Femme Fatale

An Irene Adler Novel

Irene Adler (Volume 7)

Carole Nelson Douglas

Forge Books

1.
 
Duet
 
He was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only
a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit.
 
—DR. JOHN H. WATSON, “THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE,” 1891,
 
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
  
at Neuilly, near Paris
August, 1889
 
“I cannot believe,” I told Irene, “that you would agree to such a shocking thing without telling your husband!”
“Which can you not believe, Nell, that I would agree to a ‘shocking thing’ or that I would not tell Godfrey?”
I had long since learned that my friend Irene Adler Norton was fashioned from an impossible human amalgam resembling iron brocade: apparently decorative but, in truth, nigh impossible to ruffle or bend. I might better exercise my lungs by attempting to blow out the fire in the grate as to move her resolve with the feeble zephyrs of my words.
I shifted ground. “I cannot believe that you would invite That Man to our common home without telling me.”
“But I have told you.”
“Just now…when he could arrive any moment! I am not prepared to receive a guest, even if you are.”
I lifted my embroidery hoop from my lap in a gesture of exasperation. The trailing threads immediately attracted the snagging claws of the Persian cat, Lucifer, whose instincts for mayhem were as black as his long, silky coat. In an instant he was tangled in my rainbow skeins.
“Obviously,” Irene continued, watching my struggle to unwind embroidery silks from Lucifer’s claws with a certain clinical interest, “Sherlock Holmes is not a guest, in your estimation, but an intruder. You must understand that he comes here at my invitation, for a bit of very simple business. I merely have to honor my word and give him the English translation I have had made of the Yellow Book.”
“Of course,” I said grimly, my shredded threads tugged free of their attacker at last. “It is bad enough that demonic diary fell into our hands at the end of the Ripper affair. I still shudder when I think of the Unholy Trinity that was allied against us then. I doubt that the world will ever be safe from them, however obscurely, and deeply, and securely they are imprisoned. Now you only perpetuate that dreadful time by passing on the demented creature’s scribblings to Sherlock Holmes.”
“I promised him I would, Nell. And my making the translation allowed me to…protect any mention of my dear ones by what you rightly call a ‘demented creature.’ If Mr. Holmes’s presence is so undesirable, you could withdraw upstairs. I don’t expect him to remain long.”
“How I wish that urgent political depositions in Paris did not keep Godfrey away from home on just this very day! Oh, and I may leave if I don’t like the company? Of course! Banish me upstairs to leave you alone with That Man! In Godfrey’s absence? I think not. It is my duty to act as chaperon.”
Irene sighed, bending to lift the cat free of what was left of my fancy work. “Duty is never pleasant, but I can see that you are determined to make it as unpleasant as possible.”
I regarded her with suspicion, but said nothing, though my mind was busy imagining the worst. Was the forthcoming visitor why she had donned her most becoming housedress today? This was a trailing white silk gown with a black net overlay of jet beads and scallops of black lace. The overall effect was of charmingly girlish polka dots, which on closer examination proved far more elegant and sophisticated than that.
Of course, all of Irene’s housedresses were becoming, a fact that Godfrey seemed to appreciate. Irene had been an operatic diva, after all, so even her most casual attire displayed inimitable panache. Perhaps that was only because she was extraordinarily comely, as certified by the words of a king: “She has a soul of steel. The face of the most beautiful of women,” Wilhelm of Bohemia had observed before adding the unfortunate and equally true afterthought, “and the mind of the most resolute of men.”
I had always been taught that masculine resolution belonged to the superior sex. Irene confounded that conviction in me, and in others, including Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the London consulting detective with whom circumstances had recently forced far more acquaintance than I liked.
Irene’s own past efforts as a private inquiry agent for the Pinkerton agency in America, even before she descended on England in the early eighties to pursue her operatic career, did not help insure that the likes of Sherlock Holmes and other official and unofficial minions of the law would not darken our cottage doorstep in bucolic Neuilly. At least it was far enough outside of Paris to remain a simple village rather than a crowded and corrupt metropolis.
But now the London “sleuth” was to cross our rural threshold in person.
I glanced down at my striped skirt. And I would be forced to receive him looking like a milkmaid…not that a spinster past thirty like myself gave a fig for matters of dress, beauty, or unexpected visitors of the masculine persuasion.
“He will sniff down that sharp London nose of his at our countrified ways,” I said. “I am surprised that you are not wearing your favorite Worth.”
Irene burst out laughing as she untangled Lucifer’s claws from the lace at her elbows. “Sherlock Holmes would as much notice the exquisite couture of Charles Frederick Worth, even though the eminent ‘man-milliner’ of Paris is a distant relation of his by marriage, as he would Lucifer’s savage ‘disembowing’ of the ribbons along your skirt revers.”
“Oh! That dreadful cat! He has indeed managed to undo all my ribbons.”
I tossed the embroidery hoop aside and began retying the endless rows just as a knock sounded in the hallway.
I redoubled my efforts. On no account was Mr. Sherlock Holmes to see me with my bows undone, especially since he had witnessed my shockingly irregular attire during the dark events of our previous adventure. I was, after all, an Englishwoman, if not a lady born.
