This story was first published in The Feathertale Review No.13
Owing to my recent marriage, I had been some months away from 221B Baker Street when the need to procure for a patient a certain tincture of peppermint took me back to the old neighbourhood. I had frequently thought of Holmes and our many adventures together, though I was now embarked on the greatest of life’s endeavours and had no time for his “mysteries,” as he called them. Nonetheless, I often wondered what had become of Holmes, and now seemed the perfect time to find out.
I knocked on the door of our old flat with no small amount of trepidation, for walking in on Holmes unannounced can be its own form of adventure. One was apt to find a herd of anxious goats, an aggrieved lemur, or even a randy duck. I had often cleaned up after his “binges,” as he called them.
It was not that Holmes did not appreciate women. On the contrary, he possessed a healthy and vigorous eye for the aesthetic appeals of the fairer sex. During our many outings, he often maintained a running discourse on the finer points and functions of the female anatomy. It was just that he had drawn for himself a line — a line I had never known him to cross. As he was wont to say, “One of the functions of a wife is to deny her husband his pleasures.” That summed up his attitude towards women.
I knocked again, and there being no answer, I opened the door. “Holmes?” The air was thick with smoke. The needle of a phonograph skipped, repeating loudly and endlessly the refrain from “Home Sweet Home.” I took out a handkerchief and covered my mouth. The room was littered with empty bottles of lager, stout and India pale ale. Some were tipped on their sides, others were upright; some were half-empty, others were half-full. I could not guess their number, for my attention was quickly arrested by the figure in the chaise longue by the window. “Holmes!” I shouted.
The eyes that had seen through a thousand mysteries lifted slowly and focused on the ceiling, then on the door, then on nothing, and then briefly on myself before drifting shut as if for the last time. His lips mumbled along with the song, though I could hear nothing. He inhaled deeply from the pipe that hung languorously from his lips before jettisoning another cloud of noxious flotsam into the air. Carelessly, he kicked over the phonograph. Silence suffocated the room.
“Marriage agrees with you, Watson.” He slurred his consonants so that marriage sounded like mawwiage, and he punctuated his sentence with a thoughtless hiccup. “Though last night you and your wife argued over turkey dinner, after which you had a rowdy bout of makeup sex.”
“How the devil . . . ?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson. The red spot on your cuff could only be from cranberries, which your wife uses to particularly good effect with turkey, and only an argument would cause her to overlook her duties and send you out with the spot uncleansed. The hickey on your neck announces the denouement.”
“Yes, that is my name, Watson. You’ve said it three times now. Pray give it a rest, will you, and close the door.”
There being nothing else for me to do, I closed the door and turned back to my besotted friend.
“I’m glad you’ve come, Watson.”
“It appears I’ve come just in time,” I said, opening the windows to let in some much-needed air. That accomplished, I rushed to his side, for his grey skin and bloodshot eyes spoke of advanced dissolution and malnutrition of the first order. “Hold still,” I said as I lay my stethoscope on his emaciated chest. Before I could get an accurate sounding, he brushed me aside and sat up.
“Watson, I’ve been thinking.” Holmes stood and began pacing. “I fear I’ve been the fool. Oh, not in the way you think.” He eructed: a deep, window-rattling modulation of minor eruptions each of which, taken on its own, was of no great consequence, but concatenated together being of some considerable effect. I wiped my glasses and lowered myself onto a stool. Holmes continued. “No one else could have deduced the answer to that affair with the orange pips, or to the strange case of the Beryl Coronet. Certainly not Inspector Lestrade. That old gasbag couldn’t deduce his way to the toilet without a compass.” He reached out to me with a half-full bottle. “Beer?” I shook my head. He drank deeply, eructed again, and waved the bottle as he spoke.
“No, Watson, but a fool nonetheless. Consider: a wayward cab, an assassin’s blow, a rabid lemur. Any could spell the end of me, and then to whom would the downtrodden, the put-upon, the poor unworthies of the world turn to for succor?”
“They’d be doomed.”
Holmes nodded gravely. “Word.” He often picked up new and inelegant locutions from his forays to the docks, taverns and bawdy houses of the lower east side. I knew better than to question their meaning.
“Watson, I’ve decided to procreate,” he announced. “It is my duty to mankind.”
