Tuesday, 25 September 2012
“That is, might I venture, somewhat unsuitable attire for a cool Autumn evening in the Cornish countryside,” I remarked huskily. “And perhaps uncharacteristic of a young lady’s customary wardrobe.”
“Dear, sweet Doctor Watson,” she laughed, “don’t be shy. Remember the song? ‘You’ll drive him half insane in a bathing suit of cellophane, keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved’ – have I driven you half insane, doctor? It might appear so.”
I had been tugging and tugging the curtains together, trying to close the gap between them. Now I turned to stare at her and covered the bare stretch of window with my back. My room, as I’ve recorded, was very small. The moist warmth of her freshly bathed body radiated over me, and her lemony, soapy scent was intoxicating.
“That song – why are you singing it? How did you know?” I cried.
“Oh, it’s everywhere, isn’t it?” she said archly. “And now I seem to be wearing one of its verses. Well, never mind.” She danced a step or two, coming even closer to me, whispering, “a slim little waist is a pleasure, and a trim little limb is divine; a sly little eye is a treasure, it’ll get him drunker than wine. Let’s see.” She peered at me and raised an eyebrow. “You are distinctly flushed, doctor.”
“What do you want with me?” I stepped away from the window, but in trying to put the bed between us I stumbled against one of its legs and fell on the counterpane.
“What do you want with me would seem a more apposite question,” she said, fingering twists of auburn hair away from her forehead and leaning over me. “I simply want my car keys. May I have them? Or shall I search you?” She laid a hand on my trouser pocket.
“No, no - ” I leapt away and found my feet again. “I don’t have them. Holmes has them. In room six.”
She frowned, and all her radiance was gone – from me, at least. Snatching up the towel, she strode out. At that moment, when the door swung shut behind her, my room seemed to darken, and it was as if all the cares of my life, woes I had forgotten, and errors, ill-judged or discompassionate actions, follies and failures and embarrassments – all these descended around me like a cloud of ugly, stinging flies. Shaking my head, I pulled apart the curtains, opened the window and leaned out, gulping the damp, estuarial air.
And then I heard the dog barking, and a cry, and a crash, and a familiar voice cried “Watson!” with an unfamiliar inflection: querulous and fearful. I ran at once to help my friend.
Holmes was sitting on the floor of room six in his pyjamas, staring at the wall, a look of sorrow and bewilderment on his face. The Labradoodle dog, I was relieved to see, had absented itself.
“What happened, Holmes? Are you alright? Let me help you up.”
I reached my hand down, but he ignored it. He looked at me with an expression I’d never seen on his face before, as if he had been hypnotised; as if I wasn’t there.
“That woman,” he said, in a trembling voice. “The one who looked the image of Irene Adler...”
“Oh really, Holmes – I thought she looked just like my Mary. And what a louche get up, eh?”
“Really, Watson, is this any time for your pedantry?” said Holmes, testily, reaching around him with his right arm. “Where’s your hand, man?”
I took his hand in mine and pulled him to his feet.
“Whomsoever she resembled, blast her, she’s blinded me.”
“What? My dear Holmes, no? Here, stand still.”
I examined his eyes. They were inflamed, and when I passed a table lamp near them, the papillary contraction was minimal. I went to the a bathroom, fetched a face flannel, soaked it in cold water and began to bathe them. “Tell me what happened.”
“She barged into the room without so much as a knock and said, ‘I think you have my car keys.’ I asked her to be careful of our Labradoodle, but too late, for the creature fled. I protested and demanded that she leave my room immediately. We could meet presently, I said, once I had dressed, in the bar, on neutral ground, where she could tell me who she was and how the keys, if indeed they were hers, had come to be taped between Rusbridger’s buttocks. She retorted that she didn’t plan to leave without her property, and I said ‘well, we’ll see about that,’ reaching for the bell to summon help.
“‘I may see about it, but you won’t,’ she replied, and she stepped forward and breathed into my eyes. And curse it, my sight faded at once.”
“How is it now?” I asked.
“You have relieved the pain but not, alas, restored my vision.”
“It may be, you know, a temporary affliction, like the blindness caused by snow-dazzle or a lightning flash. A night’s rest could be all the cure you need.”
“I hope you’re right. I fear that you are not.”
“Well, if I’m not, we shall resort first thing to the hospital. Come.”
I helped him under the coverlet and placed his head on a pillow.
“My own keys were in my buttoned waistcoat pocket. Are they still there?”
I removed the garment from the back of an armchair. His keys were in place.
“Good. Now, small brass key opens the concealed compartment in the base of my valise. Go on.” I had no need to use the key, for the compartment was already unlocked. “No car keys inside?” he asked anxiously, propping himself on an elbow.
“No, Holmes. Empty.”
“Ah.” He sank back onto his pillow. “I was afraid that might be so. The car keys are taken and our birds may already have flown. Quick as you can. Get yourself Father Entwistle’s cottage. Tell him to keep his own patient hidden indoors at any price.”
