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“My dear Watson, you astonish me,” proclaimed a smiling Sherlock Holmes, sitting to my right on a crimson banquette in the newly refurbished Grill Room of the Café Royal. “Baccarat.” He tapped the bulbous glass approvingly. “And a more than decent claret within it. To say nothing of a splendid veal chop, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, and the promise of mince pie to come,” he added, “followed no doubt by an excellent coffee, brandy, and cigar. Such largesse! It is inescapable that your practice in Pimlico is thriving. Or can it be that after a mere two years, domesticity has begun to pall?”
Accustomed to his familiar teasing on the subject of my marriage,* I declined to rise to the bait.
“My bride, as I delight in terming her, is, it happens, an excellent chef. I need not dine out for culinary gratification.”
“How else then to explain such reckless extravagance in an ex–army surgeon?”
“It is my turn to confess astonishment,” I shot back, hardly able to conceal my amusement. “Can you think of no occasion for such a repast?”
“Occasion?” Holmes raised a quizzical eyebrow. His grey eyes twinkled amid the gleam of a dozen gas jets, whose mirrored reflections multiplied their number and gave the place its pleasing ambience, and waved a languid arm with extended fingers in the general direction of the glittering assemblage. I was pleased to see the well-loved establishment had chosen to retain its old-fashioned illumination. Incandescent lights were sure to prove less atmospheric.
“You cannot guess?”
“I never guess.”
I sat back, more than pleased with myself.
“Let us marshal the facts,” I suggested. “The date, for example.”
He frowned once more, twirling the stem of his glass between a thumb and forefinger.
“The sixth of January.”
“What of it?”
“Come now, Holmes. January sixth is your birthday.”
“Oh, that.” He swallowed a mouthful of claret with a dismissive expression that belied the vintage.
“Not merely January sixth, 1905. You are fifty years old today. If that is no occasion for celebration, I cannot imagine what is.”
“I’m not at all sure I concur,” my singular companion mused. “About being fifty, I mean. As you know, I can never remember the year of my birth. I was doubtless too young to make note of it at the time.”
We studied one another after the fashion of friends who’ve not seen one another recently. I know his eagle eye discerned my avoirdupois; it was not that hard to perceive. But I must say, though his jet hair was now agreeably flecked with silver, the detective did not look his age. His eyes remained as bright, his nose as hawklike and imperious, his jawline as firm as ever I knew them.
There was a caesura during our mutual inventory while a silent waiter topped up our glasses. The man was hardly out of earshot when I made so bold as to respond.
“As your biographer, I, on the other hand, am certain of your age. Be that as it may,” I rushed on before he could debate me, “here we find ourselves at the dawn of the twentieth century, and whether you are fifty or else forty-nine or fifty-one, you are indubitably at the zenith of your capacities and—”
“Ready for retirement, you’re about to say.”
“I was about to say no such thing!”
“Well, I was. Think, if you will, about 1904,” he persisted. “Surely the most boring year on record, and the new one gives no promise of a better.”
“From a criminal standpoint, I mean. Oh, for all I know great things are in the works elsewhere, and we have captured Lhasa—which I can tell you from personal experience is nothing to boast of—* but crime, I’m sorry to say, has reached an all-time nadir. There is a positive dearth of imagination amongst the criminal class nowadays. Embezzlement is the best they can manage. Tricks with numbers.”
“Does the body found two days ago near London Bridge not arouse your interest? The Daily Telegraph says the unfortunate creature had been stabbed. Perhaps,” I added, hoping to rouse him, “it is still the handiwork of Saucy Jack?”
He all but rolled his eyes. “Come, my boy, you can do better than that. Saucy Jack, as you are pleased to call him, added mutilation to his murders, always limited himself to slatterns from the East End, and never disposed of their remains in the Thames. I’ve no doubt the well-dressed, tallow-haired woman found by the police launch will prove merely the victim of a domestic tragedy. Her husband or lover will shortly be apprehended and the sordid matter speedily brought to its equally sordid conclusion.” Here he heaved a sigh. “Ergo, what is left for me, but retirement? Somewhere in the country, I shall rusticate among flora and fauna.”
Rather than have him pursue this bucolic if querulous train of thought, I produced the parcel I had hitherto sought to conceal. This time both eyebrows were hoisted aloft.
“What have we here?”
“A gift. Not from me,” I hastened to add, knowing his distaste for the sentimental. “My surprise supper was all I dared, but Juliet also wishes you a happy birthday. Go on, man, open it.”
With a sigh of what I took to be resignation, Holmes employed the knife he had lately applied to his veal chop to slice the knotted twine and unwrap what proved to be a sizable tome.
