This year I really enjoyed the film Mr. Holmes, the central dramatic device of which was that Conan Doyle’s great detective was suffering from early stage dementia. I wasn’t wholly convinced by the plotting , but I was hugely impressed by the interaction of Ian McKellen and the young Milo Parker: two bravura performances from actors crossing many decades.
The film reminded me of my own, very slight, Holmes pastiche, A Walk on the Downs, written in 2008, and which starts from the same conceit – is Holmes senile? – but which takes a different route to its conclusion. I hope you enjoy it.
A Walk on the Downs
It may surprise the reader who has idled away an hour or so upon my accounts of our past adventures to learn that Sherlock Holmes and I should have drifted apart over the years. He might recall the innumerable mysteries we solved in our thirty-five year partnership, or remember the occasions on which we entrusted our lives to each other. He would be forgiven for believing that such a friendship would bind us together eternally.
Time and circumstance set courses of their own, however. Through the terrible years of the Great War our paths never crossed. Although my old wound debarred me from active service, I served as best I could in Charing Cross Hospital, treating the wounded back from the trenches. Holmes, too, played his part, though in a capacity which is even now too sensitive to disclose.
Only on my retirement from the Hospital Board did I find the time to miss the great man. Respecting his desire for solitude I sought initially only to establish contact again, and wrote to him, but received no reply. Concerned for his well-being, I wrote again, stating my intention of visiting him.
As the date I had set approached and still I received no reply, my apprehensions increased. At last, not knowing what to expect, I took the train to Fulworth, from whence a short taxi ride got me to his isolated villa on the South Downs.
Thus I found myself one September afternoon, rapping upon a rough old door while the equinoctial gale pounded in turn upon my back. At last the door opened a few inches and Holmes peered out.
“Watson!” he exclaimed, flinging the door wide, “come in, old friend!” Grasping me by the hand he drew me into the house. Taking my other hand in his, he surveyed me from head to toe.
“You have put on weight,” he said with a smile, “thirteen stone and what, six pounds?”
“Seven!” I replied ruefully.
The years had taken their toll upon Holmes too. Whilst my sedentary life had thickened my waist, Holmes had grown ever more gaunt. His translucent, liver-spotted skin was stretched over bare bones. His eyes glittered fiercely from the depths of shadowed sockets and his hands trembled with a rheumatic ague. He wore an ill-assorted mixture of clothes, battered slippers and draped over all a green silk dressing gown.
“You must be tired after your journey,” he said. “Sit down while I light a fire.”
I looked around for somewhere to sit, but found every inch of the room, tables, chairs, even the floor piled high with the comforts and mementoes of his Baker Street days, with unopened correspondence (including my own) and above all, with books.
Holmes cleared me a seat by the simple expedient of sweeping a pile of papers to the floor and then turned his attention to the hearth, which had not been cleaned for several days. Before long he had raised a fire and set a kettle upon it. Over mugs of black tea sweetened with honey we exchanged stories of our adventures over the last ten years. When at last we lapsed into silence, Holmes clapped his hands.
“Come, Watson!” he exclaimed. “Are you fit for a walk? There is nothing like an autumn wind for blowing cobwebs from the mind.”
“But Holmes,” I protested, “your rheumatism. The air is damp and unhealthy.”
“Nonsense!” he retorted, “But of course, if you are not up to it…”
“Not at all. But I insist that you wrap up well.”
“That’s the fellow!” he laughed, dropping his dressing gown to the floor. He selected a heavy cape and a stick, and we set off.
Our route took us along the cliffs for the better part of a mile before we struck off and headed into the Downs, coming eventually to a brow which ended abruptly in a precipitous cliff. We stood at the very edge and Holmes pointed to a distant gothic ruin at the top of a long rise.
“Seacombe Abbey,” He shouted over the rush of the headwind. “It is beautiful, is it not?”
He lowered himself carefully onto a rocky seat. I watched him murmuring silently to himself, his eyes rheumy with tears, then looked back to the desolate scene below, and lapsed into a brown study.
“Don’t worry too much on my account, dear friend,” said Holmes, rousing me from my introspection, “l am not as decrepit as you think.”
I was half-way through an embarrassed apology before it occurred to me that I had not expressed my concerns aloud.
“- But Holmes,” I interrupted myself, “how on earth did you know what I was thinking?”
“You are so transparent, Watson. It is one of your most endearing characteristics. Did you think that I had not noticed your concern for my health and the conditions in which I choose to live? You studied me a minute ago, then turned your attention to the Abbey, and your thoughts turned inwards. Knowing your inclination for the romantic metaphor I flattered myself that you found in the decay of that once magnificent edifice some parallel with what you saw in me.
“But see how your observation lets you down: can you not see amid the ruins – there, half-hidden by the chancel wall – a chapel still in use?”
He indicated a corner of the Abbey which was still in good repair, and subtly lit from within. Furthermore, two figures in formal dress stood in the porch, looking about.
“Thus,” continued Holmes, “although the trappings of worship may be crumbling into dust, its devotion to God continues intact. You make the same mistake, Watson, when you judge my welfare from the trappings of the body but ignore the temple -” here he tapped the side of his head “- of the mind.”
“I am delighted to hear you say so,” I conceded, “but tell me what you find to exercise your mind in this wilderness, when the most fiendish schemes of London’s underworld failed to satisfy it?”
“That pack of bunglers!” he exclaimed. “I’ll admit that the occasional case had points of interest, but nothing that bears comparison with the mysteries of the hive. Do you realise, Watson, that bees have a language? I have conducted experiments which prove it beyond doubt.”
“Have you lost all interest, then, in human mysteries? Can you look down upon her -” I pointed to a track below, along which a solitary female figure cycled, – “without wondering what brings her out on a day as wild as this?”
