Authors: Daniel D. Victor
Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction
* * *
Having secured a fellow-apiarist to look in on his bees before he'd left Sussex, Sherlock Holmes appeared determined to see the case through to its conclusion. My dear wife, on the other hand, who'd always looked slightly askance at my frequent visits to Baker Street, and who, I suspect, must have subdued some feelings of delight upon hearing of Holmes' permanent move to the South Downs in 1903, threw up her hands when she learned of his plans for an extended stay at our home. She took the opportunity to visit her cousin in Kent.
Thus, it was only Holmes and I who were in my sitting room savouring a glass of port Saturday evening when Inspector Youghal was ushered into our presence by Mrs. Meeks. His sombre mien indicated he was anything but pleased.
“Good evening, Inspector,” I said. “I'd offer you some port, but your expression suggests you're here on business.”
“True, Doctor Watson, but I will sit down, if you don't mind.”
I offered him my favourite wing chair; Holmes and I shared the settee.
“I'm afraid I have some disturbing news,” he said, drawing an official-looking paper from inside his jacket. “This is a report from the Inverness police constabulary near Loch Ness.”
Holmes perked up at the name, the Scottish lake so commonly associated with rumoured monsters and fantastic sea creatures.
“What could a lake in Scotland have to do with us?” I asked.
“Watson, consider,” Holmes said. “Terrence Leonard disappears; we don't know to where. The policeman in charge of the investigation arrives with news from Loch Ness. One must conclude that, for whatever the reason, that storied lake has something to do with Leonard's destination.”
destination, Mr. Holmes,” Youghal said, pulling at his moustache. “As far as we can determine, Terrence Leonard left London Wednesday last, took
The Flying Scotsman
north, made his way to Inverness and then to Loch Ness, where yesterday in its murky waters he proceeded to drown himself.”
Sherlock Holmes emitted what could only be described as an exhalation of disbelief. Then he bombarded the policeman with questions: “How do you know what really happened? Have they recovered the body? Was there a note? Don't you find such a suicide a bit too convenient?”
“I expected some doubt on your part, Mr. Holmes,” Youghal said with a wry smile.“No, there is no body - although their lads are still looking. And there was no note. But the story satisfies Lord Steynwood; and so, I'm afraid, that is that.”
?” I asked. “What actually happened to Terrence Leonard?”
Youghal tallied his points by ticking them off on his fingers. “First, a tourist boat found an empty wherry floating in the lake. Second, inside it was a small pile of clothes with Terrence Leonard's name on a label sewn inside the jacket. Third, there were small chips of rock at the bottom of the boat, leading any sensible person to conclude that Leonard must have weighted himself down in some way with large stones that he'd brought along. Fourth - and probably most important - Lord Steynwood sent one of his solicitors on the overnight train to confer with the police in Inverness today; as a result, His Lordship is convinced that Terrence Leonard, the murderer of Sylvia Leonard, has taken his own life. And, because of the powerful connections Lord Steynwood maintains with the government - including the Crown itself - we must all be in agreement that this case is closed.”
“Bah!” Holmes exploded. “It is mere child's play to set a boat adrift containing some incriminating clothes and assorted pebbles.”
Youghal nodded. “Yes, Mr. Holmes, you could be right. But then again, you could also be mistaken. And since we have a story that satisfies the police in Scotland as well as Lord Steynwood here in London - well, my governor has closed the books on this affair. And, therefore, so have I.”
“We'll inform Billy,” I said. “He'll want to know.”
“Thank you, Doctor Watson. I assumed as much when I brought you and Mr. Holmes the news. I owed you that much, I expect.”
We both nodded in appreciation.
“I'm sure, Mr. Holmes, that you have nothing further to tell me,” Youghal said. “But even if you do believe that you have discovered something new, the Yard - with His Lordship's blessing - is no longer interested in any wild theories about what happened that night. The investigation is over.”
“In that case,” Holmes said with finality, “I have nothing new to report.”
Youghal gave my friend a puzzled look. Clearly, Holmes had no intention of sharing with him any information about the bullet he'd pried from the wall at the scene of the murder.
After I had showed the inspector to the door, I re-entered the sitting room. Holmes was pacing the floor. “In my younger years, Watson,” he said with his lips tightly drawn, “I might have endeavoured to make the trip north to follow up on these matters. But that was in my youth. Today, if Youghal is to be taken at his word, we should believe that the sordid events in this case actually occurred as he described them. Since Lord Steynwood seems to be convinced, we should, as the saying goes, âLet sleeping dogs lie.'”
