|Stradivarius with Score.|
[ “His Last Bow” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle records the capture of Von Bork, a German agent, by Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson on the evening of 2nd August, 1914. Holmes has infiltrated the spy ring in the guise of ‘Altamont’ with a confederate posing as ‘Martha’, the German’s elderly housekeeper.]
GOOD NIGHT, MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES.
London. Just before dawn, 3 August, 1914.
'Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still”
But already the sky was mauve with a dawn reluctant to face a third day of the most terrible August in the history of the World.
Any return to the Baker Street rooms was, for the foreseeable future, quite out of the question. That little stage upon which he and Watson had shared so many scenes must stay as dark as the locked, silent cottage he also called home.
The good doctor would be safe. He had seen to that. Anticipating his friend's voluntary recall, it had been a simple matter to arrange a domestic posting that would keep him out of harm's way. Moreover, for Watson's immediate protection, there must be no traceable current connection with Sherlock Holmes.
Drury Lane, otherwise briefly deserted at this hour, stood silent witness to the man with a goatee beard watching the Ford disappear for ever with Wiggins at the wheel.
“It's abracadabra, Mr. Holmes. Now you see her...Henry himself wouldn't know her by tonight.”
And his parting shot had raised a smile: “We're your standing army now, see, The Irregulars!”
More than Wiggins knew they were coming into their own from this night on until the thing was done. By 1914, that network of unofficial agents would have been the envy of any Von Bork. Through them he had informal access to every hotel, railway station, taxi rank, theatre and restaurant that mattered in the city. And, thanks to them, did they but know it, he could now, for a while, go home.
Turning on his heel, alert for any sign of life, he melted into shadow and moved sure-footed down back alleys, taking a roundabout route before halting in the black entrance to an overgrown mews courtyard. The four-storey silhouette of a former stable block filled the entire opposing boundary.
“Hang on to that key, now you're back, okay? Bunk in the office – home from home! You just come 'n go as you please and the lads 'll let themselves in to work as usual.”
This most senior of The Irregulars gloried in his nickname - 'The Gaoler' - and his prize possession was “Mr. Holmes' Tool box”, now on permanent loan. He used it well. So well that 'Wiggins' and 'access' had become synonymous in certain circles.
“You'll find everything in good order, just as you left it. Bit of profit on the books if you care to..Right! I'm away. Motor keys. Letter for the Doctor. And I'm to leave this Martha one at Claridge's for collection.”
“At reception–Brewster, if he's on. Otherwise the duty concierge.”
'My dear Watson,', he had written in haste, 'It may be some time before you hear of me. Absence of news will mean I yet live and go about, as you, the work I must do. God willing we shall meet after the storm abates. Very sincerely yours, Sherlock Holmes.'
Nothing would have pleased him more after two long years as 'Altamont' than to take up Watson's invitation to a clean-shaven, civilised breakfast or to savour at length the inimitable street gossip of Wiggins.The Germans, however, could already be on the streets, baying for revenge. James and Hollis had been small fry but last night’s taking of Steiner in Portsmouth was another matter. Questions would be asked and all fingers logically pointed to Altamont. Besides, the traitorous British paymaster constituted a real and present danger while still at large. Altamont's goatee must be gone just as the Irish-American himself had already been consigned to oblivion.
And Sherlock Holmes must vanish.
Though he deeply regretted the brevity of their reunion, there was some compensation in avoiding any repeat of the Reichenbach deception. The irony that war (inevitable now) was enough to guarantee Watson's safety did not escape him. And it was crucial to his plans that the enemy expend time, resources and energy in vain pursuit of a phantom.
At this moment, however, he was all too aware of being flesh and blood, of the hunt he must believe was underway and his own probable role as quarry.
Standing stock still cloaked only by slanting shadow took iron nerve. Safe harbour was in sight:and that is the moment of greatest danger. Without visible threat, experience (and the head Lama) had taught him the value of imagination. Deliberately, he conjured and held the image of a grey submarine lurking beneath the waves, His pulse slowed until he had attained an utter immobility and heightened awareness to which human animals rarely need resort.
