Presents a message from Sherlock Holmes.
ADVENTURES AND LESSONS
An address given by Mr. Sherlock Holmes
to the Criterion Bar Association at Chicago, USA,
on the evening of Jan. 14, 1995.
My good friends,
Since I launched my career twelve decades ago, the planet crawls with some five times as many homo sapiens (and quasi sapiens) as in my day. All these hominid varieties, it seems, descend at one time or another on The Victorian Villa Inn. Some of you who count yourself "BSI" are familiar with this unique place in Michigan. Pray bear with me, however, as I describe the establishment for the benefit of the ignorant.
It is an Italianate brick pile built as a physician's residence 119 years ago. It sits on an estate comprising a carriage house, a gazebo, pond and lawn, on a crossroads a few hundred yards from a very small town not much larger than many English villages. The inn's owner is Ron Gibson, who long ago transformed the place from a decrepit boarding house into a bed-and-breakfast, featuring its own gourmet restaurant. Perhaps you have seen it written up in such American periodicals as "Good Housekeeping," or that odd fantasy publication, "Victoria."
Gibson traces his heritage from one of your former senators, J. Neil Gibson, also called "The Gold King." Possibly, some of you have set aside your experiments with fine ports and distinctive ales so you might peruse Dr. Watson's account of our meeting, which was published as "The Problem of Thor Bridge." In the intervening years, Watson kept up an intermittent correspondence with the Gibson family, and when young Ronald invited Watson to visit him in Union City, Watson complied. After returning reluctantly home, Watson came down to Sussex to regale me with a host of details. The food! The wine! The architecture! The decor! The food! The congeniality! The wine! The atmosphere! The wine!
I was skeptical, but before I again could lock up his cheque-book, Watson's picturesque description piqued my curiosity. When Watson later suggested that I could profit from a respite, I balked slightly for appearance's sake but accepted the prescription.
As it happened, that first visit a decade ago coincided with a delightful investigation of some interest. I won't shock you with the grisly details, as many of you are not in a suitable condition to hear them. But I will say that I became acquainted with a promising representative of the Union City constabulary, and over the years he has carried several cases to success, with an occasional boost from the Villa's guests -- as well as from myself.
Gibson and the village police now accept me as a matter of habit. Even the locals now think nothing of my strutting down the street in deerstalker and Inverness. Strange to say, however, my presence distresses some of the visitors to The Victorian Villa Inn, despite the fact that most of them have been warned well in advance that I will join them. Interestingly, a few of these people ignore me completely. They go to their rooms and do God knows what with each other, and are rarely seen except at meals or at tea. Perhaps it's as well.
One particular type of visitor does show his or her face all too often -- a type that I admit I may never fathom. That is the person who is convinced that I am not the man whom I say I am.
Often, Watson and I introduce ourselves, only to be greeted with smirks, whispers and sidelong glances. If I did the same on being introduced to them, I should think they would be offended. Well, as an entrepreneur, Gibson cannot refuse the great unwashed.
One evening, Watson and I were conversing with a new acquaintance about our past cases around and about London. I had mentioned my current domicile on the Downs near the Sussex village of Fulworth, and referred to Watson's frequent abode near London. Perhaps the man hadn't listened. Perhaps he was at that moment tossing out unneeded brain-lumber, or simply did not believe us. When a lull occurred, he turned to us and said, offhandedly, "So, where are you guys from?"
I often have encountered this non sequitur, which inclines me to the belief that Americans somehow tend to be more deaf, or forgetful, or drug-addled, or simply more stupid than other humans. I would hate to think so, yet -- in view of your diet of television, film-star gossip, hard rock, super-hero comic books and "Beavis and Butt-head" -- it would be no surprise.
I might expound at length to a group of guests about my daily routine in Sussex, only to have some person turn to me eventually and say, in a conspiratorial whisper, "What's your name, anyhow?" This is almost always done surreptitiously, as though I might respond more readily and honestly if approached in confidence. My answer is consistent: In a conspiratorial fashion, I give the person my calling card. It says exactly what you might expect. The recipient usually goes away to show it to someone else, then to someone else. Thus I am left to myself. Thank heaven.
A few months ago, I heard yet again from the lips of a guest, "I thought Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character." It is the same observation that, I am sure, many of you have greeted either with distress or amusement -- or ennui. When this fellow persisted in his delusion, I offered to allow him to feel my pulse. He declined and grew silent. As I had hoped.
Even among the enlightened visitors who -- like yourselves -- claim to have studied my cases, skepticism lingers. Foremost among these have been a number of members of the neo-Baker Street Irregulars -- an organisation which, I should say, I regard as just another wine-tasters' club.
I remember one particular chevalier who sat among some 20 or so assembled guests. He waited patiently for a few minutes after my introduction, then made an interjection.
"Excuse me," he said, "but as a member of an organisation devoted to the honor of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I must be cautious. I myself never have met the man, and I must be certain that I am dealing with the real thing. Would you allow me to ask a few questions?"
