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.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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