Barbara Rusch, BSI, ASH: "The Consulting Detective and the Literary Agent: The Untold Tale
Barbara Rusch is a member of The Bootmakers of Toronto (The Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada), the Baker Street Irregulars, and The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. She is Vice-Chair of The Friends of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Public Library, where in 2011 she chaired the conference, “Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scandal (SinS).” She has presented at several international Sherlockian conferences, authored and edited numerous articles in Sherlockian and Doylean journals and BSI Series books, posted a video on the website of The Beacon Society, and written a Doylean novel and play. Listed in Canadian Who’s Who, she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for her contributions to Holocaust, ephemera and Sherlockian studies. Barbara is married to fellow Bootmaker Donny Zaldin, with whom she shares six children and 15 grandchildren.
This pastiche of hers was published in "A Case of Agony" (November 2020, The Crew of the Barque Lone Star, USA). It is a fantastic compilation based on the personal ads from the Agony Columns of the daily Victorian newspapers.
And now, without further ado, here's Barbara's wonderful pastiche!
The Consulting Detective and the Literary Agent:
The Untold Tale
In my relentless pursuit of the elusive ephemeral documents and unconventional artifacts relating to the era of “a certain gracious lady” and an “illustrious client,” in 2012 I became the successful bidder on the intriguing contents of a cardboard box. On the lid is printed in ink, “Lady Conan Doyle, Windlesham, Crowborough,” the home in East Sussex where ACD drew his final breath in 1930. The box is filled with – no, not a pair of mismatched human ears – but a collection of his wife’s delicate undergarments. The provenance is indisputable, a white name tag stitched in red thread identifying the owner of the personal items in question. You may choose to scoff and snicker, and at first blush this drawerful of drawers appeared to be nothing more than a random assortment of frilly furbelows of silk and lace. But inside, wedged between the pantalets and the petticoats, previously undiscovered, were papers which initially appeared to be a kind of backing or stiffener, but upon closer inspection proved to be a folded manuscript of incalculable value. Herein hangs a tale for which the world may not yet be prepared, but with which it will nonetheless now be presented, yielding a treasure trove of secrets neither its original owner nor the British auction house from which I purchased it could have predicted. I have transcribed the poignant narrative it contains, penned in a familiar, neat, round hand, upon which no other eyes until this moment have fallen, and am pleased to share them with all those who, like me, possess an abiding admiration for three great men of our acquaintance. This is Conan Doyle’s statement.
It was a raw, blustery day in November of the year 1894, and those few brave souls I passed in the roadway had their coats buttoned up and their heads bent low against the onslaught of the first fierce blast of the season. The last withered leaves clung defiantly to the great oak-tree outside 221B Baker Street, as if their obstinacy could somehow forestall the inevitability of Nature’s death sentence. I paused before ringing the bell, debating silently whether I should proceed or would come to regret the decision to embark upon this painful journey. As I lifted my eyes, I could see Sherlock Holmes gazing down from the bow window, as he often did in anticipation of a client who hesitated upon his doorstep before making the inevitable decision to enter. Mrs. Hudson ushered me up those storied seventeen steps to the cluttered sitting room, where newspaper clippings and pots of glue littered the floor and coated several of the arm-chairs. Both Holmes and Watson looked puzzled as to my identity under my greatcoat and slouch hat.
“Why, it’s our old friend and literary agent, Conan Doyle,” exclaimed Watson, once I had unravelled myself from these latter-day mummy’s wrappings. “I thought I recognized those elegant mustachios peeping out from beneath your muffler. Delighted to see you, Doctor. Please excuse the disorder. Allow me to find a more advantageous spot for these papers. Holmes is assembling some additional pages to insert into his index.”
I was well aware that the great consulting detective had made an avocation of filing as complete a dossier as may be imagined clipped from the agony columns of the various London newspapers and journals. Over the years there was hardly a missing person or a mislaid possession of which he was unaware. It seemed as though everyone was searching for something – or someone – and Holmes had been tasked with singlehandedly monitoring this enormous national lost and found department. Moreover, he had developed his own peculiar system of docketing all manner of people and events, most especially ones relating to crimes and those who perpetrated them. These he meticulously pasted into the bulging scrapbooks he referred to affectionately as “good old index,” which sat conspicuously on the topmost shelf of the sitting room. From this promontory, his ponderous commonplace books came to represent as comprehensive a repository of knowledge on the subject of the celebrated and notorious as one is likely to encounter outside a headline in The Times or a glass display case at New Scotland Yard’s Black Museum.
