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.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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