I was stunned. Holmes had never shown the slightest interest in progeny before. “Have you . . . Do you . . . ?” I felt embarrassed to ask. “Is there a target for your affections?”
“Ah, if I but could. Miss Irene Adler. You remember her, from that Bohemian affair.”
I remembered too well: the only opponent to ever defeat him. To Holmes, she was the woman.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Alas, I do not know. I’ve looked high and low. I’ve set all my street urchins and dockhands to her scent, but they’ve found nary a trace. Bloodhounds could have done no more.”
“Whatever will you do?” I asked.
“For my singular purposes, there are alternatives.” He turned to me with a wry smile on his lips. “I have a dinner date tonight at the Bloated Calf.”
“Wonderful, old man.”
But Holmes did not share my joy. His eyes turned down, and a blush appeared on his cheek. I was shocked. In all our years of cohabitation I had seen him perform many wondrous feats. However, I had never seen him embarrassed.
“Holmes, what’s the matter?”
“Watson, I . . .” He fidgeted with his pipe, studying it intently as if the answer to life’s mysteries lay in its burnished bowl. He sighed, and then, deep within that great brain of his, like the shifting of some massive tectonic plate, Holmes made up his mind. He looked at me, his eyes sharp with resolve. “I don’t know how to court a female, Watson. My logical and mental abilities do not avail me of their favours, for they are creatures not of reason, but of passion, and I am ill-favoured by its caress. I need your help.”
I was flattered. It was true that I was of no small skill in matters of l’amour, having been the recipient of the sensual favours of many a fair conquest, whereas Holmes’s entire experience with women was limited to occasional hurried attempts at arousal that had never, to my knowledge, met with any success. Several times, I witnessed him approach a lady on the street and begin explaining enthusiastically and in great detail the function and physiology of the female orgasm and, if the lady were not sufficiently tidy, announce loudly the time and manner of its last visit to her person. On each such occasion, I managed to hurry Holmes away from the stunned target of his affections before she could call a constable.
“I’d be delighted to help,” I said with enthusiasm. He turned his eager face to mine. “The first thing you must remember,” I said, “is to be yourself.”
* * *
“Your eyes are the colour of Thames River mud after the spring floods have washed topsoil down from the Cheshire fields, and then only from the region of the Haverford docks.” Sherlock Holmes sat back in his chair, his aquiline nose bisecting the satisfied smirk on his face.
The tall blond woman sitting across from Holmes set down her wineglass. “Why, Mr. Holmes, you flatter me . . . I think.” Her coquettish smile and coy glance would have been enough to drive any man into either fidgets or frenzy, but not Holmes.
“Why, yes. Did you know that strain of mud has the peculiar characteristic of being the only variety which will stain granite, making it singularly easy to trace the footsteps of a man so unfortunate as to have embedded his feet in its morass?”
Her smile soured while her eyes made a noble effort at feigning fascination. “Really?”
“Indeed.” Holmes turned and called the waiter and, once he had secured the fellow’s attention, pointed to an item on the menu and whispered his instructions. The waiter nodded and departed. Holmes turned back to his companion. “But tell me about yourself.”
Her smile was as a thing reborn, and her eyes fell softly to her lap. “There’s not much to tell.” Slowly, she lifted her gaze in a manner that would have sent any man into a passion, but Holmes sat, unmoved. “I’m twenty-three. I live at home with my mother. I’m a secretary at the accounts firm of Flatus and Bean. And I love reading from the Bible when I’m not caring for orphans.” She fluttered her eyelashes and pursed her lips into a pointed smile.
Holmes reclined at his usual angle, resting his chin on his hand as he stared at the unfortunate woman. Just as she began to fidget, the waiter returned with a baked pig garnished with wheat grass. Embedded in its mouth was a large sausage in place of the traditional apple. Perhaps Holmes was being subtle. As the waiter left, Holmes spoke. “Thirty-two, married twice, fond of Guinness stout and tobacco, and not overly wary of where you wake up in the morning.”
The last vestiges of a smile fell off her face as she reached for a cigarette. “And you’re as romantic as a fart in a carriage, Mr. Holmes. Light?” She leaned forward, her mouth slightly puckered and her eyes focused on a point below Holmes’s chin. A smile flickered across his lips as he reached for the candle and carelessly set her hair on fire.