Gathering a jumbled armful of the aforementioned newspaper cuttings that had been draped over an arm-chair, Watson deposited them in a pile on a nearby occasional table in the centre of the room, upon which a framed image of a handsome lady, elegantly coiffed and fashionably attired, whom I recognized immediately as the celebrated contralto Irene Adler, took pride of place. As he proceeded to awkwardly set down the bundle of scraps, the photograph inadvertently toppled over. Holmes, as upset as the picture, leaped to his feet and darted across the room. Using his coat sleeve, he ceremoniously brushed away remnants of dust and debris which as a consequence had found their way onto the glass. His lips drawn into a taut, thin line, his voice cracking with an emotion he could scarcely contain, he softly admonished, “Do take care, Watson.”
“My most sincere apologies, Holmes. I assure you it was quite unintentional,” replied his flustered colleague in a conciliatory tone, abandoning the papers altogether. “There we are. Do make yourself at home, Doctor Doyle.” Hoping to set things aright in more than one sense, and in an effort to place himself out of Holmes’s line of vision and divert attention from the unfortunate turn the visit had taken, Watson sat down gingerly on a settee at a safe distance from his somewhat peevish companion. His arm stretched languidly across the back of his chair, he assumed a studied, if less than convincing, air of breezy nonchalance. I in turn settled into the recently vacated and slightly worn seat he had indicated.
“Now then, Doctor, as I have often told you,” said Watson, whose nerves appeared quite as frayed as the furniture, and understandably eager to steer the conversation onto a more neutral path and restore a sense of tranquility to the scene, “I am everlastingly in your debt in my trifling attempts to bring before the public the adventures of our sedulous sleuth, who largely on your account has come to enjoy a certain celebrity.” I could not help but feel that at least a modicum of that flattering observation was proffered with a view to being reinstated into his friend’s good graces, while I was thrust into the unenviable position of buffer between the fractious fellow lodgers.
“And I congratulate you,” he added, “on becoming something of a literary lion in your own right, what with your tales of horror and historical romance. Your recent endeavours have met with nothing short of unanimous acclaim within our narrow sphere, and I have it on good authority that they have attracted a large and enthusiastic readership.”
“I fear my inconsequential scribblings are no more than competent at best,” I replied, “though I do pride myself on my modest forays into the age of chivalry. But I thank you most sincerely for your generous endorsement, most especially as I confess to taking as my inspiration your thrilling accounts of Holmes’s heroic exploits. Perhaps you have surmised that my gallant medieval knights are modelled after our friend here, though I fear they pale by comparison with the original.”
“The possibility had certainly occurred to me,” Watson chuckled. “But I have something of a discriminating eye for such things, and am prepared to prophesy without the slightest hesitation that you will come to enjoy unparalleled success as a prestigious and prolific author in your own right. Indeed, your considerable talents have not been misdirected. I foresee an illustrious career ahead of you.”
I own to feeling a slight swelling of pride within my bosom. “Coming from you, Doctor Watson, such profuse accolades are indeed gratifying,” Truth be told, his encomium was nothing short of music to my ears and went some way toward buoying my spirits.
“No doubt these are matters of surpassing interest,” grumbled Holmes, growing clearly impatient at all this polite palaver. “But I sense that there is something other than an exchange of pleasantries which brings you to our humble lodgings in the teeth of such inclement weather. Perhaps I may be of service to you in some small way?”
“Well, for one, Holmes, I have come to welcome you back, not just to London, but from the brink of death, having learned of your near fatal encounter at the precipice of that fearsome cataract.”
“Ah yes, that ‘seething cauldron,’ or some such nonsense, as Watson so euphemistically phrased it. I suppose he cannot do otherwise,” he grimaced. “It is his natural inclination to indulge in poetic excess, the results of which you may judge for yourself in his slightly lurid tales. But then, as our literary agent, you are all too familiar with his flair for the dramatic,” he sniffed, casting an accusatory glance at the culpable chronicler he was known to refer to as his “Boswell” when in a more magnanimous disposition. Looking somewhat abashed, that kind-hearted gentleman, having recovered his good humour, turned to me with a mischievous wink.
