Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 8): A cold snap for Halloween

Mycroft Holmes, now unveiled as a vice-regent of the dark powers, brushed a few damp ivy leaves from his astrakhan collar and leaned down over the Great Chess set. “My cockatrice takes your lion and leaves your king vulnerable.” He smiled at Holmes, delicately moving the pieces. “In fact, your king is fatally exposed, I think.”
The fire murmured and settled. Holmes sighed and placed another log among the embers, pushing it down with the heel of his boot. “Perhaps I must surrender after all,” he said.
“What did you say this imposter’s name was asked?” Lestrade.
“Mephistopheles,” said Holmes.
“Well, it’ll be hello ‘Metphistophelose’ and into my bracelets unless I get a few straight answers pretty quickly,” snapped the London bobby. Not for the first time, I admired his phlegmatism – the absence of any trace of romance in a mind which proceeded instead from one simple building block to the next, eschewing the grand, imaginative leaps which typified Holmes’s deductive procedure. It was exactly his prosaic nature that prevented Lestrade from being intimidated by any sudden turn of events, however Gothic – as in this case – such a turning might prove to be.
Mycroft – or whatever we should now have to call him – gave Lestrade a patronising smile and settled in a rocking chair. “How can I help you, little man?” he asked.
But the Inspector was not to be provoked. “You’ve been posing, all these years, as Mr Holmes’s brother,” he began. “But if you’re not a member of his family, and we now have good reason to believe you are not, then where exactly do you come from?”
“The other place,” Mycroft replied.
“What, the House of Lords?”
Mycroft laughed, shrugged off his coat, folded and sat on it, and stretched out his legs to the fire. “No, no. The nether regions.”
“The where? Are you some sort of weirdo?”
“He means the infernal regions,” said Holmes.
And I added, miserably, “Hell. He says he comes from Hell.”
“Oh yeah?” Lestrade snarled. “Well, you must be the first cove who ever got out of there alive, never mind with his whistle and flute and his boots unsinged.”
“Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” said Mycroft wistfully, in the tone of a child reciting a lesson.
“No it ain’t, Sir,” Lestrade responded, “It’s Wilder Hall on the south-western edge of Dartmoor just beyond the margins of the county borough of Plymouth, so don’t go deluding yourself or trying to delude us that we’ve got transported to some zone of the beyond.”
But the wind sobbed in the chimney as he spoke, and the pelmet rattled above shivering curtains, while the air turned icy. “Sherlock will soon know what I mean,” said Mycroft.
“You’ll harm my friend over my dead body,” I cried.
“If you really wish it so, the more the merrier,” Mycroft laughed. “But we have a bargain, haven’t we Sherlock?” Holmes looked away, nodding miserably. “Fifty years ago today, as he has described, not a mile from here, at the old Coombe Cross, Sherlock begged for the gift of clairvoyance. I gave it to him, to exercise and enjoy for exactly half a century, in exchange for his immortal soul. Tonight, on the eve of All Souls Day, and I have come to arrange my collection.”
“How could you contemplate a transaction so unspeakably evil, practised upon an innocent youth in the height of his grief?” I said.
“Oh,” Mycroft replied, “very easily. I have an eternity of boredom to relieve. Eternity without hope, you know, is a very, very, long time. You have no idea how desperate one is for amusement. Sherlock’s soul will be a pretty pet to play with for epoch or two.” He stood up and unfolded his coat, which he swung over his shoulders and which, to my astonishment, had changed colour, whilst serving as his cushion, from black to brown. As he strolled over to the window he grinned and sang softly, “Be sure and get your man, wrap your body in a coat of tan,” then said briskly, “I shall call for you at dawn, Sherlock,” he said. “Enjoy Halloween. Good night, gentlemen.” He climbed over the sill, and as he vanished in the darkness, we heard first the bark of a dog, and then the cry of a cormorant.
There was a crack, and I turned to see that Holmes had knocked over the white king on the Grand Chess board.
“I am sorry, my friends,” he said, “that I have dragged you here to witness the dissipation of my gifts, and indeed, of myself. But a deal is a deal, and this creature who has been my putative brother and my real oracle for these past five decades is only asking me to honour a contract I sought and to which I volunteered my assent. And yet, how very long a stretch, back then, this half a century seemed, and how very far away its terminus.”
For the first time in the years of our acquaintance, my friend looked haggard and defeated. And where, indeed, could his pride make a stand, now that the fons et origo of his talents had been discovered in the diabolical gift of another? To be an ordinary mortal, prey to emotion and ambiguity and quotidian vicissitude, was to be everything which Holmes had once disdained – but oh, how clearly now was an envy of ordinary mortality inscribed on his melancholy features.
Felix Entwistle came in, rattling a tray of crockery and cutlery, and biscuits, tongue, corned beef, pickles and preserved fruits which he told us he’d found tinned and bottled in the pantry. He began to prattle about the hall’s origins as a sanctuary and hostelry attached to the estates of Tavistock Abbey, but I interrupted him and sadly reported what had just transpired, and what was foredoomed for the morning.