When he did move it was as the brush of ebony velvet on black silk. Urgency screamed across the brightening courtyard; the walls behind him surrendering to a pallid straw even as he kept pace with the dwindling dark.
Nature determined the instant of no return. One seamless moment witnessed the key flourish, locate, turn and soundlessly withdraw.
A beat. Only the advancing sun. Hold! Now.
“Use yourself in the service of good,” said the monks, “Then bless yourself with suitable, modest reward.”
Two decades had shown him the efficacy of a wisdom carried back from high Tibet. He was now for the first time in two years secure in the only other haven on Earth he trusted. There were official 'safe' houses, official agents he could have used but all were untrustworthy if not fatally compromised by the Von Bork papers. No, the logical arrow of safest recourse pointed through Watson, to Wiggins and the old stables.
Flickering monastery lamps and the olfactory memory of rancid burning butter eased his overtaxed imagination even as the logician in him prioritised for action and his lean frame crossed the room.
He was brought to a jarring halt by a change in the light. The room was cavernous, having long ago lost much of its upper flooring, but the ever- resourceful Irregulars had in recent years provided safe access to a double tier of side galleries encircling the lofty space. At this moment that space was swimming with tiny triangles, snowing wafers of coloured mille-feuille!
“Ha! Watson!”,he almost ejaculated aloud. He had forgotten the church windows. Ten years or so ago, Wiggins' sister it was!- turned up one day with a cart load of stained glass.
“Look real nice up there, Mr. 'Olmes!”she had cooed. “We can 'ave our very own church to usselves, we can!”.
And they did. And it was. They knew people in the Salvation Army (they knew people everywhere) and, by chance calling in one Christmas Eve, he had been privileged (yes, that was the word!)... privileged to attend an impromptu urchins' carol service.
A year or so ago, in far away America, in mortal danger one lonely Christmas he had summoned to a faltering spirit the unforgettable icon of hundreds of bare-footed children knelt in unquenchable faith on unhallowed ground.
God knows how they had gotten up there, but somehow every upper window had over time been glazed with reclaimed church glass. Only HE could fathom also how The Irregulars had raised, secured and flown a fantastical chandelier of glass for that towering ceiling – Cinderella's Coach.
He smiled as the fractured dawn fluttered down in rainbow dust. His Grace the Duke of Holdernesse would be rendered speechless were he ever to learn to what purpose the saviour of his son had committed a portion of his bounty –that is, to “Pantomime House”.
That nobleman's largesse had come at the right time. Wiggins and some of the other seniors were of an age, ability and ambition to make something of themselves. By 1902, deeds to the property in the name of Wiggins were deposited with Cox & Co and much of the Irregulars' former ad hoc modus vivendi formalised into a working business. What had been their nominal home since childhood, their retreat, shelter, church and storage house now drew on years of contacts and expertise to make a living from All Things Theatrical.
In the broader motes of light now streaming from above, a vast grotto from fairyland unveiled. Here were stored (renovated or built to order) whole sets for pantomimes, costumes and props. The most hard-nosed theatre manager was reduced to speechless rapture by the sheer volume, panoply and magic of this Mountain of Miscellanea. Here was a Giant Beanstalk 'growing' next to a Gingerbread House, occupied by various stage-y snakes and a pile of scimitars. Wiggins prided himself on either having or being able to 'find' or construct any mortal (and all fairy!) things you desired. You needed an Excalibur for King Arthur? - he had a choice of five full-size,(real metal!), complete with scabbards. Cannon? No problem. Silken canopied tents camped incongruously amid pirate vessels.
“Pantomime House” was unique, invaluable and all theatreland knew it. Sooner or later everyone passed through here. The Irregulars never bothered to put up a sign –Sir Henry Irving himself (legend ran) had stood open-mouthed like a child in Gamage's on his first visit, able only to blurt, ecstatic:“It's...it's...Pantomime House!”