“Not nearly so poetical from inside it, I assure you,” muttered Holmes with a rueful sigh, returning to the subject of the Reichenbach Falls, that terrible chasm where he had come so near to meeting his demise in that deathly struggle with the evil Professor Moriarty. “My subsequent travels are, to my mind, of far greater interest,” he observed, almost as an afterthought. “Perhaps one day I shall document them myself, without benefit of lyrical embellishment. Now that would be poetic justice!” he exclaimed triumphantly, glaring once again at his undeservedly maltreated biographer, as if to put him on formal notice. “Nevertheless, many thanks, Doyle. It is indeed good to be back.”
“No doubt we shall be reading of both your adventures and misadventures when your memoirs are released, and I hope to have the honour of assisting in their publication. But,” I hastened to add, “once again you are correct, Holmes. I see very little escapes you. There was a matter on which I wished to confer with you.”
“Watson,” said Holmes, “throw another lump or two of coal onto the grate and for heaven’s sake, ring Mrs. Hudson for some tea, and perhaps something bracing besides, to help fortify the good doctor’s constitution, and perhaps his spirits, for unless I am very much mistaken, he is sorely in need of a bit of medicinal buttressing.”
And indeed, I was feeling rather peaked, and found myself shivering uncontrollably. Glad to warm myself by the fire, which by now was crackling and blazing cheerily away, and dispensing with the tea altogether, I took a grateful draught of the brandy offered to me and attempted to gather my thoughts.
“And now, Doctor,” resumed Holmes, “how may I assist you?”
“I well know,” I began haltingly, a slight quaver in my voice, “that you are no Father Confessor. Nor is 221B a confessional, though I am aware it has served as one on occasion. And yet my heart is heavy and I know of nowhere else to turn in my desperation and despair. As my medical colleague here so eloquently expressed it when we all believed you to be lying lifeless at the bottom of that awful abyss, you are also ‘the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known,’ with the uncanny facility to see into the darkest recesses of the human soul. I therefore turn to you and solicit your best counsel.”
“But what could possibly be the cause of such affliction?”
“A terrible injustice,” I responded.
“Perpetrated by whom?” inquired Holmes, his expression intent, his eyes gleaming like a cat’s, his long fingers steepled beneath his chin in anticipation.
“And the crime?”
“A most heinous one, to which Dante would have consigned the miscreant to the depths of the Inferno – a sin for which I shall be equally condemned – that of a son against his own father.”
Watson, leaning forward in keen expectation, looked utterly mystified, and the expression on Holmes’s face was one of incredulity at this startling confession. “I am all attention. Pray proceed.”
Propping myself up on the horsehair cushions, I sighed deeply and commenced my painful narrative.
“My story is soon told,” I began hesitantly. “You may know that just over a year ago my father passed beyond the veil.”
“I learned of your sad bereavement some months later, upon my arrival in France, and was sorry indeed to hear it. I offer you my condolences, my friend. I admired Charles Altamont Doyle a great deal. He was a man of enormous heart and a gifted artist besides. Naturally I was indebted to him for his drawings in an early edition of the minor adventure which Watson embellished with the title A Study in Scarlet.”
“Yes,” I murmured softly, “it would seem that sufficient time has elapsed to blunt my grief, and yet each day brings with it fresh sorrow which I have brought upon myself. My father was a man of sensitive genius, ill-suited to the realities of this world. His mind was on strange moonlight effects, done with extraordinary skill in water colours. He had a charm of manner and a courtesy of bearing which I have seldom seen equalled. But he was in many ways a tormented creature and his life was blighted in consequence of underdeveloped gifts and unfulfilled dreams. After a promising early career as a draughtsman, he became subject to excruciating headaches, plunging him into frequent bouts of deep depression. A weakness for drink, which I have made a concerted effort to conceal, was accompanied by hallucinatory episodes, and his declining years were spent confined to a series of asylums within whose bleak corridors I rarely called upon him. I did little to ease the burdens he bore, nor was I in any way attentive to his needs. Truth be told, I could summon up no great sympathy either for him or for the desperate situation in which he found himself. My resentment at having to fend for myself and see to the demands of my family as I struggled through medical school fuelled our estrangement and hardened my resolve. We referred to his condition as the ‘dreadful secret.’ I am ashamed to confess that my thoughts were solely for the disadvantage which his condition placed upon me and not for his anguish nor the deplorable manner in which I had abandoned him to his lonely fate. Perhaps I harboured a fear that his infirmities might prove hereditary, for I am all too aware that such unfortunate predispositions may be passed down from one generation to the next.”