“We could,” the priest ventured, “pray earnestly to the Lord in these once consecrated surroundings that Mr Holmes might be delivered from this curse?”
“Forgive me, father,” said Holmes with a bitter laugh, “but I have no appetite for prayer, and nor indeed have I any appetite for the preserved comestibles on your tray. I do, however, have a large sachet of cocaine in my room, and I did take the precaution of bringing the necessary paraphernalia. With your permission, I shall spend my last evening in a reverie of my own direction.”
“Holmes, really, no; I must protest,” I said sharply. But then, of course, I stopped.
“You were thinking of my health, eh, doctor? A little late for that, I fear.” Holmes laughed sardonically again, and left us.
Lestrade pressed a slice of corned beed and some piccalilli between two squares of crispbread and bit into the sandwich with a loud crunch. “Is there nothing which will defeat this fiend, father, if fiend he is?” he asked.
“Oh, the usual sacred objects would destroy him were he to be subjected to their holy contagion – the cross, the bible and prayer book, holy water or the blessed sacraments.”
“He’ll be too cunning to succumb to tricks like those, surely?” I said.
“Tricks?” said the priest, querulously – and I apologised while Lestrade smirked at me and reached for the pickled onions. “Tell me, father, why was this spot chosen for a sanctuary?”
“It rests upon an ancient holy well.”
“Where?” asked Lestrade, with excitement in his voice.
“In the cellarage.”
“Show us.”
And down we went, down a steep flight of granite stairs, their treads hollowed by generations of feet, into a damp, cold, low-ceilinged basement chamber.
“Here,” said the priest. Before us was a low parapet around a cistern full of water. A constant dripping echoed musically around us.
“So, the water flows,” said Lestrade.
“Yes,” Entwistle explained. “The spring that rises here once sank underground again and ran to old Coombe Cross, where it emerged as a brook; hence the monument there. But the monks stopped it to create their local water supply, and the excess flows away through the barton to a system of tanks around the pastures.”
“So if we were to prevent the overflow?”
“The stream would resume its course into the valley.”
“Then let us stop it quickly,” cried Lestrade.
“What’s the point of this?” I asked, as the policeman seized an adze that was lying in the corner of the cellar, smashed a flagstone, and began pushing fragments into an aperture at the side of the cistern through which water had been gently spilling.
“It is a freezing night, is it not, Dr Watson?” said Lestrade.
“Indeed it is. So?”
“Forgive me a little Holmesian melodrama, if I may call it such,” he said. And ripping up an old sack, he caulked the rubble and entirely stopped the flow. We watched as the water in the cistern rose and at last began to fall over the back of the parapet into a channel which seemed to drain down into the foundations of the building.
“There,” said Lestrade. “Now, one of us – perhaps you, Dr Watson – needs to raise Holmes before dawn. Will you do that?”
“Yes, but why?”
“Wait and see, doctor.”
“Surely,” I protested, “you aren’t trying to raise our hopes with some superstitious mumbo-jumbo? Not you, Inspector, of all people?”
“Ha! Doctor, old friend, my project works either way; sacred or profane, my unicorn takes that smug, fat bastard’s gryphon. But if you do have any piety muddled up in your constitution, pray for a fine morning. Holmes’s life, at the very least, depends upon it. Now, vicar, was there any beer in the pantry?”
“I thought I saw some barley wine,” said the priest.
“It’ll do. A couple of bottles will see me to bed. Goodnight, my friends. Be up before first light, if you please.”
Reluctantly, I went upstairs. As I passed Holmes’s door, to my astonishment I heard a guitar playing, two voices raised, and merriment. I paused. One voice was my friend’s – but unmistakeably, the other belonged to Miss Irene Adler. She was singing, and he was clapping and humming along between giggles: “Oh, a slim little waist is a pleasure, and a trim little limb is divine; oh, a sly little eye is a treasure, it’ll get him drunker than wine…”
I went swiftly to my room, almost putting my fingers in my ears.
Already, there were ferns of frost on my bedroom window. The moon was full. The landscape of tors, wind-bent hawthorns, gnarled oaks, ancient fields, furze, bracken and dry-stone walls was silvered and still. And on All Souls’ Eve, the fate of at least one soul was hanging in the balance.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 7): A bargain with Mycroft

Mycroft’s humming unnerved me. Rumbling through the scarf of fat that swathed his windpipe was a distorted but unmistakeable tune – and had there been a doubt, Lestrade dispelled it when the humming stopped and he picked up the broken melody to sing with a matching flatness: “You’ll always have your way if he likes you in a negligee, keep young and beautiful...”
“Oh, do shut up, Lestrade,” I cried. “That wretched song is beginning to cause grief.”
