“…and surrounded by Scotsmen on every side!”
Sherlock Holmes unwound himself from his chair and directed a final scowl at the child’s boot whose sole he had been inspecting.
“Nothing. I begin to think that the boy spent his waking hours sitting upon cushions or perhaps walking about town on a series of tightropes a la Blondin.” He blinked. “What’s that you say, Watson?”
“I tried again to find someone to take my story. ‘A Study in Scarlet’?”
“It’s been five years. Your persistence is to be admired, but I believe that that particular steed is long dead and even the most vigorous beating won’t revive it. The business does well enough on word of mouth and the shortsightedness of the Metropolitan Police force; I have no need to set out a shingle or to have you do it for me.”
No need, perhaps, but I had seen the gleam in his eyes as he took the manuscript from my hands, heard his chuckle as he read my account of Gregson and Lestrade’s rivalry and caught a strong whiff of selfcongratulation even as he proclaimed it was all puff and frivolity and took away from the scientific rigour of his deductions. Besides, I had talent as a writer, and I knew it. Necessity had driven me to a profession where I might earn enough for respectability. Respectability, however, does little for the soul and just then, did even less for my bank account. I had very few patients and, possessing no capital to set up on my own, had to see them at borrowed consulting rooms in Weymouth Street.
Holmes brought in the lion’s share of our joint expenses. I could make do: was daily conscious of my good fortune compared to thousands of my fellow men caught between the rent and a new pair of boots, between a decent meal and medicine for a sick child - suspended daily over The Abyss, as Herbert Wells has it. Yet I dreamed of the security of something substantial put by against lean times.
Wells is a friend now, and a man with a considerable reputation – not all of it entirely savoury - but in those days he was just another young, provincial schoolmaster trying to write, trying to make a name in print. At least I had the advantage of living in London, and after my letter of enquiry was returned unopened from a dozen publishers large and small, I chanced on an advertisement for what was then a new profession: A.P. Watt, Literary Agent. So, up I toiled to the first floor at his Paternoster Square offices, my humble offering under my arm, seeking a leg-up at ten percent.
He was not what I had expected. Writers are vain, headstrong creatures on the whole. We like to be pampered and courted, we need to be restrained from excess and yoked to the plough of hard graft. According to Sherlock Holmes, that is.
Well, he is not altogether wrong. At the very least, successful authors, especially en masse, can be a bumptious lot, if the last literary dinner I attended is anything to go by. Watt ought to have been a figure of persuasive charm or expansive, dictatorial fiat – a mage or a king.
What he resembled in fact was nothing so much as a Presbyterian undertaker – precisely spoken, reserved, and solemn. Surrounded by blackcoated clerks and presiding over the brown paper-shrouded corpses of so many dreams, he consoled and soothed, offered hope and hobnobbed with the gods of print – since he counted publishers as well as writers amongst his clients.
“The market for serial fiction is bursting at the seams, I am sorry to say,” he told me in a rolling Scotch brogue, without looking up from my neat copy. “And this would hardly do for length in any case: it is at the same time too long and too short. And the central character, this…Sherlock Holmes, the detective, he wants work: family readers will not warm to him. Can you not see about giving him a sick wife or an old father sunk in dotage? Something to stir the sympathy for the queer, cold fish you’ve made him.” I was about to tell him that I had ‘made’ nothing, only seen and known an extraordinary man at his extraordinary work, when another voice born in the land of mists and midges broke in.
“Ach, take no notice. He told me that I should stick to tales of mystery and horror and give up my ideas of a grand sweep back to the past and a grand, sweeping hero to match. The man’s a grocer, selling words by the pound. Where’s your soul, Watt?”
The speaker, an athletic type with broad shoulders, sleepy, hooded blue eyes and a smartly waxed moustache, softened his words with a broad smile and a nudge as he leant over me to poke a finger at the man behind the desk.
The literary agent sighed, in a mild sort of way.