Sophie, our maid of all work and mistress of far too little of it, soon appeared in the parlor door, making what passed for a curtsy. “Where should I place the gentleman’s coat and chapeau, s’il vous plait.”
We had so few callers here in the country that no protocol governed their disposition.
“The newel post will do for the coat, Sophie,” Irene said airily, “and the hall table for the hat.”
At that moment The Man himself appeared in the doorway, cloaked in country checks with a plaid hat known as a deerstalker upon his head.
Having only previously seen him in the stripped trousers and top hat of city wear, I straightened red-faced from my bow-tying labors and tried to suppress a snicker. The visitor looked more countrified than ourselves! In fact, I had to admit that his attire was more suitable for a Neuilly visit than city garb. Could it be that Mr. Holmes was less insensitive to the subtle social language of attire than Irene thought?
“Madam,” he said with a bow to Irene. “Miss Huxleigh,” to me. He handed his coat to Sophie (the poor woman disappeared behind its massive long folds like a mushroom behind a checked mountain) and flung his cap out of sight toward the hall table.
I was irritatingly sure that it had landed where aimed, though I could not see for sure.
With this cavalier gesture, he crossed the threshold into our feminine domain. I saw he wore a brown tweed suit, suitable for travel or shooting holidays.
Irene had risen to extend her hand.
Mr. Holmes took it, hesitated, then shook it in the American fashion.
I could not imagine him kissing it in the Continental fashion, although Quentin Stanhope, or even Godfrey, could no doubt manage that Frenchified sort of salute quite skillfully.
The thought of Quentin kissing a hand, my hand, caused my traitorous heart to skip several beats. I had so stupidly failed both him and myself on the last occasion we had spent time together! Granted, we had both survived great perils and were not ourselves. Yet despite the heightened emotions of the moment, everything severe and cautious from my sheltered Shropshire childhood had risen up to deny him. I could still see the tenderness in his too-truthful hazel eyes fade into such unnecessary apology. I could still hear Nellie Bly, who had accompanied him during the last leg of the rescue mission, calling him “my dear Quentin” not an hour after our disastrous reunion! A reunion that was only disastrous after certain, unforgettable…passages between us.
No, no one could hold a candle to Quentin in the handkissing department, certainly not a man who considered himself a self-appointed tutor to all humankind!
I clasped my own hands behind my back to avoid any possibility of awkward social contact. If the gesture made me look like a green schoolroom miss, so be it. I knew things about Mr. Sherlock Holmes that even Irene with all her fabled perception could not and would not imagine. It was not that I was especially perceptive, only that I once had occasion to peruse the papers of his associate, Dr. Watson, and had found some thankfully unpublished scribblings about the affair that had first introduced Mr. Holmes into our acquaintance, a manuscript the would-be literary doctor had melodramatically titled “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
We were not in Bohemia now, thank the Lord, but France, which was quite another kettle of poisson. Odd that the French word for “fish” is so close in spelling to that fatal word in English, poison, but not really odd when you consider how fish taste and smell. That is how I regarded Mr. Sherlock Holmes. As poison to be avoided like the plague. There!
“You are looking better, Miss Huxleigh,” The Man noted with his usual superior air, “than when last we met.”
“I should hope so,” I replied. “I have since then been removed from the enforced company of a number of odious persons.”
He could not fail to miss that I included him along with the truly heinous villains of our previous adventure.
His smile was private as he turned again to Irene. All men turned again to Irene. She was a magnet whose force could not be denied on the operatic boards or on the more intimate stage of private life.
“I have taken the liberty,” she said, returning his smile, “of having a small repast laid out in the parlor window that overlooks the garden. Perhaps you would join us for tea. Meanwhile, I will retrieve the manuscript that is the object of your visit.”
“The manuscript that you so fetchingly spirited away from that terrifying castle before I could read it,” he pointed out.
“It was in a non-romance language, Mr. Holmes.”
“I can read a bit of some non-romance languages, such as the German in Psychopathia Sexualis. I must thank you for introducing me to such a rare volume of criminal lore. In fact, I am only now returned from the University of Graz in Austria, where I met with Professor von Krafft-Ebing who heads the Neuro-Psychiatry clinic there, the author of that volume you so kindly…lent me.”
“It was not a loan, Mr. Holmes, and you need not thank me. It had served my purposes already.” Irene had dropped her role of gracious hostess as a man might have cast a gauntlet upon the castle floor. “Do you mean to tell me you have consulted with Baron von Krafft-Ebing? The man himself? Recently?”
“Why else did you think I was abroad again, my dear lady?”
“I assumed another case involving foreign heads of state, of course, my dear sir.”
Much as I feared the unwanted secret that I harbored—that Sherlock Holmes was both contemptuous of women’s wit in general and enamored of Irene’s wit in particular—I realized that I was witnessing a joust, not a tryst. These “my dears” were mere nicks in the verbal fencing match between civilized opponents, not anything personal…beyond a keen professional rivalry.