Holmes watched the woman dismount and wheel her bicycle through a gate.
“I’ll grant that you have chosen an interesting subject,” he said, as she abandoned her mount and started up the rise, “but taking in combination the observations that the bicycle is not her own, that she does not intend to use it again, and that she is late for an appointment at the chapel, may we not infer her mission with a reasonable degree of certainty?”
It drew a smile from me to hear the great man up to his old tricks.
“Holmes,” I cried, “you are as preposterous as ever. How on earth can you determine those details from such a distance?”
“Why, Watson,” he replied, “did you not notice the cross-bar? It was a gentleman’s bicycle. And why should she have discarded it into that ditch, from which it will be exceedingly difficult to extricate, when it would have been as easy to cast it down upon the grass? As for her being late for an appointment at the chapel, surely that is self-evident. It has just turned four-o-clock, the chapel is the only building in use for miles around, and the two gentlemen are obviously waiting for someone. Look: they have spotted her. See how they wave?”
Our subject returned their greeting. When at last she reached the chapel she kissed one of the men and shook hands with the other.
“Aha!” I declared, “A tryst! Perhaps we should walk on. It does not seem proper to spy upon lovers’ stolen moments.”
“A tryst?” queried Holmes, “Of sorts, yes. But surely your courting days are not so far behind you that you have forgotten how lovers greet one another? I make no claim to expertise in the amatorial arts, but even I am aware that a kiss on the cheek is a greeting more appropriate between, say, brother and sister.
“And I trust,” he added wryly, “that it was not a tactic in your wooing of Mary to invite a chaperone along?” I am too old to blush, but I took his point.
“Then what business can they have which must be conducted so far from the eyes of the world?”
“On the contrary, Watson, there are at least two other men in the chapel.”
Noticing the twinkle in Holmes’ eye, I returned my attention to the playlet unfolding before us.
Our leading lady now applied a scrap of white fabric to her forehead. Simultaneously, the man Holmes took for her brother helped her off with her cloak, revealing a white dress. The other man took his leave and entered the chapel.
“Why, Holmes!” I exclaimed, “It is an elopement!”
Holmes banged his stick twice upon the ground in mock applause and declared dryly: “Congratulations, old man! We shall make a detective of you yet.”
Feeling rather pleased with myself I watched the young man formally offer his arm to his sister and lead her into the chapel. My eyes lingered on the soft glow of the stained glass.
Suddenly, Holmes grasped my arm and pointed down the rise with his stick. On the track below a car had pulled to a halt and a large man with a shock of white hair leapt out.
“The reason for our party’s secrecy, I’ll wager,” said Holmes. “But they have been found out.”
The newcomer picked up something from the seat beside him. As he started up the hill even my poor eyes could make out that it was a gun.
We rose to our feet.
“We must warn them!” I cried.
I cupped my hands to shout, but Holmes stopped me.
“Against this wind there is no hope that your voice would carry to the chapel. Even if it did, it might make targets of us.”
I gazed miserably along the cliff face. There was no easy way down.
“Can you offer me a steady shoulder, Watson?” cried Holmes urgently.
“Certainly,” I replied, “but why?”
Making no reply he placed the ferrule of his stick against a rock and threw his weight against it. The stick folded in half with a mechanical click, revealing a gleaming barrel within. He picked himself up, red-faced with effort, and thrust the device into my hands.
As he searched madly through his pockets, throwing the contents in handfuls around him, he spoke excitedly.
“The stick is Von Herder’s air gun – do you remember? The one which Colonel Moran used to such deadly effect? Ah, I have found it!” He held up a rifle bullet without a casing. Slipping it into the breach he closed the weapon up.
“Holmes, you cannot shoot the man!” I cried. “Why even if you aim to wound, you might kill him by mistake!”
“Put such nonsense out of your head and offer me a steady support,” he replied. Covered in confusion, I turned and faced as he directed. He placed the barrel of the device upon my shoulder, took a deep breath and I felt the shake of the barrel die away. Following the line of the barrel I was able to determine his target a moment before he fired.
The report of the air gun was no more than a sharp crack, but a few seconds later it was echoed by the clear rolling note of the chapel bell, borne on the onrushing wind. We stood in silence, waiting to see what might ensue. After what seemed like an eternity the bride’s brother ran out, looked up at the bell and then all around. Spotting our bride’s angry father (as Holmes later confirmed him to be) making his way up the hill, he dashed back into the chapel.
Moments later the entire party emerged and – after a brief discussion – bride, groom and best man ran off up the slope, finally disappearing behind a rocky outcrop. Meanwhile, the chaplain and the bride’s brother waited by the door of the chapel for the old man to reach them.
It was a painful scene to watch as the young man tried to reason with his father, receiving a slap in the face for his pains. The priest interceded with beseeching gestures until finally the old man cast his weapon aside and crumpled to his knees. When his son helped him back to his feet, any remaining anger had been supplanted by a tragic remorse which weighed down his head and convulsed his body in helpless sobs.
“Now we are intruding,” said Holmes, taking me by the arm, “Let us make our way home.”
As we walked back, I asked Holmes how he came to have Von Herder’s air gun in his possession.
“It was presented to me on the occasion of my retirement by Chief Inspector Lastrade,” he replied, “I carry it with me often. I still have a few enemies, you know.”
A few minutes later, for it was in the main a silent walk, I mused, “I wonder if we have done for the best.”
“Who can say what is for the best?” he replied. “I believe increasingly that our every thought and action is shaped by destiny. It is not for us to question whether we act for better or worse: we do what we must, and can do nothing else.
“But enough of speculation! Have I told you of my experiments with the medicinal properties of honey made from the nectar of certain narcotic plants?”