“In the Lord’s good hands, as I trust, Dr Doyle. Meanwhile on earth we must toil for our daily bread, and I know who will pay and for what. If you believe you know better, you should try your luck direct. Meanwhile,” he addressed me, “look over this work again and bear in mind what I’ve said, Dr Watson.”
“Another doctor? Why, the sick of London had better hie them to an herbalist. All the medical men are trying to become authors.” The stranger put out his hand. “Arthur Conan Doyle, at your service.”
There was something so frank and open about his manners that as we trooped down the stairs and into the street I found myself agreeing to lunch with him. My younger by some years, he’d already seen a good deal of high adventure, regaling me with tales of harpooning whales in the Arctic and doctoring in a storm on the high seas off the African coast. He was a yellow-backed novel all to himself.
I had become used to being read and known without having to say a word – and often without being altogether listened to if I did; it was a pleasant change to find someone as interested in my own stories as I was in his. Luncheon flew by and when I looked at a clock I fairly jumped out of my seat.
“Gracious, I promised Holmes I’d take the four o’clock from Paddington with him! Excuse me, I must get a cab as quick as I may. It’s been a real pleasure, doctor.”
We all but threw our cards at each other as I bundled myself into a hansom. I heard him say “…Holmes?” as I pulled the doors closed, but the clatter of wheels and hooves drowned out the rest.
The case was a three-day affair and even Sherlock Holmes was hard put to sort out truth from fiction, but in the end the Library of Boston Minster recovered its lost Gospel and a whole shelf full of thieves and receivers were re-catalogued behind bars. On our return, I was thrown into a spin by an outbreak of typhoid - all thoughts of storytelling dropped away, and if I remembered Doyle even for a moment, it was only to think he must quite be as frantic as myself. I had forgotten that he lived not in London, but on the south coast.
Somewhere towards the end of the medical inundation, the conversation with which I began this account, all out of order as my friend would doubtless complain, led me to think of him once more, but still only as another ship passing mine en voyage.
I should have been even more surprised than I was when, just as I was writing up the notes from one last, straggling fever patient and thanking Providence that she had been spared, Mrs Hudson announced that we – I - had a visitor.
Doyle, dressed for the hot weather in what I suspected were cricket flannels, with a blazer and a straw boater to round off, bounded up the stairs like an eager puppy, strode into the sitting room and shook my hand as if I were a long-lost cousin.
“How are you keeping? I was just at Watt’s again. Hopeless case. I sold one at Cassell’s last week; they took a chiller about a man who is killed because he falls in love at first sight.”
“I know a likely candidate for his murderer,” I joked. At first he frowned, but then clapped me on the back and chuckled:
“Your cold-hearted detective fellow; of course. Watt was really taken by your piece, whatever he says. Cut a few pages of mere scene-painting, rub a few edges off to give the protagonist a bit of humanity, and he’ll take it off your hands like the old pedlar he is, mark my words. If not for one of the weeklies, it would do for a year-ender.”
“I’m certainly glad to hear it’s not a lost cause. But I paint from the life: I must use the palette I’m given,” I said.
“So I did hear aright. You were going to catch a real train… with a flesh and blood person… So what does he in fact do for a living, this model for your sleuth-hound?”
The bedroom door in the corner swung open and a gruff bark sounded behind it. I flushed and Doyle stood open-mouthed. Holmes had not been out at his tailor’s.
I had little choice but to make formal introductions.
“Dr Doyle, Mr Sherlock Holmes.”
I am certain that Stamford had not half an idea just what miracle he was about to work in my life when he made that same introduction. I, on the other hand, might easily have predicted that Doyle and Holmes would get along like a house on fire. Holmes being the fire, that is. To give him credit, Doyle ploughed on ahead, clearly determined not to start on a back foot.
“I see I must read Watson’s story, when it comes out, in an entirely new light. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. I’m a considerable supporter of the work our sterling Police force do to keep us safe in our beds.”
Holmes turned a sardonic eye on our guest even as he waved him to a chair.