“The book itself,” she said, “would seem to be plenty enough food for thought. What more could the author add to his compendium of infamy?”
“There is always more to be learned in the vast arena of crimes of passion around the globe. Professor Krafft-Ebing has achieved something remarkable in the annals of criminal history. He has recorded the acts and particulars of a certain breed of killers he calls lust-murderers as a scientist, not a policeman, would. These are cold and factual case studies, naked of political conclusions and moral confusions. Simple facts. He records the acts, repulsive as they are to any civilized person, without emotion or distortion. And in multiplicity, there is no denying the universality of human wrongdoing. No detail, however debased, escapes his observation and analysis. The book is a classic and the man is a wonder.”
“I wonder,” said I, “that any civilized person would wish to know more about such grisly matters.”
I expected Mr. Holmes to debate me. Instead, he laughed, voicelessly. “Dr. Watson, my esteemed physician friend, would agree with you. He strongly feels that some subjects are not fit knowledge, especially for a woman’s sensibility.”
“I don’t agree with that,” Irene said sharply. “What women don’t know will hurt them.”
Mr. Holmes’s expression was both challenged and chagrined. “I said that was Dr. Watson’s opinion. I myself do not flinch from the brutal. I have recently been involved in a matter in which a man’s thumb was severed as he sought to escape kidnappers.”
“Gracious!” I could not help saying, thus unwittingly drawing the man’s attention again.
“I am sorry to offend your sensibilities, Miss Huxleigh, though I must admit that I am pleased to see that your thumbs are still attached and busy at household arts, but the world of wrongdoing is full of such deliciously insane events. Professor Krafft-Ebing enlightened me a good deal in that regard.”
“Perhaps,” Irene said, “the dainty treats of the tea-table are not suitable after such conversation. If you will excuse me, I will fetch the translation.” She turned to the hall, then paused and turned back. “Did you find any new evidence in Whitechapel? Anything that would absolve the criminals we captured in the Carpathians earlier this summer?”
Mr. Holmes fingered the small gold sun of a coin that dangled from his watch-fob, a coin that figured, I am sure, in the good doctor’s manuscript titled “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
“Nothing that would release any of the villains in the case, and nothing that would fully indict them either.”
“Nothing?” she asked sharply.
“I did discover more traces of identifiable cork and candle wax, enough to buttress the case against them, but nothing so conclusive that anyone dare announce a solution. This matter would best be forgotten and buried in the newspaper morgues,” he replied.
“A pity. It was so spectacularly grotesque. I imagine the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ will be used to frighten children into good behavior for some time.”
She nodded and turned to leave again, but this time his voice gave her pause, instead of the reverse.
“I do hope, Mrs. Norton, that you are giving me a full translation, with no…expurgations.”
“My dear Mr. Holmes, if you can read Professor Krafft-Ebing’s much despised book on lust-murders and even discuss it with its controversial author, I am sure that I would not be so bold as to Bowdlerize any other volume for your consumption.”
Hmmm.” His murmur expressed either satisfaction…or doubt.
Irene decided to take it for the former, and smiled again before rustling up our hall staircase.
“Have you read it?”
The question was both abrupt and harsh, and I moved my gaze from Irene’s departing skirts to find Mr. Holmes’s gimlet gray eyes fixed upon me with the sharpness of a needle point.
“I? Gracious, no. I saw enough of depravity at that Carpathian castle to last me a lifetime. I really cannot understand why you should wish to pursue such matters with the author, and now with that…loathsome diary from the hand of a person whose crimes are unimaginable.”
“There are no unimaginable crimes, Miss Huxleigh,” he said, bending his gaze near my hemline.
I cringed to think that he had noted my unfastened bows, but when I glanced down, I saw that Lucifer, the wretch, had hidden under my skirts and was now thrusting out a suspicious paw, his fat furry foot resembling the toe of a black, ostrich-feather mule.
I stepped back at once to reveal the cat’s full form. It was unthinkable that Mr. Sherlock Holmes should believe me capable of wearing anything so frivolous as an ostrich-feather mule!
He made no remark on the cat, instead strolling to where the small round table looked out on the side garden. To do so he had to pass the piano, and his eyes fixed on that instrument with some intensity as he went by it. It was an old-fashioned square piano of rosewood, closed for now and wearing a Spanish shawl. Its lower legs were not swathed in velvet pantaloons, as had been the custom since the days that piano legs were thought too suggestive of women’s limbs to reveal.
Mr. Holmes did not appear to direct any licentious glances in their direction, which was a point in his favor.
He clasped his long bony hands behind his back and gazed into the garden, which was entering its autumn stage.
In the parrot cage behind the piano, Casanova edged his gaudy red, green, and yellow plumage down the perch to comment “Good day, Matey,” in that odd distant voice of parrots that always sounds like an echo.
The consulting detective ignored the bird’s greeting. Indeed, I had the notion that his mind was far removed from this quiet (except for Casanova) parlor in Neuilly outside Paris.