“But what about you, Holmes? Shall I send Lestrade to sit by you?”
“Good God, first blinded by a weird woman then deafened by the reminiscences of an old London copper as I lie captive in my own bed? No thank you, doctor. Oh, and if you see my Labradoodle, bring it back, will you? There’s a companionship I would enjoy. By the way, what you meant by louche, in re the matter of the lady’s attire, I can’t imagine. When I saw her she was respectably dressed in bombazine.”
“But when I was with her...”
“Never mind going round all the houses on a clothes horse for a second time, Watson,” Holmes sighed. “Be off with you to Entwistle’s. And quickly, man.”
I raced down the stairs. Lestrade, I observed, was still in the bar, consuming his umpteenth White Shield, and he appeared to be in deep conversation with the skeleton, whose fist still rested upon the till. Briskly, I marched back into the village along the Lower Kelly lane, and by seeking directions from one local after another, found myself heading up Church Lane, reflecting on the irony that only a few hours before Holmes had been, with these very words, celebrating Paracelsus von Hohenheim, the sixteenth century physician and philosopher : “he was the first to teach us to proceed everywhere with our eyes wide open” – and he had added that this precept was one he “always obeyed.”
The Reverent Felix Entwistle’s cottage was a whitewashed little building which shone vaguely in the lamplit drizzle. He opened the door almost as soon as I knocked – a short, portly figure, bald-headed, shiny-faced and dressed in a tight-fitting black suit.
“Yes?” he said, in a high voice – something of a melodious tenor, but with more than a trace of melancholy in its timbre.
“I’ve come to inquire about the welfare of a friend of mine, a Mr Rusbridger,” I replied, as coolly as I could.
“He’s gone,” said the priest.
“Gone? Gone where? I heard he was incapacitated.”
“A woman picked him up. By car. A little while ago. He insisted he wanted to go with her. Could I therefore stop him? No – so off the three of them went.”
“He, she and a big black dog. A Labradoodle, I think.
“But gone where, do you know?”
“No Sir, I don’t, not exactly. But my, my, how I wish I could have gone with them.”
“The woman, of course. She was so very beautiful, you see. I can’t deny that never since I graduated from the seminary have my vows suffered such disturbance. She looked just like Mary Magdalene, you know? In the penance by El Greco? Same flowing auburn hair, same red dress. Ah well. Can’t be helped. Gone now. But oh, when she left, such sadness overcame me.” He looked at his boots and shook his head, and his shoulders heaved.
By now my own experience and these evidences of the lady’s influence and shapeshifting were giving me symptoms akin to vertigo. “Did they say nothing at all about their destination? No hint? No scintilla of a clue?”
“Well, sir, I have no idea what she meant, but she said if anyone were to call tonight, I should say, ‘tell Mr Holmes that we are away eastward to the wilderness, and that his time is nearly come’.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
“Indeed.” For myself, a pot of China tea was all the refreshment I wanted. “I do hope Holmes is all right,” I said anxiously. “Perhaps we should take him something up?”
“Let him stew. Like your tea.” The Inspector laughed, stretched out his legs, and addressed his beer with even more eagerness. “Here,” he said. “How about this?” and he dropped his pork pie hat onto the head of a stuffed goat that was standing by the window, staring out menacingly at the rain-misted river valley.
Even subtracting the goat, the bar of the Danescombe Hotel was a rum venue: crossed besom brushes on the walls, aquaria on windowsills and shelves containing the stuffed corpses of various reptiles and amphibians, and behind the bar, with one bony fist resting on the top of the till, a full length skeleton hung by the cranium from an ebony stand. Serving our drinks, the landlady explained that this decor had been chosen “to attract the tourists,” to which Lestrade responded “well, there ain’t many of ’em” (we were the only guests, it seemed) and the landlady counter-snarled “out of season, innit?”
“Do you know,” said Lestrade, opening and fastidiously pouring his second White Shield, “if it wasn’t for the certificated existence of Mr Mycroft Holmes, I’d guess that Mr Sherlock was an only child, he takes on so when he’s frustrated from getting his own way.”
Half an hour or so earlier Holmes had, in the policeman’s phrase, “created something terrible” when he discovered that Lestrade had been allocated (and declined to surrender) the best and biggest bedroom in the hotel. Holmes retreated to his own room in a sulk, taking with him the dog, which he described as “the most intelligent companion I’m likely to find around here.” As for myself, my own room was even smaller, but without complaint I put my clothes in the wardrobe, my towel on the radiator, my sponge bag in the bathroom and my books and alarm clock beside my bed, managing to make the little space quite homely and appealing.
