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Vocation

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"But where are we going, Holmes?"

My friend made no answer, only lengthened his stride so that I was extremely hard put to keep up. Injecting himself like a dose of cocaine into the rushing bloodstream of London, he swept out of our front door and north along Baker Street.

He had risen that Sunday morning in a fit of nervous energy more like the hungry young detective of our youth than any mood I had seen in him for some months. Latterly, he refused more cases than he took - declaring once that if he was no longer in want of bread and cheese (certainly true, once the generosity of the Duke of Holdernesse had been carefully invested), what point using his talents for any but the most complex, the most arcane of problems?

"Like harnessing a racehorse to a hansom, Watson: good for neither."

I was beginning to have sympathy for any cab so unlucky. By the time Holmes realised the source of the panting gusts of air at his elbow and slackened the pace, I was looking vainly around for wheeled transport of our – or at least my – own. Instead he led on, through the Clarence Gate into Regents Park, past the low, white Lodge and into green, spacious lawns cut about with paths and buzzing with nursemaids, perambulators and their contents – a representative selection of whom I had probably assisted into the world. Writing has made me a more than modest living, but medicine remains my life’s vocation. Back then, I should have held it as an article of faith that detection supplied Holmes with both. I know better now.

We were heading north still, on the Outer Circle past the lake glistening in the late summer haze, towards the Zoological Gardens, when Holmes suddenly darted into the bushes. The greenery was only roughly trimmed in that spot and hidden in the midst of the thicket was evidently a gardeners’ store, hiding away the evidence of essential manual labour from the affronted notice of the leisured classes. When he emerged a scant moment later, humming in a satisfied sort of way, I asked him what hut on earth was worth such close inspection but so brief a visit, and once again where were we headed and was it on a case? At breakfast he had received exactly one piece of post, hand delivered, type-written on thick business notepaper with a printed header I had not been able to read through from the reverse – despite honing the skill of so doing over twenty and some years.

I am well used to his habits of concealment. Holmes at heart is an incorrigible tease. He taunts clients with his deductive tours-de-force, dangles vital clues before honest, befuddled members of Scotland Yard, and leads me a merry dance – lately, by night as well as day. The particulars of those nocturnal teases are not for publication, naturally: I mention them only for the purpose of illustration. Pleasurable anticipation is one thing, however – downright obfuscation is merely infuriating.

We reached the main gate of the ‘Zoo’ and with scarcely a pause, Holmes slipped from beneath his coat and flourished before the gatekeeper’s nose a pair of Fellow’s admission tickets, signed by no less a personage than Alfred Russel Wallace, OM, FRS, etc, etc.

"Oh, I solved a small matter for him last year – you were in Scotland at the time. Some missing Malayan beetles, if memory serves. No crime was involved: it was all to do with the strength of the formaldehyde. Or lack thereof. An eminent naturalist to be sure, but not a chemist. If you hold your jaw at that angle, my dear Watson, something exotic may fly in. In the circumstances I should not care to risk it."

Lions growled and Tasmanian tigers yipped; emus grumbled and hyenas laughed. Somewhere in the depths of the Reptile House, an Indian swamp adder doubtless slithered, but we did not get so far. At the great aviary Holmes stopped, then let out a piercing whistle that drove clouds of birds into the air in a firework display of colour and movement. Presently a figure scuttled out from one of the man-sized doors at the back of the cages, its face first scowling at the disturbance but breaking into a grin as it came closer. The keeper was young, stocky and dressed in rough serge and a peaked cap. He carried a broom bearing worn bristles and a number of inevitable stains.

"All well, Mister Holmes. All cleared up for you," said he, getting a tip of the hat in reply.

"You know this person?" I asked my friend. Both of them laughed, not precisely unkindly but I could not help but feel nonetheless it was at my expense.

"Do you not think that the sulphur cockatoo there bears a distinct resemblance to Chief Inspector Pearson?" was the only response. I had to admit, privately, that the way it pecked at a cuttlefish bone in angry stabs, hopping about and making a great deal of noise, an untidy crest of improbable yellow peaking on its head, had a familiar feel. For a minute or two Holmes lingered, his attention divided between bird and keeper, surely contriving to retain every last detail of both. Then with an airy wave he turned away. The keeper winked at us both and went back to his sweeping.

In scarcely ten minutes more I was thankful to be in a cab at last, headed, by Holmes’ command, for Victoria Station, yet despite my entreaties he refused to lay out the game ahead, only bidding me "observe and deduce" as he had so often done before.

