Friday, 9 November 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 9): An icy solution

I did not expect to sleep, in the anticipation of that fatal dawn. But somehow, albeit I was fully clothed, and despite the cold and the stink of mothballs from a candlewick bedspread, I drifted away, and dreamed that a light was pulsing in my face, and then brightening, and then fading away – and woke to watch, through the uncurtained windows, clouds dancing across the moon.
At six, Lestrade and Entwistle came into my room. “Shall I wake Holmes?” I asked.
“We have at least another hour,” the metropolitan detective replied tetchily, shining a torch around my room, though for no reason I could deduce. Why had he come so early? Wearing a flat cap, battered sheepskin coat, old moleskin trousers and wellington boots, Lestrade looked more like a poacher than a policeman. At least the priest was in character, in his grey overcoat, buttoned to the neck. One of his hands grasped a bible; through the fingers of the other played the olive-wood beads of a rosary which was attached to an ivory cross with silver tips: a souvenir, I guessed, of some pilgrims’ package to the holy land.
“While we wait,” said Lestrade, “there’s something I want to ask you, doctor.” Out of his pocket he pulled two leather-bound books. “You recognise these?”
“Of course – they’re presentation copies of my reports on Holmes’s cases.”
“Good, good” said Lestrade. “Only, seeing as I couldn’t sleep, I was refreshing my mind about ones I was involved in, and I was struck by an anomaly.”
“Oh Inspector,” I protested. “Is this really the moment to cavil at the literary persona I gave you? Surely you can appreciate how for artistic reasons I needed to accentuate incompetence on your part in order to burnish the lustre of our friend’s accomplishments?”
“Yes, yes, assuredly so,” said Lestrade. But he frowned as he opened one of the books. “I quite like ‘wiry’,” he said. “And ‘dapper’ is fairly kind, if a bit patronising. But ‘ferret-like’? Thank you so much, Dr Watson, thank you.”
“Perhaps in the name of Christian charity we should forget these trivial slights and remember the daunting challenge of the dawn,” suggested Entwistle.
“Yes, padre, quite, just passing the time,” said Lestrade. “Now, doctor, that description of me came from the, um, ‘Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, which I believe I have alluded to before? Well, anyway, re-reading it, I paused at this passage, shortly before my entrance into the story.”
Lestrade assumed a declamatory voice and began almost to chant:
It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of the house across the road was painful to the eye… and so on, blah-di-blah-di-blah, and then, finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon my thoughts. ‘You are right, Watson,’ said he. ‘It does seem a preposterous way of settling a dispute’.
He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “So?” I said, a trifle uneasily. “So what?”
“Well doctor, listen to this, from ‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’,” and he swapped books, opening the second volume (as he had the first) between pages where a matchstick held his place, before beginning a new half-incantation:
It had been a close, rainy day in October. Our blinds were half drawn, and Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter which he had received by the morning post… forgive me another, uh, skipping a bit, blah-di-blah, and, so on, until, yes, here we are, finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice
He shut the book with a smack and sat down on my bed.
"Well? Your explanation, doctor?”
“My goodness, Lestrade, you are such a very prosaic ferret.” Holmes had opened my bedroom door softly, and now he was inside. He was fully and smartly dressed – plus-fours, frock-coat, polished boots, deerstalker, alpenstock, with the familiar saxophone-pipe between his teeth, tobacco smouldering in the bowl.
“I’m asking, Mr Holmes, which story is real,” Lestrade protested, “or whether we should conclude that the lot of them, all five volumes of so called ‘case-studies’, are really fiction.”
“Ha! ‘Really fiction’, I think that’s precisely what they are, Lestrade. What a lovely hinterland that is, the zone of ‘really fiction.’ It’s where you are, and I am, and Watson is. ‘Really fiction’. Only in my case, I have to surrender my immortal soul in an hour or so, at which point the ‘really’ can be subtracted from my own diagnosis, and I will become fiction entire.”
“Gentlemen,” Entwistle began, “is this the right moment for ontological status reports?” But Lestrade persisted: “A hot day in August or a rainy day in October, eh? which one?” until Holmes interrupted him.
