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?”
[TO BE CONTINUED]

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