In fact, his entire mien struck me as pensive. (Not the bird’s, the man’s.) I immediately found my indignation rising on Irene’s behalf. Supposedly, the man was secretly besotted with her. Surely he could produce some better reaction to being in her home and her presence than a moody pout!
“The mongoose has slain a snake, I see,” he said out of the blue.
“Mongoose!” I dropped my already abused embroidery hoop to the floor as I stood. “Snake! Not a small green one.”
“No, a medium black-and-green striped one.” He turned, his features tautened with amusement. “Nothing so large and lethal as, say, a cobra, Miss Huxleigh. But then I imagine you have not had an opportunity to see such a fearsome snake in your experience.”
I certainly had! More than once. In fact, the mongoose in my care, Messalina, had dispatched more than one when we had occasion to revisit London to save this very man’s Boswell, Dr. Watson, from persons with evil intentions toward him.
“A garden snake,” I diagnosed with relief. “Messy is fed very well and does not need to eat anything, but at least the victim is not one of Sarah Bernhardt’s green snakes that I inherited.”
“I imagine the mongoose acts for the sport of the chase, not from hunger. Other creatures than ourselves enjoy the constant game of hunter and hunted.”
“I do not, Mr. Holmes. We can all rise above our beastly natures.”
“Some of us do not want to,” he commented, “which is when I find myself being consulted.” He glanced over his shoulder as if eager for Irene’s reappearance.
I could only suppose that listening to Casanova, watching the garden, and trying to make awkward conversation with me were not pursuits that suited the man’s temperament. He struck me as a strider and a pacer, an indefatigable walker in town and country.
Rapid steps on the hall stair saved us from further attempts at conversation. Irene, as usual, was clattering down the staircase like a schoolgirl.
“Here it is,” she announced, a bit breathlessly.
Instead of the producing the small, yellow moiré-bound diary kept by one of the principal villains during our Continental pursuit of Jack the Ripper after Whitechapel, she cradled a sheaf of papers in the crook of one arm, a raw manuscript, written by hand.
Mr. Holmes met her halfway across the room, accepting the untidy sheaf of paper with avidity.
“Excellent! May I ask whom you employed to translate it?”
“An east European actress. I told her it was from a novel.”
This was news to me, but while I stared agape, Mr. Holmes nodded. “The tale this tells reads better as fiction, I suspect. A discreet and clever solution to a vexing problem. If the material is unabridged.”
He hefted the manuscript, matching his gesture with a lilt of one dark eyebrow. “I should put it in my coat.” With that he vanished into the hall, allowing Irene and I to exchange several significant glances, none of which was quite clear to either of us. Consultation after his departure was clearly needed.
He returned so swiftly he was caught in the crossfire of our latest voiceless consultation. His hand still held the manuscript, which was odd.
Then he hefted it up for our inspection and I saw it was a small red-bound book rather. “I offer an exchange of prisoners,” he said. “Please accept this small token: my friend Dr. Watson’s first foray into authorship.”
Irene took it before I could intercept her.
Oh, no! Had that dreadful manuscript called “A Scandal in Bohemia” actually been printed by some penny-dreadful press? And would Sherlock Holmes have the colossal nerve to pass on a fiction that publicly described his fascination with the very woman, the very married woman, who now held the dangerous volume in her hand? Would Godfrey be forced to challenge him to a duel because of it? Godfrey and Sherlock Holmes…would it be pistol or sword? Would I risk seeing both of my dear friends distraught and perhaps even destroyed because of this miserable bit of fictioneering?!
I rushed to snatch the small volume from Irene’s hands. “Dr. Watson? An author? Oh, I must see! Right now!”
“Nell—!” Irene remonstrated mildly.
One oddity I noticed at once. “It says ‘by Conan Doyle.’”
“Watson is modest,” Mr. Holmes said, “and doesn’t want his medical profession confused with his literary hobby. That is the name of his literary agent.”
Hmmm.” The publisher was Ward, Lock and Company, a London house, at least, I observed. I paged through, encountering some illustrations. In one a lounging gentlemen had ranks of scruffy street Arabs lined up and saluting like some grubby regiment. The caption read: “’Tention,” cried Holmes in a sharp tone.
Although the figure purporting to be Holmes more resembled Oscar Wilde, I could just see him ordering around an array of street Arabs.
“The illustrations are by Mr. Doyle’s father, Charles Altamont Doyle, a rather well-known sketcher in his day.”
Hmmmm.” I was not about to admit that I found the entire package mystifying as well as disturbing.
I closed the volume. My fingers traced the large elaborate letters of the title, which seemed composed of Oriental slashes. A Study in Scarlet.
There was nothing scarlet about Irene’s Bohemian adventure, unless you cast her in the role of Scarlet Woman.…The villain! That is exactly the sort of lurid character assassination I should expect from a physician who has nothing better to do than scribble stories instead of prescriptions. If Irene was utterly upright in any one area, it was in resisting any temptation to become what the French so coyly term a Grand Horizontal: in other words, a woman who will sleep for her supper.
“I cannot believe you would give us this book!” I said sharply.
“You are right,” Mr. Holmes answered. “It speaks of shameless self-advertisement, but, believe me, I offer you this volume, not because it catalogues one of my more interesting cases, but because I believe both of you ladies met one of the principals.”
