Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 3): The great sulk of Sherlock

Slowly, carefully, Lestrade poured beer into a tall glass. He stopped when there was about a quarter of an inch of pale liquid left in the bottle. “White Shield,” he explained, with a professorial smile, setting the bottle down. “That yeasty little residue would quite spoil the taste, besides turning a clear ale cloudy.” He swigged, and wiped his mouth with a corner of his cravat. “There’s some things they don’t teach you in medical school, doctor. True?”
“Indeed.” For myself, a pot of China tea was all the refreshment I wanted. “I do hope Holmes is all right,” I said anxiously. “Perhaps we should take him something up?”
“Let him stew. Like your tea.” The Inspector laughed, stretched out his legs, and addressed his beer with even more eagerness. “Here,” he said. “How about this?” and he dropped his pork pie hat onto the head of a stuffed goat that was standing by the window, staring out menacingly at the rain-misted river valley.
Even subtracting the goat, the bar of the Danescombe Hotel was a rum venue: crossed besom brushes on the walls, aquaria on windowsills and shelves containing the stuffed corpses of various reptiles and amphibians, and behind the bar, with one bony fist resting on the top of the till, a full length skeleton hung by the cranium from an ebony stand. Serving our drinks, the landlady explained that this decor had been chosen “to attract the tourists,” to which Lestrade responded “well, there ain’t many of ’em” (we were the only guests, it seemed) and the landlady counter-snarled “out of season, innit?”
“Do you know,” said Lestrade, opening and fastidiously pouring his second White Shield, “if it wasn’t for the certificated existence of Mr Mycroft Holmes, I’d guess that Mr Sherlock was an only child, he takes on so when he’s frustrated from getting his own way.”
Half an hour or so earlier Holmes had, in the policeman’s phrase, “created something terrible” when he discovered that Lestrade had been allocated (and declined to surrender) the best and biggest bedroom in the hotel. Holmes retreated to his own room in a sulk, taking with him the dog, which he described as “the most intelligent companion I’m likely to find around here.” As for myself, my own room was even smaller, but without complaint I put my clothes in the wardrobe, my towel on the radiator, my sponge bag in the bathroom and my books and alarm clock beside my bed, managing to make the little space quite homely and appealing.
It was a sorry end to what had been a lively and profitable afternoon. After a short search Holmes had found, parked in a public space beneath the viaduct, a Saab which the car keys fitted– “where else,” he asked, “would the vehicle be, but in Calstock?”– and he surreptitiously retrieved its SatNav – “which may fruitfully reward a later examination.” There was a commotion in the village when some youngsters claimed their canoe had been capsized by a surfacing hippopotamus but (and Holmes claimed he had surmised something of the sort on first hearing the boys’ story) the creature which emerged from the Tamar at his coaxing turned out to be a large and exuberant black Labradoodle, the very dog which was now with him upstairs.
Another group of rougher boys were in the churchyard when we passed on the way to our hotel, and they rocked a funerary angel as if trying to break it from its pediment. Lestrade intervened and chased them away, and Holmes sighed and remarked: “It is much simpler, Watson, to suppose that what we do not understand does not exist. But when subsequently we are confronted with symbols of that which we dismissed because of its incomprehensibility then naturally – do I say naturally? well, no matter – we set about their destruction. Remember what Paracelsus said? ‘He who knows nothing, loves nothing; he who understands, loves’.”
“Para-who?” I said. “Never heard you mention that cove before.”
“Have you not? He was a doctor. I’m surprised you don’t know of him,” said Holmes. “Now, now – down boy.” The dog, which Holmes had secured around the neck with binder twine taken from a gate, was leaping up at him. “Phillipus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, also known as Theophrastus Paracelsus. Born Switzerland, November 10, 1493, died September 24, 1541, only son of William Bombast, who was himself the bitter, frustrated and illegitimate child – mark that point, Watson; it has significance – of George Bombast of Hohenheim, Grand Master of the Knights of St John, who refused to have anything to do with our poor Willy. The critical thing is that Doctor Paracelsus was the first to teach us to proceed everywhere with our eyes wide open: ‘from what is before us we see what is behind us,’ he wrote, ‘and from the external we deduce the internal’. As you know, those are precepts I’ve always obeyed.” He paused and tugged the twine. “Perhaps, oh damp and boisterous Labradoodle, I should call you ‘Paracelcus’? ”
“But what’s the significance of the illegitimacy, Holmes?”
“Ah, it bears on the case of our man Rusbridger. Nothing exerts a stronger effect upon a child, Watson, than the point at which his father’s life failed. Paracelsus senior was a sad and disappointed quack. His son became a physician of such genius and vision that some of his contemporaries thought he trafficked in magic and feared him as if he were Faustus himself. Rusbridger’s papa, you will recall, was a Liberal M.P. who was elevated to the House of Lords but then implicated in a dreadful scandal involving a lap-dancing club, a beach hut in Whitstable, insider dealing and British Telecom shares. He was disgraced, was he not, and forfeited his peerage? Hence the socialist and puritan zealotry of the son, you see, and his chairing of Whitehall Walpurgis, that eminent ‘think tank’ which is to the modern capitalist what the inquisition was anciently to the heretic.”
“But does that,” I asked, “go any way to help explain his nude suspension from the viaduct strapped to a bicycle?”
“It may do, though I’m not sure yet quite how. The SatNav should help us.”
“And don’t forget the song,” I suggested – “‘Keep Young and Beautiful’.”
“Indeed.” He lit his pipe. “We mustn’t forget the song. No, no.”
Lestrade sniggered sceptically. “I can’t readily make any connections myself except saucy and ironic ones, via the old man, the song and the lap-dancing,” he said.
“Down, boy.” The leaping dog frisked around Holmes’ heels. Soon we were walking along the riverside and the Labradoodle strained to get among scents in the reeds which were being stirred in the drift of a light and not unpleasant drizzle. “Ah, what is nature but philosophy,” Holmes observed, inhaling deeply. “For though theory is ever grey, the living tree is radiant in green.”
“Well, not exactly, Holmes,” I said. “It’s rather grey this afternoon and the leaves are turning brown.”
Lestrade snorted and tipped his hat over his eyes.
“Why must you always do this?” snapped Holmes.
He did not come down for supper – a passable if rather over baked salmon with frites and samphire – and when I climbed up to bed I was certain I heard voices in his room.
“Come, admit it is almost time,” announced one of them portentously, in a deep but dimly familiar tone.
“What? It cannot be, not yet.” That was my friend, surely? This voice went on: “Besides, you must help me. You must keep your promise.”
I knocked on the door and pushed it open. “Are you alright, Holmes?”
The dog, lying beside the bed, sat up and growled at me. Holmes was fully dressed but prone on the eiderdown, hands behind his head. “I was asleep Watson. Why do you disturb me?”
“Convinced I heard voices.”
“The wind rattling the shutters, probably. Good night.”
Uneasily, I went to my own room. What did I notice first? The lemony, steamy smell? That the towel was gone from the radiator? Or the footprints leading to the radiator from the bathroom and back again; small, wet prints of a perfectly arched female foot?
The bathroom door opened and a woman emerged. She was mesmerizingly beautiful. With that ahining auburn hair and those rosy cheeks and shoulders, I thought for a moment I saw my Mary again, as a girl.
“I was wondering,” she said softly, as she let my towel fall to the floor, “how I might persuade you to surrender those car keys?”

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