A bird-smuggling ring? A gang of rogue gardeners secretly dealing in the opium poppy? No, it was no use trying to make sense of it yet. I must allow myself to be driven hither and thither by the wind, by the cabman and, as ever, by Sherlock Holmes.

We alighted at the Crystal Park Station and made our way up Sydenham Hill toward the great cathedral of glass, once the wonder of the nations, the magnet of the people and now…a very large greenhouse, supporting a thin family of potted palms and a dense crowd of late-morning tea-havers and dance-card markers.

An orchestra played a popular tune, to which Holmes’ left-hand fingers twitched over ghostly frets. He waited for a break in the programme, hastened up to the conductor and greeted him as an old acquaintance.

"Henry. In good health, though still not quite perfectly in tune, I perceive?"

"Gone downhill a touch since Gusty Manns left," remarked our host, gesturing at the group of players, who murmured at this in a good-natured sort of way, for there was no sting in it. "Gents, this is Mr Sherlock Holmes, emergency second chair fiddle many a time when Ernie Thompson, God rest him, was…indisposed." Some of the older men exchanged meaningful looks. Henry Wood shrugged an apology. "But if you’ll both excuse me, duty calls," and he struck up again, leading them in a rousing two-step. Several of the orchestra not constantly required for the melody slunk curious and amused glances at us. Moving aside to let the flood of couples take the floor, I ventured that some at least must be readers of mine.

"Or of our sort and not shy about it," said Holmes. The young clarinettist in the third chair seemed to lend weight to his case, giving us both something of the same, broad, rather conniving wink as the zookeeper. I could not help but sense some connection. Yet beyond Holmes’ not unreasonable suggestion – for it was true, the fellowship of inverts, into which I had plunged since becoming Holmes’ more than intimate friend, shared such greetings and signals constantly under the nose of the common herd – I could not put my finger on it.

Nor, at that point, on Sherlock Holmes – for, without a word to me, he had disappeared.

I checked the wings of the stage, the exits from the grand hall, even the public convenience. Nothing. I do not mind admitting I was in a sour temper by the time I emerged from the Crystal Palace to find him loitering beside a stone fountain with an expectant, not-at-all-contrite expression.

"We shall be late," he began, as if it were my fault, and I snapped at him in return.

"Why do you keep vanishing? What is the meaning of these jaunts? What is going on, Holmes?"

He patted my hand, which ought to have enraged me further but instead had its usual effect of reminding me that he was, after all, himself, and patience was the only response that would shield me from an apoplexy.

"Why, we are, dear boy. We are going on - to Bermondsey." He pulled out his pocket watch; a sovereign glinted in the sunshine, and started off again. "Still just time to catch the 12.22 to London Bridge."

We lunched on meat pie and smoked eel at an establishment in the Tower Bridge Road that he had evidently been to before, although not with me, as he pointed out this and that East End delicacy which he claimed to be "better that you’ll get at the Savoy". Holmes spent the meal sipping at a bottle of porter straight from its neck, his silk hat balanced on his knees beneath a napkin, which was as distracting to me and fascinating to the other patrons as if a gorilla had walked in and ordered half a pint of cockles. He assured me that I already, did I but know it, possessed all the information I needed to divine the nature, purpose and next steps of our journey – "some few, strictly incidental, details excepted."

As in all our history it had turned out to be the ‘incidental’ details on which the whole case, and oftentimes a human life, depended, this was less helpful than perhaps he intended. It came down, as ever, to trust – and I had long ago given all mine into his long, white hands and steady gaze.

So as we walked the streets, quiet today without the rumble of market barrows, shouting costers or the tramp of dockers bound for the Surrey Quays, I determined to be at peace with myself and with him, to treat this as a holiday outing, to stop asking direct questions – and to solve the damn puzzle before it was handed me on a dish like a naval treaty.

Inductive, if not deductive, logic, led me to expect another detour and so it was. Holmes darted into an alley beside a chandler’s store not a hundred yards from Manze’s. Of all things, a young woman was waiting for us: thin, delicate featured, dressed in an assortment of hand-me-downs too large for her and a man’s flat cap. Yet cheerful enough, she appeared to be taking stock of the great coils of rope, vats of tar and pots of varnish under tarpaulins in the back yard. A heavy key marked her place in the ledger, and it was this key she gave up to Holmes, who thanked her gravely and by name, unlocked a cellar whose hatch was hard up against the back of the shop, and jumped down into the dim interior with a "stay there will you, John?". The girl Maisie beamed at this and at me. Whether a co-conspirator, or merely amused for her own reasons, I could not tell. She did giggle as Holmes emerged, smut-stained yet dignified, from the coal hole, brushing off his coat with his hands, spreading the smuts onto his cuffs in the process.

