Read The Final Page of Baker Street Online

Authors: Daniel D. Victor

Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction

The Final Page of Baker Street (5 page)

BOOK: The Final Page of Baker Street
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“I'll take you to my mother's home in Forest Hill,” Billy offered. “You can sleep it off in the drawing room, and I'll explain your presence to her in the morning.”

It was settled; and Terrence Leonard, still unsteady on his feet, managed to thank me for my hospitality and, with the help of Billy, his newly-found friend, limped out.

As I closed the door on the two of them, I found myself hoping to see “charming Billy” again; of the peculiar Mr. Leonard, I had no reason to expect to hear anything more. I suppose that with the proper crystal ball, a spiritualist would not have surprised me by predicting that Billy might well reappear in my future; on the second point - the re-emergence of Terrence Leonard into my life - had the same spiritualist made that charge, I would have been very shocked indeed.

* * *

As I have documented elsewhere, by the start of 1911 Sherlock Holmes had been communing with his bees in Sussex for more than seven years. Mrs. Hudson had long-since agreed to take on the role of housekeeper at the cottage, and all the while Holmes did his very best to remain outside the riotous world of London. He might occasionally come up to attend a concert at the Royal Albert Hall or to study some arcane manuscript at the British Museum, and for those special events he and I would usually arrange a repast at some familiar restaurant like Simpson's.

As the mood struck, I myself might make the infrequent journey to the South Downs to see my old friend, but generally speaking my social activities greatly diminished following Holmes' departure from London. For me, most days consisted of maintaining my medical practice and performing the husbandly duties required to help run a household already stocked with wife and small staff. In short, life had become satisfyingly routine.

In late January, therefore, I was surprised to receive a dinner invitation from Billy. After all, I hadn't seen him since he'd arrived at my doorstep with his inebriated friend the previous October. While I must confess to wondering every now and again what fate had befallen the unfortunate Terrence Leonard, I do most readily admit to caring far more about how young Billy was faring. During that strange night a few months before, I had had little opportunity to find out the direction his writing career was taking. With all due humility, I thought that at the very least I might be able to offer some helpful suggestions regarding his work.

We had agreed to dine later that evening at an Italian restaurant he'd suggested in Southampton Row not far from his digs in Bloomsbury. It was another chilly winter's night in London, and darkness had fallen early. Keeping to one's own turf - as I had become so used to - makes it easy to forget how difficult getting about in the blowing wind and biting cold can be. Billy had wanted to
rendezvous
at a street corner rather than in his Bohemian den. But even with my thick tartan muffler, kid-leather gloves, and heavy overcoat, I did not fancy having to stand idly by stamping my feet until he arrived. Happily, I discerned him soon enough in the light of an electric street lamp near our appointed place of meeting. He raised a silver-headed walking stick as a form of hello.

“A gift to myself when I returned from the Continent,” he said self-consciously of the stick as we shook gloved hands.

Although his face seemed thinner, he looked well; and after expressing the usual pleasantries, I followed his lead as we walked briskly along Southampton Row accompanied by the tap of his stick.

“It's just up the road,” he said of the restaurant. I could see the vapour of his breath in the chilled night air.

Difficult as it was to conduct a conversation in the cold night air, I asked him how his literary career was progressing.

“Unless one is very good at it,” he observed, “I'm afraid that earning a living from writing is a difficult prospect.”

I nodded in agreement.
How would my own stories fare
, I wondered,
without the exploits of a hero like Sherlock Holmes to propel the action?

“Sometimes,” Billy said, “I think all my work is inferior. I'm very good at writing second-rate material, but warmed-over tripe is not what one's employers are seeking.”

I was familiar with Billy's cynical nature; but despite the cold, this last comment brought me to a halt. I turned to look him in the eye.

“The
Express
dismissed me,” he confessed, averting my glance.“I wasn't very good.”

“Surely your writing is good enough for - ”

“Dr. Watson,” he interjected, “I got lost in the streets on my way to a story. I can't really complain.”