Of course we had “met one of the principals”! The King of Bohemia had been Mr. Holmes’s client, Irene’s suitor, and my, my mortal…enemy, because he was at bottom no friend to Irene’s integrity.
Irene was by now eyeing me reprovingly. “One of the principals?” She had no reason to jump to the unhappy conclusion I just had.
“A Mr. Jefferson Hope of the United States,” Mr. Holmes went on with relish, surprising me. “The poison-pill killer of the Mormon hypocrites who had forced his innocent beloved into a loveless marriage and spurred her early death in the far-off salt flats of the West. It was among my most satisfying and sensational cases, I might add. The American West produced an avenging angel with a sense of justice as well as of mission. Jefferson Hope was captured in my rooms, answering a trap I had laid in the agony column claiming to have found lost Lucy’s ring. He was by then already deadly ill of a heart condition that would claim his noble, if savage, soul soon after. Before that he raved of meeting ‘two angels of mercy’ who had forgiven him the sins he had committed in order to avenge his dead…ah, fiancée. His description of the ‘angels’ was so physically exact, and indeed memorable, that I realized later that they must have been you and Miss Huxleigh.”
By now Irene was freeing the blasted book from my numb fingers, one by one. Jefferson Hope. Yes, we had met that doomed man. That was how we had first learned of the existence of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Baker Street. So had, I imagine, many readers of Beeton’s Christmas Annual by now. That perfectly respectable publication had first serialized the story that led to this single-volume novel, according to its cover.
I stood confused. This book was certainly not the manuscript relating the Bohemian affair I had seen in the doctor’s office. Still, it showed that he not only intended to publish, but had achieved it, which boded ill for that damning manuscript remaining secret. My current relief could not ease my fears for the future.
Even now Irene’s palm was caressing the cursed cover. “Jefferson Hope. A most remarkable man. I’m pleased to have this remembrance of him, for he gave me his Lucy’s ring and I still treasure it.”
“You have the ring! He didn’t say that before he died.”
Irene regarded him for a moment. “So now that I have solved an old mystery for you, Mr. Holmes, perhaps you can solve one for me.”
She moved toward a trunk that served as a side table, its homely origin hidden under another flagrantly figured silk scarf. Belatedly, I recognized it as one of the second-hand trunks she had used to store costume pieces from our early lodgings in London’s Saffron Hill district.
As Irene whisked the shawl aside, a wave of nostalgia swept me back to a time seven years ago, before Irene and I had ever met Sherlock Holmes, or Godfrey Norton, for that matter.
Irene knelt to open the ancient trunk and began attacking its contents, shunting crackling pieces of taffeta and limp lengths of lace aside almost as roughly as Lucifer exercising his claws among my embroideries.
Mr. Holmes watched her with an air of puzzled disbelief. It was not the ordinary hostess who fell to her knees to ravage the contents of a trunk on some unknown whim.
I knew Irene and her unknown whims, and I knew that they always had a purpose.
“Here!” She turned and flourished a shabby black case like a magician producing a top hat accoutered with a rabbit. “I knew I still had it. Poor old fellow! He asked me to keep it instead of a pawn shop. The legend of the starving artist is based on all-too-true facts, and Erich was a maestro.”
Mr. Holmes actually extended a hand to help her up, but Irene filled it with the handle of the mysterious black case and leaped up as if she were the magical rabbit, with no sense of effort or strain, and certainly no consciousness that a gentleman should assist a woman in all things.
Her face was radiantly pink after the effort of unearthing the black case from her treasure trove of forgotten fabrics. I winced to see her looking so happy and pretty in front of Mr. Holmes.
Yet he had eyes only for the case.
I saw, now that it was unveiled, that it was a pear-shaped violin case.
“Irene!” I couldn’t help exclaiming. “I’ve never seen such a thing in your possession before. Has it always resided in your trunk?”
“I almost forgot about it myself, Nell. The poor old maestro left it in my care as a parting gift, and it soon was lost beneath the flea-market fabrics. I suspect that this old violin is a rather good one. Is it, Mr. Holmes?”
He had laid the object atop the piano and opened the case, almost as slowly as he had explored the poison-bearing cigarette case on an earlier occasion when we had been forced to accept his presence.
Then, he had saved Irene’s life.
Now, he attempted to preserve the integrity of an obviously old object.
I glimpsed dusty and flattened rose velvet and flabby leather hinges.
Irene gazed into the case like a child at Christmas, all the actress’s artful composure fled, her hand at her mouth as if to hold in excitement, her coiffure trailing loosened tendrils.
“Is it good?” she asked again, clearly unable to wait for a verdict.
Sherlock Holmes was occupying some other place or time. His face lost its habitual hawkish cast. Suddenly I glimpsed the boy in him, the boy at Christmas who did not have many heartfelt presents, and none that spoke to his secret soul. I knew this in my governess’s heart, and, as much as I feared the man, even more, for this moment, I pitied the boy. My throat grew suddenly thick.
