and the Alice in Wonderland Murders
I can’t honestly say I’ve ever thought of myself as much of a fisherman. In fact, put me behind a rod and line and I find I’m closer to Isaac Newton contemplating the universe than Isaak Walton trying to outwit some benighted bass or sturgeon or whatever. Which is why I confess myself surprised to receive Holmes’s telegram.
“MY DEAR FELLOW STOP NEED YOU ON SCOTTISH FISHING EXPEDITION STOP COME IF CONVENIENT IF NOT COME ANYWAY STOP SH.”
I must admit the prospect of sitting on some yon bonnie bank with the Scots mist finding the chinks in my ulster didn’t precisely fire my imagination but the prospect of seeing my old friend more than compensated for that. I had long nourished a shrewd suspicion that he regarded me as just as much of a fixture in his life as his pipe, his violin, his cuttings books — even his smelly old chemical apparatus. Equally, I knew that he wouldn’t willingly give up one of them, if he had the choice.
In any case, I was content to be a part of the furniture that occasionally came to life for him.
My practice — if one could call it that — had not really received my full attention for some time. If the truth be told, I found it rather dull after some of the more bizarre little episodes Holmes and I had been through together since his return from what he ironically referred to as the Great Moriarty Hiatus a couple of years earlier.
I had another reason for welcoming his invitation, characteristically unvarnished though it might be. But then, I had long since given up expecting the irrelevant trappings society commonly expected. In the time since his ‘renaissance’ he had thrown himself into his work with feverish energy. It was almost as though he felt he had to run twice as fast to catch up the time he had lost and, indeed, the criminal population of the metropolis were already counting the cost. In the spring of the previous year — summoning up as much gravitas as I felt he would accept — I advised him as his medical man, as well as his friend, that he must take a break or risk a complete breakdown. I could see that my professional opinion left him unmoved but my final argument was what clinched matters.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic,” I mused aloud, “if you were to put
A week later we were ensconced in Poldhu Bay, a small village on the Cornish coast, where I did my best to keep the world at bay. There was, it must be admitted, one brief interruption, when Holmes was called upon to solve a rather irritating case of multiple murder by exotic poison — which I intend to write up one of these days under the working title of
“The strangest case I have ever handled, Watson.”
That aside — and perhaps because of it — for a brief while I was able to get him to relax as much as someone of his hyperactive nature is capable of doing. But now, a short year later, I could see the signs recurring. The tension in the muscles of that angular jaw, the constant tapping of those steepled fingers in front of his face as he sat before the empty summer fireplace in Baker Street, his head wreathed in the smoke generated by the noxious shag he insisted on smoking — all these signs betokened a man with his mainspring too tightly coiled.
I had been wracking my brains to come up with another ruse to distract him when Holmes solved the problem for me with his telegram. He had disappeared in his typically mysterious fashion a few days earlier and I knew enough by now not to worry and to wait his pleasure. I had always found plenty to occupy my time in our great city. In fact, so busy was I with one thing and another that it was a trifle inconvenient to leave London at such short notice. But since it was so clearly a question of
The loch itself was shrouded with mist, as it had been for each of the three days we had been there. It was one of those mists that part and meet like theatre curtains opening and closing, giving tantalising glimpses of the far shore and distorting sounds. Someone of a poetical nature would no doubt wax lyrical about its dreamlike, ethereal quality but for me the persistent drizzle was all too real.
Holmes had long since given up the pleasures of rod and line and taken himself off along the shore line. This, I might add, surprised me less than the fact that we were there in the first place. Over the years I had heard him frequently express the view that neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him, yet here we were, up to our ears in both! In fact, as the days had gone by, I had received the clear impression that fishing was strictly secondary on whatever agenda he had devised for himself. As long as he was away from Baker Street and the endless round of trivial pursuits — what he once referred to dismissively as “recovering lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding schools”—I was not about to complain. Or, at least, not about that.
At that moment the subject of my reverie materialised. Wearing the long travelling cloak and the close-fitting cloth cap that was his invariable attire when out of town, he was an impressively spectral sight as he parted the curtain of mist and appeared at my side. It was on the tip of my tongue to enquire whether he had enjoyed his solitary perambulation when something about his expression, now that I could see it, made me hold my peace. That all-too-familiar concentration in his gaze told me he had reached some point of decision. Before I could question him, a sharp tug on my line almost took the rod out of my hand.
“Good heavens, Holmes,” I cried, “I do believe …”
And then, to my amazement, that infuriating man snatched it from my hand and cast it on the ground.
“No time for that, Watson,” I heard him say, as he took me by the elbow and propelled me through the mist towards the track that had brought us there from the nearby inn where we were staying. “We have other fish to fry.” And as the mist once more enshrouded us, I heard a peal of ghostly laughter.
A few minutes later bowling along in the trap we had hired for our stay he had the grace to come as near to an apology as I was likely to receive.
“I’m afraid I’ve been a little preoccupied these last few days, old fellow,” he said. And then, patting me briefly on my affronted arm — “Don’t worry. Tonight I shall stand you the freshest trout and the coldest Chablis mine host can provide. Perhaps even a few oysters. There is, you will no doubt have observed, an ‘R’ in the month. And by the by, the fishing in the river that runs by the inn is in every way superior to the overgrown pond that was occupying your afternoon’s efforts.”
Before I could point out that the ‘pond’ had been at his insistence, he went on: “And as for the rod … top of the line at the Army & Navy Stores what — five? six? — years ago … briefly lent to an old army friend … left handed … a former gunner, unless I miss my mark, now somewhat arthritic in the forefinger … don’t worry about that. I’ll have the boy from the inn go straight back and retrieve it. The fish, too, if he’s lucky.”
He took his eye off the track to give me a sidelong glance knowing full well he had me hooked as tightly as I’d had that fish, which would grow in size with every retelling. On this occasion I felt I had indulged him enough for one afternoon, so after a pause he continued — “Not being one of nature’s predators but an amateur in the true sense of the word, when you bought a rod, you would naturally buy the best and since the Army & Navy draws you like a homing pigeon … You are right-handed yet the wear on the — what do you call it? — the handle clearly indicates a left-handed person. And then the wear marks are uneven, indicating the user was not exerting the usual pressure on the finger most of us rely on …”
At that point I capitulated, as he knew I would.
“Yes, yes, elementary, my dear Holmes,” I said, imitating his distinctive voice as best I could, “but how did you know about old Tug being in the Engineers …?”
“A man may rise to the highest rank, Watson, but he will never entirely rid his nostrils of the smell of cordite nor his fingers from ingrained gunpowder. But enough of my parlour tricks. Watson, I confess I have been less that candid with you. The purpose of our little trip was not fishing …”
“That,” I said with as much irony as I c ...