“War and Peace,” he murmured. “A novel by”—he twisted the volume—“Count Tol-stoy, in a first English translation by Constance—ah.” He smiled with a shake of his head. “Garnett. Your wife’s sister-in-law, if I am not mistaken?”*
“Constance has cornered the market on the Russians,” I conceded. “This one is just published. I know you do not, as a rule, read novels, but—”
“But our friend in Vienna recommends this one highly,” Holmes concluded to my consternation.
“How on earth did you know that?”
He chuckled as he idly thumbed the uncut leaves with some skepticism. “You know my methods, Watson, yet when I explain them you are always disappointed. I know you doctors like to keep in touch, though I doubt even our friend, with his keen mind, could keep track of all these Russian names.”
“You forget, he endorsed Crime and Punishment, by that other Russian with the unpronounceable name, calling it the greatest novel ever written.”
Holmes continued perusing the pages. “They all have unpronounceable names,” he remarked, then looked up, smiling. “But so he did. One day I must give it a try. Please thank Mrs. Watson for her—”
“Well, well, the birthday boy in the flesh.”
A large shadow darkened our table, coming between the chandelier and the remains of our meal. The voice behind it sounded as though it emanated from a well.
We looked up in joint surprise to behold a backlit mass of corpulent humanity.
“Mycroft.” Holmes looked at me reproachfully. “In the flesh,” he echoed quietly.
“Holmes, I give you my word, I had no idea—”
His brother interrupted in a smooth rumble. “And I give you mine, your amanuensis had none, Sherlock. But I have my methods, as you would say, and I could scarcely allow such a momentous occasion to pass unremarked.” He surveyed our table. “What a pity your waiter’s wife has abandoned him and their two children in favor of a groom in the stables of the Life Guards.”
“Royal Horse Guards,” Holmes corrected him in a flat tone. “And she only left after he joined the ranks of Italian anarchists. Let us hope our table has not been mined,” he added. Mycroft chose to ignore this.
“Ah, presents, to be sure.” He fastened his eyes on mine. “When he was a boy, his birthday, coming as it does so soon after Boxing Day, was always experienced as a disappointment. No more gifts, you see. He must content himself with stale New Year’s Day trifle and, when he was older, flat champagne.”
“Will you join us?” I inquired with some reluctance.
“Mycroft is on his way elsewhere,” his younger brother murmured, staring at his plate. “Hence he makes no move to divest himself of his greatcoat.”
“Still at your parlour tricks.” Mycroft chuckled with what sounded like the reverberations of a volcano. “I will leave you to them—albeit we are far from the parlour. Many happy returns of the day, Sherlock.” The Silenus extended an enormous paw, which the detective touched briefly with his fingertips. “Doctor.” And with a silent grace for which one would scarcely have given him credit, the great man, if I may so term him, glided from the room.
“How curious of him to trouble about your birthday,” I observed, eyeing his retreating form. I was irresistibly reminded of an iceberg on the move.
“My brother had no more idea than I it was my birthday, let alone any thought of celebrating it.”
“Whatever can you mean?”
Holmes opened the hand that had recently taken that of his brother. In the palm nestled a crumpled page seemingly torn from an engagement diary. Seeing that he offered it to my inspection, I opened the scrap and read: Diogenes. Tomorrow. 10:00.
“Indeed. Perhaps I spoke too soon.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“About 1905 being as dull as its predecessor. As you know, Mycroft never troubles about me unless the Foreign Office is at a loss.”
I could see Holmes’s spirits lifting.
“And I never understand why, with his own formidable intellect and vaunted powers of deduction, your brother ever turns to you.”
The mince pie arrived garnished with ice cream and Holmes tucked into it with a will, declaring it between mouthfuls unsurpassed in his experience. Still constitutionally thin as a musket (another sore point from my perspective), it was remarkable how much his metabolism allowed him to consume with no discernible effects.
He chewed meditatively, evidently still pondering my question.
“Superior powers, you tactfully refrain from saying. Ah, but you forget, my dear doctor, how incurably lazy Mycroft can be. Idleness is his métier. If he is allowed to remain in his chair, a vast thinking machine, cross-indexing data and sifting through alternatives, my brother is in his element.” He shrugged. “But if it involves any form of exertion, any physical activity, then no, absolutely no. Therefore—” At which point, having inhaled his slice of pie, Holmes turned his attention to the contents of the humidor proffered by our anarchistically inclined waiter and, with the gleeful countenance of a small boy on Christmas morning, selected a slender panatela.