He neither saw nor noted my reaction, or even Irene’s. He lifted the instrument from the case…up, up to the light of the window. So a dipsomaniac might hoist of glass of claret, holding it poised on the fingertips of both hands, as if a touch might turn it to powder.
He sighted down its length both front and back like a hunter weighing a field piece. He peered into its recesses, bent to study the faded velvet. Said nothing.
“Perhaps Amati?” Irene prompted.
“No.”
“Surely not Stradivarius.”
“No.”
“Then it is worthless. How sad. I had hoped for the maestro’s sake it was not.”
“A Guarneri.”
I couldn’t resist breaking the strange spell that enwrapped them and disquieted me. “Is that a dread disease, pray tell? Like tuberculosis?”
“The Guarneris were a family of violin makers active from the sixteenth into the eighteenth centuries,” Mr. Holmes answered me with equanimity. “They were instrumental geniuses of the first water, though their violins are no longer as well known as the Stradivarius or Amati to the general public.”
Well, I had never been labeled “the general public” before!
He finally glanced at Irene. I had the oddest feeling that he hadn’t dared to do so before.
She awaited his verdict with an annoying air of suspense. Surely there were better appraisers of violins in France than this visiting Englishman! I think what annoyed me most was that she welcomed his verdict, that she was most sincerely interested in it.
“Guarneri,” she repeated. “You are right. I am not familiar with that name. Is it…playable?”
“It has been abominably neglected.”
“I am not a violinist.”
“The strings are brittle and the wood weeps for oiling.”
“That shall be repaired as soon as possible. I had forgotten it, you see.”
“You are a musician. How could you have forgotten an instrument of this rank?”
“I am both a musician and my own instrument. Those strings are my vocal cords. That wooden frame is my sounding board of bone and blood. I maintain myself. I had forgotten the maestro’s long-ago gift. Can you play it?”
“I can, but I doubt that I should.”
“Just a few passages, perhaps. I should like to hear it again. It had such a sweetness of tone, I remember.”
“Madam, really—”
But Irene had dashed around the front of the piano, drawing out the stool and lifting the key cover.
“It is yours, Mr. Holmes, if it is worth having. I will never play the violin, nor anyone else here. I am so glad I remembered it. The maestro would be happy.”
“I am an amateur, madam.”
“You play. Nell particularly remarked upon it.”
He sent me a look sharp enough to debone a trout. I thanked Irene’s tact that she did not mention my opinion of the violin-sawing that I had heard emerging from his hotel room on one occasion.
A glissando of notes rippled off of Irene’s supple fingers. “Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’? Everyone knows that.”
“I must tune it.” He turned the violin into the crook of a suddenly elegant wrist and then stroked the accompanying bow over the strings.
Lucifer flattened his ears, fluffed his tail, and scampered out of the parlor at the first violently off-tune screech. I had heard that violin strings were fashioned from cat gut, which might account for the wily Lucifer’s sudden exit. Then again, the unholy wailing sound the strings emitted under Mr. Holmes’s attentions might have accomplished it.
Strangely, the dreadful sound seemed to encourage rather than discourage him. He pressed the instrument to his ear and cheek, his eyes only upon it, turned the tuning pegs, then struck a chord again. And again. Turning and striking and listening with an intensity I have seen in no other living creature than a cat, or a mongoose, waiting to strike prey.
The parlor was forgotten. The piano was forgotten. Irene was, perhaps for the first time in her life…forgotten.
She grinned at me in admission of her insignificance compared to a dusty old violin. I realized of a sudden that she had meant to distract him from the issue of how complete the translation of the Yellow Book was, that she had never answered him on that account.
I also recalled Dr. Watson’s describing his former living partner’s retreat to the seven percent solution of cocaine, and suspected that Mr. Holmes’s face and attention must be just so lost and concentrated when he was needling the drug into his hollow veins as when he was drawing sound from the hollow body of a violin.
The process, the intense…pitch of it unnerved me. It reminded me of something far closer to home, but I could not quite name it.
Irene ran another introductory glissando up the keys of her piano. Gradually, the tones of the two instruments were growing together, and the teeth-jarring dissonance was muting into melody.
Finally, Mr. Holmes nodded without taking his eyes from the violin, and her hands moved into the familiar lilting notes of “Für Elise.”
The violin entered after the first few bars, a sudden low moan of almost-unwanted harmony. And then the two very different instruments rang through their melodic pattern, both in tune and in conflict still, so different and yet so paired. The piano’s smooth, bell-like trickling sound ran like clear water. The violin sounded raw, as if each note were wrung from a dry throat. Yet it throbbed with muted feeling, as the veriest beast will whimper for some unknown boon.
I cannot say I have an ear for music. Casanova tilted his head from side to side, yet remained silent. Perhaps if Irene had sung…but there were no words to “Für Elise” and the violin was voice enough, the croakings of some abandoned Caliban as it was.
I have always preferred more sprightly instruments like piccolos and flutes to lugubrious bagpipes and the violin.