So we drove in a prickly silence for a while; down the steep hill into Gunnislake, through the village, and sharply down again to the single track of New Bridge. I reminded Mycroft of his promise to “elucidate” our mysteries as we travelled, but he pursed his lips, steered slowly up through the pine-canopied ‘S’-bends of the valley’s side, and said he needed to concentrate on the road. There would be revelations, but “later, later, all in good time”.
“Not as if we’re short of an enigma or two,” muttered Lestrade, and squinting hard at me, he nodded meaningfully at the space above and beside Mycroft’s head, just beneath the Bentley’s courtesy light. I couldn’t get his drift, and raised my eyebrows, frowning. Lestrade nodded again, with vigour, at a place where Mycroft’s halo might have spun, had he earned one, then jerked his right thumb minimally towards the front driver’s side window, and his left towards the passenger’s side. “Well?” he mouthed. I mouthed back: “what am I looking for?” and he mimed smiting his brow with his palm and sank into the leather seat with a sigh.
The afternoon gave way to dusk as we snaked eastward out of Tavistock and upward onto the moor. The leonine stacks of Vixen Tor revolved and faded among indigo shadows and then the road broadened across a high plateau until eventually, a little past Merrivale, we turned into a bumpy lane – perhaps the former route of narrow-gauge railway track – which rose and fell and twisted through abandoned settlements and quarries until finally we drove between the rusting iron gates of a fearsome and ancient Gothic pile.
“Wilder Hall,” barked Mycroft. “Go inside. I’ll park the car, scout round, and join you later in the house.”
“What were you trying to show me?” I asked Lestrade as we pushed open the front door.
“Nothing,” the detective replied.
“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? It was as if you were performing in pantomime.”
“Nothing. Where the mirrors should have been. Nothing. The driver’s mirror, the wing mirrors – nothing there.”
“Perhaps it’s to do with the antiquity of the car? It is a veteran model...”
“Oh, never mind.” Lestrade sighed again. “Come on. Look. Here.”
A bar of light shone beneath one of the doors off the hall, which Lestrade now pushed open. Holmes sprang to his feet from an armchair by the fire; there was an odd blur for a moment beside him, and a whir as of feathers in the air – then an odour of lemon mixed with the scent of burning coals and applewood.
We heard a series of wingbeats and croaks ascending outside.
“Cormorant,” observed Lestrade, then, “why, where’s that lavender smell coming from?”
“Yes, yes,” Holmes said, breathing a little heavily and straightening his coat and trousers. “Lavender for you, Lestrade, and an air of lemons for you, Watson, and for me, the dark, wicked redolence of patchouli. But her difficulty, you see, is that she can never be in company – never with more than one man at a time. But still, maybe even now she’s upstairs tempting Father Entwistle from his afternoon nap with the aroma of the Magdalene, eh?”
“She?” I said. “But who is she, Holmes? Please tell us.”
“Ah, who indeed? Time might bring an answer. But – well, whoever you want her to be, I suppose.”
“Another mystery?” I complained. “Perhaps we should add it to the list that brother Mycroft has promised to explicate.”
“Mycroft?” said Holmes sharply. “Here already? So. The game is nearly done. No matter. Sit gentlemen. Sit.”
Lestrade, loosening his paisley cravat, took a place on a wooden settle, opposite Holmes at the fireside. “It might appear,” he said tentatively, “that there is a question to be asked about whether you actually have a brother at all?”
Holmes laughed, a little ruefully. “Talking of families, do either of you remember what I said about Rusbridger and his father?”
“That nothing exerts a stronger effect upon a child than the point at which his father’s life failed,” said Lestrade. “Strikes me now it might be apposite to your own case, Holmes.”
“What sages we both are, Lestrade. But wait - what about Rusbridger himself? Does anything I said about him spring back into either of your minds?”
“If I recall correctly,” I picked up, “when I remarked that Rusbridger’s being hung naked over the viaduct was like bait for a giant fish, you agreed that’s exactly what it was, and wondered precisely whom he was bait for.”
“Indeed I did. Well, he was bait for me.”
“What? For you?”
“Of course he was. Some years ago, as you’ll remember, I unravelled the connection between his father, a lap-dancing club, a beach hut in Whitstable, and some British Telecom shares, so in revenge he willingly played his part and dangled, with a few delicious refinements – nudity, a bicycle, car keys, just the sort of stuff to intrigue me – above the place where my father lobbed the Cathedral plate into the River Tamar. Ha! Idiot that I was to suppose that the trove might still be there, with fisherman passing back and forth beneath the viaduct on every tide since. It seems I have all but check-mated myself.”
There was, in fact, a chess board beside Holmes, placed on an ivory-inlaid table, with the pieces set as if in mid-game and scattered with a little ash from Holmes's pipe and from a cigarette – but some of the figurines were alien to me, and instead of the customary pattern of eight squares by eight, the board had twelve squares by twelve.
“What is that strange travesty of a chess set, Holmes?” I asked.