“I take it you will accompany me tomorrow?” he added, his eyes aglow with the twin reflections of his match. “Do come, Watson. When Mycroft sees fit to summon me, the matter is bound to be somewhat outré, and you know I am lost without my Boswell.” He nudged a fragrant cognac snifter in my direction. “Besides, you will serve as a buffer between us.”
What could I do but what I always did and succumb to his Siren lure?
It was after midnight when I reached Pimlico and crawled into bed, trying without success not to wake Juliet.
“How did it go?” she murmured.
“Very well, considering.”
“Considering he’d no recollection it was his birthday. Mycroft put in an appearance,” I added for no particular reason.
There was a pause.
“Really. Had you asked him?”
I said I had not. I could almost hear her frown in the darkness.
“How queer. And my gift?”
“I think he was quite touched, actually, though he has difficulty expressing himself along those lines, as I think I’ve explained. He does not as a rule read novels, but he asked me to thank you.”
Juliet patted my arm, yawning.
“It is a stupendous work,” she maintained. “Everyone ought to read it, and now, thanks to Constance, everyone will. Including you, my dear.”
“I plan to, my love, at the first opportunity. Gracious.” I could not suppress a groan. “Tomorrow I shall have a head. Which reminds me, can you ask Harris to cover for me? I must somehow get myself to Pall Mall by ten.”
This intelligence finally served to rouse her.
“I promised Holmes to meet him and his brother at the Diogenes.”
My wife was sitting up now, blinking away sleep.
“Diogenes? What on earth’s that?”
“I have never heard of such a club. I’ve heard of the Reform,” she added in a vague tone.
“Yes, I daresay even your Bloomsbury lot knows of the Reform. And certainly the Garrick, come to that. As for the Diogenes, it is altogether fitting you’ve not heard of it. That is exactly as its members would wish. The Diogenes one might characterize as beyond eccentric. Talking is entirely forbidden.”*
I heard a faint gasp at this, accompanied, I was confident, by a moue.
“James,** none of this makes the least sense. Why meet where you are unable to converse? And do you not have a tonsillectomy scheduled for eight thirty at the Royal Marsden? I saw it in the book. The Winslow boy?”
I sighed, subsiding into my pillow.
“The procedure must be rescheduled. I wouldn’t trust myself at this juncture to operate on a cadaver.”
“Please don’t press me, dearest. I must go, and I cannot enlighten you.”
As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I could see her still pouting as she primly drew up her knees beneath her nightgown.
“Cannot or will not?”
I sighed once again. “May not.”
We had been married not quite two years, and during that time our pleasant routine had scarcely varied. More properly, I suppose, it may be said that no summons from Holmes had caused me to vary it. Thus it was my sweet wife was put out by my sudden and inexplicable obduracy, but there was no way I could explain. Even had the detective made a concession in the matter of secrecy, I knew that Mycroft was in no position to do any such thing. If I had given the matter any additional thought, I might have wondered what the big man’s reaction would be to seeing me alongside his brother at the appointed time in the Diogenes’s forbidding precincts.
* * *
7 January. There was in fact one room at Mycroft’s hidey-hole in which talk was permitted, and thither I hastened in a light rain the following morning, with a pounding head. My powers being somewhat under a cloud, I had not thought to bring my umbrella. I debated returning to fetch one but mistakenly assumed I would find a cab before the weather worsened. When one failed to materialize and the other to oblige, I was compelled to trudge to Victoria, which I reached soaked to the bone. I sat in miserable damp from there to Westminster on the Circle Line, then resumed my limping trot through what had become a frigid sleet, my leg now throbbing as painfully as my head, and arrived five minutes late, a sopping mess. An impassive steward in white gloves and sky-blue livery trimmed with gold filigree ushered me into the Strangers’ Room, where speech was allowed so long as voices were kept low and conversations brief.
Mycroft was not amused but, to give him credit, evinced no great surprise at my appearance. Later, when I understood more, I reasoned his business was too urgent for him to cavil at my presence. Unsuccessfully concealing his distaste for the task, he assisted me as I shrugged my way out of my sodden greatcoat and handed it to a second steward, who bore it off to the cloakroom at arm’s length, as if transporting a carcass. I turned and beheld Holmes sitting before the fire. His garments were dry.
“As intercourse is not encouraged, even here,” Mycroft stated without preamble, “I shall forgo banter.” Reaching behind a divan, he produced a red dispatch box with a familiar coat of arms emblazoned in gold on the lid. With something like ceremony, he extended a silver key from his fob and unlocked the box, producing from within its recesses a manila envelope of standard dimensions, impressively sealed with red wax. The seal’s imprint matched the box’s gold escutcheon.