The name stayed and so did the growing children, all of whom were seasoned theatre performers and stage hands from an early age. They became very good very quickly: they had to. For most it was the sole regular source of legal income. Demand for labour often outstripped supply. Drury Lane alone required hundreds of extras on stage and battalions behind the scenes for its spectacular pantomimes. Irregulars thrived, brought up in a tradition which produced seasoned actors with single figure ages who could sustain a character for five hours, then go 'home' in pitch dark.
Now, as he stood in this Palace of All Illusions, he felt grateful for that grounding. Time and again, it had stood him in good stead.
And speaking of illusions.
Certain areas of the building were not forbidden as such to the Irregulars but practically so difficult to access as to make it not worth the effort. Chief among these was that side of the room set aside for stage machinery. Here were many frequently used, portable items–pulleys, flying harnesses, wheeled dollies and the like. Behind were permanently moored, like beached vessels, heavy duty under stage gearing for revolves, traps and such.
Well before even the time of Wiggins, he had acquired a re-claimed 'star' trap of massive proportions and weight, a prototype of the lighter, more manoeuvrable design now universally adopted. Consequently it was viewed as an antique, a symbol and, like the Cinderella Coach not for sale or rent.
This Leviathan of the stage now lay in state as centrepiece to the machinery section. To move it was a Herculean Labour, constructed as it had been to transport several actors through the stage boards in trompe l'oeil,as the exquisitely wrought triangular light wood flaps petalled open and re-folded on leather hinges to mask the solid platform winching back into place.
Deceive Wiggins and you deceived the World.
Not that he underestimated the younger man's resource. By nature acutely observant and curious, rest assured Wiggins would have examined more closely had his antennae been aroused. They never were. On those infrequent occasions he passed that unremarkable scene he saw only what he was intended to see - inactive machines and patent illusions.
There was simply no reason to disturb the Sleeping Giant - any more than a man should examine the crop of every goose encountered for precious stones.
The illusion of illusion!
The steel maintenance hatch (countersunk below operational stage level) incorporated safety features to guard against accidental release. He knelt beside the sealed access , leaned over the very back of the machine, aligned the familiar handles and felt the lid tremor free .It amused him to note in passing the analogous mode of entry to a submarine as he drew from his greatcoat pocket and lit a pocket lantern.
His feet found the steps. Shutting the hatch behind him, he descended through the floor joists of Pantomime House, to the most secret passage in London.
Jonas Oldacre, that rogue Watson had chronicled as The Norwood Builder, erred if he imagined his deception to be unique. The simple erection of a false wall in the old stable cellars, suitably camouflaged, pre-dated the employment of street urchins, and provided both priest hole and private route whenever circumstance required. And here as day broke on August 3rd, 1914 it shepherded Sherlock Holmes to pastures new.
A few strides brought him to an obsolete boiler-room door from the adjacent property. He occasionally mused on the total mileage and volume of forgotten empty spaces – an archaeology bequeathed to subterranean London by successive bouts of superficial re-building, done on the cheap and often with undue haste.
As he stepped through the back panel of a wardrobe of costumes into Drury Lane Theatre, the re-assuring scent of greasepaint and face powder greeted him like an old friend.
It was a veritable rabbit warren here in the Drury's bowels and that suited him down to the ground. Caught up as they were in the all-consuming business of profit through pleasure, the blinkered,avant-garde management of 1914 had simply forgotten whole suites of superfluous, de-commissioned rooms, left intact but as invisible as landscapes blanketed with snow.
The room was nondescript, one of a corridor of identical disused dressing rooms. To the casual eye it remained as left some mid-Victorian night when the theatre went dark.
He had used it for years. The absence of a water supply and reliance on portable lanterns was no discomfort: he never stayed long. It was a staging-post, a country halt between one identity and the next. All he needed was to hand. Before the pitted mirror, on a dressing shelf, lay scattered in seeming disarray an actor's modest box of tricks.
Some of this make-up had once graced the face of Kean himself. Probably the only memento of Charles Macready's farewell to the stage in this very theatre lay in the sticks of greasepaint thrown up on this subterranean shore by Time's fortuitous tide.
He thought on Edmund Kean and the great Macready as he went about his transformation. He thought too of the present generation – men like John Hare, Eille Norwood (who could fool his own director with thespian skill) and of the American, Gillette, who had taken up the baton and proved worthy. And he thought on Peterson.