"Hum. Just as well," he said to himself and returned the key to Maisie with thanks again. "Not in fact at work I hope, Maisie?"

"No, sir, just here for you today. Although there’s an odd Sunday to make up here and there, when particular ships are in; I don’t mind it. S’not as if I have far to come." She tossed her head in the direction of the low windows at the top of the tall old building behind us and I understood that this place stood her for lodging as well as employment. "Mrs Gill’s a decent sort. We sticks together."

She stood watching us as we made our way back to the main road, hands on hips and shaking her head. We might have been naughty schoolboys and she our indulgent teacher. Holmes slipped his arm in mine to promenade us both up the pavement. Once out of Maisie’s earshot, he began whistling a sea shanty that had two sets of lyrics, one of them overwhelmed with innuendo.

"Yes," he replied to my question before I could actually get it past my open mouth. Where he had learned them I could only imagine.

We headed out on foot again, this time towards the river wharves and a square of low, weather-boarded sheds with a slipway cutting through its centre. A stooping figure emerged, wiping oily hands on a rag. As with Holmes at the chandler’s, redistribution rather than removal was the overall result, and nothing short of a steam laundry could have removed the soot that lined every crease in his face and rimmed his hairline.

A steam laundry, as it turned out, was our destination.

The boatman Fosdyck, who it appeared often posed as a crony of Holmes in his Captain Basil disguise but in truth acted as his knowing guide and factotum all through the Thames fraternity – cheerfully let us off at Ratcliff Cross Stairs – near the scene of that infamous (and still unsolved after almost a century) domestic slaughter on the Ratcliff Highway: an account of which, Holmes had once told me, was his first introduction to sensationalist literature, "and bungling officialdom".

I admit I had some notion that behind the heavy door dripping with moisture and set in an equally wet brick wall up a short lane in Limehouse, would be a gang of Chinese labourers bending over vats and hot irons, and that we would have to converse by signs or find a youngster to translate. Instead the face that broke into a gap-toothed grin at the sight of us was red from the heat where it was not pasty white from lack of sunshine, and from his broad country speech the man’s ancestors might have been at Hastings ‘gainst the Conqueror.

"Come on in, Mr ‘olmes. We been expecting you. Cold out on the river today?"

"Fresh enough, Mr Clark, fresh enough. You had all my bundles?"

"I did, all save they what’s here already. They’ll be sent out as by your instructions once they’re all done with."

Holmes craned his long neck to the corner of the big room, acres of drying sheets festooned from lines crisscrossing every spare space. A youth with flaming carrot coloured hair and an equally carroty crop of freckles on every part of him exposed above the collar and past the ends of his rolled-up shirtsleeves wove between them like a midshipman dodging the boom, a great white bundle of more sheets (dry and folded) balanced on his head. He seemed oddly familiar.

"Holmes, that lad…"

"Is an hypothesis, Watson," replied Holmes, like the cat that has the cream but may consent to share it if sufficiently impressed by the puppy’s tricks. "Test it."

At last a clue, dropped carelessly into my lap. I was about to address the ‘hypothesis’ when he sidestepped again to pass us without breaking stride, again with that pantomime wink that made me wonder if everyone we met knew at a glance what we were to one another and equally rejoiced in it. Unless London had simply become friendlier with the new century?

I shook myself. Familiarity: that was the key. Red hair, Red-Headed League, Red Circle… No, beyond mere word association. The reader will surely sympathise with the plight of a man with a memory that just refuses to surface, a word poised on the tip of one’s tongue. The harder one pursues, the more it makes for cover. Not unlike my friend, I thought, as all at once I noticed he too had eluded me and was busy wherever he was, whatever he was busy about. A minute or so later he reappeared, paid Clark his account in coin and saluted him as we left the premises.

It was only after no little turning of mental cogs, cranked by a power that in my partner would have been called logic but in mine would be more truthfully termed serendipity, that the sight of a golden guinea placed in an upturned palm brought a name to mind as we travelled westward once more, through the City warrens around the Bank and along the Strand.

"Wiggins!" Even as I exclaimed aloud I doubted it. The boy sergeant-at-arms of the Baker Street urchins would be much older now than the laundry boy appeared to be.

"His youngest brother. But well done, dear fellow. You have noticed the end of a thread: follow it! Speaking of threads," went on Holmes, "I have made an appointment tomorrow morning with Mr Davies at Sackville Street. You might want to come along as well."