“The simple fact, Lestrade, is that ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, which featured you and was a grisly tale of jealousy, revenge and severed body parts – sawn-off ears packed in salt, if I remember – went down very badly with Dr Watson’s public – revolted them, in fact – and he temporarily withdrew it, meaning to suppress it altogether, but forgot. Proud of the passage in which I read his thoughts from the oscillations of his eyebrows, and therefore reluctant to leave it on the spike, he lifted those paragraphs verbatim into the other narrative, thus inadvertently printing it twice. And now, if you please, I shall breakfast before meeting my maker. Or rather, my un-maker.”
We trooped downstairs in silence, bar some mutterings from Lestrade, and finding half-a-dozen kippers in the pantry we broke our fast with those and slices of unbuttered pumpernickel, from a tin, and black, unsweetened tea.
“I have a plan, Holmes,” said Lestrade, at last.
“Oh dear.” Holmes took up his pipe. “Do you wish to share it, pray?”
“I want you to return to Old Coombe Cross, where you made your bargain with that supposed dark emissary fifty years ago.”
“But why?” asked Holmes, with a deep sigh.
“Please,” I interjected, “Holmes, just for once, set down your pride and take Lestrade’s advice. It may be our only hope.”
As we climbed back up the stairs, Lestrade tugged at my sleeve. “Tell me,” he hissed, “that it actually is November – that we’ve woken to an icy November morning, and that you’re not suddenly going to change all of this into a warm evening in July?”
“I promise,” I replied, “that this is November, and that there is a hard frost outside.”
“Not too hard, I hope,” the detective murmured. “Just hard enough.”
“Good grief,” Holmes exclaimed as we went into the courtyard, “do you propose that I should freeze to death, Lestrade, and pre-empt our sinister friend?”
“Go on with you,” Lestrade replied. “Quickly, now. You, too, Entwistle, eh?”
Holmes and the priest pushed through a gate in the perimeter hedge and set off along a twisting path down the valley. The old granite cross stood in moonlit silhouette in the distance, but already there was the faint glow of dawn on the eastern slope of Vixen Tor. “Yes,” said Lestrade, in a triumphant, sibbilant voice as he saw sunrise painted on a cloudless horizon. Holmes and Entwistle turned back at the sound, their four eyes looking – to me, rather absurdly – like dipped headlights in the gloom.
“What is it Lestrade?” Holmes called. Then he slipped, grabbed at Entwistle’s arm, and the two men executed a swift and clumsy jig before falling on the ice.
“Holy skating,” murmured Lestrade.
“What?” I asked.
“Remember? We diverted the water from the Holy Well into the valley? Well, hence this morning’s rink. Come, let us go inside and wait for Mycroft, or Mephisto-whatever he should be called.”
Almost as soon as we were back in the hall I smelt a lemony odour of talc, and for a moment I thought that ‘she’, our shape shifting fantasy woman, was back among us. But out of the shadows stepped Mycroft, or the man we had known as Mycroft – and yet he, too, was altered, his own shape shifted, into someone still recognisable as the creature he had been, but now younger, thinner, his face less plump and more aquiline. He twirled a silver-knobbed cane and sang:
“Don't fail to do your stuff
with a little powder and a puff
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved…”
…Before roaring with laughter and bowing to us both. “You see, I have done Sherlock the honour of bathing and refreshing my appearance before our departure? Am I not young and beautiful, gentlemen? Even though you may find it difficult to love me? Sherlock loved me, once. Now, where is the old reprobate? I can call him ‘old’, now, of course, since I have indulged myself with a dose of rejuvenation to restore the strength I require to drag him down.”
“Delay him,” Lestrade whispered in my ear. “We need time.”
Years in the consulting room have taught me that a well-judged inquiry after someone’s welfare, delivered with kindness and solicitude, will detain the most fretful of clients. And so I began:
“Much as I admire your physical versatility, I’ve always worried about you, you know, Mycroft. Sitting all alone there, year after year – no, decade after decade – in the same draughty corner of the Diogenes club, friendless, austere; what a poignant life you led while you were among us. The facility to wreak so much evil can hardly be any compensation at all, I’d have thought, for such utter loneliness and misery.”
Mycroft stood very still; grim-faced, eyes moist, flattered and self-pitying. He was momentarily trapped, exactly as I hoped he’d be, spiked on his self-regard.
“Ah,” he sighed. “You understand, doctor. So few do. But then, I am but a part of a necessary and organic whole.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. Faint amber sunlight began to glint on the mullioned windows. We sat on settles in the hall. I leaned forward and held his eyes with mine.