It was a sorry end to what had been a lively and profitable afternoon. After a short search Holmes had found, parked in a public space beneath the viaduct, a Saab which the car keys fitted– “where else,” he asked, “would the vehicle be, but in Calstock?”– and he surreptitiously retrieved its SatNav – “which may fruitfully reward a later examination.” There was a commotion in the village when some youngsters claimed their canoe had been capsized by a surfacing hippopotamus but (and Holmes claimed he had surmised something of the sort on first hearing the boys’ story) the creature which emerged from the Tamar at his coaxing turned out to be a large and exuberant black Labradoodle, the very dog which was now with him upstairs.
Another group of rougher boys were in the churchyard when we passed on the way to our hotel, and they rocked a funerary angel as if trying to break it from its pediment. Lestrade intervened and chased them away, and Holmes sighed and remarked: “It is much simpler, Watson, to suppose that what we do not understand does not exist. But when subsequently we are confronted with symbols of that which we dismissed because of its incomprehensibility then naturally – do I say naturally? well, no matter – we set about their destruction. Remember what Paracelsus said? ‘He who knows nothing, loves nothing; he who understands, loves’.”
“Para-who?” I said. “Never heard you mention that cove before.”
“Have you not? He was a doctor. I’m surprised you don’t know of him,” said Holmes. “Now, now – down boy.” The dog, which Holmes had secured around the neck with binder twine taken from a gate, was leaping up at him. “Phillipus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, also known as Theophrastus Paracelsus. Born Switzerland, November 10, 1493, died September 24, 1541, only son of William Bombast, who was himself the bitter, frustrated and illegitimate child – mark that point, Watson; it has significance – of George Bombast of Hohenheim, Grand Master of the Knights of St John, who refused to have anything to do with our poor Willy. The critical thing is that Doctor Paracelsus was the first to teach us to proceed everywhere with our eyes wide open: ‘from what is before us we see what is behind us,’ he wrote, ‘and from the external we deduce the internal’. As you know, those are precepts I’ve always obeyed.” He paused and tugged the twine. “Perhaps, oh damp and boisterous Labradoodle, I should call you ‘Paracelcus’? ”
“But what’s the significance of the illegitimacy, Holmes?”
“Ah, it bears on the case of our man Rusbridger. Nothing exerts a stronger effect upon a child, Watson, than the point at which his father’s life failed. Paracelsus senior was a sad and disappointed quack. His son became a physician of such genius and vision that some of his contemporaries thought he trafficked in magic and feared him as if he were Faustus himself. Rusbridger’s papa, you will recall, was a Liberal M.P. who was elevated to the House of Lords but then implicated in a dreadful scandal involving a lap-dancing club, a beach hut in Whitstable, insider dealing and British Telecom shares. He was disgraced, was he not, and forfeited his peerage? Hence the socialist and puritan zealotry of the son, you see, and his chairing of Whitehall Walpurgis, that eminent ‘think tank’ which is to the modern capitalist what the inquisition was anciently to the heretic.”
“But does that,” I asked, “go any way to help explain his nude suspension from the viaduct strapped to a bicycle?”
“It may do, though I’m not sure yet quite how. The SatNav should help us.”
“And don’t forget the song,” I suggested – “‘Keep Young and Beautiful’.”
“Indeed.” He lit his pipe. “We mustn’t forget the song. No, no.”
Lestrade sniggered sceptically. “I can’t readily make any connections myself except saucy and ironic ones, via the old man, the song and the lap-dancing,” he said.
“Down, boy.” The leaping dog frisked around Holmes’ heels. Soon we were walking along the riverside and the Labradoodle strained to get among scents in the reeds which were being stirred in the drift of a light and not unpleasant drizzle. “Ah, what is nature but philosophy,” Holmes observed, inhaling deeply. “For though theory is ever grey, the living tree is radiant in green.”
“Well, not exactly, Holmes,” I said. “It’s rather grey this afternoon and the leaves are turning brown.”
Lestrade snorted and tipped his hat over his eyes.
“Why must you always do this?” snapped Holmes.
He did not come down for supper – a passable if rather over baked salmon with frites and samphire – and when I climbed up to bed I was certain I heard voices in his room.
“Come, admit it is almost time,” announced one of them portentously, in a deep but dimly familiar tone.
“What? It cannot be, not yet.” That was my friend, surely? This voice went on: “Besides, you must help me. You must keep your promise.”
I knocked on the door and pushed it open. “Are you alright, Holmes?”
The dog, lying beside the bed, sat up and growled at me. Holmes was fully dressed but prone on the eiderdown, hands behind his head. “I was asleep Watson. Why do you disturb me?”
“Convinced I heard voices.”
“The wind rattling the shutters, probably. Good night.”
Uneasily, I went to my own room. What did I notice first? The lemony, steamy smell? That the towel was gone from the radiator? Or the footprints leading to the radiator from the bathroom and back again; small, wet prints of a perfectly arched female foot?
The bathroom door opened and a woman emerged. She was mesmerizingly beautiful. With that ahining auburn hair and those rosy cheeks and shoulders, I thought for a moment I saw my Mary again, as a girl.
“I was wondering,” she said softly, as she let my towel fall to the floor, “how I might persuade you to surrender those car keys?”