A non sequitur with Holmes is never precisely what it seems. He is as careful with words as he is with his dress: which is to say, plain and sufficient, without ornament or useless show. Why should he want me at his tailor’s? He had never sought my advice on matters sartorial before, and I should have been of little help had he done so; about as much as he might have been to me in a case of double pneumonia.

We swung south along Whitehall then across to the river bank and rattled to a stop outside New Scotland Yard. The handsome, modern brick building reared over us, striped as a seaside awning in red and white, turreted at each corner like a castle of the Law. It was the pride of the Metropolitan Police Commissioners and its endless, indistinguishable internal corridors and stairways the bane of most of its officers and all its visitors.

We were not so frequently there as the reader might think: Holmes avoided the physical machinery of the law whenever he was able. He preferred its agents to come to him, or to meet them at the scene of crime, which for him was as good as his own hearth. Nor did he very often attend court – preferring to stay at arms’ length from official justice.

No reason to conclude, then, simply because we were here, that crime was the thread I had been bidden to follow. It wove its way in and out of London, the metropolis’ many parts standing for the warp on the frame, a pattern burned out of the whole cloth by these disappearances and reappearances of Holmes…and blast it, he had done it again as I stood puzzling on the pavement.

A brace of uniformed policemen looked at me sideways as they emerged from the Yard, putting on their helmets. One of them winked at me. He had red hair.

The Wiggins.

Even as I pumped his hand and congratulated him, a diagnosis formed. If a lump appears where it should not, expect a bruise following. If a policeman, and this one above all others, appears at a suspiciously convenient moment, expect Sherlock Holmes leading. Yet this must be more than a mere pantomime for my benefit. Constable Wiggins, however, would not be drawn.

"I’d rather pay back every sovereign he ever gave me. Sorry, Doctor."

I watched them set off down the Embankment, tall and confident. There was definitely something about a uniform. Ah, the many days when it helped me into a woman’s favour. Long past now, of course, for so many reasons including the dear, dry voice that interrupted my musings.

"Remember, Watson. Theories to fit all the facts, not the other way round. Clothes, quite as often as manners, maketh man. Or boy."

I am dull, compared to the shining light of my life, but not quite so dull as to miss a blatant clue dangled in front of my nose. I rehearsed the day once more, trying to make the last jigsaw piece slot into place.

Clothes. Clean ones, new ones, changed ones. Hidden places. Hiding places? Clothes maketh man…

"Disguise!"

He smiled like a proud teacher at a prize giving. Unfortunately I then proceeded to drop the prize-book open-faced down on the dusty schoolroom floor and then trip over it.

"Then it must be a case! The letter this morning. You, checking your changing rooms. I am certain that is what those huts and corners and cellars in all corners of the capital must be. Ready for whatever disguise you may need."

Holmes pinched his upper lip between finger and thumb and sighed.

"So near, and yet…"

"Am I wrong? We were not visiting your stage dressing rooms?"

He waved a hand carelessly. "Oh, as to that, certainly. The occasion, though – the occasion. Ah, Watson, there I confess myself a coward. Come, let’s go h- back to Baker Street." He started up the street, scanning for an approaching cab.

Now he was worrying me. On the journey back he was quiet but keen-eyed, crouching forward in his seat and turning his head this way and that, searching the streets about us. He had shed the breezy confidence of the morning. I tried to jolly him, saying that he knew better by now than to expect me to match him. I even dared a hand on his knee, under the blanket. It never failed to make him smile – sun from shadow.

"There it is, John. There’s my courage."

And out it all came. Not in triumph in our sitting room, Holmes leaning against the mantelpiece, pipe in hand but in that rocking hansom, his voice an urgent whisper.

"I mean to leave. Leave London, leave off detection, live somewhere quiet – the letter this morning was from a house agent I have retained under pseudonym; I could not risk it getting out until all…" he squeezed my resting hand, "all is settled."

There it was.

I could have railed, could have asked him why he did not tell me before now, why he insisted on keeping his cards close to his chest even with me, one who would see and guard his every hand and partner him at what table he willed. What use? It was his nature: a nature I loved and still love in all its angles, acute and obtuse.

I could not resist a little teasing of my own.

"Those were your goodbyes, then? I had not known you had so many…friends. And one a woman, of all creatures."

"John…"

"Can you give it all up? Truly? That’s my only question. Apart from where are we going, when do we start and which of us will tell Mrs Hudson?"

He let out a long breath and sat back, holding my gaze. The lightness of my tone did not fool him.