“This? Oh, this is Grande Acedrex, Great Chess, played on a hundred and forty-four squares. Do you see these pieces that have no role in your conventional game? The gryphon here moves one square diagonally then travels straight as many as you please. And this one, the unicorn, begins like the knight and continues as if it were a bishop. Here’s a lion, which can leap four squares in any direction. This is the cocatrice, and this the giraffe...”
Lestrade cleared his throat. Then he yawned.
“The set belonged to my father,” Holmes persevered. “He obtained it from Spain, where it was owned in the 13th century by Alfonso the Tenth, who was called ‘the wise’. Like Alfonso, my father was beguiled by heterodoxy. Like Alfonso, he did not renounce Christianity, but saw certain suggestive affinities between Christian metaphysics and the Kabala of Judaism, the mystical Sufis of Islam, aspects of Neoplatonism, and various arcana and formulae from the Hermetica – and in an alembic of all these resonating influences he thought he saw stirring a transfiguring force that had long haunted history but seldom materialised. Unfortunately, though, while Alfonso was King of Castile and Leon at the zenith of the Muslims’ Iberian ascendancy, my father was the Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard in crusty old Christian England.”
“What happened?” asked Lestrade who had, I noticed, unobtrusively got out his notebook.
Holmes gazed into the fire. “Like Alfonso, and, for that matter, like Phillipus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, to whom I drew your attention in Calstock, and like a very few others, visionaries and heretics all, my father came to believed that the universe resembled a giant, esoteric harmonium, kept in tune by its cunning Maker, and in the harmony of its chords all phenomena were conjoined in multifarious patterns – flowers, trees, limbs, bodily organs and musical keys, animals, days of the week, signs of the zodiac, planets, precious stones... and so on, et cetera, in a network of correspondences for which diligence might uncover a supercelestial index.”
“Could you do anything useful with it?” asked Lestrade, shifting his buttocks on the elm planks of the settle.
“Oh indeed, yes. Get the combinations right and you had a measure of control over nature. Or so they thought.”
“Sounds harmless enough, compared with some ecclesiastical eccentricities,” I remarked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Unfortunately, a girl died,” said Holmes.
“Oh, my God. How?”
Lestrade licked his pencil.
“Oh, she would have died anyway,” said Holmes, “but you know how it is? There are a number of peculiar but familiar stories which leave the media powerless – by which I mean, particular indications in these stories trap journalists into a specific narrative from which they find it impossible to escape, however innocent the overture, however fictional the ultimate presentation. In this case, I give you the victim child, the satanic bishop, and his wicked spells and potions. And so on.
“The girl was 11, daughter of some parishioners who were newly back from the colonies. She had some ghastly tropical disease, I don’t know what it was, nobody knew what it was, attacking her liver, and my stupid, well-meaning father offered a private service of intercession and brought her here. Look.”
Holmes got up and went to the main table. He removed a green baize cloth to reveal a mass of manuscripts and an extraordinary assembly of interconnected apparatus – tubes, retorts, dishes, stills, burners – which looked like a charred, begrimed and twisted parody of the equipment in his own laboratory at 221b Baker Street. He grimaced as he saw it, and recited softly:
“Here stands the gear that I have never touched,
My father’s stuff, bequeathed to be my prison,
With scrolls of vellum, blackened and besmutched.
Where the desk-lamp’s dismal smoke has risen
“He brought her here, as I say, and, well, I really don’t know what the constituent elements were that he arranged for her: but, say, an emerald, vipers’ bugloss, skin of a rabbit, poems by Spenser, bark from an aspen, music by Lawes, kippers and cream, a shoelace, perhaps, mumbo jumbo, using only his thumb, gibberish, balderdash, all on a Tuesday, under the aspect of Aries, with a corncrake’s feather and more added nonsense and a soupcon of tosh. No damage was done, nothing changed in the young lady’s condition, but she went home and as predicted by all, a few days later she turned up her toes; my father’s valet sneaked and took the red-tops’ shilling and the hacks made up the rest.
“Papa was defrocked and fled – to Malaya, I think – hurling the Cathedral’s treasures over the viaduct and into the Tamar out of spite. He never told me where he was going, and he was so ashamed of his exposure, of the image of himself he saw thrown back in the mirror of the Press, that he never got in touch with me again. And so I wept for the very last time, out there on the moor, before changing my name and moving to London and embarking on a new life.”
“And?” said Lestrade.
“And what?” said Holmes, irritably.
“And why are we here?”
“You don’t exactly brim with compassion, do you, Lestrade?” said Holmes.
“I’m a London copper. A red top reader.” Lestrade grinned. “They’re often right, you know, the hacks. Your old man may not have been a murderer, but he thought he was a wizard, so he was a bit of a weirdo after all, eh?” And he looked at my friend as if to add, “like father...”