Holmes had asked me along to critique his performance, and therefore I was sitting out of sight but not out of hearing in a darkened booth near where my friend was making his raid on the fairer sex.
“You clod, you bumpkin!” she screamed as she waved a napkin at her hair, which was curling shorter by the second. Holmes dowsed her with a drink, which did nothing to tamp down the flames. Indeed, its only effect was to increase the volume of her curses.
“Please, allow me, I’m a doctor.” I tried to make my voice soothing and paternal, but it was only after I procured a spritzer bottle and used it to remedial effect that the poor woman stopped screaming.
She stood in silent rage, drenched and dripping, her evening dress plastered to her bounteous form, her arms spread wide and her eyes full of shock. “The average rate of growth for human hair is one half-inch per month, or about six inches per year, although some people have reported growth in excess of eight inches per year,” Holmes stated optimistically. “And just think of the fun you’ll have with wigs.”
Her eyes glared with a fire that could be seen through the darkened restaurant before she turned and strode away.
“My dear Watson, you have a knack for appearing in the nick of time. You may as well join me — she barely touched her dinner.” He waved his hand in the direction of the now empty chair. I used a charred napkin to wipe the water off her seat, and sat down. He stared intently at me as I did so.
“You ordered the 1892 Latour, but drank naught of it. You had your eye on the spotted dick but passed on it as imprudent given your recent increase in corpulence . . .”
“Shut up, Holmes!”
He settled back in his chair. “Well, what do you think?” he asked with his trademark cheerful confidence.
“The evening. My performance.”
I proceeded to tell him.
* * *
There is no man more persistent than Holmes. As he was wont to say, “Failure is more edifying than success, for it is only through our failures that we are confronted by both the need and the opportunity to improve.” Fine words, but under my expert tutelage, Holmes was not learning a thing.
There was the schoolteacher from Brighton whom he lost while canoeing the Thames. She washed up a mile downriver — cold, wet, bedraggled, but except for a deep and abiding aversion to men, otherwise none the worse for wear.
Then there was the opera singer he escorted to the Indian restaurant in the West End who required three weeks’ hospitalization but who, to this day, remembers nothing of the cobra or the scarab beetles that sent her there.
And it was only by drawing on the deep well of goodwill that he’d built up with Scotland Yard that I was able to void his arrest for staging that anatomically accurate Punch and Judy coitus demonstration at the Saint Beatrice Home for Wayward Girls.
The fault was not mine. Holmes had never been anything other than a rapacious student, but in affairs de la coeur he was as lost as an English cook in a French kitchen. I spent my every waking minute with him: three weeks away from home, hearth and better half, my only pleasure being that of helping a friend in need.
* * *
“Watson, come quick!”
I knew Holmes’s voice and manner better than any man alive, and the sound of those words seemed to resonate within my very soul. I turned to Holmes, who sat no more than three feet from my right elbow.
“I’m right here, old man,” I said.
“Yes, I see that you are. Thank you for coming.” He was staring intently at the contents of a letter that Mrs. Hudson had just delivered.
“What is it, Holmes?”
“They found her.”
“Irene Adler. Who else?”
His words stung. For all I knew he might have been referring to Francoise de Mouton, the famous actress who went into seclusion following an afternoon with Holmes at the Museum of Tobacco Ash.
“Where?” I cried.
He winced, for I was still but three feet from his elbow. “Where I can spin my web of seduction around her so adroitly that she will have no choice but to accept love’s entreaty.”
“How . . . ?” I began to ask.
“This is no time for questions!” he cried. “You’ve shared the bounty of your knowledge most generously, for which I am eternally grateful, but now, Watson, it is time that I weave a tapestry of my own.” He hurriedly opened his disguise kit and began a transformation that I knew from experience would be nothing less than miraculous. “Be at the Buggered Boar at suppertime, for I shall arrive with Miss Adler, or die trying.” He began applying makeup. “Fly, Watson, fly!”
I put on my overcoat, hat and gloves, and hurried out.