"You think detection the centre of my life. London, my lodestone. Once, perhaps. You know Winwood Reade writes that ‘there is a great enterprise in which men have always been unconsciously engaged…the conquest of the planet on which we dwell.’ He goes on to say ‘we can conquer Nature only by obeying her laws, and in order to obey those laws we must first learn what they are’. If my true centre comes with me, I may get nearer the laws of nature the further away I get from the laws of man."

I was not entirely sure this made rational sense, although I was entirely sure I should not say so. He was as entitled as anyone (nay, perhaps more) to make a decision merely because he wanted to. And now we were drawing up beside the familiar front door.

Tea, Mrs Hudson’s finest seedcake and good, hot buttered toast were laid on for us by the maid. I indulged, one ear cocked, as Holmes ventured downstairs. Judging by the sound of the resulting explosion, I had the best of it on two counts.

It is rarely my chance to see Sherlock Holmes in the role of a naughty schoolboy: one must grasp such opportunities when they are presented. He sipped his tea with averted eyes and hunched shoulders, long legs folded under him on the settee.

"How long do you think it will take for her to forgive me?"

"About as long as it took for her to get used to you, I should think."

"That is less encouraging than you presumably intended it to be."

"Matter of perspective, dear boy. You know she really is very fond of us."

"Not of my chemical experiments."

"Not those, no."

"Nor some of the clients."

"Granted. The boys, though. She may have fussed over mud on the landing carpet and the noise, but I saw her slip them biscuits and sit them by her kitchen fire when their boots were wet. I was glad to see Wiggins at the Yard. Quite the coincidence."

Holmes put down his cup and saucer without reply and commenced to shape his nails, the file’s ivory handle sweeping briskly back and forth as if it were his violin bow sketching a difficult cadenza. He gave it that steady concentration which suggested his real attention was quite elsewhere.

"Even more of a coincidence that we met his brother as well."

One corner of his mouth twitched but he carried on filing. I stood up and struck a courtroom attitude, one thumb tucked in my waistcoat pocket.

"I put it to you, m’lud, that coincidence is to Mr Sherlock Holmes as hay to a fish. Let us therefore consider the evidence. He means to quit London, he has admitted this without the need for cross examination. He has closed his London operations, made an appointment with his tailor – no doubt to provide him with new country tweeds. It only remains to explain to you how he was aided and abetted in his labours by a gaggle of, of…"

Of two members of the clan Wiggins, a zookeeper, a musician and a chandler’s assistant. Somehow, it didn’t have the right ring to it. I sat down again.

"Tell me, Watson," asked Holmes, leaving off his manicure and lighting a cigarette, "what would you say are the essentials for a happy retirement?"

It was not exactly irrelevant, considering his news, but if I was being directed in the solution of the mystery I could not see how.

"Enough funds for comfort. Careful choice of location. For me, the sense of a life well-lived, a vocation well-discharged."

He looked at me sharply. "You think mine unfinished."

"Honestly? I do. You are still in your prime, at the height of your powers. Crime has not gone away, however one might wish it would."

"It never will, so long as humankind endures. I could chain myself to that wheel until they peel me off it dead or doddering, and still it would turn. Watson, I am not like you: so full of the milk of human kindness that they could make cheese out of you. If at times – in those powers you speak of - I am more than you, then I am less too. I have no vocation. I have only choice. And this is mine: to set right what I can as it is brought to me, and to leave the rest to Providence."

As hay to a fish.

"You have set them right too: the young people. Set them up in their positions through your contacts and hiding places."

For the first time in my life, I had put all the pieces together and all of them fitted. And Sherlock Holmes was applauding me, a small shower of ash sprinkling onto the rug as he clapped.

"They have repaid me many times over with their care of my costumes, my disguises and secrets. Think of it as the Baker Street Irregulars Annuity Friendly Society."

"Including Maisie?"

"In boys’ clothes or out of them, one of my most effective agents. You know it was she who signalled us that the launch Aurora was making off with Jonathan Small and his accomplice aboard? Eight years old, motherless and fatherless, no more than a scrap of schooling. But for perseverance and keenness? None better. Somehow she fell in with Wiggins and his lads and thence with me. That is to say, with us. Every one of those winks was as good as a thank you note, to you as much as me. I told them all not to say a word to you of my plans, but they remember how you doctored them and for those that had any, their families too, without so much as a farthing exchanged."

"Five only remain?" Easily two dozen had been in his pay over the years.

"I found situations in the country for the rest. Just as I have found one for myself. Come, I have the sale particulars of a villa with smallholding that will exactly suit, would you examine them with me?"

I knew what he was asking, and when I took down my copy of the Medical Register to see what practice in Eastbourne I might be able to buy into, so too he had my answer.