I sensed, rather than saw, Holmes cast a glance in my direction. With precise movements, betraying, I suspected, a certain relish for the task, Mycroft relocked the dispatch box, snapping its clasps with finality, and set it aside, retaining hold of the envelope.
“How is your French, Sherlock?”
Holmes endeavored to conceal his surprise. “Schoolboy at best, as you are aware,” he confessed. Mycroft, I knew, spoke at least six languages, claiming it took but eight weeks to master a new tongue, which Holmes sneeringly once asserted in my presence was a sure sign of idiocy.
“It will have to do for now,” his brother replied, handing him the envelope.
Here was mystery upon mystery.
“I wish you to take this to the privacy of your rooms,” Mycroft went on, “where you may open and inspect the contents at your leisure.”
For the first time, the big man hesitated.
“I wish you to tell me what you make of said contents.”
“The French contents.”
“You’ll get the gist, I am confident. In any event, the document is incomplete.”
“Judging by the pagination numbers, you will see these are random samples from among a total of over three hundred pages. For the present it is only necessary that you see a portion. You’ll get the general idea,” he concluded dryly.
It was clear that with every question and each unsatisfactory answer he was obliged to supply, Mycroft was becoming increasingly discomfited.
“That is all?”
Holmes turned the envelope over, examining it minutely as was his wont.
“Are you quite sure it will be safe? My rooms have been burgled before, as I think you know.”
Mycroft ran one of his large hands through his thinning hair.
“The contents of the envelope are already known in certain quarters,” he admitted reluctantly. “As I’ve indicated, what you hold is merely a copy.”
This time Holmes’s glance met my own.
“Already known? Then why all the secrecy? Why the hugger-mugger? And what do you expect me to make of a mere copy? I cannot fashion bricks without clay, brother.”
Mycroft drew an irritated breath and then conceded, “I have in fact included one page of the original.”
“Will you kindly do as I ask?” the other cried with exasperation. “The matter at hand is of a delicate and entirely confidential character and of grave concern to … members of this establishment.”
“Oh, I see.” His brother smiled. “This establishment.”
“I will call on you this afternoon to hear your views and communicate the wishes of His Majesty’s Government.”
At which point Mycroft fled the room with waddling alacrity, leaving the detective and myself alone, staring at one another in perplexity.
“You cannot possibly travel home on the Underground in this,” Holmes declared after consulting the weather outside the room’s enormous window. Tugging the bell pull, he instructed the steward to send for a taxi.
Once ensconced within its agreeable confines, there was no thought of going anywhere but Baker Street. I would telephone my wife from there.
We rode in silence, rain drumming on the roof while the engine puttered reassuringly as we jounced over cobblestones. Holmes fiddled with the envelope in his lap like a boy impatiently fondling a wrapped present, turning it this way and that, tapping it, holding it up to the grey light of the window—all to no avail. The thing stubbornly remained what it was, an ordinary manila envelope, distinguished only by its impressive wax seal.
And then, with an abrupt and decisive gesture, Holmes broke the seal.
“My dear boy, do you not despise all brother Mycroft’s melodrama? I have already ascertained we are not being followed. Do we imagine our random cabbie to be an agent in league with a foreign power? What is all the fuss about?”
So saying, he withdrew what looked to be twenty typewritten pages and subjected them to a cursory examination.
“Very well. This is French, to be sure, albeit transcribed on an English typing machine, a Hammond 2, if I’m not mistaken, doubtless by some clerk in Whitehall. Hmm…”
He held up what appeared to be a title page, pursing his lips as he examined it minutely.
“This is clearly the original page Mycroft was kind enough to include.”
“How can you tell?”
“There is dried water on it. And, if I’m not mistaken, this pinkish tinge is blood.”
Unless I was deceived, there was something very near satisfaction in the detective’s voice. I watched as he employed his magnifying glass, hovering over the pale stains.
“A woman’s blood,” he muttered.
“Holmes, that is preposterous. How can you possibly determine what sex the blood came from?”
“See here.” He held the page up to the light, by which I was able to perceive a long flaxen strand of hair stuck to the paper.
“Can you make out what it says?”
The detective scowled and finally shrugged, reading aloud, “Les Protocoles des Sages de Sion.”
“I’m afraid I’ve less French than you.” I blushed to own it.
“Well, roughly, I should translate it as ‘The Protocols of the Wise Men of,’ no, perhaps better, ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.’”
Copyright © 2019 by Nicholas Meyer.