* * *
I secured a table at the back of the room, in a darkened corner near where I hoped Holmes would seduce his lady love. I sat, wondering what miraculous guise my friend had concocted. I thought of all of the parts he had played in the past: dockworker, opium addict, old man, ne’er-do-well. None seemed fit for the occasion. Then, the door swung open and I saw him — or, at least, what he had become.
If I did not recognize Miss Adler, I would never have recognized Holmes. For into this darkened dive stumbled the hunchback of Notre Dame. Clinging to his arm was the only woman I had ever seen who effortlessly embodied equal parts royalty and strumpet. A smirk dressed her lips as everyone turned to stare at the tall, callipygian redhead and her misshapen escort.
“Table for two,” the hunchback slurred.
The innkeeper hurried the unlikely couple to an out-of-the-way table, where they would be free from the prying eyes of the morbidly curious but where I could avail myself of their every word.
“May I have a glass of your best Burgundy, please?” Miss Adler asked as the innkeeper turned to go. Slowly, he turned back, the force of his attention focused on her through his one good eye.
“We don’t soive no Boigondy here, lady.”
“Any wine, then.”
“We don’t soive wine here, lady.”
“Then . . .”
“Lagers all around.” The hunchback waved his hand as he bounced lightly in his chair. The innkeeper nodded and turned away.
“Where in the devil have you brought me, Holmes?” Miss Adler sighed as she looked at the stuffed boar heads on the walls — each of which bore a distinct look of shock and dismay — and then back at the hunchback.
He turned sharply at her question. “What was that ye called me? Holmes? I told ye already, me name’s Quasimodo.”
“Holmes, you’re a liar, a faker, a scoundrel and a shill. You should know by now that you’ll never be able to fool me. And you can tell that pachyderm you call a doctor to join us.”
Pachyderm indeed. I was no more than fifty, maybe sixty pounds overweight. Before I could think of a suitable reply, Holmes motioned me over. A napkin dampened in water was all he needed to remove his makeup, and that accomplished, he shed his hump. Within seconds, the transformation was complete. No longer a thing of horror, he was once again Sherlock Holmes.
“It appears the lady hath found us out, Watson,” Holmes announced with a smile.
“Bravo, Holmes.” Miss Adler’s voice prickled with contempt.
Holmes seemed genuinely pleased. “This does make it easier, don’t you think? There’s no need for any games between us, my dear. We know each other too well.” He reached for her hand, lifted it gently, and kissed.
Miss Adler pulled back her hand, removed her glove, and slapped Holmes across the cheek. “Be quiet, Sherlock. I need to talk to you. That’s why I let you find me. I have a proposition.”
The innkeeper chose that moment to deliver our lagers. We stared silently at different corners of the room as the old man set down three steins on the table and left. The moment he was out of earshot, we all spun back around. It was Miss Adler who spoke first.
“I’m getting married next week. To a Serbian duke. Did I say he was rich? Did I say he was very rich? Yes, well. But he’s so fat that he makes your pet pachyderm here look like Adonis.”
“Pachyderm indeed,” I muttered. “Of all the impertinence . . .”
She ignored me. “Listen, Holmes. Nobody can say my life hasn’t been exciting. But those days are over. From now on, it’s country estates, parties at Ascot, and yachts in the Mediterranean.” She leaned forward and spoke with an intensity that would have frightened any lesser man. Holmes just sat, absorbing her every word. “But make no mistake: this is about money. Not love. I need to bear a child. Just not his.” She took a sip of lager, made a face, and then emptied the glass on the floor. She looked over at Holmes.
“Holmes, you’re a pompous, self-centred, conceited, egomaniacal clown. But you’re the smartest man I know. So here’s my proposal. Ten minutes. You father my baby. Then, we say goodbye. I go live the straight life, out of your hair forever, and you resume rooting out reprobates. Is it a deal?”
Holmes leaned back, his chin resting on his hand, his index finger pointing up the side of his cheek. I leaned over to him and spoke in a whisper. “Careful, Holmes — it might be a trap.”
“Of course it’s a trap,” he whispered back, his eyes never leaving Miss Adler. He regarded the lady intently, as a starving man might regard a dinner. After a few moments, he spoke.
“Ten minutes may not be enough. We should devote the night.”
Miss Adler looked around — at me, at Holmes, at the boar heads. She lowered her eyes and sighed.