“I, on the other hand, consider them best occupied keeping little old ladies safe crossing the street, in light traffic, on a sunny day. Stout locks and a loaded revolver under your pillow are a better bet if you want a restful night, doctor.”
Doyle blustered a little. “Ah… a joke, sir, surely. The newspapers carry daily reports of the tenacity of the Criminal Investigation Departments, the bravery of bobbies facing down armed revolutionaries.”
“I would answer that tenacity is a virtue only if the terrier’s teeth are fastened on the right rabbit and bravery must always be tempered by wisdom.”
They might almost have squared up to each other, both sensing a kindred, combative spirit, but Doyle lacked Holmes’ utter disdain for compromise, for clubbability. He was all set to make a new friend. Rubbing his large hands together, he looked about him and his eager eyes lit on a trophy – a little tarnished, I am ashamed to say – which sat perched on the end of the mantelpiece. It was in constant danger of toppling onto the rug, since Holmes propped the settled household bills behind it pending their eventual onward journey to a file-box dusty with neglect.
Holmes, buffing his nails on his coat sleeve, sniffed. “That’s Watson’s. At least, I do not recall besting St Mary’s Medical School First Fifteen. I may have saved more lives, it is true.”
Doyle’s smile faltered but he soldiered on.
“No, no; of course. The mud of the ruck wouldn’t suit you at all. Boxing! The noble art. You and I both indulge, Watson told me. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit of a second-rater: but there’s nothing to beat a trier. ”
“Indeed? Generally the winner beats a trier, in my experience.”
There are gloomy people whose temper grumbles along, grousing and grating. There are cool creatures for whom a carapace of calm masks all irritation, all provocation. Then there are the sunny sports of a sultry day turning to storm in an inch of a sundial’s shadow.
“You, sir, are damned impossible! No, don’t begin to think about countering that figure of speech. I see that you are here before me, right enough. You are intolerable, rather. How does Watson endure your society for more than twenty minutes without wanting to knock you on your arrogant ers…” His accent had become so thick I nearly missed the last, swallowed word. Holmes, mouth opened in a smart riposte, stood frozen, staring at Doyle’s red face and puffing cheeks.
Do not make some unflattering comparison between us, Holmes I prayed silently.
“Dr Watson…” no, no, no “…has expressed some of the same sentiments. Nevertheless, I regret that he, and you, Dr Doyle, must take me as you find me. I live, and prosper, only by the strictest adherence to facts. Analysis, logic, deduction. I dare not stray into fiction. You, by contrast, keep up a smart appearance to inspire confidence in your patients but doctoring in…” he narrowed his eyes and pursed his thin lips, considering Doyle carefully, “Hampshire is not yet a paying concern. You keep one good suit for the consulting room and one good hat - for your rounds. The sporting whites you have brought up to Town show you are serious about cricket and only beginning to be serious about writing. You care little for appearances and a great deal for what Watson would no doubt agree is essential in any man – the ‘heart’. Clients seeking a heart here will be disappointed. But they will find answers: and justice, if this weary world can deliver such a thing.”
Doyle subsided as swiftly as a spent wave; in fact, he chuckled and slapped his knees in delight. Then he stood, collected his hat from the stand, and bowed smartly to us both.
“You know, you remind me a great deal, Mr Holmes, of an old teacher of mine. I must suppose you get just as good results, and this is the fee you charge to onlookers and students – to be perpetually wrong-footed. May you never be wrong-footed yourself – save by our great-hearted Watson.” He shook my hand heartily. Holmes got a more formal farewell. At the door came his parting shot.
“Well, Watson, I wish you joy of him. Call on me should you ever find yourself in Southsea, and may we meet at Watt’s again soon, with more success in store for the both of us. If not, I’ve a mind for a little agenting myself. The reading public want nothing except novelty, and here it is in Baker Street. Who knows, your friend may find he has strayed, or been dragged by his heels, into fiction after all?”
Sherlock Holmes winced. Then, after a moment contemplating himself in the mantlepiece mirror, he shrugged and commenced to re-fill his pipe.