"Pray, ask," I said. He sought the correct number of steps upon a staircase, the meaning of some initials outlined in bullet-pocks upon a wall, and whether I enjoy Continental ancestry. Elementary queries, actually. Then he continued:
"What was your mother's maiden name?"
"Sherringford," said I. He nodded.
"Where were you born?"
"In the North Riding of Yorkshire, in the village of Mycroft, which comprised little but my parents' farm." I pressed on. "My father was a country squire. I was the third son. My eldest brother, Sherringford, inherited the property and is dead. Mycroft was born next, and I seven years after. I was named for an Irish poet who had taken my mother's fancy. Should you be interested, Mycroft remains among the living. Like Watson, Mrs. Hudson and certain others, he receives some of the elixir I distill from the royal jelly that is derived from my bee-hives in Sussex."
My challenger sat back. The other guests mumbled to each other, looking from this Irregular man to myself. To them, I am sure, he must have seemed quite mad. Then my new acquaintance stood up, strode across the room and seized my hand.
"My God, sir!" he said. "It IS you!"
Over the years, I have met, berated, browbeaten, been berated by, beset, been beset upon and otherwise tolerated the company of well more than a fifteen hundred widely divergent, unique fellow guests, many of whom actually return to renew the experience. These repeat offenders, of course, are quite insane. They are the 50-odd couples who return, willingly and repeatedly, to this supposed haven of rest, apparently in the hope that the village again will prove -- as it so often has -- a hotbed of crime.
You know my views on the hidden evils of the seemingly peaceful countryside. Those certainly apply here. Union City is a hell-hole of great depth and brilliance. For my purposes, this is a delightful situation.
Now, any stormy petrel worth his sea-salt realizes one truism in his thrilling heart -- that he never can promise that the next crime will be so complex, abstruse and fascinating as the last. But the horrors that have occurred in Union City are satisfyingly rich and varied.
I am distressed to add, however, that variety does not appear to be what some visitors desire. Sometimes a new arrival will walk through the door, greet me, and without a word having been said on the subject of crime, bleat -- "So, Sherlock, who's dead?"
Perhaps you can instruct me as to why some people hold an actual hope that murder will occur?
At my first such encounter, I thought this simply a wistful expression of Americans' ingrained blood-thirst. But I have come to realize that these people are known as "mystery weekend buffs" -- people who assume first, use reason as a last resort (should they have any), expect mental exaltation delivered only in easy packets, humorously boxed, and any and all solutions handed over cheerfully upon request, all without lifting a finger -- or triggering a synapse.
Perhaps this explains why so many of these people succumb to the delusion that they are dealing with a fraud, that I am an actor in a costume, that there is a script and cast list lying about, and that someone named Plum may commit an indiscretion with a candlestick in the library at any moment. What's for dinner?
I appreciate those who play the game for its own sake, but those who treat it AS a game are nearly certain to count themselves among those left behind. Watson suffers fools all too gladly and subscribes to the notion that the designation of the 1990s is not A.D. but P.C. It is his nature -- but not mine. I confess that I rankle.
Now, I am the most cordial of men, when I wish to be. When there is game afoot and fools under-foot, I become impatient. If a man places himself between me and a solution, I seldom hesitate to brush him aside. The shortest distance to any destination remains straight enough.
That comes as a shock to many visitors. But those who realise that I can behave in no other fashion are willing to forgive. And yet, my more driveling new acquaintances, in their confusion, often misplace their road maps and seldom return. I wonder if they are missed?
One Friday evening last year, I was seated at table with a group whose total knowledge of my labours and of Watson's accounts was summed up in the sentence, "We've seen some Basil Rathbone movies." It was a very long weekend.
On the whole, these people were affable enough. On that first evening, one woman remarked that she and her companions formed a choral group. When I expressed curiosity over their musical accomplishments, she was surprised.
"I didn't know," she said pointedly, as if she had caught me in a falsehood, "that Sherlock Holmes was interested in MUSIC." She had presented a new opportunity to lift the collective awareness of the rabble.
I reminded my inquisitor that I am well-known as an occasional fiddler. This produced some vague nods, and scored at least one point for Rathbone. I expressed my preference for the Bach family, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, even Wagner, and my admiration of the dexterous virtuosity of the great Pablo Sarasate, with whom they were not acquainted. I mentioned appreciation for "Les Huguenots" and certain other opera, specifically as performed by a company formerly of Warsaw. I reminisced briefly about the glorious days when the St. James's Hall still stood in Piccadilly near the amusing Egyptian Hall. And I concluded that my questioner and her friends might enjoy my small writings on the motets of Lassus.
A dazed silence ensued. Then a young woman across the table -- who had been engaged in profound research of a beaker of fermented liquid -- lifted her face from her glass long enough to snort, "Oh, he's making it up!" Her friends were abashed. At least they had the sense to realise that a gauntlet had shattered the floorboards.