“Very well. One night.”
* * *
It was nearing the hour of afternoon tea when Holmes staggered in. I had been debating whether to contact Scotland Yard or take up the chase myself when his arrival obviated the question. “Holmes!” I cried, as his dishevelled appearance gave rise to my greatest fears.
He lay a finger to his lips and lurched to his favourite chair, whereon he collapsed in semi-sentient exhaustion. Soon, Mrs. Hudson arrived with a tray of coffee, cheese, black bread, and the remains of last night’s mutton. After consuming every edible morsel and drinking no less than four cups, black, he relaxed and lit his pipe, which he held lovingly as if at the reunion of an old friend. His desperate demeanour was soon replaced by a satisfied smile, as he tugged on the embers of his pipe.
“She was nearly the death of me, Watson. Yet I prevailed. You should have heard her. The melody of a woman en plaisir is the most exalted of life’s symphonies.” He blew a cloud of smoke to the ceiling, where he watched it float and drift amongst the rafters. “But attend, Watson! On my return from the hotel, I was struck by the singular gaiety of the day. Never have flowers smelled so sweet, nor birds sung so rapturously. I have made a career — nay, a life — of ferreting out that which is evil, and yet I could not help but be struck by the sublime kindness and jocularity of my fellow man.” His eyes lifted to mine. “Could it be that my dogged pursuit of crime has blinded me to that which is good in this life?”
“No, I don’t believe it is, Watson.” He sat, puffing on his pipe, his chin sunk on his chest in the manner that I knew better than to interrupt. I sat and watched as the evening sky darkened, and Holmes thought.
I lost track of time and was deep in contemplation of my next meal when Holmes slapped the arm of his chair and sat bolt upright. “I have it, Watson.” He stood, looking like a man relieved of original sin. “My days as a proxy for the fates are over. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the detective, is no more. Meet Mr. Sherlock Holmes, first violinist for the London Symphony Orchestra.” He bowed and extracted his instrument from its case.
“Holmes!” I protested. “You can’t be serious.”
“I can very much indeed,” he said, as he began to scratch out a joyful jig. Soon, he stopped. “Please see to it that an announcement is made in the Times as soon as possible, will you, my good man?”
My arguments were as heated as they were fruitless, and thus it was with a heavy tread that I left 221B Baker Street for the last time.
* * *
Later that week, the society pages announced the betrothal of Miss Irene Adler, hometown unknown, to Mr. Zdravco Wolfeciewitz, who looked to be seven inches shorter than his lovely bride. The couple were said to be on an extended honeymoon on his yacht in the Adriatic Sea.
In the months that followed, the society pages kept me abreast of news of the Wolfeciewitzes, including the timely arrival of an eleven-pound baby boy.
Some months later, however, the Times carried news of an entirely different sort — this time not in the society pages but in the crime pages. It seemed an untimely and suspicious death overtook Mr. Wolfeciewitz while on a walk by the seaside cliffs near their summer home in Budva. It was presumed he fell into the sea below, though his body was never recovered. Mrs. Irene Wolfeciewitz, the now singularly rich widow, was bereaved and would not speak with reporters.
Soon, the Times reported her move to New York City, where she took up residence on Park Avenue, Americanized her surname to Wolfe, and proceeded to become the toast of every party-giver, the ruin of every man, and the attentive mother to her precocious son Nero.
She was quite a specimen. In all my days I’ve never seen her equal: jewel thief, proctologist, forger, rodeo clown, queen, consort, and coal-heaver. She was many things to many men, but to Holmes, she would always remain the woman.
* * *
Like Icarus before me, I had been forced to accept failure. But never did I lose hope. One evening, late in April, I took my nightly constitutional down Baker Street. I studied 221B carefully for any sign of sanity. The paint was faded, and a shutter hung crookedly off its hinges. The old shingle — Sherlock Holmes, Private Investigations — was gone. There was no furtiveness or fear or even interest in the people walking by. The only evidence of life was the endless refrain of Holmes scratching at his violin with the same wild abandon that he had once used to attack his “mysteries.”
I would have thought that by now he would have mastered “Home on the Range.” I would have been wrong.
Illustrations by Sam Gorrie