I stamped my feet in an angry effort to keep warm.

“But not to worry,” he said. “All is not darkness and gloom. I've returned to Dulwich.”

A young adult returning to public school?
I looked mystified.

“No, Dr. Watson, I'm not going to be a student again.
The Alleynian
, the college magazine, is going to publish some of my work. More importantly, at the start of this past Michaelmas term, Mr. Hose, my former Classics master, got me the position of substitute teacher. I'm being paid only about fifty-three pounds, but at least it's steady work.”

The good news enabled me to breathe more easily. Holding on to the positive made me realize just how much I'd been wishing for his success from the very start - from our very first discussion about his version of ‘The Mazarin Stone'. After his initial resistance, Billy had opened up to suggestions. He'd become willing to learn - characteristics bound to help him in the future. Perhaps, he would succeed on his own after all.
Listen to me,
I thought,
feeling every bit like a proud father.

But I was also feeling quite cold. Placing my arm around his shoulder, I indicated we should resume our walking; and though I immediately retracted my arm, we continued marching up the road in unison.

“Here's something more you'll enjoy,” he went on. “As much as I don't like accepting favours, my Uncle Ernest knows someone who knows a gentleman with connections at
The Westminster Gazette
. They've already accepted a few of my poems. And
The Academy
has agreed to print some of my work as well.”

Obviously, my worrying had begun too soon. The lad seemed to be looking after himself quite well. It would appear that the essays and book reviews (albeit of mainly minor works) that constituted Billy's serious literary production would, despite his misfortune at the
Daily Express
, still provide him the opportunity to be published.

“What about your poetry?” I asked. “What sort of poems have you been writing?”

“Oh,” he exclaimed with even more enthusiasm, “I write all types. After all - ” and here he began proudly to recite - “‘Beside the grimmest tragedy/A witness I must stand, /Long buried griefs are near to me /As my ink-spattered hand.'”

My quizzical looked elicited an explanation: “From a poem I call ‘The Poet's Knowledge.' But to answer your question about what sort of poems I prefer, I suppose - like many others poets nowadays - I find myself drawn to medieval romance. I've already published a number of poems along those lines in
The Gazette
. I wrote one called ‘The Quest' and another called ‘When I Was King.' Then there's ‘The Perfect Knight' and ‘A Pilgrim in Meditation.' Last year,
The Spectator
published ‘The Death of the King.'”

“And what draws you to those medieval days of yore?”

“That's a good question, Dr. Watson. Sometimes I think I owe it all to a medieval-style painting by G.F. Watts called
Galahad
. There's a large photograph of it in the library back at Dulwich. I used to look at it every day: Galahad standing next to his white horse. I often think I'd like to be a knight like Galahad - wearing shining armour and looking pensive and relaxed. And yet at the same time he appears ready to ride off and save some lady, probably naked, who might be in distress. Gathering up naked women was the kind of things those fellows did back then - Galahad; his father, Lancelot. Life seemed so much simpler in those days.”

“Agreed,” I said, although it must be noted that, even in Billy's simpler world, collecting other people's women could cause problems.

The cold did not allow me to ponder his imagery for long. I was, in fact, about to ask how much farther our destination was when we came upon a small group of people who, despite the chill, were crowding round the front of a shuttered bookshop. Although Billy and I stood behind the outer ring, I could easily see that they were all looking at something - someone, actually. Seated on the icy pavement, a man was propped up against the wall of the shop, groggily moving his head back and forth. And not just any man. For thanks to the white hair and scarred face, it took but a moment for both of us to realize that the poor creature was none other than Billy's friend, Terrence Leonard.

At first, I feared that he'd been accosted and, using my authority as a physician, I pushed my way through the throng. But as previously, Leonard revealed no injuries or maladies, no sudden sicknesses or attacks. What other term can I use? He was simply drunk - again.

In the shadows nearby loomed a public house, the Crown and Eagle, no doubt the source of Leonard's unfortunate spirits.