Now, Watson had been dining with some others in an adjoining room and had not heard this conversation. I asked that he be fetched. When the good doctor entered, I told him that our new friends were musicians and asked him to touch upon our musical tastes for their benefit.
Watson inclines more to the D'Oyly Carte band of the musical spectrum, but he holds his own. He referred to my violin attempts and mentioned that Bernard Shaw once had called me as good a musician as any in the West End. He went on to recollect my interest in the Germans and our frequent visits to St. James's Hall. He reflected on the feats of Sarasate and mentioned a few preferred compositions. And he concluded by saying, "And, of course, as musicians, you've certainly read Holmes's excellent treatise, 'The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus.' "
My dinner companions -- I believe the phrase is -- went ballistic. From that moment, they were as ewes to the shepherd. However, my inebriated challenger had not comprehended what had just occurred. Others tried to explain it to her. Too late! For the entire weekend, she remained impossible to educate, and chiefly horizontal.
Wiser visitors have learned that, at The Victorian Villa Inn, they must keep their wits. They have not, like Mr. Carroll's heroine, stepped into a nonsense world. They still are in a very real universe, where observation, logic and the rules of deductive and inductive logic always apply.
If a slaying has been committed -- and, fortunately, few recent cases at the Villa have involved willful murder -- intelligent visitors know they must not contaminate the potential evidence, or expose themselves to danger. The poison they may find no doubt truly is deadly. That cryptogram is indeed abstruse, and only one in 10 may see through it. That book on the shelf may be no book at all. That hooligan indeed is dangerous, and a stalwart police officer will be required to control him.
Once some guests realise this disturbing aspect of reality, strange to say, their wits desert them. A few begin to seek as much reality as they can get. After having left some groups for the night, I often return the next day to find some visitors on their hands and knees in the shrubbery, or busily dismantling the desk, or peering through telescopes from the tower. When I seek explanation, their responses typically are the same: "You said we could look anywhere!" My reply is that, indeed, I did say this, but I did not say that they MUST look EVERYWHERE.
My most promising pupils have learned that they should not go off blindly searching hither and yon in the hope that random questing and stumbling eventually will lead them to something. No, my most promising pupils know not to waste precious time. These wiser heads calmly sit and determine what they know. Then they calmly determine what they need. And then they leap to that place where those needed items must be. This is the essence of any efficient investigation.
Sadly, logic is rare. My chief joy at The Victorian Villa Inn is the introduction of logic and the profundity of pure thought to people who rarely have even attempted it. I have seen amazed delight spread across the faces of men and women as they recognise they've made a correct deduction or spotted the darker significance of some detail -- in some cases, they proclaim to my astonishment, for the very first time in their lives. It is, perhaps, a reflection of the dull routine of existence. Or, perhaps, a comment on your country's educational system.
Near the conclusion of "The Martyrdom of Man," Winwood Reade discusses Intellect: "The progress of the human race is caused by the mental efforts which are made at first from necessity to preserve life, and secondly from the desire to obtain distinction." Not the most profound of Reade's views, but deserving note. I add my own corollary: Until that time when each of us somehow sets aside his or her selfish nature and shows OTHERS how to win distinction, no further human progress is possible. Indeed, only in this way is civilisation possible.
May I say in humility -- if that itself is possible -- that I hope some of this work is accomplished at The Victorian Villa Inn.
A few years ago, a fellow guest was a distinguished retired judge about half my age -- perhaps in his mid-70s. The criminal case before us had been problematical, and he had spent many hours in delighted use of his own superb mental faculties -- well-honed on the bench, I am sure. On the second day, the two of us found ourselves in the parlour.
"Mr. Holmes," he said. "I have something to say to you."
"I am all attention," I replied.
"When I was a boy," he said, "I discovered Dr. Watson's accounts of your career, and I read every one. Your adventures were an inspiration. They were so exciting, and the way in which you solved each case so plausible and understandable, that I made up my mind then and there, as a boy, that I would study criminal law.
"I firmly believe that reading those stories helped me to choose my career. And, long ago, I vowed that, if I ever had the opportunity to meet you, I would tell you how grateful I am to you for having put me on the right track. So, Mr. Holmes, thank you -- thank you very much."
I was quite dumbstruck. It was difficult to say anything but to offer acknowledgment. Of course, it was he himself who had chosen his track quite on his own. I insisted that, given his nature, he would have found his proper course -- whether or not I had existed. At this, he seemed even more deeply moved. He thanked me profusely, and at that moment he appeared so much like a boy, as if the years had melted from his face. Perhaps I had become a sort of mirror for him -- a reminder of his own youth, and of his own very profound soul.
Until I receive that final, great instruction that takes me from this earthly sphere, I am content to walk the grounds of a small American village, to pursue the occasional new game and to enjoy the company of a rich and varied humanity, come what may. As it stands, the lessons I have learned have been many, and have been well worth recalling.
Thank you for indulging me.
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