“I was eighteen, and as I say, almost destroyed,” Holmes continued briskly, resuming his seat by the fire. He took out his pipe, looked at it, and returned it to his pocket. “The day I realised my father had fled, and fled for good, I staggered out of here, raging, into the Spring sunshine, and stamped across the moor to the old Combe Cross. I cursed the church, but more, and with much more venom, I cursed myself. Why hadn’t I been able to read my father’s behaviour? Why hadn’t I deduced from the drift and growth of his obsessions where a dangerous addiction to the occult might take him? Why had I failed to construct a profile and a prognosis from the books he was buying, the artefacts he was collecting, the habits he was developing? Why was I blind, in other words, to what was staring me in the face. I raised my eyes to the Heavens and begged for clairvoyance, for percipience, for the sheer rigour of observation which would allow me to pierce the veils and comprehend the inner workings of the human mind and its motivations. Why, for a gift like that, I cried, I’d even surrender the priceless immortal soul that my father had insisted smouldered perpetually inside me.”
The fire seemed to groan, and the chimney belched noxious smoke into the room.
Again, Lestrade said softly, “And?” He drew his cravat over his nose while I opened the window.
Holmes stared away, reliving the scene. “Something black came running towards me over the moors, through the gorse and furze, bounding from tussock to tussock and rock to rock. For a moment I thought it was the beast of the moor, then more prosaically, a calf, but when the creature neared I realised it was a black dog – a Labradoodle. But when it reached me...” He coughed, and stopped.
“Yes?” Lestrade persisted.
“It stood up on its back legs and became...”
Again. “Yes?”
Then Holmes said, curtly, “come and join us, Mycroft. Come in. Enter. You see, gentlemen? I have to invite him three times?” And at last the portly figure in its black coat with black-braided lapels, and blue-black waistcoat, and shining black boots, climbed through the open window and strolled over to join us by the fire.
“The dog became your brother Mycroft?” I gasped.
“My Mephistopheles,” Holmes replied.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 6): Of detectives and detection

Was the hiss emitted by the lifting bottle-cap, or Lestrade’s plump lips? Difficult to tell, but without doubt there was a trace of parody in the Scotland Yard man’s tone when he remarked, putting the metal opener down and pouring his beer into a glass, “this, I think, is a triple White Shield problem.”
The two of us were sitting on scuffed, dun-coloured leather armchairs in the seedy, dun-coloured parlour of Webb’s Hotel in Liskeard, which the unexpected sunlight of this October afternoon failed to penetrate through either of two tall, cobwebbed and mossy windows. Lestrade had just joined me, a sheaf of papers on his lap, all written over in his own distinctively thin and wavering hand (“a penmanship that looks,” Holmes had once remarked, “as if a bluebottle had lately escaped from a bottle of whisky into a bottle of blue-black Quink and then gone staggering across a notepad.”)
There was a bluebottle, now, rubbing its forelegs together in one of the little rings of beer Lestrade’s glass was leaving on the yellow formica-top of our table.
“Brother Mycroft? Get hold of him in the end?” Lestrade asked, swatting at the fly with his papers. It took off, circled, landed on the detective’s head, and when he angrily brushed it away, went back to his beer.
“At the third attempt, yes.”
After my friend had – perhaps unsurprisingly – begged a private audience with the priest, I’d left Holmes with Father Entwistle and gone straight to find Lestrade with my news (either sensational or farcical: as yet, who knew which?) of the newly disclosed allegations about Holmes’s parentage. Sensibly, Lestrade had suggested that we head straight for Liskeard, a part of the see in which Holmes’s father was supposed to have been a Bishop, and the likeliest place to yield a copy of Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Lestrade had taxed me with the raising of Mycroft, which I first tried to do via Facebook on Holmes’s laptop in his hotel bedroom. I remember a cormorant landing on the windowsill and staring hungrily – or so it seemed – into my eyes just at the very moment the broadband gave out. My next endeavour took the form of a text message, after we’d set off. In reply, I received a stream of unintelligible algebraic symbols. I turned the screen of my mobile to show Lestrade, glanced out of the train and was convinced that our Labradoodle was bounding through the fields beside us. “Look!” I cried. “That dog...”
“A calf,” said Lestrade, tersely. “Try texting again.”
“Can’t. No signal, now. Are you sure?” For the ‘calf’ had just leapt a hedge.
“All right then, a panther,” said Lestrade. “The beast of Bodmin.”
But whichever creature it was, the animal ducked into a birch wood and was gone. Meanwhile we were now so deep in a valley that all hope of phone contact was lost until we reached Liskeard.
Now I was able to tell Lestrade, who had gone to the lending library before joining me at Webb’s, that I had at length used the hotel landline to reach Mycroft Holmes through the porter’s lodge at the Diogenes club.
“He’s on his way.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Very little. The Webb concierge was keen to overhear me.”
“This is a rum business, doctor,” said Lestrade. “Turns out there was a Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard with the unlikely name of Arthur Plynnfarlong, that he was cashiered for some species of heresy, and that he had just the one son by just the one wife, Shirley, née Holmes, who died in childbirth. What do you make of that?”
“Great heavens. Shirley Holmes? Blow me down.”