But my friend's words sounded hollow; I knew Holmes too well to accept such a verdict. His pacing began when a problem needed solving, not when he was putting the matter to rest.
“Tomorrow afternoon,” he said with some finality,” I shall return to my bees.”
* * *
The sweltering summer sun had already begun baking London when Billy arrived early Sunday morning for breakfast. Despite the intensity of the morning heat, we dined in the garden on eggs and white fish, too savoury a repast to ruin with talk of death. And yet we had to recount to Billy the story of Terrence Leonard's suicide just as Youghal had described it to us.
“Sad to say, Billy,” Holmes concluded after finishing his report of Youghal's visit, “your friend is dead. According to the police, that should put an end to it.”
The young man absorbed the news with furrowed brow. “I'm sorry, Mr. Holmes,” he said, slowly shaking his head, “
can think whatever you want, but
can't believe Terrence killed himself. Just as I can't believe that he murdered his wife. He was too thoughtful, too refined, too sensitive.”
“Sometimes,” I offered, “the most sensitive of people are the least able to confront their personal demons.”
“Perhaps,” Billy mused and then sat silently as Mrs. Meeks brought out the coffee. The young man was perspiring, and yet he held his cup in both hands as if to keep them warm. Only after staring into the steaming brew for a good minute, did he look up. He seemed to have reached a conclusion. With the hot vapour rising before his eyes, he said softly, “I suppose that, if a detective like Sherlock Holmes can accept the outcome, who am I to say any different?”
I assumed, of course, that Holmes had
accepted the outcome, that he believed there really was more to these deaths than the official explanations had thus far revealed, that his immediate return to Sussex was but temporary. For a short while longer, we sat in silence again, each to his own thoughts, each contemplating the sad story of Terrence Leonard and love gone wrong. Occasionally, the trill of a visiting robin or starling broke the silence.
Yet one can stare at an empty coffee cup for just so long. At last, Holmes stood up and announced that it was time for him to collect his belongings and be off to Victoria.
Just as we were entering the house, the bell sounded at the front door. With Mrs. Meeks attending to our table in the garden and Billy nearest the entry hall, it was he who offered to unbolt the lock. I nodded, and he opened the door.
Time stopped; we three froze in our tracks.
Framed in the doorway before us was the most beautiful young woman I'd ever seen.
Her face was classical - heart-shaped with a turned up nose and high cheekbones that should have given her a haughty look but didn't. She styled her blond hair like a fairy princess, pinned in a tight chignon. But most alluring were her piercing eyes. They were narrow, almost feline, and decidedly blue, a transparent but deep, rich blue. She wore a white cotton dress accented with a long yellow shawl, neither of which could conceal her shapely form. A thin line of moisture traced the top of her upper lip. With her white-gloved hands at her side, she stood before Billy who, the closest to her - in age as well as proximity - remained still as a statue.
“Dr. Watson?” she asked him, her voice a near whisper.
The young man was speechless. One needn't have been a detective or even a doctor to tell that he was mesmerized by this vision. If truth be told, we all were. But Billy was Galahad, the knight-errant. He was Tennyson's Lancelot ready to rescue the fair Elaine.
“Dr. Watson?” she repeated, obviously puzzled by his youth.
“N-No,” Billy stammered at last.
“Billy,” I said, breaking into his stupor, “invite the young lady in.”Perhaps she was seeking medical help - my title appeared on the brass plaque outside. Despite the clearly marked path to my surgery at the side of the house, people sometimes did approach the front door by mistake.
“Dr. Watson?” she now enquired of me as she stepped over the threshold.
“Yes, my dear,” I said, feeling not unlike a giddy, young schoolboy myself, “I am Dr. John Watson.” I then introduced her to Holmes and to Billy and directed her towards the sitting room.
Holmes, assuming as I did that this young woman was merely a patient gone astray, offered a quick smile and excused himself. “I have a train to catch,” he explained.
“Forgive me for being so bold,” the young woman said to him before he could leave the room, “but with all due respect to you other gentlemen, it is actually Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the detective, whom I've come to see. I have a problem in need of a solution, Mr. Holmes, and I have been assured that you are the man to solve it.”
A look of puzzlement crossed all our faces; it was immediately followed by a wrinkle of disappointment on Billy's brow. One could read his mind: The woman's business had to do exclusively with Sherlock Holmes. Was Billy going to be asked to leave after having only just met this enchantress? For that matter, who she was and how she knew that Holmes was here were questions that I was wondering about myself.
Sherlock Holmes was not so easily distracted. “Forgive me, madam,” he said, “but I am merely visiting an old friend and acquaintance. My home is in Sussex where I plan to return post-haste.”
