The Gilbert Jessop Mystery is a tale of detection etched on a vast canvas. A cricket historian plays the role of an expert hired to solve an intriguing problem involving old scoring sheets, fast hundreds, modern-art masterpieces, antique wagon wheels and old Victorian letters.
As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.
This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.
I put the book down and breathed out, long and deep.
“Please give me a minute to let this sink in,” I started. “Kumar, I am a bit overwhelmed as you’ll very well understand.”
Kumar nodded. “I had the same feeling, Professor.”
I looked at him. “Did you know about this painting in your father’s possession?”
Kumar shook his head. “No. Not even remotely. It was only when Sylvie approached me, that young Mangal of the last letter that I came to know of this story.”
There were too many thoughts vying for attention in my head.
“But, Kumar, the letter mentions you at your father’s side. How old were you?”
“In 1946? I was 17. And I used to be around my father only when we used to play or watch cricket. That dinner at the club and the presentation of the painting, they must have happened in my absence.”
“But, do you have any recollection of Paul Hackensmith?”
Kumar walked with hands tucked behind him. “Not really. There used to be quite a few British guests whom my father entertained. Most of very influential people and cricketers. Hackensmith must have been pretty influential, he writes about meeting Wavell, the Viceroy in Calcutta.”
I nodded. That was the last year before Mountbatten.
There were still more queries.
“What about the name? Jessop’s Jubilee – Illumination Thirty Seven Days Later?”
It was Sylvie who answered.
“According to the letters, Jessop played that particular innings on 29th July, 1897. In the previous letter we have seen Paul trying to think of a name for the painting. Harrogate Hundred, Murder of Yorkshire, Croucher at Cricket were the options he was not quite satisfied with. Jessop was nicknamed The Croucher, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” I replied, “It was because of a crouching, low stance that he had at the wicket.”
Sylvie continued. “Yes, I remember. So, what I have been able to deduce is that during the rather long gap of twenty three and a half years between the last two letters we have just gone through Paul did think of a name. On 22nd June, 1897, thirty seven days before this innings, Queen Victoria had celebrated her Diamond Jubilee with elaborate grandeur in London. It was a dazzling event, and no doubt Paul thought of this innings as an extension of the celebrations. And his pretty obvious and self-confessed love for alliterations made Jessop’s Jubileeso attractive.”
It was an excellent, lucid explanation. It was quite obvious that Sylvie was a teacher of some merit and experience.
“You’ve done some excellent research, Sylvie,” I said admiringly. “Now, for the last question, what is this creation of old Jones?”
There was a pause as I looked at the two of them and tried to gauge who would come up with the answer.
Finally, Kumar broke the silence. “That’s what foxes us, professor.”
I sat in stunned silence waiting for something more out of them. Too many things were cramming up my mind with an alarmingly high frequency. I needed time to think.
“Kumar, could I know the current situation? Do we know anything more about the painting or is this all?”
Kumar looked thoughtfully at the framed photograph of Milkha Singh. “That’s about it, professor. We have told you all that we know. In fact, you just added the additional information on Gilbert Jessop and semi-completed the picture. Sylvie here has worked hard at the Jones puzzle, but till now we have drawn a blank.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and was about to be plunged into thought when Kumar pointed at the food.
“Cello Kebab is best served hot."
We started eating the lunch, lukewarm by now in spite of the excellent packing. As we bit into the excellent meat, I fired my unending queries at the two of them.
“When did the two of you come together on this?” I asked.
Sylvie looked suspiciously at her plate, probably at the excessive butter that laced the rice. “I traced Kumar Mangalsingh to his shop yesterday morning. Since then we have been reviewing the letters again and again. To be honest, I was aware that the painting, if there exists one such, was of some value to the art world, but it was Kumar who pointed out that it could be of a far greater value to the world of cricket.”
“That was when I called you up, professor,” Kumar said. “To use your unparalleled expertise on the history of the game.”
I thought some more.
“Kumar, when did your father pass away?”
“We just completed 25 years of his death. It was in 1971. He was 69.”
I considered this.
“And if it’s not too rude to ask, you inherited everything in your father’s possession, didn’t you?”
Kumar nodded. “Yes, I did.”
“And, if your father had not given it away or sold it, the painting should have come down to you as family heirloom, wouldn't it?”
Kumar smiled. “As far as I knew my father, he never parted with any of his cricket collection. From WG Grace’s autograph to Sunil Gavaskar’s reply to his congratulatory note a few days prior to his death, everything was stored meticulously. Most of it in our family house in Jaipur and in the RRCC. However…,” he paused.
“I believe his collection is a lot bigger than what I know it to be. For example, he had received a bat autographed by Sir Frank Worrell in 1966. However, I never saw it again. I believe he had a storehouse somewhere for his more precious possessions. Maybe, this Jones thing. And also, this Jessop sketch by Dadd. I don’t know what it is. I’ve never seen it.”
I cleared my throat, washing down the buttered rice with a generous gulp of coke.