He really owed it all to Peterson. Before the Carbuncle affair of '89, he had favoured the London cabby as Disguise of First Choice, though it possessed its drawbacks - not least of which was the tiresome provision of horses and stabling.
The best place to hide is in open view. Commissionaire Peterson's role in conveying Mr. Henry Baker's hat and goose to 221b had inspired the notion that here was the perfect disguise. As a uniformed member of the Corps you were both accepted, respected and (crucially) invisible on any London street at any hour of the day. A uniform called for the minimum in the way of physical transformation. With his hair adapted, the discarded goatee replaced with a military tache, his body had already slipped into the familiar role. When he stood the left leg gave way reliably to an old soldier's injury. Peterson even, never to this day cottoned on that the new boy, old Charlie (Mac) Macready, veteran of three campaigns, was one and the same with Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.
All was arranged. His re-commissioning request from an obscure government department lay ready at the Corps Headquarters in The Strand, 200 yards from Charing Cross Station. He would be expected, and welcomed at his own convenience that morning.
So! (As he inspected the cut of his jib in a full length mirror) the Order of the Day was:
1. A measure of repose.
2. Down The Strand.
3. To Claridge's.
4. Well, Four would depend on Martha's report.
5. Ha! Five: a Turkish bath and good, clean British linen.
Two hours elapsed. The eyes of ‘Altamont’ closed. When they reopened ‘Mac’ saw himself in the mirror. And away in one dark recess of his mind’s attic another person mused upon the state of nations this fateful August morning.
Out of the stage door alley he emerged exhilarated, imaging the brave new world of a butterfly on the wing. His head held high, all the authority of status thrust to the fore, Charles Macready, Lance-Corporal in the Corps of Commissionaires, strode purposefully into work.
The Strand 8.30 a.m.
“Wotcha, Mac!” said The Old Guard, sat about the courtyard with pipes aglow. “Livin' yet, then!”
“Survivin'. Just survivin'.”
“Jus' doin' my bit. Lord Kitchener, 'e needed a bit of an 'and. Asked specially for me. 'Mac', says he 'I don't mind tellin’ you, we've 'it a bloody brick wall!’ I set 'im right.” He winked.
They chuckled, spat and went back to their pipes.
The formalities done, the reunions navigated, he set off in the brisk loping fashion they all recognised, with a morning’s worth of commissions over one shoulder.
“He's back then!” said The Old Guard, with no more interest than they gave to anything that for a moment stirred the sleeping yard to vacant awareness.
Claridge's. 11 a.m.
In those few remaining days of feverish, doomed diplomacy, Claridge’s vied for sheer drama with the surrounding theatres, presenting, in miniature, events of global scale and tragic denouement.
In more settled times, the smoking room of the Charing Cross Hotel was much favoured by foreign agents as a place of assignation for its proximity to the boat-train. In recent years a sea change had occurred and they were much more inclined to frequent the floral Art Nouveau pillared foyer and bars of London’s royal watering place. For here foregathered the reigning houses of Europe. Grandmama Queen Victoria had set her seal of approval on the old Claridge building and for the last fifteen years a regal flush of Continental cousins had made a home from home of Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s reborn phoenix.
Where power lies there the spy must go and he smiled to think on the novel location for intrigue afforded by a Claridge’s private lift.
They were here now - he recognised several, endlessly re-reading their newspapers, while Germans marched into France, eking out pots of well-stewed tea., as the fate of little Belgium hung in the balance, their hooded eyes trained on the ever-revolving main doors , on each soft swish of a lift door’s opening. All saw but none observed the commissionaire who had come via the Staff Entrance and concierge passage and now exchanged the time of day with Mr. Brewster.
“Rum day? Aye, so it is! Joined up again, then, Mac? Good on you, son! Never too old to serve, that's what I say,” opined Brewster, with a well-meaning salute.
“This lady, though, she ain't here no more, but she has left a note for Mr. Holmes. Best get it straight into his hands now! You know how perticlar he can be!”