“At least allow me to introduce myself, Mr. Holmes,” she countered. “My name is Elaine Sterne.”
“Elaine,” I heard Billy echo softly, “the fair maid of Astalot.” Clearly, my allusion to Tennyson had hardly been out of place.
The damsel in question extended a gloved hand to Holmes, which he took in the most dignified manner.
“I'm married to Raphael Sterne,” she said, “Raphael Sterne, the novelist.”
I had heard of him, of course, one of those pretentious new writers like Eliot the American and Joyce the Irishman - Grub Street hacks whose names were bandied about for their sensationalism, but whose contributions to literature were never long-lasting. Billy grimaced, no doubt less concerned with the literary pursuits of her husband than with the notion of any husband at all.
For his part, Holmes, who'd been hoping to leave, now refocused his attention. “How can I be of help to you, Mrs. Sterne?” he asked. “For that matter, how did you know to look for me here?”
“May I sit down, Doctor?” she asked.
I indicated the wing chair.
“I trust you have no objections to my associates listening in,” Holmes said. “We three have just concluded a case together.”
Mrs. Sterne uttered the word “perfect,” and the three of us - Billy beaming all the while at being included - took our places opposite her.
, I thought. Following Youghal's visit yesterday and now, prepared as we were to hear this elegant woman's story today, my sitting room, unencumbered by the books, files, and test tubes always threatening to crowd us out of Baker Street, had somehow transformed itself into the consulting room of a private detective.
Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running,
Somebody else is trying to catch him.
- Raymond Chandler,
The Long Goodbye
“It is about the disappearance of my husband that I wish to speak to you, Mr. Holmes,” our visitor said in her whispery voice.
An objective observer could easily regard Sherlock Holmes as uninvolved when a client was relating a story. Holmes might steeple his fingers and close his eyes or fiddle with his tobacco pouch and fill his pipe. All the while, of course, his mind remained riveted on the subject. But no objective observer who witnessed the three of us in attendance to Mrs. Sterne that day would have any doubt regarding which one appeared most attentive to the story told by our attractive guest.
Wide-eyed, brows knit, head nodding, Billy hung on her every word.
“He's been gone two days,” she explained. “He went missing on Friday. I called on the police yesterday evening, and they told me it was too soon to start looking. They said that if I was so concerned, I should hire a private detective, someone like you, Mr. Holmes. And then a policeman in a suit - he had a rather large moustache - ”
“Youghal,” Billy said, eager to contribute. “Inspector Youghal.”
“Yes, that was his name,” she said, smiling in appreciation at the lad.
Billy straightened up, appearing all the more attentive. Perhaps another opportunity to be helpful might present itself, another opportunity to be smiled upon.
As Mrs. Sterne spoke, she began to toy with a small gold coin that hung from a thin chain at her neck. I could just discern an engraved lion and crown as part of the coin's delicate design.
She let it go in a moment and went on: “This Inspector Youghal told me that you were in town, Mr. Holmes - that, in fact, you were staying with your friend, Dr. Watson. The inspector was of the opinion that, if anyone could find my husband, it was you, so he was kind enough to furnish me with the address.”
Holmes nodded as if Youghal's comment was not a compliment but a statement of fact. “Has your husband gone missing before?” Holmes asked.
Mrs. Sterne looked down and smoothed out her white dress. “Yes,” she sighed. “He's a heavy drinker and occasionally would have too much and then disappear for a day or two.”
“And always return, I take it,” Holmes said.
“Yes,” she replied, returning his gaze.
“So why, pray tell, are you so concerned on this occasion? Why not simply await his arrival as you have done in the past?”
“Because Rafe has been so upset lately. He's been working on a novel about explorers in darkest Africa and hit an obstacle. He can't seem to finish; his publisher has been after him.”
“I'm not surprised,” Billy concurred. “I'm a bit of a writer too. I know exactly what you're talking about. And the drinking when things start to go badly.”
“Not all writers need follow such a course,” I reminded Billy. Consuming alcohol had no place in the instructions on writing that I'd offered the lad.
“And yet this time I don't believe that drinking is Rafe's only problem,” Mrs. Sterne said. “There's something else beyond the writing and the drinking that's bothering him, and I don't know what it is.”
“I see,” said Holmes, steepling his fingers in his characteristic fashion. “And where has he gone in the past during his previous disappearances?”
“I've read some of his books,” Billy interrupted. “
was a bit overdone, but generally engaging.”
Mrs. Sterne smiled at him again, exactly the response I'm sure Billy was hoping for, her blue eyes now flashing despite her concern.