Yet there is a power in the strings’ unspoken longings, in their hoarse straining for expression, and I felt it now, despite myself. I was unhappily reminded of the Gypsy violinists of our last grueling adventure, and of one not-Gypsy violinist.
The piece ended at last, on a piano chord held until the final vibration faded, on a dying rasp of the violin strings that drifted into distance.
I was struck, watching this impromptu recital, by how much physical and mental effort each instrument required, by the emotional vibrato the long-gone composer’s score exuded like incense into the room. I thought of dead gardens, and the inexorable march of autumn in the touch of brittle leaves and the reluctant withdrawal of warm sunlight into the cool shadow.
The chamber was silent. The music gone.
It was just Irene gazing sightlessly over the top of the piano, Mr. Holmes lowering the violin and bow together, as if shaking off a spell.
They had collaborated, but separately from one another.
Irene spoke first. “I have no use for it but memory. It is yours if you want it.”
“I have a violin.”
“Not a Guarneri?”
“No, but what I have is more than sufficient for an amateur. Thank you for the duet, but I am not good enough for you there either.”
“You play very well, and that is well enough for even a professional. Surely you can use an extra violin.”
“I cannot accept so valuable a gift. On closer examination I have found the initials ‘I.H.S.’ and the signature of the great Guiseppe del Gesú of the Guarneri family, an exceptionally devout man who was perhaps second only to Stradivari himself in the construction of exquisite violins.”
Irene smiled, played a rivulet of notes. “Small price to pay for Nell’s life, which I am most grateful to you for saving. In fact, I am most grateful that you chose to meddle in my affairs in that instance.”
“Playing an instrument such as this is reward enough. Who is this maestro you speak of?”
“A person very dear to me, but only informally a ‘maestro.’ He is probably dead by now.”
“What sort of ‘informal maestro’ would own, and give away, such a masterwork?”
But Irene would say no more of that. “An unplayed instrument of this quality is a sad waste, as its former owner would be the first to tell me.”
“No.” He laid the instrument and bow back in its shabby box as if interring an old friend only recently rediscovered. “Yet I thank you for the duet and pray you take better care of your Guarneri from now on.”
“I owe you my life as well, surely I can spare a violin for it.”
“I don’t like debts, whichever way they flow. In fact—”
He moved into the hall with giant steps as Irene looked at me and shrugged. She had meant him to have the violin. She had meant to clear the debtor column in her personal ledger. He would have nothing of it.
He returned from rummaging in the deep pockets of his country cloak.
In his hand was a rolled scroll of documents.
“I have, madam, an exchange of documents for you. For the courtesy of your difficult and no doubt costly unabridged translation, I have a small composition.”
The word “unabridged” made a mockery of sincerity, but it was not the one that captured her attention.
“Composition?” Irene straightened at the piano bench like a marionette whose strings have been abruptly pulled into a simulacrum of life.
He had surprised her as much as she had surprised him. Irene did not like such parity.
“Why, Mr. Holmes, what have you done?”
“Actually, Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Sullivan accomplished this.” He held out a beribboned bundle.
Irene stepped back and plastered her spread fingers to her throat. “For me? I can’t imagine—”
The sad part was, she couldn’t. Nor could I imagine what the scrolls contained, only that Irene prided herself on anticipating events, and here she had not a clue.
She delicately eased the ribbon down the scroll’s length, then unrolled one sheet to read it, like a page boy in a Shakespearian play.
“Why, this is a libretto, and these other sheaves, the music. I don’t recognize the piece.”
“Nor should you,” Mr. Holmes said. “It is freshly commissioned. After returning to London, I was occupied with reinvestigating and settling the last fragments of the Jack the Ripper matter and putting the proper highly placed persons at peace. I then had a word with your associate in Transylvania, Bram Stoker. Mr. Stoker easily convinced Sir Arthur to compose a chamber opera on the six wives of Henry the Eighth, especially for your vocal range.”
“And,” I wondered aloud, “who wrote the words?”
“Ah, Miss Huxleigh, an excellent question. I doubt we shall ever know for sure. Stoker himself wrote some of it, but Oscar Wilde had heard of the project and insisted on having a hand in the matter.”
“What!” I was appalled. “The vile Wilde?”
“More wily than vile, I would think. This is, by the way, the closet piece on the wives of Henry the Eighth.”
“The very work you suggested to me in Paris. I remember, Mr. Holmes,” Irene said in obvious surprise, and with perhaps a bit too much pleasure to please me.
“It is one thing to suggest a work of art, another to watch it being born,” he admitted, the faintest twinkle of amusement in his gray eyes. “The two librettists did nearly come to blows in my presence concerning the title of the work. Stoker wanted to call the piece ‘Brides of the Axe.’ Wilde wanted ‘Henry the Eighth’s Secret Wives.’ Sir Arthur settled on a ‘A Suite of Queens.’”
“And you, Mr. Holmes,” Irene interjected at last, “was there no title you favored? After all, you commissioned the work.”
He shook his head and fanned his long fingers in denial. “I suggested the idea. It did not cost me a penny or a pound. That is hardly commissioning a work of art. You were your own benefactress in this case. You have staunch friends in London, madam.”