At this point in my lachrymose lament I paused to take another long draught of the brandy, then pressed on. “Ultimately, the breach brought on by my disreputable conduct became so vast as to be irreconcilable. My father’s malady manifested in a morbid fascination with death, and I imagine the end must have been something of a consolation for him. I pray he has at last found peace. But now I am the tormented one, haunted by a calculated indifference and consumed with a remorse from which I can find no respite. What a loathsome creature I am. How could I have allowed him to languish in that desolate place, without a devoted son to bring solace to his wounded spirit and tortured soul? Now his passing, forlorn and unmourned, weighs heavily upon my conscience, and the ‘dreadful secret’ has become my own shame and despair. I cannot help but reproach myself, and struggle within the depths of a pit of regret and contrition from which there is no escape.”
By the conclusion of my plaintive saga, I had quite collapsed into convulsive sobs, a shattered wreck, burying my face in my hands. “Steady, my dear fellow,” said Holmes, reaching across and gripping me by the arm in a well-intentioned, if ineffectual, effort to console me. “Try to pull yourself together, man.” No doubt he feared I had taken leave of my senses, and at that moment I allow to sharing his concerns. “Watson, some more brandy.”
With the amiable doctor ministering to my needs, I gradually regained control of my trembling limbs, along with some semblance of composure. Holmes, meanwhile, grew contemplative, gazing pensively into the fire, his old briar pipe clenched between his lips, swirling eddies of blue smoke partially obscuring his features. His normally piercing gray eyes assumed a far-away look, as if lost in distant reverie. After a few moments, he broke the silence that had descended upon the sitting room, while without, the gale shook furiously at the window-pane like a prisoner rattling the bars of his cell, the curtains drawn in defiance against the inexorable forces of nature.
“I appreciate your candour in these matters, Doctor – in addition to your feelings of self-recrimination,” he began in grim and deliberate reflection. “We are none of us blameless with respect to a wayward father. Mine, you may know, was a country squire who boasted a naturally genial manner, but was transformed into an odious brute when in his cups. His vicious ways drove me at a tender age from the only home I had ever known. But that was as nothing when set against the terrible cruelty he inflicted upon my mother, beaten up and broken down, and my university days came to an abrupt end when I was compelled to return to intercede on her behalf, convinced that her life was imperilled. I have prevailed upon Watson to withhold these distressing details from his published narratives. Public exposure of the true facts might prove something of an inconvenience to me and particularly incommodious to my brother Mycroft in his sensitive position in the Foreign Office. The fate that befell the old blackguard does not bear close scrutiny, though I am prepared to affirm that the justice meted out to him in the end was a righteous one and not likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience. Can you wonder, then, at my reticence on the subject of my forebears? And yet, the brutality I witnessed in those tender years was no doubt a deciding factor in my choice of métier. Watson will tell you that I am especially offended by the outrages committed by violent men upon ill-used, if weak-willed, women, whether wives or daughters, whose molesters I endeavour to run to ground. I do not suffer the Grimesby Roylotts or Jack Stapletons of this world gladly, though I own that in holding them to account for their crimes I am in some small measure seeking justice for the suffering of a dear mother at the hands of an implacable father.”
