man did not reply. An answer to such a remark he would have regarded as too trivial. The lady took down her handkerchief and, after glancing dubiously at me, said to Mr. Combs: “Can I see you privately?”
Once, and once only did I ever before or, indeed, since, see such a look of rage on Combs’s face. That was when Professor O’Flaherty and he had that altercation in Switzerland. (See “Memoirs of Oilock Combs.” Arper & Co. $1.50.)
“Madam,” said he in frigid tones, “whatever you desire to say to me you may say before Dr. Spotson. How under the sun, woman,” he cried, losing control of himself for a moment, “would the public know of my adventures if he were not here to write them?”
I threw Combs a grateful look while he reached for the soda water. The visitor was momentarily crushed. At last, however, she recovered her equanimity.
“Well, then,” she said, “I will tell you my story.”
“Pray, begin,” said Combs rather testily.
“My name is Ysabelle, Duchess of Swabia,” the visitor commenced.
“One moment, please,” interrupted Combs. “Spotson, kindly look up that name in my index.”
I took down the book referred to, in which Combs had made thousands of notes of people and events of interest, and found between “Yponomeutidae” and “yttrium” the following item, which I read aloud:
“Ysabelle, Duchess of Swabia; Countess of Steinheimbach; Countess of Riesendorf, etc., etc. Born at Schloss Ochsenfuss, February 29, 1876. Her mother was the Duchess Olga, of Zwiefelfeld. and her father was Hugo, Duke of Kaffeekuchen. At three years of age she could say ‘ha, ha!’ in German, French, English, Italian and Spanish. Between the ages of five and fifteen she was instructed by Professor Grosskopf, the eminent philosopher of the University of Kleinplatz. By sixteen her wisdom teeth had all appeared. A very remarkable woman!”
As I read this last sentence, the duchess again burst into tears.
“Pray, pray, compose yourself, duchess,” said Combs, taking a pipe from the table and filling it with some tobacco which he absent-mindedly took from my coat-pocket.
The duchess succeeded in calming herself. Then, rising majestically and gazing at Combs with those wonderful eyes which had played havoc with so many royal hearts, she said, in solemn tones:
“I am lost!”
The manner in which she made this statement as well as the declaration itself seemed to make a deep impression upon Combs. Without uttering one word he sat there for fully four minutes. The way in which he puffed nervously at the pipe showed me that he was thinking. Suddenly, with an exclamation of delight, he dashed out of the room and down the stairs, leaving the amazed duchess and myself in his apartments. But not for long. In forty-three seconds he was again in the room and, dropping into his chair thoroughly exhausted, he triumphantly cried:
“I have it!”
Never had I seen my friend wear such a look of victory. The achievement which merited such an expression upon his countenance must have been remarkable. By and bye he recovered from his fatigue. Then he spoke.
“Madam,” he said, “I have the answer.”
The duchess sobbed in ecstasy.
“The moment that you said you were lost,” he began, “an idea came to me. You must have noticed, Spotson, how preoccupied I seemed before.
Well, that is the sign of an idea coming to me. Before it had time to vanish I dashed down the steps, into the vestibule, looked at the number of this house and jotted it down. Madam,” he cried, drawing out a book and looking at one of the pages, “madam, you are saved! You are no longer lost! This is No. 62 Fakir street. You are found!”
During this entire recital the duchess had not said a word. When Combs had finished she stood for a moment as if she did not understand and then, realizing the fact that she was rescued, she wept once more.
“My savior,” she cried as she prepared to leave the room, “how can I ever thank you?” And she pressed into Combs’s outstretched hand a large gold-mesh, diamond-studded purse.
The door closed, the carriage rolled away and the Duchess of Swabia was gone.
“Spotson,” said Combs to me, “don’t forget to write this one down. It has a duchess in it and will sell well to cooks and chambermaids. By the way, I wonder what she gave me.”
He opened the purse and there, neatly folded, lay two hundred pounds in bills.
“Bah!” cried Combs contemptuously, “how ungrateful these royal personages always are.”