“No, doctor. Not that. One son.”
“I don’t follow you?”
“Grief man. Was it Mycroft or Sherlock? It can’t be the both of them if he was Dad to a singleton, can it?”
“Great heavens.”
“So you say, quite often. Well listen, my friend” – and Lestrade swigged his beer then spat, for the fly had moved to the rim of his glass; the insect shot out from his lips, looped the loop, then zigzagged away – “we need to talk about our chum Sherlock Holmes. There’s things don’t add up.”
“For example, what?” I asked, with some heat.
“For example, in your preliminary notes on the man,” (and here Lestrade spread his own shabby papers upon the formica) “which you published in the reminiscence named ‘A Study in Scarlet’, you say, inter alia, ‘knowledge of philosophy, nil’, and, ‘knows nothing of practical gardening’.”
“Yes? And?”
“And then, Doctor Watson, in a collection of reports you gathered under the title ‘His Last Bow’, you remark that ‘friends of Mr Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture’.”
“When the recession began to bite, of course, he left Sussex to rejoin me in Baker Street.”
“Hmm. Forgive me, but you’re prevaricating just a little, I think.” Lestrade dropped one sheet of paper on the floor and took up another. “Now. Here we have third little yarn of yours, with a deceptively dull title, ‘The Cardboard Box’. I quote: ‘As to my companion [which is, of course, Mr Holmes], neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts’.”
“Rather mellifluously put, don’t you think?”
“Indeed, but hardly accurate if we are to believe this next bit of reportage.” Lestrade cleared his throat, drank again, and continued thus, somewhat to my embarrassment: “The adventure, as you call it, of the ‘Lion’s Mane’ occurs, Holmes says, and this is his direct speech, as set down by you, ‘after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years I spent amid the gloom of London... On the morning of which I speak the wind had abated, and all Nature was newly washed and fresh. It was impossible to work upon so delightful a day, and I strolled out before breakfast to enjoy the exquisite air’.” Well? Did you never observe the inconsistency? His enraptured stroll, by the way, takes him through the countryside and down to the sea.”
“I... I... well, people change, don’t they?”
“Oh, come off it,” sneered Lestrade. “He always says you’re not the brightest pin in the cushion, but really, doctor, really, wake up and try to shine a little. This isn’t change you describe, it’s the invasion of the body snatchers. Given that you portray Mr Holmes several times as a master of disguise, are you sure, what with the wild disparity of your descriptions of his favoured and unfavoured disciplines and predilections, that there haven’t actually been two or even three different Sherlock Holmeses sharing your digs in Marylebone, London NW1?”
“I think,” said a portwine voice from behind us, “that we should cease this casuistical squabbling and address ourselves forthwith to my brother’s welfare.”
“Mycroft?” I was stupefied. “How the devil did you reach us so swiftly?”
“Why, by the quickest route, clearly,” he replied. “Needs must, and so forth.” The older of the Holmes brothers was sitting on the velvet-covered stool beside the parlour’s old piano. It occurred to me that his habitual garb, sober and severe, a black coat with black-braided lapels and a blue-black waistcoat, was not unepiscopal. His bald head shone and his pewter-coloured, close-shaven chins gleamed and wobbled. But his eyes, as ever, were cold.
“Where is your brother, then?” asked Lestrade.
“Entwistle is taking him to Wilder Hall on Dartmoor, seat of our father’s exile. I sense danger, real and imminent. Come. My car is outside. There are mysteries, I know, but I can elucidate them as we travel.”
Lestrade grabbed an unopened bottle of White Shield and thrust it into his trouser pocket . Mycroft opened the door to usher us into the lobby, but his way was blocked by the concierge, who said: “Sorry, gentlemen, but I’ve had to bolt up the front. Beer delivery. The hatches are open. Health and safety, you know? Wouldn’t want you plunging into the cellarage. This way, if you don’t mind.”
He tried to shepherd us back along a narrow, dingy corridor, but Mycroft was seized with what seemed a mixture of panic and rage, screaming, “I must go out at the front. I must.” And he barged past the concierge, unbolted the door, and rushed into the square, breathing stertorously and clawing at his brow.
“Well, goodness me,” I murmured to Lestrade. “I wonder what that was about?”
“What indeed?” Lestrade replied, helping the concierge to his feet. “And three times, as well, you had to ask him to come. These are deep waters, as our mutual friend might aver. I sense, doctor, that we might be getting out of our depths.”

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 5): The newshounds and the hermitage

It struck me as I sat beside his bed that I had never seen my fastidious friend in pyjamas before, despite more than two decades of cohabitation and almost numberless excursions out of London. True, now and then he would emerge from his study in dressing grown and slippers, violin, perhaps, in one hand, pipe in the other – but the dressing gown would always be braided and elegant, the slippers Persian, perhaps turquoise, delicately stitched in leather. And between the one and the other were never pyjama bottoms, but invariably a trouser of corduroy or cavalry twill, acutely pressed.