You may only wonder at the effect this unexpected confession had upon my already agitated mind. No doubt the astonishment etched on my face registered it all. For this inscrutable, self-contained and intensely private man to have divulged to me the previously undisclosed secrets of his troubled parentage was at once disconcerting and humbling. Moreover, these unhappy revelations provided incontrovertible evidence that, despite his well-known distaste for intimacy, Sherlock Holmes is as far from the cold, calculating machine Watson has portrayed him as may be imagined. To the contrary, it was becoming abundantly clear that here was a fellow of unimpeachable integrity, whose strength of character concealed a very private heartache, one possessed of a profound inner life from which he drew his unshakeable moral integrity and an unwavering commitment to justice. I suddenly grasped as I never could before that the ill-fortune which attended his youth had cast an indelible shadow over him, in consequence whereof that part of his solitary nature so averse to modifying his passions had been sacrificed to a resolute austerity. The epiphany brought me ever closer to the humanity of the man behind the myth.
“I was unaware you lay claim to this dark past, Holmes,” I declared in astonishment.
“I have confided in you the blackest days of my youth as an act of faith, by way of assuring you that your confidence in me has not been misplaced. You may count on me to treat it with the utmost discretion and counsel you in this matter with the benefit of my own experience. And my advice to you is this: we cannot turn back the hands of time, Doyle. But there is one thing we can do. Pay tribute to an honourable, if failed, father. Sing his praises, take pride in his many excellent attributes and find the means to assimilate them into your own endeavours. Think of it as a kind of spiritual collaboration, if you will. Above all, you must find it in your heart to forgive him – and yourself.”
I was quite overwhelmed with Holmes’s insight and sage advice, and could feel my melancholy perceptibly lifting away like dark clouds dispersing after a storm. As if to confirm this restored sense of tranquility, the howling beyond the window-pane had suddenly ceased. “My friend, I cannot thank you enough for your kind ministrations and judicious admonitions, and pledge on my oath to be guided by them. What you have done today is as great a service as any of the crimes you have solved and clients to whose aid you have come. Please accept my most sincere gratitude. I shall be forever in your debt.” As always, Watson conveyed it best in a rather more generous appraisal of his boon companion, for on that day “I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.”
In the years following that pivotal moment in the sitting room of 221B I have made every effort to keep the promise I made to Holmes and to myself. As frequently befalls us in life, the hand of fate pointed irrevocably toward my destiny. Though my talents do not lie with brush or paint, I have indeed incorporated my father’s passions and convictions into my own work. To that end, the monstrous prehistoric beasts and flying creatures of my adventure tale The Lost World took as their inspiration his sketches of enormous and menacing woodland creatures in pursuit of terrified and delicate waifs. Given his and my Uncle Dicky’s predilection for fairies, it is more than probable that my own obsession with elementals is at least in part some perverse biological imperative. Fairies in the blood are liable to take the strangest forms. I would be hesitant to confess to it publicly, but if I am being absolutely truthful, as I feel compelled to do in this confidential memoir, I concede that the photographs of the Cottingley fairies, in whose authenticity I professed an abiding conviction, might well have been no more than an elaborate hoax. Nevertheless, upon reflection, the incident afforded me the opportunity to redeem my father’s memory, to give meaning to his life and the hallucinatory world he inhabited – and to assuage my guilt. In 1924 I organized an exhibition of some fifty of his beautiful, haunting and disturbing paintings which was well received by critics and public alike. My affiliation with the spiritualist movement, which many attribute to the loss of my son Kingsley following the Great War, was sparked decades earlier in a vain attempt to reestablish a connection on another plane with my dear father. Much of my life, it seems, has been spent honouring the fourth commandment and perpetuating the legacy of Charles Altamont Doyle.
Over the next two decades, the relations I enjoyed with Sherlock Holmes had been pleasant and fruitful, both in a professional and a personal capacity, and I take some pride in the services I provided to both him and Dr. Watson as the literary agent for the extraordinary accounts of their many adventures together. I had not enjoyed the favour of a communication from Holmes for the two years prior to the Great War. Unpredictable to the point of eccentricity, he was liable to vanish as thoroughly as the elusive Houdini, my erstwhile friend and sometime rival, for years at a time when in pursuit of some murderous secret society or while being pursued by one himself, so I was not unduly concerned. After all, he had disappeared into thin air following his harrowing escape at the Reichenbach, so we had grown quite accustomed to his prolonged and inexplicable absences.