Irene’s face glowed at this assurance. I realized that she missed the city and its circle of acquaintances, though she had always made the best of being exiled to Paris by circumstances beyond her control.
“You must have had some hand in this result, Mr. Holmes.” She lifted the thick scroll in her right hand as if it were a scepter. Already I could see the mantles of those long-dead queens settling on her artistic soul.
Mr. Holmes shrugged modestly. I could not believe it. “Stoker and Wilde wrote the words,” he repeated. “Sullivan the music. I made one minor contribution in suggesting that the violin serve as the model of and counterpoint to the soloist’s voice.”
Irene hastened to the piano, quickly absorbing the music indicated in the arcane patterns on the parchments.
“‘Six Wives, Six Lives,’” she declaimed her version of the title. “And I shall sing of every one of them, and of their deaths.”
“Two did not have the grace to die until their own good time,” he pointed out.
“I said it was a brilliant concept, but I did not expect—”
Mr. Holmes bowed slightly. “Nor did I expect the Guarneri, madam.”
“Apparently,” Irene said, “we have managed to exceed each other’s expectations equally. Surely now you will take the violin.”
He shook his head. “I will take my leave. Urgent matters call in London. This chamber concert was reward enough.”
“For Nell’s life?” Irene sounded incredulous.
“For the translation, and the introduction to the fascinating Krafft-Ebing and his studies. Adieu, madam. Miss Huxleigh.”
He nodded and moved into the hall to redon cape and cap and leave our home.
Moments later the latch fell shut on the front door, followed by the departing hooves of the hired horse-and-trap.
Sophie appeared in the doorway. “So tea will not be served, madam?” she asked in dour tones.
“Of course, it will! Nell and I—and Casanova—will partake royally.”
Sophie was no sooner gone than Irene was unrolling the libretto, thumbing papers to grasp both words and music, and humming snatches of melody.
“Written for both English and French. I recognize Oscar’s fine Irish hand in the libretto, too. Most intriguing, Nell! Most fascinating.”
I was happy to see Irene toying with resuming her singing career, despite the source of the inspiration. The King of Bohemia and Sherlock Holmes both knew now that she was alive, and neither wished her ill. She no longer needed to hide behind the false report of her and Godfrey’s deaths in an Alpine train wreck after escaping London more than eighteen months before.
“Nothing would please Godfrey more than your returning to the stage to use your magnificent gift,” I noted. “As Mr. Holmes said, it is a crime to conceal such a remarkable instrument. I must admit that I could wish for fewer questionable people to be involved in this project.”
“Questionable? You can’t mean Bram Stoker! You like him. And Oscar is a remarkable talent in his own right, he has only to find his métier and he will make sparks fly.”
“He is a dandy,” I said. “And Sir Arthur Sullivan’s partner Gilbert is a well-known ladies’ man—”
“And Mr. Holmes is quite the opposite, so surely that cancels out Sir Arthur’s unsavory professional association.”
“Scandal does not work like that, Irene. It is not a matter of mathematics. And who knows what scandalous tendencies a man who answers only to himself, like Sherlock Holmes, might harbor?” I said as darkly as I could without making charges I would have to verify. “He has, after all, given you two gifts today: that ridiculous little book and the libretto.”
“It is tit for tat. He knows I could have refused to share the Yellow Book with him, and then, no doubt, he would have been forced to housebreak on his way back from Germany to England, to get it. And he knows I’m rather good at hiding things. Nell! You saw today that he only has eyes for the violin, if you have suspicions otherwise. That man is as close to a monk as any nonbeliever could be, I tell you! Any passions he might have are reserved for his investigations, and, perhaps, the occasional musical interlude.”
“Which you now are.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “You are such a romantic, Nell! Really! Besides, nothing could come between Godfrey and myself.”
That last I believed.
“What of the violin?” I asked, regarding where it lay on the piano like a dead thing.
“Oh. Yes. Now that I know it is valuable, I will have to take it into Paris to be restored. I had no idea it was in such a sad state. It’s just that I haven’t thought of my old life in America for years, for some reason…or of the maestro.” She stroked the violin’s crackled surface. “Poor old maestro. I wonder if he’s still alive. It would be wonderful to see him again, and he had traveled in Europe in his youth, before I was born. No! He must be dead by now, and if he isn’t, too frail to ever return to Europe. How he used to play up storms of pathos on this very instrument. He said I must sing with as much passion as a violin could under the right hands.”
He is not an accomplished musician, Mr. Holmes, I mean, it seemed to me.”
“Quite passable, actually, yet music is not his profession. Apparently he is accomplished at unpredictability and that is more valuable in his line of work than even a Guarneri.”
“He may have diagnosed this wrongly. I have never heard of such an instrument,” I sniffed.
“Nor have I.” Irene hummed a long, lyrical phrase. “How I shall enjoy portraying all of Henry’s wives! Henry really didn’t know what to do with them when he was alive, but I certainly know what to do with them now that he is dead.”
“And what is that?”
“Why, give them the last word, after all.”
  
Copyright © 2003 by Carole Nelson Douglas