But here was Mr Sherlock Holmes, in bed and asleep, in rather shabby flannel pyjamas, grey with a laurel stripe. An absurd jingle formed in my head and rang round and around while I quietly ate my cereal: “Not sure you’ll keep her keen with pyjamas striped in evergreen...”
“Really, Watson, must you make the consumption of muesli sound like the mixing of concrete? Shut your mouth, man, shut your mouth.”
“Holmes – you’re awake.”
“Are you surprised? Who could sleep with that confounded crunching and slurping in their ear.”
“I’m so sorry. How are your eyes? Any better?”
“No, blast it.” He sat up and stared out of his bedroom window at the rising sun. “No. Wait. Perhaps the faintest glow?” he turned his head away. “Or, no, perhaps not.”
“We must be optimistic, though perhaps we should now start to think about a visit to the hospital. By the way, how did you know I was eating muesli?”
“The pained gasp you uttered every time a piece of dried fruit lodged in the molar cavity where a filling ought to be. Really, Watson, you’re as bad over the dentist as Mrs Hudson is with her optician. Halloa!” He sat up. “What’s that noise? And that smell?”
“People breakfasting downstairs, maybe?”
“No – they’re from outside. Open the window.”
Holmes was right. There were nearly a dozen men and women on the street by the hotel, drinking coffee, eating bacon sandwiches and chattering to each other. I told Holmes what I could see.
“Ah,” he said, “the media have arrived, just as the good Inspector Lestrade predicted that they would.”
“Hardly surprising, I suppose. It’s quite a story, isn’t it? Young Rusbridger being hung naked over the viaduct like bait for a giant fish.”
Holmes threw back the bedclothes smartly and jumped from the bed. “Bait, Watson, did you say? Of course – you’re absolutely on the money, old man. He was bait – but bait for whom?”
At that moment there was a heavy knocking and the door was flung open. A man and a woman barged in, and as the woman cried out “Mr Sherlock Holmes?” and elbowed past me towards my friend, the man raised a camera and a flashbulb fired.
Holmes blinked, then smiled. “Well, well,” he said. “I know you people specialise in shock and revelation, but what you've achieved here already is truly remarkable.” I could tell at once from his expression and the way he gazed around with delight that the flash had restored his vision.
“Not sure what you mean, Mr Holmes,” said the woman, “but I have to ask what you know about this Rusbridger affair? You are investigating, of course? Any clues? Any culprits?”
“Steady on,” laughed Holmes, “and please, no photographs full, or even three-quarters, half or quarter length of a gentleman in his pyjamas, eh? Just the face, hmm?” He turned that famous profile alongside the camera, and murmured, “but alas, as you’ve probably deduced yourselves from my garb, I have been indisposed almost since the moment of my arrival – a chill, caught because I failed to appreciate the sharpness of our otherwise salubrious Cornish air. My colleague Inspector Parsifal Lestrade, however, in room three on the corridor below, is fully apprised of the affair.”
“Thank you, Mr Holmes,” the woman said, catching her photographer’s wrist and turning for the door. Then she added: “Is it true, by the way, that Rusbridger was bollock naked with a set of car keys up his arse?”
“Not quite how I would have presented his predicament,” said Holmes. “And for all I know it was a gear lever, and there was a dead bat’s head taped under his left armpit.”
“A dead bat?” said the woman. “And a gear lever up his arse? Way-hay! Come on, Harry.” And they were gone.
“What was all that about a bat’s head?” I asked Holmes as he dressed.
“Yes, it was rather witty, wasn’t it?” he chuckled. “In the middle ages they believed that a dead bat’s head glued to the naked flesh would completely prevent its victim from speaking until the sorcerer undid his spell. Do you get the drift of my playlet?”
“Not really, no. And the gear stick?”
“Oh, just a grace note. I thought the story deserved more excitement. Anyway, one should always sauce the media’s helpings at the feast with a choice titbit or two of fiction. It’s what they crave, after all.”
“More excitement? Isn’t there enough there already?”
There was a journalistic scrum rucking around Lestrade’s room as we passed. “No, not Parsifal, Percival,” he was saying. “P – E – R – C ... that’s right, Percival. Yes, well, yes, there is a female we’d like to interview, now you mention it, Yvonne. She’s quite elderly, wears plumed hats, very striking shades, tangerine and cerise, the one I saw, and lace-trimmed dresses, ankle-length, buttoned boots, my goodness, very polished, and she uses a distinctive perfume with an odour of lavender. Matter of fact she reminded me of my French grandmother...”
“Such a coxcomb, is Lestrade,” sighed Holmes, adding – a little hypocritically, I thought – “the very definition of a media whore.”
A few minutes later we were at our destination: a low, granite building set among the reeds on the water’s edge. At the end of my conversation with Father Entwistle the previous evening he’d proposed that the three of us might find clues here which would elucidate the twin mysteries of Rusbridger’s naked suspension above the Tamar and the sinister warning the priest had been told to impart to Holmes.