And yet, from time to time a nagging doubt as to his well-being overcame me, and I toyed with the idea of placing an advertisement in the agony column of the Times in an effort to reassure myself of his continued existence. At one point I had gone so far as to compose the notice, which read, in part:
Seeking the whereabouts of an exceedingly angular gentleman, somewhat above six feet in height, of austere demeanour and ascetic features - thin of hair and of lip, prominent of proboscis, of peculiarly penetrating eye and of pronounced eccentricities. Neatly dressed and scrupulously clean. Smokes shag tobacco. Has been known to carry a magnifying glass on his person with which he at a moment’s notice might fall to the ground to examine the mud on the underside of the shoes of passersby or the elbows of young women. The sum of £25 will be paid to anyone with information. Apply to the undersigned.
The irony did not escape me that searching the agony columns for the very man whose métier it was to search agony columns struck me as patently absurd, and upon further consideration I dismissed the notion out of hand.
As fate would have it, Holmes was neither mislaid property nor a missing person, and my worst fears were allayed late one afternoon in October of 1914, when he suddenly arrived, quite unannounced, on my doorstep at Windlesham, in Sussex, where I had made my home for some seven years past. Though his hair was noticeably flecked with gray, by all accounts he appeared hale and hearty, if discernably more gaunt, his step firm, his bearing as erect and dignified as ever. His eyes retained their keen intensity, his senses were sharpened, and he seemed possessed of a surfeit of vigour. He fairly radiated purpose and vitality, his face aglow with what might best be described as triumphant exaltation. Though advancing in years, it was clear he was still at the height of his powers.
“I do hope I’m not intruding, Arthur,” he said.
“You are most cordially welcome here. Delighted to see you, Sherlock,” I assured him, gripping his hand until I nearly shook it off. “The pleasure is all the greater for being so unexpected. You honour us all at Windlesham with your presence. How often have I thought of you and wondered when I should be privileged to see you again. But to what great good fortune am I indebted for your attendance? And where the devil have you been, if I may be presumptuous enough to enquire?’
“A moment, Arthur, if you please. Allow me to explain.”
“Ah, forgive me. I am derelict in my duties as host. I have neither taken your hat nor offered you anything by way of libation before subjecting you to this unpardonable inquisition. I fear my curiosity has got the better of me. A cheery fire and a glass of port will soon chase the chill from your bones. Let us adjourn to my library.”
Holmes followed me into what I am pleased to refer to as my sanctum sanctorum, familiar yet notable in its own modest way, a snug, little, oak-panelled sanctuary lined with shelves overflowing with my most cherished volumes, culled over a lifetime. Just walking through that magic door is for me like entering an enchanted land of fantasy and imagination. Here is the jewel-case for my most precious possessions, within whose walls dwell the profound observations of the greatest philosophers, the critical assessments of the foremost chroniclers of history, and the ingenuity of the most spellbinding storytellers the world has known. Gazing round that chamber never fails to fill me with awe and serve as inspiration all at once – evidence of the indelible mark these forward thinkers and peerless savants have left on humanity. As I sit at my desk, pen in hand, I can almost feel their essence flowing through me as I attempt to emulate their genius to the limits of my ability.
I was gratified that Holmes appeared to appreciate the depth and diversity of the collection, as he took several minutes to peruse the shelves, remarking on a title here and an author there which particularly peaked his interest, stopping to examine the contents of one or two more closely.
“Do make yourself comfortable upon the old green settee,” said I, once the inspection of the more salient tomes had concluded to his apparent satisfaction. I motioned him to the faded arm-chair before the fireplace, which has long been my favourite. On the wall above hung – and still does – a gilt-framed lithograph of the old Queen as she appeared on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. Though she had passed on to her just reward thirteen years before, I have been loath to remove her – either from my wall or from my heart. Her presence brings to mind the glorious age of a reign which will never be surpassed. For me, Victoria will ever remain the centerpiece of an Empire built to last. Truth be told, her image fondly recalls my own glory days as a callow youth with a head full of dreams and a taste for adventure, those early years aboard an Arctic whaler and as a struggling ophthalmologist, as I groped about for my true calling. Somehow I cannot bring myself to replace her portrait with that of her descendants, so there it has remained – her kindly countenance gazing benignly down upon me. In some way I find difficult to define, when the door closes behind me in that mystical chamber, time stands still – and it is always 1897. But my feeble act of fealty pales by comparison with that of her most loyal subject, whose own wall, irreparably bullet-pocked with Her Majesty’s cipher, proclaims his undying devotion. When it comes to panache, Sherlock Holmes is ever the master.