“Quite,” Holmes muttered, obviously annoyed by Billy's digression that required Holmes to repeat the question. “Just where has he taken himself when he's gone off in the past, Mrs. Sterne?”
“That's the thing, Mr. Holmes. He doesn't tell me. I believe he attends a secluded clinic where like-minded, unfortunate public figures go in the attempt to rid themselves of their intemperate ways. The so-called doctors who run these places charge lots of money to keep the lofty reputations of their patients intact and their locations secret. In the case of writers, the reading audience is very fickle. Authors can be shunned if their vices become too public.”
“Oscar Wilde,” Billy contributed again. “His dear friend âBosie' - Lord Alfred Douglas - used to be the editor of
, one of the publications in which my writing appears.”
“And why have you not made enquiries at this clinic itself?” Holmes asked, again ignoring Billy's diversion.
“As I've already said, I don't know where it is, who its proprietor is, or even how much poor Rafe is being made to pay. That is why I have come to you.”
Sherlock Holmes leaned back in the settee. “Have you no idea at all, no clues?”
“I once heard Rafe talking about a âDr. V',” she said. “But whether such a man is even a doctor is beyond my ken.”
“My directory of medical doctors in London should help us solve this mystery,” I volunteered. And excusing myself, I hurried to my consulting room, located the volume in question, and returned within a few moments to our attractive visitor and the others. Old fool that I am, I found myself thinking all the while I was gone that perhaps
could be the lucky one to eliminate the damsel's distress...
As I had expected, a quick survey of the names revealed a handful of physicians whose surnames - assuming that was what we were looking for - began with the letter V. But they were all respected Harley Street doctors, certainly no one running a clandestine operation like the one described by Mrs. Sterne.
Sherlock Holmes looked into the deep blue eyes of the lovely face before him. Then he rose, and the rest of us also stood.
“Mrs. Sterne,” he said, “I will try to find your husband. It is the least I can do to help so concerned a wife.”
And so young and beautiful a client
, I couldn't help thinking. It had been much more a challenge for the older Mrs. Chandler to engage my friend's services.
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Holmes,” said our visitor. “I'm staying at the Langham. Ordinarily, we live in Marlow.”
Holmes and I exchanged glances. His faced perceptibly darkened. Could it have been more than coincidence that had brought another citizen of Marlow to our attention?
“Where the Leonards live - lived,” Billy said to no one in particular.
“Yes, poor Sylvia,” Mrs. Sterne said. “I met her once or twice, you see. What a terrible end.”
“I knew her husband,” Billy volunteered. “Killed her and then himself, they say.” He felt compelled to add, “though I still don't believe it” - as if such a sentiment would mean anything to Mrs. Sterne,
In fact, Mrs. Sterne shook her head as if physically disconnecting herself from the Leonards' misfortune. “Please find my husband, Mr. Holmes,” she implored.
My friend offered a quick, reassuring smile, and Mrs. Sterne allowed Billy to lead her through the door and out into the sunlight. I followed them to the doorway where I could see her four-wheeler at the kerb. With its brass trim flashing in the sunlight, it looked like some grand medieval coach awaiting the beautiful princess.
As the carriage was making its way down the road, Holmes joined me at the door.
“Quite an attractive young lady,” I observed.
Holmes didn't reply.
“How will you find this Dr. V, then?” I asked.
He offered another one of those abrupt smiles. “I have my ways, Watson, as you know so well.”
Clearly, Holmes' return to Sussex was going to be deferred.
* * *
On Monday morning I attended to my patients and by noon was able to return to my sitting room. Much to my surprise, a uniformed police constable was sitting on the settee engaged in conversation with Holmes. The policeman's helmet was resting on the end table. Both men rose when I entered, and I gave Holmes a quizzical glance.
“You don't know PC Ruggles then?” Holmes asked in response to my cluelessness. “PC Sam Ruggles?”
“No,” I said slowly. “Should I?” He was a tall young man with red hair who seemed to be suppressing a grin.
“Wot, Doc,” he said, “Don't remember old Sammy then?”
Perhaps I did see something familiar in the face - the lop-sided smile, the slightly crooked teeth, the protruding ears.
“One of the Baker Street Irregulars,” Holmes prodded. “When Wiggins matriculated, Sammy took over the lead. He and his mates helped us on many an occasion.”
“Of - of course,” I said with some hesitation.
“Sam here,” Holmes explained, “became the head boy just before I retired to the Downs. But we kept in touch, and his detecting skills seemed perfectly suited to gain him admission to the constabulary. A word to Inspector Gregson helped grease the wheels.”