“ST Dadd was a sketch artist. His sketch of Jessop lofting a ball into the pavilion during the innings of 104 against Australia at the Oval in 1902 was carried by the Daily Graphic.”
“As I said,” Kumar continued. “I believe the old man used to store a large part of his collection somewhere. He never told me.”
“So you believe that this painting is still stored somewhere,” I said. I could imagine the implications. I myself had estimated the value of the painting at some 100,000 pounds. All the mystery behind Kumar sponsoring my flight across the country started to make sense.
“Yes, professor,” Sylvie said. “Kumar Sahib here is now sitting on a fortune. Only he does not know where to find it. And to me, the painting is of considerable value for the sake of art.”
“For me too," I replied. "I mean as a cricket historian, there can be few more precious treasures. Besides, we don’t know what else there is under the so called creation of old Jones. And that brings us back to the problem. Who is this Jones?”
“That’s the million dollar question,” Sylvie replied. “Or should I say, a 100,000 pound question.”
“Is there no other reference to the painting or Jones in the book?”
Sylvie put down her fork and spoon.
“There are no further references to the painting. Actually it is a series of letters and not a diary documenting everything. We must take into account that these people met and talked often. It was only when they were separated by distance that these letters were written. About Jones, two Joneses do appear in the book. A teacher of Elizabeth Hackensmith, who never created anything more than an impression of monumental boredom in the mind of young Liz. And the other was a postman who brought letters to Paul during the first few years of the century. It is such a common name …”
“Jones. Creation,” I pondered. “It must be some work of art, right?”
Sylvie nodded. “That’s what we think too. The problem is that Kumar here says that all paintings at their place were essentially done by old Rajasthani artists and he knows nothing of any Jones painting or sculpture or anything like that.”
“My father was obsessed with artefacts of cricket. But, painting – especially Western painting – was never one of his interests,” Kumaragreed.
“I have made a list of all the major and minor Joneses of the art world,” Sylvie said, opening her notebook to a particular page. “Starting with Inigo Jones of the 17th century, and ending with the American Joe Jones and the African American Lois Mailou Jones, who were born in the first decade of this century. I have found nothing associating these people with cricket, however, an expert’s view is always better. I will read the names one by one and could you please verify whether they have anything to do with painting matches or cricketers or anything along the lines?”
I raised my hands. “Come now, I must say that it is extremely possible that one of those guys had something to do with cricket that I know nothing about. I need to do some research.”
Sylvie nevertheless read out the names, a vast collection of Joneses. It was quite a long list with Edward Burne-Jones, Frances M. Jones Bannerman (I desperately tried to detect a link with Charles Bannerman, the one who scored the first run in Test Cricket), Francis Coates Jones, Hugh Bolton Jones, Lady Burne-Jones and a lot of others. She handed me a copy of this list.
“Could there be any way that this Jones creation has something to do with cricket?” Kumar asked.
I had pondered on this. “Nothing really comes to mind. However, there are hundreds of Joneses in the history of cricket, especially if we consider county cricketers. Some well-established cricketers like Prior Jones, the West Indian fast bowler, and Dean Jones, the Aussie, to really remote cricketers who have played just one or two matches. As Sylvie put it, it is an extremely common surname. I’ll have to look it up.”
Sylvie nodded in agreement. “I ran several queries on the Internet searching for Jones and art and cricket and creation. There are too many of irrelevant matches around. And nothing very useful.”
Kumar sighed. “How do you propose to go about it, professor?”
I leaned back in my chair and thought.
“Well, I’d like to spend the rest of today and a good part of tomorrow in the Alipore National Library. Let me see if I can unravel something. Meanwhile, Kumar, could you think hard about any hiding place that can exist in your family home or at the RRCC?”
“I’ve already thought a lot about it,” Kumar replied. “Till now I've drawn a complete blank. I’ll spend more time thinking about it, though. And Professor, all the trouble that you are taking will be suitably compensated.”
I waved my hand in a dismissing gesture.
“Kumar, this is an intrigue which really fascinates me. I’d do what I could to help anyway because of my own curiosity.”
Kumar smiled that regal smile which meant that there could be no further discussion on the topic. “Professor, if you help me find this painting, I will stand to gain enormously, speaking just in the financial sense. There can be no question of your doing all this for free. And no matter how much she protests, the same holds true for our pretty Miss Pemberton.”
Sylvie stood up. “We can go into that later. Right now, I’m going to get in touch with the University and also the British Council Library here to do some more research on the Joneses.”
Kumar also rose to his feet. “Professor, Sylvie is currently putting up at the Hotel Hindustan International as my guest. I thought it would be convenient for you to stay in the same Hotel in case you have to work in collaboration, compare notes and so on. So, I have booked a room for you as well.”
This was another pleasant surprise. Five Star treatment.
Besides, I could find nothing remotely against sharing the same premises and working closely with an attractive, intelligent, young woman.
This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)