Darkness was closing in fast, though I was reluctant to switch on the electric light. I am inordinately fond of moments of quiet reflection spent in rooms illuminated solely by firelight. Now, as the coals sizzled and sputtered in the grate, the flickering flames cast eerie shadows over the great detective’s distinctive features, throwing his brooding eyes, aquiline nose and square-cut jaw into bold relief. The entire mise en scène was more than suggestive of one of Sidney Paget’s charming drawings in The Strand Magazine, Holmes and Watson seated on either side of the fire at 221B Baker Street, the image, deftly drawn in shades of gray, gradually fading into obscurity along the edges. As we nestled in, two glasses of ruby-tinted port glinting in the warm glow of the hearth, Holmes wasted no time in declaring the true purpose of his visit.
“Arthur,” he began, “I am not unmindful that my absence has excited considerable speculation. The truth is, when it became clear that a sinister plot was afoot, I was called upon to undertake the most perilous mission of my career. For these two years past I have assumed the identity of an Irish-American agent in a life-or-death struggle against a ruthless and diabolical adversary. The very survival of the Empire might well have depended upon a successful outcome.”
“You are a faithful friend, Sherlock, but a relentless foe. So you return to us the conquering hero, your brow once again wreathed in laurel,” I exclaimed in all sincerity. “I congratulate you on vanquishing our enemies. You do us proud, sir – our champion – and a benefactor to mankind.”
“Well, that remains to be seen,” he shrugged in his singularly self-assured, yet understated, fashion. “I merely did what little I could. I leave the rest to others.”
“Nevertheless,” I insisted, “there’s not an officer in all the King’s regiments, from the newly-joined subaltern even to Field-Marshal Kitchener himself, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.” To further punctuate the point, I rose and proffered him a mischievous, though by no means parodical, salute.
“Thank you. You are most kind,” said Holmes, genuinely moved by my effusive praise. “The stars stand guard in the heavens, and in our own small way we are privileged to serve alongside them.”
“And what of Dr. Watson?” I enquired. “Is he cognizant of your most recent triumph?”
“Indeed, he had a not insignificant role to play in it,” Holmes conceded, “and at its conclusion we enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection as we stood upon the terrace of the drafty, old pile where the dénouement of this little drama was enacted. I will share with you now what I told him then – that, for better or for worse, the world is about to be irretrievably altered. We are embarking upon a new era in the history of civilization, one in which our lives will never be the same again.”
“Be that as it may,” I replied, “there remains one immutable truth of which I am certain. There will always be an England – and there will always be Sherlock Holmes. They are as inextricably bound and as essential to life as the air we breathe.”
Leaning in, Holmes clasped me by the shoulder. “We shall see, Doyle,” was his enigmatic response, a sad, little smile playing about his lips. “We shall see.”
Clearing his throat, for his voice had become thick with emotion, he resumed his captivating narrative. “For the duration of this, my most challenging campaign, I was obliged to adopt a pseudonym.”
“Ah, a mystery moniker, is it?’ I chuckled, bemused and intrigued. “And by what name may I now have the pleasure of addressing you?”
“Altamont,” replied Holmes, a sly twinkle in his eye.
“My father’s name?” I managed to choke out in a barely audible whisper. I need hardly express the depth of my astonishment at that moment, as I suddenly felt all the air rush from my lungs and was left gasping for breath. I stared at him in utter bewilderment, though I should not have been entirely taken by surprise. I have learned over the years that while nothing about Holmes is entirely unanticipated, everything he says and does comes as something of a jolt to the system. And yet, as if in defiance of all expectation, at that moment I confess to being at a complete loss as to his meaning. As is his custom, he soon offered up a cogent explanation.