“Sammy, so good to see you,” I chortled, slapping him on the back. Maybe I did recall that same half-smile on the face of a much younger lad. “I'll have Mrs. Meeks bring in some sandwiches.”
“Thank you all the same, Dr. Watson,” Sam said, “but I must be off. I have work to do for Mr. Holmes.” With that, he put on his helmet, offered a good-bye salute, and exited.
Yet again I gave Holmes a quizzical look.
“Ah, Watson. How do the French put it? â
Plus Ã§a change
... The more things change, the more they stay the same.' As a society, we are now well into the twentieth century, and still the poor boys gather in various London neighbourhoods looking for food and money. You and I employed their skills some twenty years ago, and yet here they are still. Different boys; same talents. Sam has been looking out for the current Baker Street lot and helping to steer them in the right direction. I gave him a few pounds to scatter amongst them in hopes that they can help us find this den for inebriated toffs and the Dr. V who runs it.”
“Yes,” Holmes said. “Now we simply await the results. Actually, those sandwiches you mentioned a few moments ago sound like just the thing.”
Aloud knocking suddenly penetrated the house. Mrs. Meeks, responding to its urgency, pulled open the front door.
Billy bolted into the sitting room, holding out a piece of paper.“A letter from Terrence Leonard!” he announced. “Posted just before he died.”
A letter from a dead man. Stunned, Holmes and I said nothing.
“Letters from the dead create their own silence,” Billy observed. He would often encapsulate in a single sentence some much grander philosophy. It was a guileful way he had, employing a compact comment to deflate his pompous-sounding wisdom, and yet it was wisdom just the same.
His observation hung over us as we stood waiting for him to share the contents of this post from beyond the grave.
“There's no date or salutation,” he said and then began to read the hand-written letter:
“I'm staring out my window in a small hotel in Inverness, the Scottish highlands out in the distance. I'm about to make the short journey to Loch Ness during which I plan to drop this letter through the slot in a post box and send it on its way to you. I am including some money because I know it can do you some good. There's no point in taking it with me and certainly no point in leaving it behind with my clothes. Don't question its purpose; it's a kind of apology for all the trouble I've caused you and a small way of thanking you for looking out for me as you have.
“With all that you've no doubt heard about me and my wife, you've probably already made up your mind about the kind of person you think I am. Who really knows what anyone is capable of? I certainly don't. Who can even remember each and every pain one has inflicted on another? Who would even want to try? I just can't believe myself capable of turning her into what was lying there on the floor. But it really doesn't matter any more. Her father was always kind to me, and he deserves consideration now. He has his own life to live, and here I am disgusted with mine. Sylvia didn't destroy me; I did it to myself. Whatever else one may say, she will never know the terror of growing old. With all her father's money, she deserved a better life than the sour one she had.
“There is nothing heroic or noble in my act; it is all sordid and grim.
“Enjoy the money. All I ask is that one day soon you take yourself to the Crown and Eagle and drink a gin gimlet for me. Then forget this whole mess. As for me, I'm going for a cruise in Loch Ness.
“A fifty-pound note was inside the envelope,” Billy concluded.
Holmes took the curling paper from the lad and, with the aid of his magnifying lens, examined it from all angles. His careful scrutiny revealed nothing beyond its having been written in common black ink on common-enough stationery bearing the name of a small hotel in Inverness. Billy confirmed that the handwriting looked like Leonard's and that the envelope, which Billy in his haste had left in his room, displayed the appropriate stamp and markings. In short, Holmes concluded, the letter seemed exactly what it appeared to be: a true communication from Terrence Leonard written just before he took his own life.
Billy had no clever comment, no grand pronouncement, no simple wisdom - only the silence he had described before, the silence evoked by a letter from the dead.
* * *
Later that Monday afternoon, despite a hot summer sun that sent many a Londoner to the wooden benches and green lawns of the city's numerous parks, Holmes, Billy, and I entered a small turning off Holborn. Each of us sported lightweight linen suits, so that we might appear to be three gentlemen out for a summer constitutional. But we all knew that we were on a mission of liberation.
I had expected an establishment catering to the well-heeled to be much closer to Harley Street than to Holborn, but in just a few hours the Baker Street Irregulars had found a small number of illicit sanatoria near Holborn - easily recognized by the bars on their upper-storey windows, not an inviting architectural
for the well-to-do patrons of Harley Street. In just such an institution, run by a Doctor Vering (consistent with the “Dr. V” Mrs. Sterne had told us of), the boys had learned of a writer who had been admitted a few days before. One small grimy lad in particular led us to the proximity of the building; and Holmes, stopping him before we made the turn from Holborn, thanked him with a couple of coins.