“Recently deconsecrated and rather brutally converted to a holiday home, by the look of it,” said Holmes. “Observe those new and scarcely matching tiles masking a hole where the cross has been snatched from the roof and sold elsewhere, no doubt, to some grasping upcountry heathen as a picturesque trophy. And those ghastly, tatted, folderol net curtains! Why look, even the poor old garden there has been turned into a hard standing for a tripper’s car. Oh dear, oh dear. Read me the sign, will you, Watson – my eyes are still rather too sore for close work.”
I read the neat, white, italic inscription which had been painted on a plain wooden board: “Saint Wartha, or Werthur, was rightful heir to the Earldom of Guingamp in Brittany. His father having died, Wartha was persecuted by his uncle Rivallious, who being desirous of the title and its lands, first had the boy’s right arm cut off, and then his left foot. The right arm being replaced by an artificial limb of silver, and the foot by another of brass, these prosthetics began miraculously to grow with the body of the child and to become articulate. Wartha fled in a barrel across the sea to Cornwall, landing here at high tide some time in October, A D 411, and established his hermitage upon the site of this chapel, its vestry garden being the relic of the little allotment upon which, miraculously, vegetables cropped for the holy boy even in the middle of the harshest winter. After several years, Riwallius’s men pursuing him all the while, his enemies discovered him here, and he was much persecuted, and hanged by his brass foot from an oak tree over the cliff at Cothele, then cut down and decapitated. He walked with his severed head beneath his arm to Chy-an-Gweal, near Penzance, where he lay upon a hill in the sunlit warmth of a midsummer’s day and was received into Heaven.”
“Goodness,” I said. “What a gothic tale.”
“There are, though, some singular points of interest and coincidence, don’t you think?” Holmes remarked. “The inverted hanging, for example...”
“But what of the metal limbs and the head-carrying?”
“Retrospective romancing, I would have thought. The silver hand indicating great charitability and generosity, his brass foot the considerable extent of his travels, the cephalophorical phenomenon perhaps expressive of some ostensible oracular gift – am I right, Father Entwistle?”
“What? What? Great Scott” – the priest had quietly crept up behind us – “how in the world did you know I was here?”
“For Heaven’s sake, Father, can’t you see your own reflection in the river?” Holmes turned to greet him. “Ah. You rose in haste this morning, I see.”
“Thank the Lord’s mercy that I have a reflection to shed upon the water,” said the priest gnomically. And it was true that in his unkempt black worsted suit, and crumpled black satin shirt, he looked like an old barn which had been drenched in creosote and stood up on sticks.
“So,” Holmes continued, “why are we here?”
Father Entwistle was staring closely at my friend. “I know you, don’t I? I seem to know your face very well indeed – but from where, I can’t think.”
“The delusion of physiological familiarity in my case is an effect of media celebrity, much as I attempt to eschew it,” replied Holmes blithely. “To business, Father – or rather, to the portent of this location?”
“Rusbridger bought the old chapel and converted it into a weekend cottage. There was significant resentment among some of the more conservative and volatile locals. He stayed with me this weekend because he was scared. I believe he came here on the evening of those frightful events to check his property was undamaged, and he was snatched by a party of vindictive heavies who’d been spying on his movements.”
“But why should they of all people resent the conversion?” Holmes asked. “Apathy and scepticism had stopped them worshipping in the chapel, so it was deconsecrated and empty...”
“Oh, Mr Holmes, surely – the ancient home of a saint which then became for centuries the locus of the Lord’s worshippers in the village... so see it casually and indifferently sold off to and profaned by an outsider?”
“But it’s simply part of a cyclical pattern, Father. Any church or chapel of antiquity has usurped the situation of a pagan shrine – a temple once stood here, I shouldn’t wonder, devoted to the God or Daemon of the river. Ha! Doesn’t the 4th century historian Eunapius record just such widespread desecrations of the sacred places of the old religions by, now, let me see if I can remember... yes, ‘monks, as they called them, who were men in appearance but lived the lives of swine, and openly did and allowed countless unspeakable crimes’? Poor Mr Rusbridger was only closing one chapter and opening another in a trenchant but time-honoured fashion.”
“Where did you learn that quotation?” asked the priest, with some surprise and asperity in his voice.
There was a pause. An oyster-catcher fluted on the far bank of the Tamar, then a second took up the call.
“Learn what?”
“Eunapius of Sardis.”
“Don’t be preposterous. How can one remember where one learns all the stuff one learns in a lifetime?”
“Because,” said the priest, “you got it from your father, didn’t you?”
Holmes was pale. He trembled. “From my father? What are you talking about?”
“That’s why I recognised your face. The lineaments are unmistakable. You may call yourself Sherlock Holmes now, but you’re the son of Arthur Plynnfarlong, the apostate Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard. It’s true, isn’t it? You are he. Aren’t you? Aren’t you?”