“Years ago I counselled you to pay homage to that fine man and worthy patriarch. What I refrained from disclosing, however, was that he and I had developed a fast friendship. He professed an abiding admiration for what he referred to – in somewhat excessive tribute – as my ‘valiant efforts to seek justice in a cruel world,’ and in an act of emulation, his renderings of me in A Study in Scarlet more closely resembled his own person. He may have envied me the freedom I enjoyed to follow my chosen path while he was constrained from fulfilling a nobler destiny by reason of ill health and psychological impairment. He took me into his confidence, freely acknowledging his many failings and regrets, despite which, I assure you, I returned his esteem.” Holmes sipped at his port and sighed in wistful reminiscence. “In his own peculiar fashion he was a fellow of unsurpassed wisdom,” adding, with only the slightest hesitation, “and the kind, gentle father for whom I longed.”
His words hung in the air for a long moment. When my astonishment prevented me from immediately rejoining, he hastened to avert any further offence his admission might unintentionally have inflicted upon my sensibilities. “My most unequivocal apologies to have taken you unawares, Doyle, though I beg you to be in no way discomfited. Charles implored me to keep the nature of our relations from you in order to spare you any further pain. Now I have reciprocated his veneration, and in my own way have sought to keep his memory green.” In truth, I found his declamation as heartening as it was startling. Here, it seemed, was a man who revered my father no less than I, one equally dedicated to honouring his legacy.
How could I do otherwise than accept the putative apology he proffered, the more so when he prevailed upon me (as he had on one previous occasion, with Watson’s indulgence) to set down the record of his marvellous adventure, once sufficient time had elapsed to lay the facts of this vitally important case with as much circumspection as possible before the public. Thus my role as literary agent became somewhat enhanced, though, unlike my other attempts at authorship, this was no work of fiction. It is more than likely that Holmes entrusted its telling to me by virtue of my uniquely intimate association with it, though for this very reason we thought it prudent not to attach my name to the stirring events to which he affixed the fitting title His Last Bow. In reality, my contribution was little more than editorial in nature, so keen a grasp did he retain with regard to the minutest details of his unparalleled heroism. Thus Sherlock Holmes and I have each kept a pledge to my father, and I have perhaps in some small measure redeemed myself in his eyes. The bond we have forged has become indissoluble, my father’s spirit having become the powerful force which unites us in brotherhood in the truest sense, indistinguishable pillars upon which a flourishing friendship has long been sustained. I cannot extol highly enough the exemplary virtues of one to whom I am indebted by the strongest ties of gratitude and affection.
I suspect my time on this earthly plane is growing short, and before long I shall permanently don the spiritual mantle whose principles and beliefs I have embraced so fervently in life. The hour of reclamation is at hand, as I prepare to be reunited with a father lost to me so long ago. For now, I shall safeguard the sensitive and confidential communications herein recorded, along with their concomitant – and possibly incendiary – repercussions, and will search for a clandestine and discreet niche in which to conceal them. No doubt the particulars will ultimately be divulged – to which I have no undue objection – and in any event by which time it will be beyond my power either to prevent their disclosure or to dispute their veracity. Should it come to pass that other eyes are cast upon these pages, I pray I will be judged with the same charity and compassion that Sherlock Holmes bestowed upon me and all those he deemed equally deserving, and be granted absolution. It may well be that this, my final testament, will one day serve as my epitaph.
A. Conan Doyle
June 6, 1930
So ends Conan Doyle’s remarkable statement. As for me,
what began as an acquisition of frivolous frippery has evolved into a chronicle
of remorse, reconciliation and redemption. With the discovery of this
illuminating document, revelations of the most unforeseen nature have been
brought to light, confessions of the most intimate description have been
exchanged, and what was once concealed is now revealed. And if some dirty
laundry has been aired in the process, at least it is in the name of truth and
justice, the twin virtues which served as guideposts in the lives of these two
great men. Whatever transgressions they may inadvertently have committed have
long been forgiven. There are family secrets here and to spare, enough to fill
several additional drawers full of drawers. Both Conan Doyle and Sherlock
Holmes have been stripped to their essentials, their souls laid bare, with more
than one suppressed confidence discovered amongst the “unmentionables.” I am
inexpressibly grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to bring a
long-lost manuscript to light and to be the conduit through whom a mystery has
been solved and a friendship defined.