“Thanking you, Mr. Brewster, sir. For your trouble.”
“Oh, generous to a fault as per. Sure to give 'im my best now! Yes, Ms. Van Ryn! You wish to make a deposit?”
And he moved to another station of his luxurious concierge domain.
MY DEAR MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES,
You really did it very well and I sincerely regret the manner in which I must wish you a fond adieu.
As you see, I am gone. And with me dear old ruddy-faced ‘Martha’ and her country cap. The Baron von Herling whom you passed like a ship in the night in his limousine prefers younger, altogether more sophisticated society. We have become delightfully close these last few months, the Legation Secretary and I ,meeting whenever Herr. Von Bork’s housekeeper must dutifully visit her poor dear invalid mother.
He suspects nothing. I retain his full trust and with it the most privileged of entrees to Berlin’s highest circles . You will, I know, appreciate also the security for a vulnerable widow of an indulgent private Treasury as travelling companion.
It gratifies me to be the facilitator of your escaping any imminent act of personal retribution. I have entertained the enemy in the isolation of his suite until the early boat-train from Charing Cross, while the good Brewster sent night messengers with a naughty little note I signed ‘Von Bork’ to the seven addresses you were to look into today.
In my own hand, I wrote one more - to our own dear treacherous paymaster requesting urgent funds in the present crisis.
At noon today the normal tranquility of Claridge’s Hotel will I predict experience some slight commotion when several irate German spies converge upon The Fumoir to accost a paymaster ‘Von Bork’ insists has been unmasked as none other than the famous Detective of Baker Street, a British triple-agent in disguise!
You may I trust sleep a little safer this night and I remain, dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
Very truly yours,
And he thought of a passing greeting in the night long, long ago and a cabinet photograph locked in a drawer.
A conception of such elegance from the mind of so resourceful a woman deserved its sporting chance and may just save him weeks of labour. Let the wolves devour one of their own.
A telegram to Wiggins would presently put an invisible army of urchins on the streets of Mayfair. Beyond that, his task was to do nothing, which, on occasion, against the grain as it was, he knew to be the most productive option. Irregular shadows clinging like burrs would serve to locate a crop he could reap at leisure.
He scribbled a telegram from the concierge pad, handed it to Brewster and slipped away., leaving the convocation of international spies to their cold tea and vain devices.
Northumberland Avenue 1pm.
If Dr. Watson were a building he would be Nevill's Turkish Baths on Northumberland Avenue and in a world drowning in horrific uncertainties, Charles 'Mac' Macready now gravitated instinctively to that Moorish oasis of civilised permanence.
Mounting the steps he collided with a heavily built, elderly man with a grey moustache, accompanied by two burly medical orderlies.
“Oh, what am I? Beg pardon, Guv!”
“Perfectly all right, Commissionaire. Not looking where I'm going. Mind elsewhere, what!”
“It's Doc..it's Doctor Wilson, ain't it, if I'm seein' aright?”
“Watson. Watson. Doctor Watson of 221b...”
“Baker Street! Lor! Wait'll I tell old Peterson and the lads! I've only passed the time o' day wi' the famous friend and biographer of Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself! How is his nibs? 'Ow's he doin' then? Or is it all too 'ush 'ush, eh, Doctor... eh?!”
Puffed with pride and exuding the most spontaneous affection, the Good Doctor replied, with a knowing tap on his bulbous nose, “Well, I don't mind telling you, I was with him just last night. In fact...”(he checked himself) “...My friend and colleague Sherlock Holmes lives yet and enjoys a life of tranquil retirement keeping bees on the Sussex Downs.”
Good old Watson.
“Well, I never! Bees is it? Well, then. May Gawd bless 'im, I say! And Gawd bless you an' all, may I say. I give you Good Day!”
Watching his elderly colleague pick up the familiar doctor's stride as he blended into the lunchtime throng of City clerks and an Empire marching to war, he found embodied in one dear friend quite sufficient motive for the deadly work ahead.
[Copyright © Raymond P. Wilcockson 2013. All Rights Reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced without written consent from the author.]