And at some length, with much gesticulation and not a few oaths, he told me how his powers were held in check by other universal and supernatural forces which adjusted evil with goodness, but that the existence of the evil was necessary for the good to prevail and for, oh, something about the free existential choices of men and women which baffled me and left Lestrade yawning.
The sun, meanwhile, crept higher all the while, and when it had left the tor’s slope with a last kiss on bracken, granite and thorns, Mycroft sprang up and threw open the doors.
“The day has come,” he cried. “You puny humans think the puppet theatre that the sun reveals each morning is a perfect whole. But I come from the immaterial dark which is mother of the light. My parent darkness is prime, prior, timeless and supreme, and the sun is just her contrary, clock-bound, vice-regent. One day the sun and all this stuff you take for real will go to wreck and vanish like smoke. Now, where’s Sherlock?”
“He’s gone to Old Coombe Cross, where you bound him to you with a bargain fifty years ago,” said Lestrade. “Holmes makes just one request of you – that you go to him as a man, and stay man to his man, and abstain from any other shape. Will you do that?”
“Of course.
” “Do you promise?”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered.
“I didn’t hear you, sorry?”
“I said, I promise.”
“You got that, doctor?” Lestrade very slightly shook his head at me. I began to understand.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t hear.”
“I told this man,” Mycroft shouted, “that I promise not to take another shape while I’m going to fetch Sherlock Holmes.”
“Good,” said Lestrade. “Three times. So - now you are bound to your promise.”
For a moment, Mycroft looked uneasy. But then he fastened up his coat and set off, twirling his cane and singing once more, “keep young and beautiful”. We followed him across the courtyard and as far as the gate, then watched as he took the path which Holmes and Entwistle had slithered along an hour or more earlier.
Lestrade gripped my elbow. The sun rose higher, the sky was a vibrant bronze and blue and the dry-stone walls were steaming. A flock of redwings flew above our heads. I looked down, and beneath the surface of the ice I could see a line of tiny bubbles. The diverted stream was beginning to flow.
“Holy water,” I said.
“Hmm, maybe,” said Lestrade, and gripped me tighter still. In the distance, we could see Holmes and Entwistle standing by the cross. The priest was holding out his bible and cross and mouthing words we could not hear.
The ice started to creak with every footstep Mycroft took. He stumbled. His left leg plunged up to its knee in liquid mud and he screamed. He jumped onto a tussock and swayed, windmilling the air with his stick. “You swine,” he shrieked. “You clever, clever swine.” And the tussock swivelled and tipped right over, and the man we’d known as Mycroft Holmes plunged into the marsh below, yelling and screeching as if the water were an acid.
I thought I saw his face turn to a skull, grinning in agony, as he sank out of sight.
Some two hours later, Holmes and Entwistle having walked in the direction opposite the bog, and the London policeman and I having taken a long road around, the four of us were sitting in the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale with pints of beer and hot meat pies.
“For a secular man,” Entwistle remarked, “you are highly attuned to the efficacious subtleties of religious ritual, Inspector.”
“Ah ha, excuse me, no” Lestrade replied, fanning his open mouth with his flat cap where a chunk of pie was apparently burning his tongue. “Either your demon was destroyed by holy water, or my villain was drowned. You pays your money and takes your choice, and I know mine. And by the way, doctor, this prosaic ferret saw no skull.”
“But you made him promise three times not to…” I began.
“Humouring him,” Lestrade replied. “Here, padre” – he tossed the priest a five pound note – “fetch us some more beers, would you?”
“I don’t understand,” said Holmes, as Entwistle went to the bar.
“Don’t understand what?” asked Lestrade.
“How we got safely to the granite cross but Mycroft drowned.”
“Well, the ice melted,” I explained.
“That was so lucky,” said Holmes.
Lestrade drew breath, but said nothing. Instead, with a long exhalation, he turned to me with mouth open and eyes wide.
Three walkers came into the bar. “How’s the weather in the South Hams,” Lestrade asked them, as Entwistle returned with our pints. “Crisp and fine like this?”
“Raining like billy-o,” said one. “That’s why we came up to the moor.”
“How did you know that?” Holmes asked.
“What?” said Lestrade.
“That they’d come up from the south?”
“Why, red clay on their boots, of course.”
“Oh.” Holmes sipped his beer. “Clever.”
“I think,” remarked Lestrade, “that at the conclusion of your report of this adventure you might diminish the level of my incompetence? What do you say, doctor?”
“Assuredly,” I replied.
“Bee-keeping is nice,” said Holmes.