Anger grew in both Billy and me. After all, had not the helpless man before us pledged that he would reform?

Just then a gruff voice rose above the gawpers' murmurings. “Make way. Make way.” A police constable wrapped in a dark heavy coat was using both elbows to force a path through the crowd. With shop lights reflecting off his helmet badge, he looked like a beacon in the night.

“What's all this then?”he trumpeted when he reached the decrepit figure that was still hunched on the ground.

“It's all right, officer,” Billy intervened. “I know the man. He's not feeling well.” And Billy, handing me his walking stick, bent down to help Leonard to his feet.

“Think I hain't never seen a sozzlehead afore?” the policeman snorted. “Get ‘im out of ‘ere - that's all I ask. Save me the trouble of running ‘im in, won't it?”

By now Leonard was up, an arm draped round Billy's shoulder. It was as if the two men had intentionally posed to recreate the identical tableau that had greeted me when I'd opened the door to them the previous October. Like the receding tide, the crowd drew back as the pair moved forward - as if not to be tainted by touching the odious derelict.

“Dr. Watson,” Billy said, “I'm sorry about dinner, but I must take him home.” And while I saw only futility in trying to help the unfortunate soul teetering before me, I nonetheless admired the pluck of young Billy for offering him aid.

“I'll hail a cab,” I said, raising an arm and looking down the road.

Almost immediately, a hansom arrived, and I helped Billy get Leonard inside. This time I hoped the poor wretch could remember where he lived.

Once they were gone, I found myself standing alone at the kerb. The curious onlookers, having nothing more to see, had meandered off to their more customary haunts. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I was still holding Billy's silver-headed walking stick.

No longer with a partner for dinner, I reckoned that I might as well put the stick to good use and waved it at a passing cab. I could only wish that when I returned home, I would find a piece of cold roast beef waiting for me in the larder.

* * *

Just as I'd received no immediate news from Billy following the first unhappy incident involving Mr. Leonard, I received no word from him following the second. Not even my note to the lad regarding his forgotten walking stick elicited a response. What I suspected was that, having noted my earlier condemnation of his acquaintance, Billy was simply trying to avoid more of the same.

Happily, I was not ignored forever. Some six months later - on Tuesday, 11 July, to be precise - I received a brief letter from Billy inviting me for refreshment the following afternoon. I was to meet him at the Crown and Eagle, the sinister-looking public house in Bloomsbury next to which we had encountered the fallen Terrence Leonard.

Unlike my previous sojourn in Southampton Row, Wednesday's bright sun provided plenty of warmth for an invigorating walk; and Billy's stick, which I planned to return to him, aided my steps. Motor-cars and hansoms occupied the roadway, and people strode purposely to and fro among the many shops and stalls and office blocks. Even the public house, so dark and ominous when I first espied it, offered an oasis of welcome tranquillity within the bustling neighbourhood. One could well understand why Billy enjoyed spending time in the taproom amidst the dark hardwood panels, shiny brass fittings, and porcelain draw-handles.

Billy arrived a few minutes after I did. By that time, I'd already found a small table and begun rejuvenating myself with a pint of Guinness; he ordered the same. Although I noted with some concern that he and the publican seemed old friends, Billy and I greeted each other warmly; and with great fanfare I returned to him his silver-headed cane. It seemed just the thing to complement the boater with its school-tie band that he was currently sporting.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries; and then with slight trepidation based on past experience, I dared to ask Billy about his work.

“I just completed my teaching post at the College,” he reported. “It went very well.”

“Good,” I replied with relief. “And your writing?”

“My writing,” he repeated with little enthusiasm. “Oh, I'm still contributing poems to
The Gazette
and
The Academy
, and
The Alleynian
has taken some of my other pieces.” Granted that his successes were limited, but even those few should have produced some joy. Yet he spoke with no excitement. Indeed, much to my amazement, he announced, “What I really wanted to talk to you about is how my friend Terrence Leonard is managing.”

BOOK: The Final Page of Baker Street
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